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The legacy of Vilhjalmur Stefansson
by Gísli Pálsson
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Stefansson's expeditions
  After receiving his first academic degree in religious studies from the University of Iowa in 1903, Stefansson became affiliated with the Anthropology Department and the Peabody Museum at Harvard University. He planned an anthropological field trip to Africa at the suggestion of his teacher, F.W. Putnam: "Putnam pointed out that nobody connected with our department has as yet made much of a study of Africa. What would I think of that field?" (5). In 1906 Stefansson planned to join a British Museum expedition destined for Central East Africa. In the end, however, he chose the Arctic.
  During the summers of 1904 and 1905 he voyaged to Iceland to study the relationship between health and diet. In 1905 he became a teaching fellow, "looked upon as the Anthropology Department's authority on the polar regions" (6). Partly as a result of his early article on the history of the Norse colony in Greenland (7) he was invited to participate in an expedition to the Arctic, the impressively named "Anglo- American Polar Expedition"
  That expedition was lead by the Danish naval adventurer Ejnar Mikkelsen and the American geologist Ernest de Koven Leffingwell. The main purpose of the expedition was to look for undiscovered lands in the Arctic, north of Alaska. Mikkelsen and Leffingwell, however, were forced to add an ethnographic dimension to the expedition; they had difficulties in funding the expedition and one backer requested that a qualified "ethnologist" accompany the group to study any natives who might be encountered on the way. Stefansson's role was to study the Mackenzie River Indians and to collect artifacts for the Peabody and Royal Ontario Museums. In 1906 the "southern" supplies on which the Inuit had become dependent (mainly foodstuffs from white whalers) failed to arrive and, as a result, the Inuit had to revert to their traditional hunting practices. Stefansson felt, Diubaldo points out, that this provided an exciting opportunity to observe the Inuit almost in their "natural" state and, moreover, "living with them was much better from an ethnological point of view than merely living amongst them, as other white men had done" (8).

Mackenzie Inuits.
In August 1907, Stefansson severed his ties with the Mikkelsen-Leffingwell expedition and began his journey back home. He was not too impressed with the results of his scientific mission. During his fieldwork, however, he became committed to the ethnographic study of Inuit culture. At Herschel Island he met captain "Charlie" Klengenberg who told him an exciting story, claiming to have encountered and stayed with native tribes who apparently had never seen a white man and yet looked like white men in some respects. This mysterious story was supported by a small collection of knives and other implements made of native copper. While the story seemed almost too romantic to be true, it provided a glimmer of success which drove him to organize a second expedition to the Arctic. Stefansson confided to Putnam, his mentor at Harvard, that he had evidence of truly primitive Eskimos in Prince Albert Island.
  Stefansson's first expedition was relatively short and his ethnography, mainly among the Inuit of the Mackenzie delta, was somewhat limited although it provided interesting sketches of early fieldwork, Inuit society and relations between "natives" and "whites." During this expedition, other scientists and explorers employed Stefansson, in a secondary role as an anthropologist and assistant, and perhaps partly for that reason his ethnographic diary entries were rather brief. Nevertheless, he provided interesting observations on Inuit society and relations between Inuit and whites as the expedition moved on. Stefansson's works on the Mackenzie Delta Inuit seem to have been underestimated; he observed and recorded the end of a way of life described by the late nineteenth-century explorer Émile Petitot. In the early days of the expedition he tended to focus on the logistics of the expedition, but later on his discussion of indigenous languages and customs grew more detailed. The Arctic clearly appealed to Stefansson, despite the difficulties it posed for Western travellers. Part of its charm lay in its exotic property rights and communitarian ethic. But while many of the early armchair anthropologists and evolutionists had fabricated ethnography and history by postulating a utopian primitive society without class divisions and private property, Stefansson had found it alive and well. During the second expedition, however, he observes that communism seems to be "disappearing fast" (9).

Map of Stefansson first expeditions 1906 - 1912
Stefansson was determined to return to the Arctic for a second expedition, this time as the commander of an expedition of his own. His main ambition was to locate and observe the mysterious blond Eskimo he had heard about during the first expedition and he felt confident that he would be able to face the difficulties involved. His experience of the first expedition and the sensational stories he had heard about Eskimos who had never seen a white man helped to provide the necessary connections and financial support. His popularised articles based on the first expedition also outlined a new approach to arctic travel and exploration which appealed to potential sponsors, a strategy also taken advantage of by other explorers, including Robert E. Peary.'(Stefansson argued that the costs of an expedition could be significantly reduced if one was prepared to live as the Inuit did. These articles caught the attention of the leading personnel of The American Museum of Natural History, including Clark Wissler, Curator in the Anthropology Department. After a series of negotiations, Stefansson was offered a contract. A former fellow student at the University of Iowa, the zoologist Rudolph M. Anderson, was appointed to join Stefansson. Anderson, who at the time was working for a military academy, was trained in biology and his scientific background and credibility helped in providing funding for the expedition.
  The stated purpose of the expedition was threefold. In a commissioning letter to Stefansson, the American Museum specified: "The intent of this commission ... is to provide you with the means of pursuing fieldwork in anthropology; of providing Mr. Anderson with the means of pursuing fieldwork in zoology, and with the design to secure to The American Museum of Natural History valuable collections in the branches of science above mentioned"." An (apparently) somewhat earlier statement from the American Museum describes the uniqueness of the Stefansson-Anderson Expedition in the following terms: The present expedition . . . differs essentially from ordinary Arctic ventures in this, that where it is usual to take along with the party everything that the party is expected to need during its stay in the field, in this case there will be taken neither food, clothing nor house materials, and there will be complete dependence on local resources. Seeing the object of the expedition is (sic.) chiefly ethnological, it is in a sense desirable that this should be so; for the only way in which one can become familiar with the real life of a primitive people is to live-,, with them in their houses, and as they do, rather than to live near them in one's own 'civilized' way (italics added).
  Stefansson and Anderson left from Toronto in April 1908, reaching Fort McPherson by early July. This time the two of them spent four years in the Arctic, sometimes working separately on different trails. The project turned out to be more costly and time consuming than expected. Stefansson probably knew all along that an ambitious project of this kind needed more time than the contract with the American Museum specified. Understandably, he was eager to pass on information about his successes, in the hope that necessary funding would be maintained. In a letter to Wissler at the American Museum he proudly announced the "discovery" of non-Eskimo Eskimos: West of the Coppermine we found over 200 people who had never seen a white man, whose ancestors had never seen one, who knew of no past relations with people to the west, and whose territory was supposed by geographers to be definitely known to be uninhabited (so labelled on official charts of the Canadian Government).... The general appearance was non-Eskimo - a sort of 'portly' appearance . . .. It is hard to be specific in this matter, but the general impression is definite. My Eskimo companion was impressed no less than I. He said, 'These are not Eskimos, they are just like fo'cas'le men' - he has worked many years 'before the mast' as a whaler. (12) Wissler, however, had doubts at this point about the scientific merits of the results. (13) Although he would publish extracts from Stefansson's diaries a few years later , at this stage neither he nor anyone else knew how valuable Stefansson's ethnography might be. In the middle of the expedition, the American Museum withdrew its support. During the second expedition, Stefansson occupied a leading position, in charge of both logistics and research. Here he appears in the role of a more independent and alert observer than during the first expedition, keen to note minute details important for understanding social life in the Arctic. And in this case the diaries are massive, with vocabularies, dictionaries, grammatical notes, personal names, descriptions of events, ethnographic observations, and drawings. Much of the text focuses on daily activities related to the organization of camps, the collection and storing of food, interaction with Stefansson's companions (including Inuit), and travels across a complex and changing landscape. Several native informants played a particularly important role for Stefansson's ethnography, including Pannigabluk, Natk-usiak and Tannaumirk.
  During the first days among the Copper lnuit, Stefansson's note keeping is unusually detailed, with several pages on the first encounter itself, as if he was driven by an ethnographic compulsion. Stefansson's enthusiasm at this point is understandable. For one thing, the whole expedition was justified by the attempt to establish whether the rumors he had heard during the first expedition about the existence of "blond" Eskimo were true or not. Moreover, anthropologists have for a long time been fascinated with "discoveries" of tribes previously unknown to "the West," with people reported not to have seen a "white man" (14), and Stefansson was no exception. Not only were such lost or freshly-discovered tribes seen as evidence of earlier modes of existence, of "disappearing worlds" ready to be mapped and recorded before the final onslaught of modernity, also the first encounter with such extreme isolates in the cultural mosaic of humanity inevitably presented a "translation" problem, a classic theme in Western thought. When Stefansson returned to Seattle and New York in the fall of 1912, his story about the "Blond Eskimos" (the Haneragmiut, Kanhirgimut, and Nuwukpagmiut) caused quite a stir. The media reported that Stefansson had discovered the descendants of the Norse colonists who had settled Greenland from Iceland a thousand years ago. The disappearance of that colony had remained a mystery and Stefansson's original reputation as an Arctic scholar was, indeed, launched by his account of the case' (15); later he would argue that the Inuit had assimilated the Norse.' (16) Stefansson complained that the newspapers had twisted his words and exaggerated his statements. Nevertheless, he seems to have seriously entertained such speculations from early on. In a letter to Wissler, Stefansson drew attention to both the philological similarities of Icelandic and the Inuit dialect in question and the physical appearance already mentioned: "These are two points that suggest, as far as they go, the possibility of some connection with the 3000 lost Greenland colonists". (17) While critics accused Stefansson of vulgar sensationalism, others saw his statements about the Norse Inuit as an interesting hypothesis to explore. Interestingly, Stefansson's speculations about the Norse ancestry of the Copper Eskimo may have been partly triggered by his own involvement with the Inuit. A few months before he sent his letter to Wissler, Alex, the son of Stefansson and the native Pannigabluk, was born. Perhaps the physical presence of that Icelandic Inuit, his own child, helps to explain Stefansson's enthusiasm about the medieval Norse connection. For the rest of his career, his mixed identity as scientist and showman was a repeated point of attack. (18)
  However distorted and unpleasant these debates may have been for him, they established his fame which turned out to be important for his career, for the funding of yet another arctic expedition. The third expedition was an extensive one, spanning five years, which is longer than most anthropological expeditions either at the time or ever since. Here, however, Stefansson's role as geographic explorer and adventurer takes precedence for a variety of reasons, some of which have to do with the geopolitics of the time and the constraints of funding large-scale expeditions, involving teams of men and expensive equipment. It took long and complex negotiations with a host of people and institutions to secure the necessary financial support, including the American Museum of Natural History (his previous sponsor), the National Geographic Society, and the Canadian Government. In the process Stefansson had to sacrifice some of his ethnographic goals.
  During much of the third expedition, then, Stefansson himself was experimenting with navigation and travel routes and the mapping of particular regions of the Arctic while Jenness worked on Inuit ethnography. Much of Stefansson's diary entries focus on weather, hunting, travel across ice, inventories of food and equipment, logistics, the daily activities of his team, and his observations of his men. In this case, as a result, Stefansson's diaries are more limited and less informative anthropologically speaking than one might think. Stefansson's extensive published narrative of the third expedition, The Friendly Arctic, is more like a travel account than an ethnographic monograph. While he remains fascinated by the Inuit - particularly the Copper Inuit with whom he, again, spent some time - most of the volume deals with geographical issues, the politics of exploration, and the logistics, mental attitude, and technology necessitated by traveling on ice and in extreme cold. The Inuit, in a way, have been removed from the center stage and the Arctic, however "friendly," remains a natural space to be explored, conquered, and domesticated by Western "civilization." Stefansson concludes his account with a grand modernist vision:
  I shall offer here my opinion that the most done. ... This expedition has contributed materially towards making easy what once was difficult .... It is human nature to undervalue whatever lands are distant and to consider disagreeable whatever is different. But we have brought the North a good deal closer ...... (19)
  Stefansson finally returned from the Arctic in the spring of 1918. The expedition's geographical accomplishments - the discovery of the world's last major landmasses - were seen as a stunning success. In the following years and decades Stefansson would draw upon his arctic experience and his reputation as an explorer, lecturing and writing about the Inuit, geopolitics, health, and a series of other issues. His career as an essayist and public speaker on arctic issues was far from peaceful; repeatedly he was involved in controversies with both anthropological colleagues (including Jenness), fellow explorers (Anderson, above all), and politicians, in Canada as well as the United States. He is reported, however, to have captured his audience with skilful rhetoric and rich visual material, in particular his hand-colored lantern slides. Photographs, of course, are not only an important source of ethnographic information, they also shed light on the ethnographer and his or her project; thus, Sullivan shows how Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson used photographs as rhetorical devices to present a particular image of Highland Bali, exploiting the capacity of visual material "to simultaneously illuminate and obscure, to simultaneously draw in and stand apart" (20). Woodward provides an interesting analysis of Stefansson's choice of images and photographs, drawing attention to his focus on the "friendly" Arctic (21).
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The legacy of Vilhjalmur Stefansson, by Gísli Pálsson.
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