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The legacy of Vilhjalmur Stefansson
by Gísli Pálsson
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Relations with the Inuit: "an Eskimo to the skin"
  The ethnographic diaries of Stefansson and some of his publications demonstrate that he was a serious fieldworker, participating in the lives of the Inuit he visited, studying their language, living their way of life, and probing their way of thinking. He comments with reference to his first expedition: "I was gradually broken in to native ways; by the middle of October, I had thrown away my nearly outworn woolen suit and was fur clad from head to heal, an Eskimo to the skin" (22). In his account of the second expedition, he offers the following description of the method that later became known as participant observation
  They took me into their houses and treated me hospitably and courteously, but exactly as if I were one of them. They gave me clothes to wear and food to eat, I helped them in their work and joined in their games, until they finally forgot that I was not one of them, and began to live their lives before my eyes as if I were not there. This gave me a rare opportunity to know them as they are. (23)
  Stefansson was fond of noting that when he arrived among the Copper Inuit he already spoke Inuktitut. As Burch points out, "he was ... in a unique position - possibly in the history of ethnography - of being able to speak the language of the people he was going to study before they had ever seen a Euroamerican". (24)
  The notion of the "friendly Arctic" summed up Stefansson's approach to the Arctic. Stefansson argued that arctic explorers often made the mistake of bringing their environment with them (food, clothes, and methods of transport, etc.). It would be far more productive and viable in the long run, he argued, to adopt Inuit practices and flow with the Arctic environment. Pointing out that the Inuit saw no need to wage war with the environment in which they lived, he challenged the orthodox, literary notion of the Arctic as necessarily "barren, dismal and desolate" (25). Some Of Stefansson's diary entries, however, qualify his claims about the friendly Arctic. After days of nauseating starvation, he comments:

work up here, I have been fond of asserting, entails few, hardships. But just now it is pretty hard work, and has often been so these three years. To be five or six miles from camp every morning at daybreak and about that far from home at the last daylight, to carry home heavy loads over rocky ground when successful and still heavier loads of disappointment when unsuccessful - this makes a monotonous - and a trying life. The continual nervous strain of a hand-to-mouth existence, where there is not even the shelter of a poorhouse in case of failure, has a telling and cumulative effect. Without in the least relinquishing my hopes of many more years of arctic work, I continually feel more strongly the desire to be so well equipped in future that I shall have at least a year's supply of food somewhere awaiting me to tide me over a season of failure. Just knowing of such a reserve ... would lessen by half the strain of the winter. This is a hard country for a hungry man. (26)

  Stefansson's comments upon his interaction with his Inuit hosts and companions are usually brief and objective in style. Most often they focus on fairly pragmatic matters such as camping and cooking, the division of labor in the camp, the organization of hunting etc. Many of the entries in the diaries elaborate on storytelling and the role of informants. Sometimes Stefansson refers to one kind of contract or another with the Inuit, usually for the purpose of eliciting stories. On one occasion he writes about annoying one of his informants with too much "cross-examining": "If I get him tired (as I have once or twice done) he becomes careless in his answers and unreliable saying 'yes' to anything or pretending he understands my question when he does not (27) ". There is a similar remark elsewhere:

The natives soon get tired of monotonous questioning, especially if a difficult point comes up - of course they don't appreciate that anything of importance can be involved. Their answers become careless and almost misleading - they try to make me think I understand things which I don't understand (e.g. by declaring verbs to be synonymous which are really not so (this to get me to quit asking questions). (28)

  Sometimes Stefansson comments upon tension due to differences in the understanding of location and logistics: "When I suggested we might be too far west of this river, [the Indian] ... smiled superiously and said the people of the country , At one point Stefansson mentions understood such things better than strangers' (29). having quarrelled somewhat angrily with one of his Inuit companions who said he would leave now that I was going to start treating him as a captain does a white , "I was forced to remind him," Stefansson adds, sailor, he was no dog to be starved' (30). "that by white man's law a servant hired for a year who quit work without good cause before his time was up, forfeited his wage"; often the Inuit, it seems, would not cooperate when he wanted to take head measurements or to photograph. These extracts from the diaries clearly demonstrate a conflictual and sometimes asymmetrical relationship between Stefansson and the lnuit which does not quite resonate with the egalitarian and sympathetic image he presented of himself in many of his publications.
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The legacy of Vilhjalmur Stefansson, by Gísli Pálsson.
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