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The legacy of Vilhjalmur Stefansson
by Gísli Pálsson
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Race, gender, and ethnicity
  The American explorer Robert E. Peary and Stefansson were probably the most visible early tentieth-century explorers. Peary was an ambitious explorer who claimed in 1909 to have discovered the North Pole, but his claim was challenged by another American explorer, Frederick Cook. Both Peary and Stefansson, Bloom suggests, "anchored the authority of their discourse under the banner of science and progress (31) Stefansson and Peary, however, represent important differences in personality and context. While Peary had no ethnographic ambitions Stefansson thought of himself as both anthropologist and explorer. No doubt Stefansson's writings on the Inuit were partly informed by the Icelandic community in Canada and North Dakota in which he grew up. In the days of early Norse exploration across the North Atlantic more than thousand years ago, the Icelandic concept of skraelingi ("native", "barbarian") - a term several times used by Stefansson in his diaries in relation to the Inuit - referred to an inhabitant of Greenland (Eskimo or Inuit). Although in Old Icelandic or Old Norse ("Danish Tongue", as it used to be called) the concept of skraelingi was obviously not a neutral one, first-hand accounts by early Icelanders of their western neighbours were far less fantastic and ethnocentric than their saga accounts of the Orient (32). The limited experiences of "real" others, and the monolithic Icelandic cultural background, were unlikely to engender serious interest among Icelanders in comparative cultural or social anthropology. Social life, however, in North America presented the immigrant Icelandic community with new experiences and pressing questions. In his autobiography, Stefansson described his encounter with members of the Sioux tribe, "the very tribe that the Icelandic community so greatly feared": "I cannot recall another time in my life when I made such a quick and thorough readjustment of long-held ideas (33)". Perhaps, such encounters sparked Stefansson's interest in exploration and ethnographic description. Also, they may have informed his lasting negative impression of Indians vis-Ŕ-vis his rather generous impression of the Inuit. For Stefansson some Aboriginal Peoples seem to have been more equal than others. He comments as follows upon his experience from the first expedition: One thing I noticed about the Eskimos in particular was their graceful, free-swinging walk. This was in direct contrast to the jerky, almost furtive movements of the forest Indians. I distinctively began to feel that the Eskimos were a superior race. (34) Later on, when reflecting in his diaries on the relationship between social and ecological change in the Arctic, Stefansson indicates that the Indians, in contrast to the Inuit, are just as afraid of the "friendly" Arctic as Westerners: At present the caribou has in winter a wide zone of safety between the Indians who dare not face the barren ground and the Eskimo who prefer the sea coast. But the Eskimo fear the woodless barrens about as much as a fish fears water ..... (35) While Stefansson usually provided the personal names of his Inuit companions, he tended to refer to others with the generic "the Indian." This practice may both reflect Inuit stereotypes and those of the North American Icelandic community. The attitude of the Icelandic community towards Aboriginal Peoples, however, was both complex and contradictory. Apparently, there was racism as well as admiration. (36) Before starting his journey back to "civilization", Stefansson settles his accounts with some of his key informants, including Pannigabluk. The settlements are described in the following manner:

Settlement with natives: [... ] We owe Pannigabluk about $25000, but she is drawing a monthly allowance from the "Rosie H." for which we pay in fox skins at ca. $50 for skin: Anderson will get her account whenever she shall have Baillie for the Mackenzie and I am to try arrange credit for her with Cottle. (37)

  Despite his important ethnographic contributions, Stefansson's texts, no less than those of most of their contemporaries, are rather weak on the context of fieldwork and the making of ethnography. Stefansson has little to say about his relations with the Inuit. Elsewhere, I have tried to account for Stefansson's reticence The larger to admit and seriously address his intimate relationships in the field. (38) The larger social context, and the relations of race, ethnicity and gender characteristic for the expanding West at the beginning of the twentieth century, is an important factor. Generally Stefansson presents himself, in both his diaries and his publications, in terms of the heroic image of a masculine hunter and explorer, engaged in dangerous excursions into the wild domain of natives and animals, extending the realm of rationality, science, and Western civilisation into "nature." For him and many of his contemporaries, fieldwork and geographical explorations were, above all, exercises for testing and strengthening the sensibilities of manhood against all kinds of odds. Accounts of such gallant journeys inevitably placed the natives in the back seat whatever their real contributions. It would be silly to force modern methodological standards upon Stefansson's approach and viewpoints. The point is not to establish that he failed to conform to our standards, which seems rather obvious, but rather to explore the differences between the two contexts. Most anthropologists nowadays would argue that it is important to be explicit about the effects of one's presence, on the scene as well as in ethnographic texts. As a result, anthropologists generally feel compelled to situate their accounts and to reflect on the texts they write as well as their relations with their hosts and their readers. Anthropologists have fiercely debated a series of issues regarding ethnographic theory and practice, including the nature and role of textual accounts, participant- observation, and cultural representation, all of which are fundamental for a discipline traditionally focused on othering and cultural translation. Interestingly, Stefansson comments in his diaries about the ethnographic importance of the literary skills that allow the anthropologist to turn routine and everyday experience into fascinating but credible accounts:

I ... have often found on belated reference to my diary that I have told to many men on many occasions ... facts and feelings which seem to have been absent at the time of an 'adventure' but which have by some mental process attached themselves to it later and have become vivid as the real facts, or have now overshadowed them and even obliterated the facts. Where my contemporaneous record of an event is meagre, these adventitious elements are bound to remain undetected and become for me and anyone who believes me, as if they had happened. (39)

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The legacy of Vilhjalmur Stefansson, by Gísli Pálsson.
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