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The legacy of Vilhjalmur Stefansson
by Gísli Pálsson
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  In recent years, historians and cultural critics have dissected the ideology and rhetoric of early explorations. Some have examined the ways in which Arctic environments and their inhabitants have been represented in text and imagery (40). Anthropology, too, as we have seen, has been subjected to an internal critical reflection. Inuit ethnography, indeed, has its own clichés and theoretical assumptions, the famous work of Mauss and Beuchat on the seasonal variations of Inuit life being one example. The somewhat perceptive generalizations of Mauss and Beuchat were over theorized simplifications, lacking the kind of realist grounding that Stefansson's ethnography provided. Stefansson did suggest that the Inuit regarded at least parts of the winter as vacation or "dancing time" (42), an indigenous notion that Mauss and Beuchat may have drawn upon. Given the length of Stefansson's stay in the Arctic, however, he was able to observe both regional and seasonal variations, how the Inuit continually adapted to the environment and the ways in which it was represented in Inuit discourse. In a letter from the field to the anthropologist R.R. Marrett he challenged armchair anthropology in a cynical mood, commenting upon an issue of ethnographic interpretation:

"In point of actual fact you are probably more likely than I to be right, but that is because ... the facts of archaeology, palaeontology, and the rest, are really more open to you than to me who converse with Eskimo hunters while you sit in clubs and convention halls or walk in the field with learned men of your own and other sciences" (43).

  This is not to say that Stefansson's approach was devoid of preconceptions, ideology, fiction, and rhetoric. On the contrary. At one point, early in the second expedition, Stefansson wrote in his diary: "the people we have seen so far are disappointingly sophisticated' (44). He did not elaborate on in what sense the Inuit were sophisticated or why they disappointed him (he added, however, that they "did not seem to have much use for 'civilized' food"), but clearly, as every ethnographer would expect, he had his own preconceptions in the early stages of fieldwork. Be that as it may, his works often had a strong rhetorical line. Woodward shows how Stefansson's photographs reflect his "obsession" with the Eskimo snow house and the technological brilliance involved in making it. "It is probably fair," she suggests, "to lay at the great explorer's feet some responsibility for the continuing stereotype that Eskimos live in igloos" (45). Stefansson, as Woodward points out, "developed and promulgated a view of Eskimo people which remains the prevailing popular image of Eskimos throughout much of our world today (46)". Stefansson, we may add, notes in his diary that "the Eskimo are the only Americans, north or south, who have ever employed the dome principle of architecture' (47). Stefansson had several agendas personal, ethnographic and political, and their relationships were sometimes more conflictual than complementary. Thus, while he seems to generally have subscribed to the cultural relativism of Boas, he sometimes advocated a strong version of geographical determinism, even with a tinge of racism. He argued, for instance, partly drawing upon the work of S. Columb GilFillan, that nations that lay in the higher latitudes bordering the arctic seas would be the home of future empires as this was according to available evidence and sensible extrapolation the "path of supremacy' (48). Such an environmental determinism, reversing a longstanding ethnocentric trend from Hyppocrates to Ellsworth Huntington that associated "civilization" with warmer climates and lower latitudes, was part of Stefansson's arctic rhetoric.
  Arnold provides a useful account of the invention and history of the category of the "tropics," another extreme zone in western discourse; topicality, he argues, emerged as one manifestation of Orientalism, providing a contrast to the apparent normality of temperate regions (49). The zoning of the world became "a Western way of defining something culturally alien, as well as environmentally distinctive, from Europe ... and other parts of the temperate zone. ... Topicality was the experience of northern whites moving into an alien world - alien in climate, vegetation, people and disease". (50) With Stefansson's works, the Arctic Zone was similarly established, if not invented, as a fertile but somewhat slippery discursive space, as a relatively demarcated and monotonous site useful for the exploration of particular themes in contrast to the temperate Euro American world. The notion of arcticality implicit in his work made the Arctic both the home of howling, exotic wilderness (the source of "strange" knowledge and ancient wisdom) and a semi-domestic space (a "friendly" domain). Mixing ethnography and geopolitics in his peculiar fashion, Stefansson both emphasized the lessons the Arctic invited for "us" (Western readers at home) and the future opportunities it provided out there for "civilizing" missions and the expansion of empire - in particular mining and international travel by airlines and submarines.
  I have dwelt upon some of Stefansson's rhetoric and biases because it is important to critically examine his anthropological practice. It is necessary, however, to situate his life and work in the age in which he operated. And his shortcomings should not distract from his many accomplishments. In many ways Stefansson was ahead of his time. Indeed, he made quite an impression on the twentieth-century. As an explorer, he was highly successful, discovering and mapping some of the last remaining land on earth. His contribution to Inuit ethnography and anthropological field methods should not be overlooked, however. Along with some others, he pioneered the standard model of participant observation.
  Stefansson's approach to ethnography, perhaps, may be characterized as both archaic and hyper-modem. It is archaic partly in its radical separation of the local and the global, the primitive and the modem. Stefansson notes in his diary:

Unfortunately, the sixteen years of Herschel Island whaling that preceded the writer's first visit to the Mackenzie Delta had made it difficult to determine for that locality what ideas were local there or of ancient introduction, what ones were borrowed recently from the Alaskan Eskimo, whom the whalers brought with them, and what had been absorbed from the white men directly. Nevertheless a comparison will be attempted on the basis of what seems to be local and primitive in the Mackenzie district. (51)

  Stefansson's emphasis on continual travel is also rather old-fashioned. He travelled 20.000 miles by sled and dog team, moving from one camp to another, often, however, along the trail of the Inuit. While such excessive movement is not the preferred model nowadays, it clearly has many advantages to the traditional functionalist doctrine about extended stay in a single location. Not only does the migratory approach prove particularly useful among the Inuit and other seasonally transhuman populations, it allows the fieldworker to understand regional and international connections that would otherwise be missed. Interestingly, Stefansson's approach to his Inuit fieldwork may resonate with recent emphases on interconnections and multi-sited fieldwork, "studying through," as Shore and Wright put it, rather than "up" or "down" the social scale, "studying the localization of global processes". (52)
  In recent decades, an extensive ethnography has emerged which documents Inuit and Indian society in the current age of the "snowmobile generations" (53), relations with the colonial past and the problems posed by the future (54). In one way oranother much of this rapidly growing body of literature draws upon and critically engages with Stefansson's work on the Arctic. Burch concludes, summing up the relevance of Stefansson's work for contemporary anthropology, that given his knowledge of Inuit languages and the ethnographic challenge, in the case of the Copper Inuit, of working with people who had never seen a Euroamerican, Stefanssons work "must be regarded as a disappointment":

His results, while informative and important, were far below what one has a right to expect, given his training and the extraordinary opportunities he had [among the Copper Inuit as well as in the Mackenzie Delta and Northern Alaska]. Stefansson was just too interested in being an explorer and an iconoclast ... and not interested enough in being an ethnographer, to put together a systematic ethnographic account of what he learned. One subject he did treat with insight and attention, however, was lnuit religion. We may still read with profit what he had to say on that topic. . .. (55)

  Mark Nuttall suggests that Stefansson offers particularly perceptive observations on Inuit kin relations, naming practices, and name spirits - particularly in the Coronation Gulf area. If Stefansson's anthropological publications are disappointing, is it, we may ask, because his ethnography, the very material from which he had to work, was negligible, dull or devoid of insight? Or is it because he never really "wrote up" the material at his disposal, however rich it was, preoccupied with fame, publicity and exploration? Or is his ethnography somehow submerged? Only by attending to Stefansson's field diaries are we able to firmly answer these questions. The diaries allow for a systematic comparison of Stefansson's field experiences (to the extent that they are recorded and represented in the text) and Stefansson's publications, for exploring the similarities and differences in the two kinds of text.
  I suggest that the ethnography of the diaries of the first two expeditions rescue Stefansson the anthropologist from the showmanship of early twentieth-century exploration. During these expeditions his ambitions were truly scientific and he managed to identify and record a variety of interesting and useful "facts" on Inuit society, although later on these ambitions would be pushed to the margin, for a variety of reasons. Stefansson thought of himself in the Arctic as "a spectator with no material interests at stake," admitting (and regretting), however, that he "had a part in bringing . . . change about" (56). More than anyone else, perhaps, Vilhjalmur Stefansson both mapped and defined the Arctic in Western discourse, paving the way for authentic accounts of Inuit society, more informed and less ethnocentric than those previously available.
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The legacy of Vilhjalmur Stefansson, by Gísli Pálsson.
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