||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
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
||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
||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
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
||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".
||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.