Rasmussen’s Arctic Highlanders

Most vivid is this story of Rasmussen's hazardous three-year journey across the farthest northern rim of Canada, while making the North-West Passage overland, and the reactions of his Eskimos to their first experience of modern civilization.

D . M . LE BOURDAIS August 1 1925

Rasmussen’s Arctic Highlanders

Most vivid is this story of Rasmussen's hazardous three-year journey across the farthest northern rim of Canada, while making the North-West Passage overland, and the reactions of his Eskimos to their first experience of modern civilization.

D . M . LE BOURDAIS August 1 1925

Rasmussen’s Arctic Highlanders

Most vivid is this story of Rasmussen's hazardous three-year journey across the farthest northern rim of Canada, while making the North-West Passage overland, and the reactions of his Eskimos to their first experience of modern civilization.


IN NORTHWESTERN Greenland off the coast of Canada, live a community of Eskimos which Peary has called the Arctic Highlanders. They are the most northerly people in the world; and they are also among the most primitive. The food resources of the district are so limited that until recently—they now receive assistance from the Danish government and other sources—they were, under certain circumstances, compelled to restrict their numbers: when a man died it was the custom for his widow to kill her youngest female child.


i ago it thus became or a woman oí this community > life of one oí her five children about six years. The child was i to recognise necessity and was prepared to íe ordeal in that stoical manner which close th stern realities often breeds. Strangling was >d commonly used; and she assisted her mother the thong about her neck. But the heroic deed performed: a younger brother began to cry. er to cry also, finally resulting in the mother’s down. The girl lived to find a place in history, all perhaps, yet distinct.

Her name is Amarulunguak, meaning

to adji was n

caus in


language, to make t

little woman." She was the first woman ever e north-west passage, and one of the first three make it overtand and mostly on foot.

sailing the North-West Passage

fTOK three hundred years the mariners of practically a every seafaring country battled with the icy seas of the north in a vain attempt to discover a short way to the Orient. More than a hundred lives were sacrificed in the quest. It was not till 1906. however, that Captain Roald \mundsen. in the little shipGjoa. first successfully made the passage from the Atlantic to the Pacific north of the American continent. The voyage took three years: and naturally the route was unsuited to commerce.

And now the Danish explorer and ethnologist, Knud Rasmussen, has made the north-west passage by land. He left Copenhagen in June, 1921, for Greenland; from there he crossed to Baffin Island and thence through Hudson Strait to Cañada, the mainland. He followed the coast of the continent westward to Alaska and eventually entered the United States at Seattle—by the back door, so

to speak. . n , ,

Rasmussen was born forty-five years ago in Greenland. After receiving a good education in Denmark he returned

to his native land to explore the country and to 3tudy the customs of the people, particularly their traditions, religion and folklore. For more than twenty years he has been engaged in that work, emerging occasionally to record the gathered information between the covers of books—thirteen of which he has already written. Then three years ago he set out on his great enterprise. He propœed to make a study of the customs of the Eskimos from Greenland westward to Siberia, living on the resources of the country as the Eskimos do. In this way he would not require an extensive and expensive outfit.

A Valuable Little Woman


\E CHOSE as his companions three of the Arctic Highlanders—Kavigarssuak Mitek, a young man of nineteen whose father had been a member of one of Peary’s expeditions, Amarulunguak, who by now was married, and her husband. The husband died shortly after they set out from Greenland, but she preferred to continue the journey rather than turn back. Mitek. which means

"eider duck", proved to be an exceptional man on the trail and Little Woman was no less capable in every respect.

Rasmussen owes much of his success to her. The Eskimo religion is based on a system of taboos; in some places local custom would not allow women to do any sewing during the summer months; in other places, women were not permitted to sew for strangers at all. Proper clothing— made of furs in winter and tanned skins

in summer—is very essential in the north, and if the explorer had been compelled to depend for his party’s clothing upon the Eskimos whom he visited he would often have been reduced to extremities. But Little Woman kept the needle going every moment that she was not actually on the trail. She explained to those whose customs forbade their sewing out of season that in her country the taboos were different. They were satisfied with her explanation. The Eskimos have no chiefs or police officers; public opinion rules; yet there is little interference with individual liberty.

The fact is well established that small groups of white men isolated for a long time get on one anothers’ nerves and

nerves quarrel. The history of exploration is, one might say, a continued story of bickerings and disputes; yet Rasmussen found his native companions ever cheerful, agreeable and willing. He became very fond of them and felt that no return he could make would be sufficient to repay the unselfish and unswerv-

unswerving devotion they had given him through three difficult years on the trail.

He little realized, however, how hard it would be to secure even justice for them after he reached civilization, where the color of one’s skin, and not the quality of one’s heart or mind, is often the criterion of human values. His first experience in this connection was with a missionary. Rasmussen and his companions were not starving but they had been without food for some time and were hungry. The missionary was glad to meet the explorer; he invited him into the house and set a fine meal before him. But the Eskimos, he left out in a cold shed, giving them some rotten reindeer meat that was unfit for human consumption.

Little Woman and Eider Duck could not understand this treatment. Hospitality is the keynote of Eskimo culture; all eat when there is food. Until they have been some time in contact with whites, and the point is repeatedly rubbed in, Eskimos have no feeling of inferiority; in fact, viewed against the background of life in the north, it is the white man who seems to be inferior. Rasmussen was hurt. With little appetite he ate what was placed before him and got away as soon as possible. He made what explanation he could of the missionary’s conduct, but resolved that henceforth no further slights would be put upon his companions if he could help it.

First Contact With Civilization

ASMUSSEN’S first contact with civilization for more than three years was at Nome. Nome is a frontier town consisting of a collection of buildings, largely shacks, strung along the beach of Bering Sea. Nearby is an Eskimo village. The close proximity of this native village has given Nome what might be termed a complex. Many

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termed a complex. Many white men have taken unto themselves Eskimo wives, some according to the white man’s fashion and others in the less-binding manner of the Eskimos. Still others—and just how many, is what keeps Nome so sensitive— maintain less formal and more furtive relationships with native women. And, strange as it may seem, there is no place where caste lines are so rigidly drawn as on the frontier—after the white women arrive. There is no half way. One either associates with natives or one does not; one is either a squaw man or one is not. It is very simple.

It was Little Woman’s and Eider Duck’s first sight of a town. Rasmussen led his companions into a busy restaurant and found a vacant table. He was delighted to find familiar reindeer steaks on the bill of fare, and was preparing to place his order when he was interrupted by the waitress.

“I’m sorry,” she hesitated. “But we don’t serve Eskimos here.” Rasmussen was nonplused for a moment. Then he decided that he might as well begin the fight here as elsewhere. Fortunately his friends could not understand English.

“This girl and boy have been with me for three years,” he explained. “We have come here all the way from Greenland. Many times we have been hungry, but we have always been hungry together.

“They would certainly be greatly surprised and hurt if I were to remain and ask them to leave without eating. I am sorry about this, too, but for once you will have to break your rule and serve us all. I shall never trouble you again.”

The manager was called in and eventually they were served. Rasmussen rented a shack on the outskirts of the town, and, he and his companions lived in

it during the month they were compelled j to wait in Nome for the Seattle steamer.

When he went to book passage for his party to Seattle, he met further objection.

“The natives will have to travel steerJ age,” the steamship agent declared.

“We are all together,” Rasmussen patiently explained. “I have writing to do and cannot very well do it in the steerage. But I also cannot accept any better accommodation than the rest of my party.” Finally, he was allotted a stateroom containing three berths which he and his i friends occupied, much to the horror of a number of Mrs. Grundys on board. But : Rasmussen, who, in company with Eider , Duck, had occupied the same snow house and the same tent with Little Woman for three years, could not see any reason for making a change just because they were now on a boat. The Eskimos always live in one-room houses.

A Bright Place

THE passage was rough. Little Woman and Eider Duck were confined to their cabin much of the time by seasickness._ In addition, Little Woman had a terrible . cold, the usual penalty attendant upon first contacts with civilization. Rasmussen carried their meals to them, sometimes three times a day. When they did put in an appearance, it was noticed that, while they had never handled a knife and : fork until they reached Nome, they were able to use those implements much more correctly than a good many who had been given places at the first sitting. The Eskimos as a race are very bright and quick to learn.

At Seattle, Rasmussen was welcomed ( officially by the Danish consul, Mr. Plaun I and hospitably entertained by him and 1

by his charming wife. The Eskimos were included in all festivities, and it was surprising to note the facility with which Little Woman and Eider Duck went through the intricacies of a full-course dinner without a single error and without perceptible hesitation.

Seattle will always remain for Little Woman and Eider Duck the symbol of civilization; they encountered so many strange things there that nothing they afterward saw or experienced could quite equal those first impressions. They were more bewildered than surprised; but their comments were confined to the little, and to us, commonplace things. They had seen automobiles at Nome; and street cars did not greatly surprise them. They did not think it particularly remarkable that cars could go so fast; but Eider Duck did wonder how it was possible to stop them.

In the morning they would get up early and look out of the hotel window at the street cleaners. They thought it strange that we should carry our obsession for cleanliness so far as to “wash the stones.”

Rasmussen took them to a picture show. The picture was too complicated for them to comprehend clearly; but the girl ushers were dressed specially for the production in very slight costumes. Little Woman, newly rigged in store clothes from head to foot herself, warned Eider Duck not to look at the poor little girls—not from prudishness, but because she felt sorry for them and did not wish to hurt their feelings; she thought that if they owned any more clothes they would wear them.

Visitors From Mars

AFTERWARD Rasmussen asked Eider - Duck what he thought of the music —The usual jazz orchestra. The Eskimo critic said he thought it more noise than music, he explained that his idea of music was “something to make one glad inside,” whereas this had made his head ache!

At the zoo, Little Woman—Eider Duck had been carried off by someone to a vaudeville show—was terrified by the snakes, fascinated by the monkeys, but delighted to see the polar bears and squirrels, both of whom were old friends. The squirrel, however, gave her one of the greatest shocks she was to receive in Seattle; she thought she knew everything about squirrels, but had never even imagined that a squirrel could climb a tree! Of course, she had never seen a tree until she reached Seattle.

The great numbers of people on the streets were a constant source of wonderment to them. So many people doing nothing and always in a hurry! They knew there must be great quantities of game in the country, for did they not always have meat and fish and ptarmigan (chicken) to eat? But why was it that no one was ever seen carrying a gun? The idea of domestic animals never entered tl eir minds.

Coming east on the train, they saw the mountains and were satisfied that here good hunting was possible; but when they reached Washington and found themselves in a flat country they were puzzled. The supply of game apparently was as plentiful as in other parts of the country, but where were the hills from which the hunters might sight the game? Then they saw the Washington Monument and the question was solved. Eider Duck explained to Little Woman that undoubtedly here was the place where the hunters went in the morning to look for game.

Little Woman has a mind somewhat given to natural philosophy. When she arrived in New York she pointed out that we seemed to have learned something from the animals. We burrowed underground j and had obviously taken a leaf out of the squirrel’s book. She saw an airplane and assumed therefore that we owed something to the birds. We had learned to command nature, whereas her people were subservient to it. We bad even improved on it—we covered the earth with a ground of our own making (pavement). When the sun set it did not get dark; and it was always warm in our I houses whether the sun shone or not, yet we had no fires. We had destroyed distance. She compared the three arduous years on the trail with the train trip across

the continent. The only logical conclusion she could come to was that she and her companions must have died and this was another world! That must be it.

A Last Farewell

THE climate here is not kind to Eskimos. Their systems lack the power to resist many germs that are innocuous to us. Consequently theyjfall an easy prey to many ailments, principally of the lungs and bronchial tubes. Rasmussen therefore was anxious to get them started as soon as possible on their way home to Greenland, and booked passage for them on the first boat sailing for Denmark. They would have to wait there, of course, till next summer for a ship to Greenland. Rasmussen had work

to do in the United States and would follow later. As they could speak none but their own language, he sought out the captain and introduced Little Woman and Eider Duck, telling how valuable their services had been to the cause of science and asking that someone be instructed to look to their needs. The answer he received was in sharp contrast to the narrowness of those on the Pacific: “I shall feel honored to have them at my table,” said Captain Peronard, “and shall see personally that they want for nothing.” On the deck of the Heilig Olav they said good bye. Little Woman was overcome and went below. Eider Duck waved from the upper deck till the ship was out of sight; he smiled, but as through a mist. Little Woman and he were alone for the first time in a strange new world.