DNA tests shed light on whether or not Norsemen assimilated with Inuit
WHEN MANITOBA-born explorerVilhjalmur Stefansson completed a four-year expedition to the Arctic in 1912, he returned with a startling tale that captivated the world. On remote Victoria Island, Stefansson had spent time with the so-called Copper Eskimos, some of whom had blond hair, blue eyes or other faintly European features. Since the island’s Inuit had little or no known prior contact with whites, Stefansson, himself the son of Icelandic immigrants, speculated that they might be descendants of a lost colony of Norsemen that had settled in Greenland around 1000 and then vanished without a trace 450 years later. “New Race Solves Mystery of the Ages,” ran a typical headline at the time in the New York Times.
Stefansson later complained his discovery had been badly represented. Media reports claimed he had found “a tribe of 1,000 white people” when, in fact, Stefansson’s journal diaries noted that “of something less than 1,000 persons, 10 or more have blue eyes,” while a few had light-brown beards and rust-red hair. No matter. Stefansson’s bold hypothesis—which he never recanted—drew ridicule from many in the scientific establishment. It was the first of several controversies that, in Canada at least, cast a shadow over his remarkable achievements as an explorer. In the United States, by contrast, Stefansson enjoyed celebrity and a long career as an Arctic scholar and lecturer. After his death at age 82 in Hanover, N.H., in 1962, Stefansson’s gravestone proclaimed him a “Prophet of the North,” a fitting epitaph, especially since he was so often without honour at home.
That may finally be changing. A new documentary by Toronto-based White Pine Pictures, Arctic Dreamer: The Lonely Quest of Vilhjalmur Stefansson, premiered at the Montreal World Film Festival in the fall and will air on History Television in February. Arctic Dreamer does not shy away from the darker chapters of Stefansson’s career, including his possible culpability in the deaths of more than a dozen of his recruits. But it also confirms Stefansson’s status as a visionary who discovered and claimed for Canada thousands of square kilometres of new lands and foresaw everything from over-the-pole air flights to under ice submarines.
A similarly balanced approach is taken
by Icelandic anthropologist Gisli Palsson, whose second book on Stefansson, a biography, was published last month in Iceland. Palsson and Agnar Helgason, a genetics expert at the University of Iceland, have also tested Stefansson’s most controversial theory. Over the past two years, they collected hundreds of throat swabs from Inuit on Victoria Island and Greenland. In the end, their DNA study showed the skeptics of nearly a century ago were probably right: the genetic evidence does not support Stefansson’s conjecture that Norsemen somehow assimilated with the Inuit after travels that would have taken one, or both of their peoples, over thousands of kilometres of inhospitable tundra and sea ice.
Despite those findings, the fact the study was undertaken reflects the renewed inter-
est in a man who, four decades after his death, remains something of an enigma. Almost alone among explorers of his era, Stefansson championed the Inuit as “a superior race.” He learned their language, adopted their diet and travelled more than 35,000 km by dogsled during the course of three expeditions between 1906 and 1918. Yet this was the same man who sired a son, Alex, with his Inuit seamstress, Fannie Pannigabluk, but never publicly acknowledged either his son’s existence or his conjugal relationship with the boy’s mother.
Alex died in Inuvik of a heart attack in 1966, four years after his father, whom he had not seen or heard from in more than 40 years. Alex, a hunter and guide, had six children, all of them still living in the North. In a recent interview with Maclean’s, the eldest offspring, Rosie Albert Stefansson, 59, a language teacher from Inuvik, recalled how she and her siblings sometimes wrote to the explorer, saying they were sorry he never visited them. Stefansson did not answer the letters. “I guess he just wanted to forget he had a family up here,” says Rosie.
Precisely, observes Palsson. “For Stefansson to have returned to ‘civilization,’ as he put it, and acknowledge an Inuit family in the field, would have been professional suicide in those days,” says his biographer. And Stefansson was, above all, an ambitious man.
Born in 1879 in Arnes, Man., Stefansson was steeped in Norse legend as a child. He later attended the universities of North Dakota and Iowa before heading to Harvard Divinity School in 1903. After switching to anthropology, Stefansson headed north for the first time in 1906 and quickly fell in love with everything about the Arctic. He concluded, quite correctly, that many earlier explorers had perished because of their stubborn refusal to adopt Inuit ways of eating, dressing and travelling. Stefansson boasted that, within months of his arrival, he was “fur clad from head to heel, an Eskimo to the skin.”
While on Herschel Island in 1907, Stefansson met a colourful trader, Charlie Klengenberg, who reported seeing Inuit with blond hair and blue eyes on Victoria Island. Stefansson, already speculating about a Norse connection, was determined to be the first white man to study them in detail. He did just that during his second Arctic expedition, which began in 1908. His journal accounts of his first encounter with the Cop-
per Eskimos two years later crackle with a sense of wonder. “I had to imagine nothing,” he wrote. “I had merely to look and listen. For here, were not the remains of the Stone Age, but the Stone Age itself.”
Stefansson’s book on his second expedition, My Life With the Eskimo, brought him global fame. But his musings about the lost
HE LEARNED the Inuit language, adopted their diet and travelled more than 35,000 km by dogsled in the North
Norse colony also elicited widespread scorn: many saw him as more of a showman than a scientist. In Canada, his reputation took a further blow during his third and final expedition when his lead ship, the Karluk, became locked in ice north of Alaska, broke up and sank injanuary 1914. The 25 crew and scientists set off across the ice for Wrangel Island; 11 perished and the rest suffered nearstarvation, snow blindness and severe frostbite. Stefansson was not among them. Before
the Karluk sank, he went ashore with a hunting party, prompting some survivors to later charge that he had left them to die.
Today, most scholars, Palsson among them, doubt that Stefansson—whose party was stranded in the Arctic and presumed dead for months before being found on Banks Island—intended to abandon ship. But the loss of life and the trek’s mounting costs proved embarrassing to Stefansson’s sponsor, the Canadian government. Even though he discovered critical new lands, the explorer faced a chorus of critics when he finally came back south in 1918.
That chorus only grew louder four years later when Stefansson, by then retired from active exploration, sponsored four men on an ill-fated attempt to colonize Wrangel Island. Poorly equipped, the men slowly starved to death. Back home, editorialists charged
Stefansson with recklessly trying to prove the thesis behind his 1921 book, The Friendly Arctic, that the region was entirely habitable if visitors simply adapted to Inuit ways. Palsson thinks, this time, the critics were right. “He took his rhetoric too far,” he says, “and some people paid for that with their lives.”
Stefansson left Canada for good in 1918, settling first in New York City and then in Hanover, where he enjoyed a long and distinguished career at Dartmouth College. A driven workaholic who had no hobbies and took no vacations, Stefansson wrote some two dozen books and more than 400 articles while pressing both Canada and the U.S. to open up their northern frontiers through roadways and resource development. In 1941, at age 62, the lifelong bachelor surprised his friends by marrying Evelyn Baird, a former art student 35 years his junior (the couple had no children).
Palsson remains fascinated by the very different way Stefansson has been viewed in Canada and the rest of the world. “He was an important nation-builder at a critical point in Canada’s history and yet he has tended to be treated as a villain there,” says Palsson. It may be time to rethink that— and at last embrace the Arctic dreamer as one of our own. R1
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