Book Review: White Eskimo

The life of Arctic explorer Knud Rasmussen, who diligently documented Inuit spirituality and culture, is explored in this new biography.

Published April 1, 2016

Greenlandic-Danish adventurer Knud Rasmussen may be the greatest Arctic explorer who ever lived—at least as great as his contemporaries, including Norwegians Roald Amundsen and Fridtjof Nansen and Canadian Vilhjalmur Stefansson, and certainly greater than any of the British explorers who so dominate Canadian history. His epic journeys across Greenland and the North American Arctic, living off the land and sea and traveling by dog team, would have killed most anyone else. The exceptions to Rasmussen’s seemingly effortless journeys were his two torturous crossings of the Greenland Ice Cap, which he did with four others in the early 1900s.

Rasmussen’s greatest journey was the Fifth Thule Expedition, a three-year, 30,000-kilometer dogsled trip from Greenland to Arctic Canada and Alaska, which he made with Peter Freuchen and Therkel Mathiassen between 1921 and 1924.

In Stephen R. Bown’s fine biography, White Eskimo: Knud Rasmussen’s Fearless Journey into the Heart of the Arctic, we learn that, unlike most Arctic explorers, Rasmussen wasn’t so much interested in achieving geographic goals, such as reaching the North Pole or finding the Northwest Passage, as he was in the people who inhabited the Arctic regions. Early on in his adventurous career, Bown points out, Rasmussen came to realize that the Inuit were nomadic adventurers who shared a language and a unique way of seeing the world. He wanted to document their stories and describe their way of life, which he did by writing down almost everything the Inuit said within hours of his encounters. Rasmussen’s records were so extensive that his report was published posthumously in 10 volumes.

Rasmussen was born in Greenland to a Danish father and a mother who was one-fourth Inuit. From Bown, we learn that his ability to speak Inuktitut, drive a dog team, harpoon a walrus, and actually take pleasure in the eating of igunaq (fermented walrus or seal meat), was a calling card that opened the door to every Inuk he visited, including shamans, who distrusted most white men.

The significant advantage he had over his contemporaries was his ability to listen with respect and enthusiasm. Imagine British explorers, who generally tended to look down on the Inuit as unwashed and primitive, writing something like this about the people they met in Arctic Canada: “They are the most poetically gifted of all tribes I met with.” The comment referred to the people of Bathurst Inlet in Arctic Canada, who had never before met a European. “And their songs are not restricted to epic and narrative forms, hunting achievements, and the like, but include almost lyrical elements in which feeling and atmosphere predominate.” No wonder he was welcomed in every tent and iglu.

In the writing of White Eskimo, Bown plays it straight. Nicely structured in four parts, the book is well written, well researched, and insightful. The only quibble I have is with the maps. More detailed ones would make it easier for the reader to track Rasmussen’s journeys. Those provided at the beginning of the book do not do the job.

If only this was the beginning of the end of Canadians’ obsession with Sir John Franklin. There’s a lot more to Canadian Arctic history than the disastrous search for the Northwest Passage. We need more people like Bown to be writing about it.

White Eskimo: Knud Rasmussen’s Fearless Journey into the Heart of the Arctic
By Stephen R. Bown
376 pp. Douglas & McIntyre