And what about Steensby’s theory?
Nunatsiaq News| April 15, 2023
TAISSUMANI APR 15, 2023 – 8:30 AM EDT
And what about Steensby’s theory?
By Kenn Harper
Knud Rasmussen had launched his three-year expedition to Arctic North America with the promise of testing the theories of his early mentor, Hans Peder Steensby, on the inland North American origins of the Inuit.
Throughout the expedition, Rasmussen’s faith in that theory remained unshaken. His first major excursion away from Danish Island was to the Inuit inland to the west of Hudson Bay, people he named collectively the Caribou Eskimos.
Rasmussen wrote of what he learned there:
“We had not been long among the Caribou Eskimos before we became aware that we had before us a primitive culture that had originated in the interior.
“This culture was not only the most original we had hitherto met on all our travels, but — and this to us was of still greater interest — all the particulars we collected there very soon convinced us that we were on the way towards solving one of the most important of the Expedition’s problems.”
Two years later, he travelled along the coast of the western Canadian Arctic and Alaska, where he encountered Inuit cultures quite different from those he had observed in the central and eastern Canadian Arctic.
In particular, he noted that “Alaska has been the scene of much conflict, not least as a consequence of the natural conditions and the entirely new possibilities of a previously unknown form of marine hunting.”
His view of Steensby’s theory had evolved to include not only a migration of Inuit from inland America to the coast, but then a migration west to the Bering Strait, before a renewed migration from Alaska spread Inuit as far to the east as Greenland.
He imagined that “crowds of primitive Eskimos” migrated to the area around Baillie Island before heading west, and that those journeys “necessitated great revolutions in their vocational technique.”
“We must assume,” he continued, “that when they came into this land and for the first time looked out over the open sea, where not only small seals but also white whales, walruses and whales appeared as quarries, it would not be long before they put to sea in the kayaks which were originally built for use in fresh-water lakes.”
He went on to speculate on the eventual awareness of new inventions needed for the hunt — the skin boat, the throwing harpoon, the throwing board, the float to buoy up harpooned animals.
“These developments,” he told us, “would have proceeded through several generations.”
In his popular book, Across Arctic America, published three years after the conclusion of his sled journey, Rasmussen remained unshaken in his belief in Steensby’s theory, and summed it up succinctly:
“The conclusion was inevitable that originally all the Eskimos were land hunters, and that a portion of them later turned to hunting sea-mammals… The aboriginal Eskimos developed a special culture around the big rivers and lakes of the northernmost part of Canada.
“From here, they moved down to the coast, either because they were driven by hostile tribes or because they had to follow the caribou in their migrations. They developed the first phases of a coastal culture at the Arctic Coast of Canada, most probably between Coronation Gulf and the Magnetic North Pole.
“From here they wandered over to Labrador, Baffinland, and Greenland, to the east, and westward reached Alaska and the Bering Sea. Around the Bering, with its abundance of sea mammals, they had their Golden Age, as a coastal people.
“From here a new migration took place, for what reason we cannot know, but this time from the West to the East.”
And yet he — and Kaj Birket-Smith, the Danish anthropologist — were wrong.
There were many reasons to dispute the conclusions reached by Rasmussen and Birket-Smith. Birket-Smith had studied the historical record, which at the time did not indicate there were any Inuit living inland before the 19th century, and simply ignored it.
Rasmussen had relied on his collection of folklore; much of it differed considerably from that of the coast dwellers, but there were also many similarities which he chose to attribute to modern borrowings from the coast.
Both men had succumbed to the temptation to use their data to prove Steensby’s theory and to ignore those aspects that didn’t fit, rather than approaching the subject like an open book and letting the data shape a theory.
Ironically, it was their colleague, archeologist Therkel Mathiassen, who challenged Rasmussen’s and Birket-Smith’s theories on the basis of his archeological digs.
He, and others who followed him, showed that the Eskimo culture had its origins in Alaska, from where it subsequently spread eastward across Canada and to Greenland. All subsequent research has borne out that conclusion.
Still, Rasmussen’s and Steensby’s theories continued to have influence.
Mathiassen himself thought that “the present Iglulik culture must be regarded as an inland culture which has acquired a marine facet,” but he thought that this was not necessarily as a result of migration but might be because of “simply cultural influences.”
In addition, he may have not wanted to unduly offend Rasmussen. Three decades later, the esteemed Danish archeologist Jørgen Meldgaard thought he detected the “smell of forest” in his work near Iglulik; he was accompanied by the Greenlandic scholar Robert Petersen, who also wrote about the “smell of forest” in certain Greenlandic legends. But today, the idea of an inland origin for Canada’s Inuit has no following.
It is ironic then that Rasmussen’s conclusions on the subject of Eskimo origins, which have been described as “his most cherished research,” were wrong, but that we are still enormously indebted to him and his colleagues for our knowledge of the traditional pre-Christian customs and beliefs of Inuit in Canada.
In 1929, Birket-Smith published a two-part work, The Caribou Eskimos, Material and Social Life and Their Cultural Position. The following year, Rasmussen published Intellectual Culture of the Caribou Eskimos and Iglulik and Caribou Eskimo Texts.
They complemented his 1929 publication, Intellectual Culture of the Iglulik Eskimos. Rasmussen would also publish The Netsilik Eskimos: Social Life and Spiritual Culture (1931) and Intellectual Life of the Copper Eskimos (1932).
His studies, The Mackenzie Eskimos (1942) and The Alaskan Eskimos (1952), were edited and published posthumously.
Before the Fifth Thule Expedition, there was no reliable information on the beliefs and culture of the inland societies of Inuit, the people called Caribou Eskimos.
Without Birket-Smith’s studies, we would know almost nothing of the material culture of these people; without Rasmussen’s work, we would know little of their religion, nor of the beliefs of other Inuit of the northern Hudson Bay coast, the Aivilingmiut and their sub-group the Iglulingmiut, and the Inuit farther north and west on the central Arctic coast, the Mackenzie Delta and, to a lesser extent the north coast of Alaska.
The ethnographic works of the expedition should rightly be regarded as salvage ethnography, documenting some aspects of Inuit traditional culture at the last possible moment.
Rasmussen described himself in the list of expedition personnel as a “folklorist.”
Yet, he was much more; he had the soul of a poet and revelled in collecting the life stories and legends of the Inuit. He was at his best when recording their religious beliefs and the practices of the shamans.
Well before the Fifth Thule Expedition took place, Rasmussen already had a reputation as an ethnographer, though self-taught, and a writer, and had a good many publications to his credit.
Taissumani is an occasional column that recalls events of historical interest. Kenn Harper is a historian and writer who lived in the Arctic for more than 50 years. He is the author of “Minik: The New York Eskimo” and “Thou Shalt Do No Murder,” among other books. Feedback? Send your comments and questions to [email protected]