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i u a pi pu pa ti tu ta ki ku ka gi gu ga mi mu ma ni nu na si su sa li lu la ji ju ja vi vu va ri ru ra qi qu qa ngi ngu nga lhi lhu lha

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Memory of Arnarulunnguaq lives on in Greenlandic culture

Nunatsiaq News| March 18, 2023

Categories: news

TAISSUMANI  MAR 18, 2023 – 8:30 AM EDT

Memory of Arnarulunnguaq lives on in Greenlandic culture

By Kenn Harper

Arnarulunnguaq is seen at work maintaining skin clothing at Blæsebælgen, the expedition headquarters on Danish Island, in 1921. (Photo by Therkel Mathiassen, courtesy of Arktisk Institut, 269076)

In 1927, Knud Rasmussen wrote a popular account of his great sled journey over the top of North America.

In it, he said, “The Eskimo is the hero of this book. His history, his present culture, his daily hardships, and his spiritual life constitute the theme and the narrative.”

Arnarulunnguaq and Qaavigarsuaq on the sled journey to Alaska. (Photo by Leo Hansen, courtesy of Knud Rasmussen Selskab)

Danish anthropologist Kirsten Hastrup has written about the relationship between Rasmussen and the two Inughuit who accompanied him on the great sled journey.

She points out that not only were they friends, but they were also his surrogate family on the trip.

She suggests that what resulted was a “collaborative ethnography” because “the Polar Eskimos were no longer being studied but studying with him, and clearly Rasmussen sees the American Inuit very much through Inughuit eyes.”

In New York, Rasmussen stood atop a skyscraper looking over the city with Qaavigarsuaq and Arnarulunnguaq by his side. Perhaps the two Inughuit thought of their fellow Inughuit who had previously been to this gigantic metropolis almost three decades earlier — Uisaakassak and Minik — and the stories they told back home of its size and mysteries.

“Ah,” sighed Arnarulunnguaq, “and we used to think Nature was the greatest and most wonderful of all! Yet here we are among mountains and great gulfs and precipices, all made by the work of human hands.

“Nature is great; Sila, as we call it at home; nature, the world, the universe, all that is Sila; which our wise men declared they could hold in poise. And I could never believe it; but I see it now.

“Nature is great; but are not men greater? Those tiny beings we can see down there far below, hurrying this way and that. They live among these stone walls, on a great plain of stones made with hands. Stone and stone and stone — there is no game to be seen anywhere, and yet they manage to live and find their daily food.

“I see things more than my mind can grasp; and the only way to save oneself from madness is to suppose that we have all died suddenly before we knew, and that this is part of another life.”

Dressed in Qallunaat clothing, she called New York the coldest place she had ever been. She was fascinated by the elevators in the tall buildings and couldn’t get enough of them.

Rasmussen mused on Arnarulunnguaq’s words. The events of the expedition in Inuit territory, full of new experiences to a white man, had just been everyday life to the two Inughuit. Now it was their turn to wonder at the marvels of the white man’s world.

“Their expedition was beginning,” wrote Rasmussen.

And his thoughts returned to the Inuit, “to the people we had left, to the men and women who had spoken so simply and yet so powerfully of the greatest and the smallest things.”

And he gave his interpretation of Arnarulunnguaq’s words, not that man had triumphed over nature but that the indomitable spirit of the men and women of the Arctic had found ways to deal with “hunger and feasting, happiness and adversity, the daily round and the great moments of life,” as part of nature.

“Here,” he wrote, “face to face with a chaos and confusion of marvels, Arnarulunnguaq found the very words for all it meant: Nature is great; but man is greater still.”

Moreso than other explorers, Rasmussen acknowledged the contribution the Inughuit women made to the expedition.

He noted that “the three young [female] Greenlanders from Thule were not only indispensable … as seamstresses but also lit up Blæsebælgen with their radiant humour.”

Speaking of Arnarulunnguaq, he wrote, “It was her duty, as well as the other women’s, to keep our skins in order, to cook, and now and then during the journeys also help us look after the dogs.”

Arnarulunnguaq had been an integral part of the expedition; on the great sled journey, she was responsible for cooking and clothing but also assisted in collecting botanical specimens and caring for the zoological items.

She also helped Rasmussen in archeological excavations at Malirualik on King William Island. In addition, she made drawings of Canadian Inuit women’s tattoos as a contribution to the expedition’s ethnography.

On arrival in Denmark at the end of the expedition, she was diagnosed with tuberculosis and hospitalized for some time. She returned to Uummannaq in 1925 and married Kaalipaluk Peary, son of Robert Peary, three years later. Unfortunately, she suffered from illness for the rest of her life; she passed away in 1933 in the hospital in Uummannaq.

Kaalipaluk remembered her as “a very talented woman. She was perfect for all kinds of women’s work. Preparation of catch and skins, sewing, preparation of food, everything perfect. She could even steer a dog sled quite impeccably.”

But she never talked about the great sled journey.

Arnarulunnguaq was commemorated on a Greenlandic stamp in 1996, in a popular song by musician Ole Kristiansen in 1991, and in a poem by the Greenlandic politician and activist Aqqaluk Lynge in 1982.

She has been the subject of book chapters and of modern artwork. In an article in 1925, Rasmussen quoted Arnarulunnguaq expressing her hesitancy at received the medal of merit from the king — an award given to all six Inughuit expedition participants: “I have only been on this expedition as a woman and have only followed in the footsteps of men. It is those who broke the road, and not those who just followed along, who should be honored. That is why I think it is difficult for me to accept such an award.”

The comment is often made that she and Rasmussen were bedmates during the expedition. The supposition is, perhaps, a natural one, given that they lived together under the same roof.

In 1923, during Qaavigarsuaq’s long absence from Nattilik country, they were the only two people under that roof. But there is no evidence to support the statement, and in fact Qaavigarsuaq explicitly told his biographer that such statements were not true.

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]

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