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  • Hilde Huus

Kenn Harper on Knud Rasmussen

I enjoy reading the stories of those intrepid explorers who over the centuries have risked life and limb to reach the North Pole or traverse the Northwest Passage. They are stories of courage, perseverance, and endurance but also in some cases of foolhardiness and treachery - human nature put to the test in the most extreme conditions. But I admit I was not familiar with Knud Rasmussen before Kenn Harper's very interesting talk.

Knud Rasmussen is very well known in Greenland, where he was born in 1879. His father was a Danish missionary and his mother was part Greenlandic Inuit. Rasmussen’s first language was Greenlandic, the language spoken by the indigenous Inuit. He was educated in Denmark and attended the University of Copenhagen before returning to Greenland to study Inuit culture.

Unlike most of the Arctic explorers, Rasmussen’s motivation was not to claim new territory, navigate uncharted waters, or establish new records. Rather, his goal was to learn about the Inuit who lived across the Arctic, while at the same time mapping northern Canada as completely as he could. He believed that the Greenlandic Inuit had originated inland before migrating to their coastal home, and he hoped to find support for his thesis. He was also intrigued by Inuit religious beliefs and folklore, and especially in how they explained them - the “why” behind their beliefs and practices.

In 1910, Rasmussen set up an ingenious plan to subsidize his explorations. He established a trading station for the Inuit of Northwest Greenland and named it Thule. The presence of the trading station served to preserve northern Greenland for Denmark, which otherwise did not have a presence there, as well as to fulfill a need for the Inuit, who had no other access to trade goods. Ultimately, Rasmussen was able to use the profits from the station to finance his scientific explorations. In all he made seven trips through the heartland of the Inuit during which he performed his ethnological studies and collected Inuit artefacts. In so doing, he became the first patron of “Eskimology,” now known in Canada as Inuit Studies.

His Fifth Thule expedition is considered his greatest achievement. It took place from 1921 and 1924 but planning had been underway for about a decade before that. Bureaucratic bungling and miscommunications nearly derailed the expedition when the Canadian government became suspicious that Rasmussen was trying to claim new territory for Denmark. However, reason finally prevailed and he was able to proceed. His great sled journey, accompanied by two Inuit, took him across the roof of North America to Nome, Alaska, making him the first European to cross the Northwest Passage by dog sled.

His legacy include around 15,000 to 20,000 Inuit objects that he donated to the Danish National Museum. His recommendations to the Canadian government resulted in legislation that protected the Inuit in their territory. It turned out that his collection of objects and documentation of Inuit culture was in the nick of time. The Inuit culture was about to undergo massive changes.

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