Inuit on Display in Europe
- Lutz Hartmut (Editor)
The Diary of Abraham Ulrikab: Text and Context. University of Ottawa Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Madelaine Jacobs
Customarily the artifacts in museums are inanimate, and the attractions in zoos are not given monetary recompense for their part in attracting lucrative tourist dollars. In The Diary of Abraham Ulrikab: Text and Context, editor Hartmut Lutz explores an uncanny occurrence that would be at odds with currently accepted conventions of presentation.
Working on behalf of Hagenbeck’s Zoo in Hamburg, Germany, Adrian Jacobsen capitalized on European predictions that North American First Peoples were dying away when he hired two Inuit families from Labrador to leave their homes in order to be put on display in Europe. One family, led by their father, Abraham Ulrikab, were devout Christians and had been living within a Moravian mission. Ulrikab’s family became fascinating specimens presented in contrast to a more exotic “pagan” Inuit family. The Moravians objected to Jacobsen’s intention to create a traveling show where their “christened people are exhibited outside and looked at like wild animals for money.” Ulrikab longed to see Europe and could not understand why the missionaries disapproved of his desire to earn money to pay his debts while contributing to the scientific endeavours of that time. To the Moravians, however, their converts were “free people” and they could not compel them to stay. Therefore, in the fall of 1880, the group embarked on a sea voyage for Europe.
In the midst of this intriguing journey, Ulrikab filled a remarkable diary with his thoughts on Europeans, Inuit peoples, and the relations between them. For Ulrikab, the wonders of Europe were tempered by the objectification that they experienced as targets of study and tools of commerce. Although he exercised his autonomy in making the journey in the first place, Ulrikab began to feel that he had been “lured” by Jacobsen and threatened to inform an authority in England when “our master” severely beat one of the Inuit party with a dog whip. Jacobsen quickly improved his demeanor. As Ulrikab grew increasingly dissatisfied with his life as an object of “science,” he despaired that he would never return to his home, his extended family, the foods that he enjoyed, and the form of Christian worship that he was accustomed to. Ulrikab’s prophecy became reality when, without the vaccinations that Jacobsen promised, each of the Inuit members of the exhibition contracted smallpox and died in 1881.
Jacobsen then returned the property of his ill-fated party to Labrador. Missionary Brother Kretschmer took up the task of translating Ulrikab’s diary from Inuktitut to German and, because the original is lost, it was later translated from his German into English. Ulrikab’s diary is now considered the earliest autobiographical text written by an Inuit author. In crafting The Diary, Lutz privileges the seldom seen written historical voice of an Inuit man who lived and wrote at the end of the nineteenth-century and presents it prominently on the page without direct comment or alteration. Instead, Lutz juxtaposes Ulrikab’s words with documents authored by his European-born contemporaries and images produced in relation to the Inuit exhibit. Only the necessary academic interpretation envelops this package. The Diary combines Ulrikab’s observations with Lutz’s own passion for Ulrikab’s diary. In this way, Lutz enables readers to draw their own insights from the thoughts of men who seemed worlds apart yet were increasingly stepping on each other’s soil.
The Diary of Abraham Ulrikab may be difficult for some readers to follow because it does not conform to a standard style; however, Ulrikab’s commentary compellingly ties the collection together. Even though Ulrikab became an object of study, he chose to go to Europe with the intention of learning about that place. As he travelled, Ulrikab documented his experience of Europe. Ironically, this process of observing “others” allowed Ulrikab to capture even richer understandings of himself. Similarly, the European obsession with viewing, describing, and measuring people like Ulrikab betrayed more about the cultures that performed that brand of “science” than it did about those who became the subjects of its interest. Lutz has astutely compiled a thought-provoking platform from which his readers can develop deeper understandings of the worlds traversed by Ulrikab.
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MLA: Jacobs, Madelaine. Inuit on Display in Europe. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 9 Dec. 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #193 (Summer 2007), Canada Reads. (pg. 158 - 159)
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