Tales from the Heart of the Arctic

  • Stephen R. Bown
    White Eskimo. Douglas & McIntyre (purchase at Amazon.ca)
  • Rachel Qitsualik-Tinsley and Sean Qitsualik-Tinsley
    How Things Came to Be: Inuit Stories of Creation. Inhabit Media (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Robin McGrath

The Greenlandic ethnographer Knud Rasmussen was one of the single most important scholars ever to examine the literature and culture of Canadian Inuit, investigating the original source of their circumpolar culture and language, collecting and preserving a treasure house of oral stories and poetry, and cushioning the impact of contact between the relatively isolated people of Arctic Canada and the rest of the world. Yet Rasmussen and his work are little known outside the walls of academe almost a century after his extraordinary intellectual and physical accomplishments in Canada.

Stephen R. Bown, author of The Last Viking: The Life of Roald Amundsen, became interested in Rasmussen, who was a contemporary of Amundsen’s, and was surprised to find there was no full-scale biography of the man available in English. In turning to Danish texts, Bown “was shocked to discover that the Danish biographies are very much concerned with Rasmussen as a Danish public figure and national hero.” Rasmussen’s celebrity rather than his literary accomplishments were the focus of most of the works. As a result, Bown determined that White Eskimo: Knud Rasmussen’s Fearless Journey into the Heart of the Arctic, by contrast, would revolve around Rasmussen’s “Greenlandic-Inuit world rather than his Danish world, because that was, and is, the source of Rasmussen’s professional acclaim as well as his personal cultural background.”

Contrary to popular belief, Rasmussen was not half Inuit. He was of one-eighth Inuit heritage, but more important than blood ties, he spoke and wrote fluent Greenlandic, as well as excellent Danish and very passable English. Greenlandic was the language of the household in which he was raised, even when the family lived in Denmark. Linguistically gifted as well as socially charismatic and physically robust, Rasmussen was ideally positioned to participate in the flurry of Arctic exploration that erupted in the early twentieth century.

Where Rasmussen differed from other explorers was his focus on cultural rather than geographic exploration. He used no recording devices, instead memorizing the songs and legends through repeated hearing and repetition before writing them down, and he was non-judgemental when gathering magic charms and incantations, always accepting the information or the artifact in the spirit in which it was offered. Most important, he had a gift for translation and a compelling literary style.

One interesting aspect of Bown’s biography of Rasmussen is explained in his “Note on Sources.” Bown neither spoke nor read Danish, so he devised a system of digitizing texts, translating them to English using various forms of software, and then consulting a native Danish and English speaker for assistance with sections he wished to quote. His success in this regard may be challenged by Danish speakers, of which this reviewer is not one, but if computer translation has, indeed, reached the level of sophistication suggested by Bown’s work, then we can expect some quite extraordinary progress in previously obscure academic areas in the coming years. In the meantime, Bown’s biography is an insightful, charming, and thoughtful contribution to Canada’s literary history.

How Things Came to Be: Inuit Stories of Creation, by Rachel and Sean Qitsualik-Tinsley, contains nine traditional Inuit legends, most if not all of which were first recorded by Knud Rasmussen during his Fifth Thule Expedition. The Qitsualik-Tinsley versions, however, are not as stark as the Rasmussen tales, which generally do not include context or cultural explanations. For example, when the Qitsualik-Tinsleys tell the story of Nuliajuk, whose father throws her from his boat in an attempt to save himself, the authors call a parent harming his child “the worst of all crimes” because “such betrayals wound the world.” Elaborations like this are not to be found in Rasmussen’s transcripts.

While such explanations are helpful to those not immersed in Inuit culture, there is a certain amount of softening of the stories also. The well-known tale of how the sun and the moon took possession of the sky normally includes or suggests the information that brother and sister, who are playing douse-the-lamp, have an incestuous relationship, but that complicating factor is entirely eliminated here. The Qitsualik-Tinsleys categorically insist that the boy had merely teased his sister during a game, which makes the motivation for their transformations rather weak. Some of the other stories have also had sexual or violent elements omitted.

An attempt to adapt the stories for children may also be responsible for the style in which the stories are written. Each relatively short story is replete with dozens of sentence fragments, making for a very staccato flow, while “and,” “but,” and “so” most frequently begin sentences rather that serve as coordinating conjunctions. This fragmenting style does not seem to be an attempt to mimic or reflect the linguistic structure of Inuktitut, nor is it evident in the authors’ previous book, Ajjiit: Dark Dream of the Ancient Arctic, leaving this reviewer to think that it is a misguided attempt to simplify complex sentence structures to suit a very young readership.

If this is the case, it doesn’t work. Plain English with consistent grammar is more easily understood, even by very young English speakers. For example, the authors write of a shaman that “He had travelled to other worlds. To see the moon.” Do they mean he travelled to other worlds to see the moon or that he travelled to other worlds and also travelled to see the moon? Another deviation from conventional English is in the use of capitalization. Capitalizing Sun, Moon, Land, and Sky personifies those entities, but when Strong, Strength, and End are also capitalized, in combination with dozens of single-word sentences, it feels overdone.

How Things Came to Be was first published in Inuktitut in 2008 but was revised to appeal particularly to children aged six to eight. Given the target readership, the bowdlerization of the tales is understandable, but the decision to break the sentences up into fragments is puzzling, particularly given the agglutinative nature of the original language.

This review “Tales from the Heart of the Arctic” originally appeared in Asian Canadian Critique Beyond the Nation. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 227 (Winter 2015): 158-60.

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