Science, society tore lives apart

SUN JOURNAL

Book: A century ago, a hero and one of America's great museums showed an "Eskimo" child the brutality of a contemptuous civilization.

April 12, 2000|By Colin Nickerson | Colin Nickerson,BOSTON GLOBE

MONTREAL -- In fall 1897, a 7-year-old Inuit boy named Minik was delivered to New York's American Museum of Natural History by the renowned Arctic adventurer Robert E. Peary. The youngster was accompanied by five other "live Eskimo specimens," colorful in fur costume, who drew tens of thousands of gawkers in a day when explorers were super-celebrities and scrutiny of primitive societies all the rage.

Within months, four of the Eskimos -- including Minik's father, Qisuk -- were dead, felled by germs to which they possessed no resistance. Another was put on a ship headed home to the far northwestern fringe of Greenland.

That left the little boy with the solemn smile alone in the huge metropolis. He would be poked, weighed and measured by men of science, ogled by the paying public and doted on by society ladies.

The first account of the short, sad life of New York's Eskimo, written by a Canadian researcher and just released by a small Vermont publishing house, describes how Minik also became the victim of a staggeringly cruel ruse by one of the world's pre-eminent museums, a hoax brought to light when the youth, years later, chanced upon the skeleton of his father in a museum exhibit.

The story brought a flurry of lurid headlines at the time. But when the younger Eskimo died in 1918 in New Hampshire, he had been long forgotten -- except among his people in distant Greenland -- and his father's bones remained part of the museum's repository of artifacts.

Minik's story is told in a disturbing book that, like the Eskimo boy himself, seemed destined for obscurity. "Give Me My Father's Body: The Life of Minik, the New York Eskimo" was published by the author, Kenn Harper, 55, after he could not find a commercial house willing to take on the tale that had become his obsession. For 14 years he sold copies at his general store in Iqaluit, on Baffin Island in the Canadian far north.

"You could also buy it at a place in Nuuk, Greenland, and a store in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories," says the Ontario man, who has worked for 34 years as a teacher and businessman in Eskimo settlements of Canada and Greenland. "Not exactly Barnes & Noble."

The first commercial edition of the book -- published by Vermont's Steerforth Press, which paid about $175,000 for "Give Me My Father's Body" after a bidding war -- is arriving in bookstores across North America, to the museum's apparent displeasure.

The Book of the Month Club has listed it as an April selection; Pocket Books won paperback rights, and Academy Award-winning actor Kevin Spacey, who wrote the new foreword, has secured the movie option.

It is a startling success for a macabre tale of looted skeletons, of rapacity by prominent figures of Arctic exploration, and of the conquest of the polar north as seen through the eyes of the Inuit, as many of today's Eskimos prefer to be called.

The book paints an unlovely portrait of the respected museum and Peary, who in 1909 led the first expedition to the North Pole. The explorer, according to Harper's book, stole Eskimo corpses from Arctic resting places, turning a healthy sum on the sale of remains to the museum.

Harper's book also documents Peary's removal of three meteorites held sacred by Eskimos, and evidence that he peddled other looted relics. Such skulduggery in the name of science was commissioned, in part, by the museum.

"Peary epitomized the greed and arrogance that was typical of white explorers during the Golden Age of Arctic exploration," Harper says from Iqaluit. "Although he admired the northern survival skills of the Eskimos, he had no affinity for them as a people, no real respect for their culture."

Many museums, including the Museum of Natural History, are feeling heat from aboriginal groups demanding the return of bones and other relics taken by scientists. Hundreds of native skeletons are believed to rest in dusty storage vaults or display drawers in scores of museums.

The saddest part of Harper's book tells how the museum tricked the then-8-year-old Minik into thinking his father, Qisuk, had received the burial demanded by Inuit custom. "Incredible as it may seem," the author writes, "the scientists at the [museum] staged a phony funeral."

In a bizarre ruse, officials interred a log wrapped in ceremonial cloth in the museum garden, then -- keeping with Inuit ritual -- heaped the "grave" with stones as a weeping Minik watched.

"The boy never suspected," Harper quotes William Wallace, a museum superintendent who adopted Minik. "When the grave was complete, he made his mark on the north side of it. You see, that is the Eskimo way."

Behind the scenes, Qisuk's body was the subject of a tug of war between the museum and Bellevue Hospital's College of Physicians and Surgeons, each wanting the honor of examining the exotic corpse. The doctors dissected the body and pickled the brain; the museum won rights to the Eskimo's bones -- stripping them, bleaching them in a vat usually used for animal remains and slathering them with lacquer.

Baltimore Sun Articles
|
|
|
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.