I recently took a mental voyage to Greenland, which began when I read Knud Rasmussen’s book, The People of the Polar North, published in 1908. Rasmussen (1879–1933) was born and raised in Greenland, the son of a Danish minister and his Danish-Eskimo wife. Most of Knud’s buddies were Eskimos (Inuit), and he fluently spoke both languages. The family moved to Denmark when Knud was 14, and he soon realized that the wild frontier was far more healthy and alive than the noisy crazy crowds of civilization.
At the age of 23, he eagerly returned to Greenland. His mission was to document the little known culture and history of his people, before they were overwhelmed by the intense madness of modernity, or driven to extinction by disease. He had absolute respect for the indigenous culture, and he excelled at getting the wild people to trust him with their stories. Reading this book struck some deep ancestral chords. It was a magic portal into a saner and healthier world. Stories like this are good medicine. They put things in a clearer perspective.
In those days, Greenland was intensely alive — birds, fish, whales, seals, walruses, reindeer, bears — a precious treasure of abundance and vitality that is beyond the imagination of contemporary minds. The spiritual realm of the Eskimos embraced the entire family of life, a realm in which humans were no more significant than lemmings or lice. Humans were not the dominant animal, and Eskimo culture was perfectly free of self-important gods and goddesses. Everything was alive, and all were related.
In the old days, all things animate and inanimate were alive, and all beings were able to communicate with each other. People could change into bears, and bears could change into people. There were far fewer boundaries. Every community had at least one shaman, and he or she was kept busy attending to the affairs of the spirit world. They understood the mysteries of hidden things, and had power over the destinies of men. Rasmussen always sought out the shamans in his travels.
The Eskimos did not have permanent homes; they followed the food. One group regularly waited for the walruses to come ashore at Taseralik, usually in September. The huge slow-moving animals were sitting ducks on the rocks, and up to 50 were killed per hour. The clan spent the long dark winters there, hunting for seals, and dining on the meat and fish they had stored. In April, when the ice began breaking up, they moved to the mouth of the Ström Fjord, and hunted seal and walrus. In June, they moved to Iginiarfik and caught capelin, small fish like smelt. Then they returned to Taseralik to catch halibut.
Living near the Arctic was challenging for two-legged mammals that evolution had fine-tuned for living in the tropics. By far, Eskimos were the most high-tech subsistence hunters that ever lived. In open waters, they hunted and fished in kayaks and umiaqs. When it was time to move camp or visit other villages, they traveled across the ice on dogsleds, which required thick ice. There were many times when thin ice appeared to be thick ice, and this illusion shortened many lives. During the long, dark winters, the average temperature was -25° F (-31° C).
Sila, the weather, was a power that dominated Eskimo life. Greenlanders did not spend their days staring at cell phones, because Sila would blow them away with 150 mph (240 kph) winds, or bury them in sudden avalanches, or wash them away with flash floods, or drown them in stormy seas, or melt the ice they were sledding across.
There was also Nerrivik (“the food dish”), the woman at the bottom of the sea, who ruled the beings of the water world. She was a moody power, and she often withheld the seals from hungry hunters. When this happened, shamans were required to journey into her world, tidy her hair, and calm her down.
Rasmussen’s buddy, Peter Freuchen, took a nap during a storm when the temperature was -60° F (-51° C). When he awoke, his feet were frozen. This cost him a leg. Rasmussen told the story of Qumangâpik, who had four wives and 15 children. The first wife froze to death, the second was buried by an avalanche, the third died of illness, and the fourth froze to death. Of his 15 children, one starved, four were frozen, and five died of illness. Qumangâpik froze to death, with his wife and two little children. Three of his kids outlived him.
In Greenland, it was ridiculously easy to die from brief lapses of attention or the fickle whims of luck. When they ran out of meat, they ate their dogs. Then they ate corpses. Sometimes they killed and ate the weak. Many times, everyone died. They did not rot away in nursing homes. For those who became a burden on the clan, the ride was soon over. You were either strong and healthy, or you found enjoyment in the afterlife, which was a good place. There was no Hell for heathen Eskimos.
There was no television, radio, internet, or cell phones. There were no malls, roads, or cities. There was no money. There were no rich or poor. Nobody starved unless everyone starved. There were no lawyers, soldiers, farmers, herders, police, politicians, pimps, prostitutes, salespersons, miners, loggers, fashion models, or recreational shoppers. Eskimos were purely wild and free people, living in a wild and free land, like undamaged human beings.
Eskimos pitied (and giggled at) the Danes, because they suffered from hurricane minds — they never stopped thinking. Rasmussen once observed an Eskimo who appeared to be deep in thought. Knud asked him what he was thinking about, and the man laughed. The only time we think is when we’re running low on meat. Their language included no tools for discussing abstractions or ideas. They rarely made plans for tomorrow. They warmly glowed with “an irresponsible happiness at merely being alive….”
I also read Gretel Ehrlich’s book, This Cold Heaven, published in 2001. She was an American who had made several extended visits to Greenland between 1993 and 1999. She was fascinated by Rasmussen’s stories, and had read the 6,000 pages of his expedition notes. The chapters of her book flip-flop between discussions of Knud’s life, and descriptions of the folks she met while visiting Greenland.
The recent decades had not been kind for Greenland, as the cancer of a cash economy spread, taking a heavy toll on the remaining wildlife. But compared to her California home, it seemed like paradise. Her friend Maria told her, “It’s too bad for you when you visit Greenland, because then you have to keep going back. When you have been with those people — with the Inuit — you know that you have been with human beings.”
Robert Peary went to the North Pole in 1909. Like many white lads, the incredible beauty of Inuit women inspired him, with immense throbbing excitement, to toss his Christian virtues to the wind. In 1997, Ehrlich met two of his granddaughters at Thule. They lamented that when the Europeans stomped ashore in 1721, there were 16,000 wild heathen souls in all of Greenland. It wasn’t long before the population fell to just 110, thanks to smallpox. Now there are 60,000, thanks to the industrial food system.
When Rasmussen traveled across northern Canada in the 1920s, he reported a vast herd of migrating caribou that took three days to pass. During the warm months, the skies of Greenland were filled with millions of migrating birds that came to nest on rocky islands. Happy people harvested many birds and eggs. In 1933, the birds got their revenge. Kivioq was an Arctic delicacy, consisting of dead auks stuffed into seal gut and allowed to rot for two months. Rasmussen died from salmonella poisoning after gobbling down a bowl of it. Urp!
Today, the era of nomadic living is over. In 1995, the village of Uummannaq was home to 1,400 people and 6,000 dogs. All settlements reeked of “dog shit, seal guts, and unwashed bodies.” Epidemics of distemper periodically hammered down canine overpopulation. Dogs were kept chained all the time, except on hunting trips. Male dogs that broke free were a public nuisance, and it was the village dogcatcher’s job to simply shoot them on sight.
Ehrlich went on a few hunting trips, riding on a dogsled across the ice. It felt like a prehistoric experience, but there was one huge difference. The harpoons and bows had been replaced by high-powered rifles. It was now far easier to kill seals and polar bears from a distance.
People no longer hunted and fished for subsistence alone. In addition to food and furs for their family, they also needed surplus, to pay for electricity, phones, ammunition, heating oil, groceries, computers, cigarettes, alcohol, etc. The more wildlife they destroyed, the more money they could make, and the more cool stuff they could buy. This vicious cycle grew into a mass hysteria. Many people were hunting and fishing as if they were the last generation.
Trouble was born when the Danes first laid eyes on a thriving ecosystem. Their civilized brains began spinning with excitement, calculating how much wealth could be reaped by exterminating Greenland’s wildlife. It was impossible for their minds to contemplate the notion of turning around, going home, and leaving the Eskimos in peace.
Even if the Eskimos had promptly hacked the first missionaries and traders into dog food, they were powerless to prevent the heavily-armed Danes from gang-raping their paradise, and poisoning their ancient culture with the insanity of mindless materialism. When guns, knives, pots, and matches became available at trading posts, few wild folks anywhere rejected them. We have a weakness for tools.
Shortly after Ehrlich’s book was published, a mob of wildlife advocates discovered the reckless destruction in Greenland, and commenced to yowl and bellow. Greenland shrugged. It is, after all, the twenty-first century.
PS: In 1972, eight Eskimo mummies were discovered at Qilakitsog. They date to 1460 AD, and were remarkably well-preserved by freeze-drying, including their clothing, tattoos, and even their lice.
Rasmussen, Knud, The People of the Polar North, Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner & Co., London, 1908.
Ehrlich, Gretel, This Cold Heaven — Seven Seasons in Greenland, Pantheon Books, New York, 2001.