Sunday, November 6, 2011

Knud Rasmussen and life in Greenland in the early 1900s

Knud Rasmussen

Knud Johan Victor Rasmussen, "father of Eskimology" was a polar explorer who lived from 1879 - 1933.  Rasmussen was born in Greenland and is of Inuit and Danish descent, but as Greenland had been colonized by Denmark, he is considered a Danish explorer.   Although Rasmussen was eventually educated in Denmark, he spent much of his early life in Greenland, living among the Inuit, learning the essentials of living in harsh terrain of Greenland. Rasmussen knew the Inuit language and was familiar with hunting, kayaking, and driving dog sleds. Rasmussen was the first European to cross the Northwest Passage via dog sled.  Rasmussen is quoted as saying "My playmates were native Greenlanders; from the earliest boyhood I played and worked with the hunters, so even the hardships of the most strenuous sledge-trips became pleasant routine for me." 

Knud Rasmussen's house near Copenhagen

Before becoming a polar explorer, Rasmussen unsuccessfully pursued a career as an actor and opera singer, however he quickly moved on to begin numerous expeditions, examining Inuit culture, establishing trading bases, mapping little known areas, and collecting ethnographic data.  Rasmussen made detailed notes and sketches during his travels, collecting artifacts, legends and songs from varied Inuit cultures. He spoke of the Inuit peoples saying "Their culture is a witness in itself to the strength and endurance and wild beauty of human life." Rasmussen would return to a house only a few hundred meters from the ocean, near Copenhagen, where he would work and write in between expeditions. Rasmussen eventually contracted pneumonia after an episode of food poisoning and died in Copenhagen at the age of 54. 

Statue of Knud Rasmussen in Strandvejen, Denmark

There is a statue of Knud Rasmussen in Strandvejen, near Copenhagen, overlooking the sea, in an area with very clear water, perfect for diving and fishing. My dad alerted me to some controversy surrounding the statue - it currently memorializes Rasmussen looking out to sea toward Sweden and some are calling for it to be turned so his effigy would look out toward his native Greenland. Here's a link to a video featuring some nice footage of the sculpture and details of the movement to reposition the monument. 

I stumbled across this archival footage of life in Northwest Greenland that shows some of what Rasmussen probably encountered in his travels. Man....I could not handle this way of life.....