Minik was an Inuit child brought, in 1897, along with his father Qihuk, from their village in Greenland to New York City by Arctic explorer Robert S. Peary. Peary ferried the pair of them down at the request of Franz Boas, then chief curator at the American Museum of Natural History, where they lived for a short time until Qihuk died from tuberculosis. The museum staff staged a fake funeral for Minik’s father so that the boy would believe his body had been interred on museum grounds, while behind the scenes his bones were processed and stripped of flesh like any other specimen.
The extreme mishandling of Minik and Qihuk’s lives easily lends itself to dramatic retellings, especially by white authors. Out this month is a book by Kenn Harper, Minik: The New York Eskimo, a lightly revised version of his first book, Give Me My Father's Body: The Life of Minik, the New York Eskimo. In this new edition, Harper has rewritten and added a few chapters, kept the foreword by Kevin Spacey, and corrected all instances of “Eskimo” in the text to read “Inuit” or “Inuk” (except for the title, of course, because that has a certain ring to it).
White authors get to tell and retell the same stories about our roles in the crimes against indigenous people – about how the latter were robbed, kidnapped from their homelands and forced into a way of life not of their choosing, all at the hands of white explorers and anthropologists who existed long ago. Harper is a historian, as well as former grocer and teacher, who lived in the Arctic for many years and has written copious newspaper columns and books about the lives and stories of his Inuit neighbors. His first book about Minik isn’t disrespectful or poorly written, and I’ve turned to it for my own research. But there comes a point when we need to ask ourselves whether we really need a second edition of Minik’s story from Harper. Could the money spent on printing and publicity be better spent on work by an indigenous author? And where is the indigenous voice in telling Minik’s story?
The Prize of the Pole was first released in Denmark in 2007. It is now available to stream for free on Vimeo, and at an hour and twenty minutes, it is a compact documentary that incorporates indigenous voices into the fabric of Minik’s narrative. Although the filmmakers, director Daniel Dencik and producer Michael Haslund, are Danish, the camera stays close to Robert S. Peary III, the great-grandson of the Arctic explorer and his Inuit wife. The film is narrated by two distinct voices: Robert, who speaks in his native Inuit language, and that of an unnamed English-speaker who jumps in periodically to connect the dots. Still, Robert’s voice is present throughout the film, and he also interviews relatives and elders from his village about Minik’s tragic life and the conflicting heritage of Peary’s time among them.
For example, Talilanguaq Peary, identified as the son of Kale Peary and grandson of Robert S. Peary, speaks over a meal about how he is “a Peary by flesh and blood,” but the explorer “should have respected that little boy’s feelings. It has made my mind move from side to side, even though I have the same blood. Because I strongly feel that the little boy has been betrayed.” Another interviewee, Inuqusiaq Piloq, granddaughter of Peary’s Inuit wife, Qaanaaq, tells lively stories to Robert about Minik’s life and his years in New York at the turn of the century as if she had been there herself. At one point, she narrates (complete with dialogue and inner thoughts) the story of Minik donning boxing gloves to destroy the immaculate gardens of museum caretaker William Wallace. Early in the film, Robert is clear that these stories may be exaggerations or total fiction, but fortunately they made it into the final cut because they illuminate more about Minik and his place in the community than a simple rehashing of newspaper articles and black and white photos. They make us pause and ask ourselves how what we think of as the “truth” shapes our understanding of the past.
There are some problems with The Prize of the Pole. Throughout, the English voiceover and translation uses “Eskimo” rather than the preferred “Inuit,” but it’s never clear who made this decision, nor is it clear how much oversight was granted to Robert and other community members in how their story was told. Also, at times, it seems like Robert, who by the end of the film says he has decided to change his name back to his birth name, Hivshu, is reading from a script. Again, it’s unclear whose script he’s reading from, but in the unscripted moments, like when he’s on a street in New York City talking with a group of young black men about whose stories should be rescued from the dustbin of history, or when he’s making a Soho shopkeeper feel very uncomfortable about the infant human skeletons for sale on his shelves, Hivshu especially shines.
Books like Harper’s foreground the cold hard facts of the case, and they usually begin with detailed overviews of the lives of the white men ostensibly central in the historical drama. The Prize of the Pole is a film that, while not directed or produced by indigenous people, takes as its primary concern how the native community in which Minik was raised continues to wrestle with the legacy of Arctic exploration and exploitation, and how the community has incorporated these stories into its own history. The film doesn’t particularly care whether or not Inuqusiaq is telling the “truth”; it is just as important to hear her version of events and to try to understand how the facts of Minik’s life persist differently for different people. Multiple editions of the same book under different titles can’t do that. Instead, we should be making space for art by and about the indigenous people at the center of the scientific controversies of the last 100 years.
Collum Angus holds an MFA in fiction from the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Angus is currently at work on a novel that follows two transgender men engaged in their own project of revisionist natural history of the US-Mexico border.