Polar crime still unresolved

August 25, 2000

A New York museum refuses to apologise for a racist experiment that cost the lives of four Inuit 103 years ago. Kenn Harper asks why

In spring 1897, Franz Boas, an assistant curator at the American Museum of Natural History, wrote to the American explorer, Robert Peary, who was about to leave for northern Greenland, asking him to bring a middle-aged Inuit to stay at the museum in New York over the following winter. He noted: "This would enable us to obtain leisurely certain information which will be of the greatest scientific importance."

Instead, Peary brought six Inuit, with tragic results. They were exhibited for the entertainment of 30,000 New Yorkers at the harbour on their first two days in the city. Initially housed in the museum's basement, they all ended up in Bellevue Hospital, the victims of germs and disease for which they had developed no immunity in their isolated home environment. Within six months, one was dead and three more died in the next three months. A survivor returned to Greenland in summer 1898 but a seven-year-old boy, Minik, was kept in New York until 1909. The wife of the museum's president wanted him as an experiment to see if it was possible to educate a savage.

Boas later wrote, in his only published remarks on the scientific study of the six Polar Inuit: "Many things heretofore unknown have been learned regarding their language, their traditions and their personal characteristics. Casts of their heads have been made for the museum." In fact, nothing of value came from the museum's inconsistent and out-of-context study of six disoriented, sick Inuit in New York.

It was Alfred Kroeber, an English instructor at Columbia University, who had enrolled on one of Boas's courses in American Indian linguistics, who took over responsibility for the ethnographic and linguistic research. Kroeber spoke no Inuit and other than Boas, who was not involved in the study, there were only two people in New York who did: Matthew Henson, Peary's black servant who was only sporadically available, and Esther Enutsiak, a half-Inuit woman from Labrador. Kroeber used Enutsiak. But her Labrador dialect was markedly different from that of the Polar Inuit, and she would have understood only the gist of their conversations, not the detail. Kroeber's work was, as a result, irreparably marred.

Ironically, Kroeber felt that his accounts of Inuit funeral customs were "exceptionally full, though perhaps the customs are somewhat modified by the unusual surroundings". This is an incredible understatement. All funeral events he observed took place in New York State - hardly the natural environment of the Inuit - and the mortuary accounts were riddled with errors and misunderstandings.

One of those misunderstandings caused the museum to stage a mock funeral for Minik's father. Kroeber reported that, unless Minik could tell the other then-surviving Inuit that he had witnessed his father's body being buried, the other Inuit would have to kill him. No such custom exists. But when Minik's father died in February 1898, museum staff conducted a burial, following what they understood to be the Inuit fashion. Minik, grief-stricken, watched from a distance. But what was buried was a log about the length of a human corpse, wrapped in fur, with a mask strapped to it. It was a decade before Minik discovered that his father's skeleton was on display in a glass case in the museum. His campaign to have it given a proper burial was unsuccessful.

Boas has been regarded as the founder of modern anthropology. His colleague, Ales Hrdli ka, was a pioneer in physical anthropology, a branch of the science that had advanced little past the pseudoscience of phrenology, which held that conformation of the skull was indicative of mental faculties and character. Hrdli ka and his colleagues collected skeletons and skulls, and catalogued, studied, measured and compared them, as if quantifying would lead to understanding. These men were products of their times: the times were permeated with bigotry, their discipline grounded in racism and sexism.

The American Museum of Natural History has maintained that critics of its role in the mistreatment of the six Polar Inuit are being unfair, that they have judged the actions of the past by the standards of the present. But when the events of 1897 are judged by the standards of 1897, the museum still falls short. When was it accepted anthropological practice to bring the field to the institution to study anthropological informants "leisurely" and out of context? When was it ever acceptable to stage a phoney funeral on the grounds of an American institution to deceive an orphaned boy into believing that his father was being buried? When was it ever acceptable to deny a survivor's request for the burial of a parent, a request that would not have been denied had the deceased and the survivor been white?

It took almost a century for the truth of what had happened in 1897 and 1898 to emerge. It was only in 1993 that the remains of the four Inuit who died in New York were sent to Qaanaaq, Greenland, for burial. Today the museum claims that it finally decided to send the skeletal material back not as a result of adverse publicity, but following an inventory of their holdings of north Greenland material. If this is the case, then why did they return only the bones of these four Inuit, who died in their care? They made no effort to return the bones of another Inuit family, the family of Qujaukitsoq, which they purchased from Robert Peary in 1896, shortly after their deaths. When my book was first published in the 1980s, the museum could have made things right quite simply through a brief statement. It should have read something like this: "The actions alleged in Give Me My Father's Body happened. We regret that they happened. None of the people responsible for these actions are with the museum today, or even alive. Today we are an enlightened institution and such things would not happen. We are sorry."

Give Me My Father's Body by Kenn Harper is published this week by Profile Books (Pounds 9.99).

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