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This is the electronic version of Erik Gant: "Good and Bad Eskimos". Centre for Cultural Resarch, University of Aarhus.

The pagination of the printed edition is shown with red numbers (number at the start of every page).

ISBN: 87-7725-231-4

Published electronically: February 24, 1999

© Erik Gant 1999. All rights reserved. This text may be copied freely and distributed either electronically or in printed form under the following conditions. You may not copy or distribute it in any other fashion without express written permission from me. Otherwise I encourage you to share this work widely and to link freely to it. 

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Erik Gant

Good and Bad Eskimos

The following notes treat what I consider to be the fate of the remote country and its inhabitants, namely to be discovered time and time again - to be discovered, in a sense in which, besides discovery, you can also speak of salvage and conversion. I would especially like to focus on the duplicity of these concepts, very much in line with what James Clifford in his article "On Ethnographic Allegory" has written about so-called salvage ethnography. In this article, Clifford designates ethnographic writing - and generally all writing occupied with bringing experience and discourse into writing - a kind of life in death, a peculiar complex of rescue and irretrievable loss by way of producing texts.This double movement - in a most concrete, geographical way composed of an orientation towards the north and from there towards the east - I would like to exemplify by way of two texts, both of them authorised, you might say, by Knud Rasmussen, one dating from 1907, the other from 1934. In the first of these, the book Under Nordenvindens Svøbe (Under the Scourge of the North Wind), Knud Rasmussen tells of his discovery of the East Greenlanders in 1904, not in Eastern Greenland, but in West Greenland - they are, in Rasmussen’s interpretation, fugitives, who, driven by dire need and fear, have decided to seek refuge on the civilised coast.

With these people at hand, Rasmussen finds excellent occasion for confronting the myth of the peaceful Eskimo, a myth, that is, in the sense of a misrepresentation, a much too one-sided view, according to Rasmussen: "The mind of the Eskimo may be calm and sunlit like the water of the deep, warm fjords on a summer day. But it may also be wild and merciless like the ocean itself, eating its way into his land.". Now, what Rasmussen sees in these wild men and women is not just complex characters but something much more extreme, namely disturbed duplicity, expressing the dying twitch of an isolated tribe, as Rasmussen conceives of it. Or, rather the fugitives from all this, all the misery of their native coast, as they relate it to Rasmussen, "[..] giving a most garish picture of the disintegration of a small community. Rarely have more brutish deeds been performed by people who by nature had innocent hearts; never has waste, isolation, and spiritual stagnation driven good people to such insane cruelties."

I will go a little further into the details of this horror, but first remark in general on its seemingly all-pervading, uncontrollable character, indeed, its duplicity. On the one hand, I should like to see it as springing from the event of discovery, every new discovery being yet another salvation and yet another conversion, and the ethnographic mission being a conversion of the Christian conversion, at least in part, since nothing behaves in a holistic manner here - since the ethnographic mission is split by being a part of the civilising mission, and so will want both to save and to replace the original culture. The trick, therefore, will consist in seizing the cultural meanings at the very moment they are thrown away by the natives; the otherness must be made to speak in its dying twitch.

On the other hand, converting this perspective, in Rasmussen’s view you have the same sense of dangerous, wild uncontrollability, but here it springs from the thing itself, from the mouths of the nearly unspoilt, newly baptised aboriginals. And Rasmussen has absolutely no reason to doubt the truthfulness of what he hears. The refugee East Greenlanders have, so he reckons, an honest desire to tell the truth, and in this way free themselves from their horrible past. In this way the heathen truth, the horrible reality, will pass through the hands of the missionary, on to the ethnographer, with absolution going the other way, to be bestowed on the penitent in return.

So Rasmussen can ensure the reader that, certainly, he has not been making literature on the information he has obtained from the East Greenlanders. This, in fact, he stresses, is not literature; it is not something made up. What one, then, must probably conceive of is a double literature, a literature that is not literature, but something else, raw meat and blood - something very substantial that, even as it is being crossed over by writing, is not struck out by it, but on the contrary, is overwhelming the writing with its substance and securing its truth.

And with the mention of raw flesh and blood I’m into the details of the matter, the brutishness and mercilessness, in fact the murderousness, spreading among the members of the isolated tribe, degenerating and decreasing in number in their hostile and inhuman, icepacked environment. In particular, the details concern the procedure that the murderer had to follow in order not to be haunted by the spirit of the slain enemy, a procedure that included cutting the dead body into pieces and eating the heart, which is to say: unauthorised behaviour in every sense.

This is what Rasmussen hears from his informants, and the latter even point out one Autdârutâ, a former shaman, as a serial killer, who has himself now fled from the horror and converted to Christianity, and to be on the safe side, it seems, has even received the name Christian. This man, Christian Poulsen, Rasmussen befriends, and they travel together in the colonial district of Julianehaab. At a certain point, again seemingly to be on the safe side, in a safe place, namely the loft of a church where they lodge for the night, Rasmussen dares to ask Christian about the murders he is said to have committed. Christian admits to having killed people, but in his own view, they had all deserved it, and in no case had he killed out of sheer bloodthirst but only out of a sense of duty toward the community.

Nonetheless, as Rasmussen later hears, Christian, to ease his conscience, would go to the local priest to confess, and one wonders only if this priest is identical with the missionary who had baptised the wild man, but who even so, still felt extremely uneasy in the presence of this, as you could say, incarnation of duplicity, the christianised devil.

The fabulous character of Christian/Autdârutâ reappears in connection with my second example: the film The Wedding of Palo (Denmark, 1934, directed by Friedrich Dalsheim), which was shot in Angmagssalik during the 7th Thule-Expedition lead by Rasmussen in 1933. This expedition was to be his last, as he died of illness shortly after returning to Denmark and before the release of the film in 1934. He had intended it to be the first of a trilogy of films, the two others to be filmed in Thule and in Southwest Greenland respectively, so that the whole trilogy - by starting with the most recently discovered, least developed part of the country - was to document the development of Greenland from prehistoric Inuit culture to modernised society.

Rasmussen’s premature death would inevitably turn the Wedding of Palo into a monument to his life-work in the Danish colony, and consequently the film - at least in one of its circulating versions - was affixed with a newsreel-like sequence, a kind of behind-the-scenes introduction to the film, bearing witness to Knud Rasmussen’s status as a great national hero, showing him in action during the filming. In one of the shots of this introductory sequence, Rasmussen is seen together with Christian Poulsen, presumably consulting him on pre-contact matters .

The film itself is a fictional love-story involving three persons: the hero Palo and the villain Samo, competing for the love of the heroine Navarana. Rasmussen was very concerned with the correctness of the ethnographic present, that is, the authentic Eskimo community before the coming of the white man. The film had to be, at all costs, true to life, as the expedition report has it. But the film also had to make money, and this was equally as important: to the Palladium Film company financing the film, as well as to Knud Rasmussen, who needed it to finance more expeditions and more films. And these two concerns pointed to the love story, something that, on the one hand, would be able to kindle the imagination of a large audience and, on the other hand, would show the Eskimos as fully capable of feeling and expressing universal human feelings such as love, jealousy and hate, even, indeed, in a pure and unspoiled form.

In this regard, "The Wedding of Palo" can be seen as an attempt to refute the opinion of Robert Flaherty, who once, in a BBC radio interview, said that "[films] are well-suited to portraying the lives of primitive people whose lives are simply lived and who feel strongly, but whose activities are external and dramatic rather than internal and complicated. I don’t think you could make a good film of the love affairs of an Eskimo … because they never show much feeling in their faces, but you could make a very good film of Eskimos spearing a walrus." And, of course, this was what Flaherty himself had done with his famous film Nanook of the North (1922), restricting himself to shots of Nanook hunting walrus, building a snow hut, biting a gramophone record, and not showing much feeling apart from the standard expression of good-natured cheerfulness, the Eskimo smile.

So, from a viewpoint like Flaherty’s you would see a kind of natural connection between the filming of Eskimos and the film as document, implicating, as regards Rasmussen’s film, a conflict between his two concerns, the ethnographical and the commercial, a conflict that in many ways the film does, indeed, seem to represent. The Danish film critic, Ebbe Iversen, has characterised it as a documentary disguised as a fiction film, but you might just as well view it as being the other way around - or you might view it as two films, two different kinds of film, edited together as best as could be - one film being the folkloristic document that, spectacular as it might be, in Rasmussen’s view nonetheless had to be supplemented by the other film, the fictional drama, resulting in this feature in which, among other things, the incidental music and sound - the singing and drumming of the East Greenlanders (actually dubbed back in Copenhagen by Greenlanders who happened to be in town around 1933-34) - interchanges and mixes with the film’s musical accompaniment, the neoromantic symphonic music by the Danish composer Emil Reesen.

Here I will limit myself to discussing one scene, about half way through the film: the scene of a drumsong contest between the two rivals Palo and Samo. The contest and the scene end with Samo, overcome by anger, stabbing Palo with a knife.

Now, this kind of traditional contest, according to the ethnographic evidence, would occasionally turn into a violent affair, since the contestants were not restricted to lampooning each other in song, but could also smash the forehead into the opponent’s face. Samo, however, is clearly overstepping the line, effectively establishing himself as the villain of the story, by resorting to the kind of unauthorised action described in the first example, Rasmussen’s 1907-book. Still, from reading this book and from other ethnographic sources, you would expect Samo to finish the job, cut up the body of his slain enemy, eat the heart, etc.. And this, needless to say, the film could not indulge in, not to mention the fact that it would put an end to the drama. Instead, the seriously wounded Palo is allowed to crawl away and into bed, so that eventually he can recover, defeat the villain and win the heroine in the end.

Even so, I do not think that you have to see in this only the issue of truth versus money doubling itself in other distinctions such as, for example, objectivity versus feelings, documentation versus fiction. This, no doubt, is to some degree the case. But equally as important, I suggest, is the question of Eskimo feelings and Eskimo behaviour posing itself within ethnographic as well as within fictional discourse, within documentary as well as within commercial discourse; what you see is the problematics of Eskimoness reflecting itself in different discourses.

As mentioned above, Rasmussen wanted to show that the Greenlanders were basically just human beings, driven by basic human needs and wishes, feeling human feelings, such as love, jealousy and hate. On the other hand, precisely due to their basicness, they must necessarily be very different from the ordinary civilised western audience, so far removed from the basics; and this difference from the European had to be truthfully recorded. This can be seen as an ethnographical problematics, or if you prefer, a play on likeness and difference. And it is this play that can be said to repeat or reflect itself, so that, in commercial terms, you would speak of a need to strike a balance between, on the one hand, a difference that would attract and fascinate a western audience, and, on the other hand, a likeness that would make the spectacle understandable, probable, realistic, that is, not so different as to be repulsive or incomprehensible.

So, in this way, the give and take, as you could call it, between different aspects can be seen as concerning conflicts within the different discourses, a conflict or, as I have suggested as a keyword, a duplicity, that in the ethnographical discourse takes the form of a constant fluctuation between a primitivistic and a Darwinian, evolutionistic perspective. And this fluctuation can be observed from the beginning, that is, from the description by Gustav Holm, the Danish marine officer officially recognised as the first discoverer of the Ammassalik people. Having spent the winter with this people, Holm concluded thus: "They are lively and gifted with great imagination. They are polite, hospitable, and pliable in their behaviour towards each other, but at the same time careful not to offend, reserved, and suspicious. Deeper feelings such as love, affection, or friendship are seldom encountered."

In this late-nineteenth century, colonialist description, the benevolent picture of the rather agreeable people is undermined by the explanation that their politeness, etc. is grounded on suspiciousness, and ultimately on a lack of deeper feelings. In the 20th century, the descriptions of the Eskimos have in the main taken the benevolent course, so that the picture of the peaceful Eskimo, living in harmony with his fellows and overcoming the hardship of the arctic environment by way of ingenuity - this primitivistic perspective has predominated over the evolutionistic perspective of Gustav Holm’s description. Even so, the suspicion that the peacefulness, harmony, etc. of the Eskimo might rest on some insufficiency or backwardness kept lurking in the back of the ethnographer’s head, occasionally coming to the fore. For example, Kaj Birket-Smith, ethnographer and geographer on Knud Rasmussen’s expedition to Canada in the first half of the 1920s, would, in his book about the Eskimos, from 1927, write the following description, which I quote from a much later reprint: "Often true love exists between spouses, especially, maybe, as they grow older, and toward their children they always show the greatest tenderness." This statement is, I think, only meaningful in a context that includes the earlier statements about the Eskimos being emotionally somewhat superficial, so that Birket-Smith’s humanism at this particular point comes about simply by replacing the word seldom with the word often (and even always in regard to children).

So, whereas in the first example, the book Under Nordenvindens Svøbe, Rasmussen was preoccupied with correcting a primitivistic fallacy, here, in the second example, he seems, conversely, to be correcting its supplement, the intimations of an emotional lack that mumble in the discourse on the Eskimos. The Eskimos, Rasmussen argues, have deep and true feelings, and what is more, they show them; this part of the argument, of course, is related to the filmic medium; this is where he parts with Robert Flaherty, who would not deny that his Eskimos felt strongly, but would maintain that they didn’t show it, at least not in their faces, not in a close-up.

When Rasmussen takes this stand by deciding to try his hand on an Eskimo love affair on film, that is, when he allows Eskimos to show, to live out, their feelings, at the same time he calls attention to - and seeks to overcome - the discrepancy between, on the one hand, the dramatic actions of people driven by strong emotions, (possibly, the argument would go, with an emotional strength and authenticity that the modern, reified audience can only long for) and on the other hand, the picture of a peaceful, harmonious people. The film is trying to have it both ways, allowing deep, strong feelings to be enacted. But only to a certain degree, only to the extent that idyll and peace will ultimately be restored after the expulsion of the dangerous, aggressive element. And this, many will say, is what the myth is all about - with myth here coming to the rescue and resolving, absolving, you could even say, the ethnographic predicament.

All this reflection and doubling, as I call it, between and within the different discourses, can - and indeed should - also be seen as ordered by the nationalistic and colonialist context that Rasmussen and his expedition were a part of. Rasmussen’s depiction of his East Greenlanders here in The Wedding of Palo as a basically and naturally peaceful and harmonious people, occasionally driven to excessive displays of strong emotions - this image is very much informed by the nationalist-colonialist context, as is the much grimmer, demonising description of the isolated east Greenland tribe of the book Under Nordenvindens Svøbe, describing a tribe nearing extinction, due to a sort of conspiracy of a number of factors, mainly the harsh, inhuman natural conditions, hardening and brutalising the natives, threatening the tribe with starvation, possibly inbreeding, and widespread murderousness.

This picture, of course, was very much in line with a colonial discourse concerned with legitimising Danish claims to the territorium, centering on the argument that, certainly, no one would have survived had it not been for Danish colonisation, whereby law and order were introduced and the sea of natural brutality calmed. And so, what we have is a context in which the image of the East Greenlanders, the aboriginal Eskimos, fluctuates between the mainly idyllic image of natural civility in The Wedding of Palo and the mainly demonised image of the 1907-book, and with both of these images fluctuating between being a before and an after the coming of the white man.

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