Monday, January 5, 2009

A Final Measure of Kindness

Jim Harrison once professed that "to publish is to rid ourselves of a burden and offer it to someone else, pleasant or not . . . to present experiences that were more fully realized in the writing." I like that! I guess this is what I am trying to do with these weekly offerings that are becoming less and less random. True, I jump around from topic to topic, but I find myself thinking long and hard about what I am writing. So far I have received a number of very nice comments from my readers who seem to look at these little memoirs as pleasant diversions and not at all as a burden. I can only hope this is true and I am pleased that you think so. So let me wish all of you a Happy New Year and offer you something just a little bit different this week.

I have long been interested in Arctic and Antarctic exploration. Just over a year ago I came upon a wonderful compendium of writings on the subject - The Ends of the Earth, edited by Elizabeth Kolbert. And this past June I attended a literary conference held at Bowdoin College, in Brunswick Maine, and I took the opportunity to visit the Peary-MacMillan Arctic Museum and Arctic Studies Center on campus. Named in honor of Robert E. Peary (Class of 1877) and Donald B. MacMillan (Class of 1898), the museum includes interesting exhibits on Arctic exploration as well as on the Inuit cultures of Labrador and Greenland. The museum had recently opened an exhibit, "Northward Over the Great Ice: Robert E. Peary and the Quest for the North Pole," to celebrate the centennial of the 1908-1909 Peary expedition to reach the North Pole. I have read about Peary’s exploits, but neither the museum exhibit nor Peary’s writings tell the sad tale of a young Inuit boy Peary brought to the United States only to abandon him in a strange and foreign land.

The quiet Indian Stream valley is situated hard against the Canadian border in far northern New Hampshire. It is another one of my favorite places on earth and I have been coming to this region regularly for several years now. Although it seems typical of many isolated New England backwoods, it has a strange history and is the source of some fascinating stories. I will be writing more about this beautiful valley, but today I want to focus on the story of Minik, an Inuit from Greenland whose strange fate is bound to this quiet valley. I first heard this story during one of my early visits to the Indian Stream and since then I have tried to ferret out more details . . . to separate the truth from the myth. There were several versions of the story, depending on what one reads or to whom one speaks. A local historian Ellsworth Bunnell from Colebrook, New Hampshire, wrote an interesting profile on Minik back in 1969, but he passed away before I had a chance to talk to him. The best source of information, therefore, surfaced with the 2000 publication of Give Me My Father’s Body: The Life of Minik, the New York Eskimo, by Kenn Harper, a noted Canadian Arctic historian and ethnologist.

At the southern end of Indian Stream valley, where the meandering stream flows into the upper Connecticut River, there are two roads which give limited access to the area. The main one, for the lack of a more imaginative name, is known as Indian Stream Road and it parallels the stream for much of its course toward the height of land defining the international boundary. The other is Tabor Road, named after a prominent valley family, which runs only a mile or two past a couple of the remaining dairy farms in this region and up to the cut through a forested ridge known as Tabor Notch. From the top of this ridge one can look out over the hills and farms of the Eastern Townships of Québec. Wedged between Tabor Road and the stream is the small but well-groomed Indian Stream Cemetery. It is encircled with a simple metal fence and there is one large monument in the center which marks the Tabor family plot. The rest of the gravestones are rather plain, belonging to families who have lived in this valley since the 18th century. Probably one of the simplest and nondescript of these markers, located near the back fence and with a nice view of the stream, is that of Mene (Minik) Wallace who was buried here in October 1918. The local folks did not know very much about this young man who came to live and work among them. In fact, there was no stone to mark the grave until some 60 years after Minik died. No one alive today remembers him.

Of course, Minik was not from the Indian Stream valley nor did he live there very long. Nevertheless, his life is bound to this quiet valley through a strange and rather tragic series of events leading to his death at the young age of twenty eight. Minik was born circa 1890 near Cape York, in northwestern Greenland. In 1897, in the wake of his extensive trips across Greenland during which he studied and documented Inuit culture and traditions while attempting to become the first person to reach the North Pole, noted Arctic explorer Robert Peary brought Minik and five other Inuit, including his father Quisuk, to the United States, along with the Cape York Meteorite which Peary had located three years earlier. Bringing living representatives of Inuit culture to New York should have been an anthropological coup for Franz Boas and the Museum of Natural History. Frequently arctic explorers used the indigenous people for logistical support for their expeditions, but Peary promised to bring Inuit back to the United States where they could be studied more completely. Unfortunately Boas and the museum were not prepared to assume responsibility for its new charges and they were unceremoniously quartered in a dimly lit room in the museum’s basement. Before departing Greenland, Peary promised the Inuit they would be returned home the following year, but within a few weeks most of them had become sick and were taken to Bellevue Hospital.

The museum asked Peary to help it deal with Inuit he had brought there unannounced, but Peary had moved on to other matters and he never replied. All but two of the Inuit eventually fell victim to diseases they had never known back in the Arctic. Quisuk, Minik’s father, was the first to die in early 1898, and his brain and internal organs were removed for study at Bellevue. His skeleton was stripped of its flesh and returned to the museum to join the other Inuit bones Peary had surreptitiously disinterred from the local burial grounds in Greenland. A mock funeral and burial of Quisuk were held at the museum for his young son’s benefit, but his father’s skeleton was eventually mounted and placed on public display.

William Wallace, the museum’s superintendent, took Minik and the other Inuit to his farm in Upstate New York hoping their health and circumstances might improve. Nevertheless, all but Minik and a single adult eventually died and their bones returned to the museum to join those of Quisuk. The surviving adult Inuit returned to Greenland on a subsequent expedition led by Peary, but Minik, orphaned in a strange land (his mother had died before he left Greenland), was eventually adopted by Wallace and raised as a member of his family. For a couple of years he lived the life of an average American youth. He attended school and did those things any boy his age might do. But his happiness was short-lived. Wallace was fired from the museum and his wife died shortly thereafter and Minik joined his stepfather living in dire straits in New York. To make matters worse, in 1907 he learned the true fate of his father’s remains. Wallace and others came to Minik’s aid, hoping to find support for the youngster while assisting him in his attempt to return to his native land along with his father’s bones. Wallace asked Peary to take Minik home on his next expedition to Greenland in the summer of 1908, but Peary refused, saying there was not enough room on his ship to accommodate him. His father’s bones would remain at the museum.

In 1909, Minik set off for Greenland on his own with hardly a dollar to his name; he had been in the United States for 12 years yet he had nothing to show for his life here. He made it as far as Labrador before he returned to New York where his plight and his desire to retrieve his father’s bones drew national media attention, often at Peary’s expense with allegations that he had not actually reached the North Pole in April of that year as he had claimed. Peary finally agreed to take Minik back to the isolation of northern Greenland in return for his promise never to return to the United States.

When he returned home Minik found himself a stranger in a strange land for a second time. He could no longer speak his native language and he was unaccustomed to the ways of his people. He eventually adjusted to his new life but it was hard and he missed the life he had come to know in New York despite its deprivations. Irrespective of the promise made to Peary, Minik returned to New York in late 1916, but it was a different country than the one he left behind seven years earlier. Few were interested in him or his efforts to reclaim his father’s bones. He worked a series of odd jobs and talked again of returning to Greenland. But he never did.

Tired of life in New York, Minik struck out for New England during the winter of 1917 and eventually found a job in a primitive logging camp on the Upper Connecticut River. Alton Hall, a local farmer and logger who worked with Minik, invited the young Inuit man to come live with his family near Indian Stream. Minik found a small measure of happiness in northern New Hampshire, but for a second time his happiness would be short lived. A Spanish Flu epidemic spread through northern New England and Minik and several members of the Hall family died in October 1918.

In 1993, the Museum of Natural History sent the bones of Quisuk and the other Inuit back to Greenland for a proper burial. Minik’s bones were not among them. To this day he lies buried and nearly forgotten in the quiet little cemetery on the banks of Indian Stream surrounded by those who showed him a final measure of kindness. Each time I return to that valley I spend a few minutes by the small stone marking Minik’s grave and I think back to something Minik once wrote in a letter to a friend: "I don't think both ends and the middle of the Earth are worth the price that has been paid to almost find one pole."

NEXT WEEK: The Games Children Play

1 comment:

  1. Very well written and informative!