Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Book Review -- Give Me My Father's Body: The Life of Minik, The New York Eskimo

Arctic history is fascinating! Arctic prehistory is an amazing tale of endurance and triumph of the Inuit and their ancestors against the elements of nature. Its history a tale of endurance and survival against the colonization, greed, and "science" of those foreign to its frozen ground. I remember listening to the oral histories of elders in the eastern and western Canadian arctic. Their legends full of the mystical characters that helped or hindered their daily survival, blunt stories of harsh living but none compare to the harsh realities the Inuit faced in the new world of "discovery". As an anthropology student I recalled being appalled by the government led "extermination" plans involving the sterilization of Inuit women, the relocation and displacement of whole communities, residential schools and the forced model of a sedentary rather than nomadic lifestyle. Yes, Canada has its own "Trail of Tears". These are human stories, stories of a people continuing to endure hard times.

"Give Me My Father's Body: The Life of Minik, The New York Eskimo" is just such a story. The true story of a "Polar Eskimo" Minik, who was one of six Inuit individuals brought from Greenland to New York city in 1897 by Robert Peary, the famous arctic explorer. Peary presented these individuals as "specimens" for the American Museum of Natural History. Four of the Inuit "specimens" as they were called, died soon after arriving in New York, Minik's father among them. They died of exposure to influenza and inhumane treatment. Minik, a young boy of six or seven finds himself alone amid strangers The child is made a spectacle; an amusement to the public, an oddity, and a science experiment to doctors and scientists alike. Minik soon forgets the language and skills of his arctic homeland and is swallowed up by the callus, fickle society of the south. Twelve years he spends wandering through life as a stranger in a very strange land as a ward of science. His life is shaken and truly altered by the fateful discovery that his father's skeleton has been placed on display at the American Museum of Natural History! Imagine the horror! Minik desperately attempts to repatriate his father's body and to return home to the arctic. He discovers however that nowhere is home to an Inuit man who spent so many years in New York!

Author, Kenn Harper, a long time resident of the arctic, has lived in the Canadian Baffin region and Greenland. He speaks Inuktitut, the language spoken by the Inuit of the eastern Canadian arctic and has written widely about Inuit and arctic history. This book was originally published by Harper himself in 1986 but was rediscovered by actor Kevin Spacey, who incidentally wrote the forward to the republication in 2000. I am thankful that Spacey found the story compelling enough to prompt its republication for a wider audience. This story of "man's inhumanity to man", as Farley Mowat puts it, is a compelling read and one I will never forget!

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