Heyoka’s Workbench

Kayaks and Umiaks

[…] dann aber wird vielleicht niemand mehr zurückbleiben, um Grönland zu bevölkern. […] Aber in den langen Winternächten werden die Toten ihren glänzenden Reigen tanzen über dem ewigen Todesschweigen ihres Schneelandes.

Judging by his stern, almost grim features, one will not readily attribute these sad, poetic lines to Fridtjof Nansen. And yet they are taken from the German version of his book »Eskimoliv« (Eskimo Life) published in 1891.

Nansen spent several months with the natives of Greenland and looked at them with sincere affection and admiration. He became one of their earliest advocates and warned against destroying their culture and their very means of coping with the harsh conditions of the arctic.

Today, however, it’s not unlikely that his book gets removed from our libraries and from public awareness. – Why? Because it has the wrong title. It has the word Eskimo printed on its cover and that’s a no-go. At least in Germany where there was a debate (in itself perfectly reasonable) about whether or not this term should be used. This debate followed a pattern all too common to recent public controversies: in a short time, it got dominated by a very loud and very self-assured (though not necessarily well-informed) minority who forced an end to the discussion by decreeing that the word Eskimo be forbidden and replaced by Inuit and that only racists, neo-nazis and other villains could possibly disagree.

Which makes Nansen’s book a problematic book, right? Something you’d better not touch (just to be on the safe side). The voice of a true friend of the arctic natives might thus become lost for us – because we’ve grown accustomed to preferring labels over content and good-vs-evil simplifications over the complexities of life.

(The sketch is inspired by an old photograph in the book »The Native Americans« by Salamander Books, London, 1991.)

Sketch “Kayaks and Umiaks in West Greenland around 1890”, inspired by an old photo.