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The Fifth Thule Expedition: History

The Fifth Thule Expedition from Greenland to Siberia was led by Knud Rasmussen, and explored vast areas of the Arctic, setting a standard by which much later work was to be judged. Between September 7, 1921 and December 2, 1924, various members of the expedition traveled nearly 20,000 miles by dog team, collecting geographic and ethnographic information as well as some 20,000 artifacts. This was compiled into the ten-volume series Report of the Fifth Thule Expedition, which is still considered a classic reference for Arctic studies today.

Rasmussen's father was Danish, his mother one-quarter Inuit, and Knud himself was born in 1879 on the west coast of Greenland, speaking Greenlandic before he spoke Danish. He grew up running sled dogs across the ice, and expecting to be an explorer. In 1910, together with Peter Freuchen, he established the furthest north trading post in the world at Thule, in the Cape York district of Greenland. Seven major Arctic expeditions would be sponsored from this post between 1912 and 1933, known as the Thule Expeditions. The first four were to northern and eastern Greenland, surveying, collecting Inuit stories, and experiencing life among the peoples that Rasmussen met. By 1921, he was ready to begin the epic voyage known as the Fifth Thule Expedition, with the ultimate goal of tracing the origins of the Inuit people.

The Fifth Thule Expedition had been many years in the planning, perhaps from as far back as 1909, when Rasmussen wrote an article in Geografisk Tidsskrift proposing a Danish ethnographic expedition to the Central Inuit regions. This area, particularly to the north and west of Hudson Bay, had not yet been systematically investigated, although material obtained from casual collections, such as that of the whaler Captain George Comer, suggested a relationship between the early inhabitants of Southampton Island, North Greenland, and even Alaska. Hans P. Steensby had aroused interest in 1916 with his theory of Inuit origins, and it was felt by many that the clue to solving the puzzle lay with the Central Inuit.

Three different versions of the expedition were proposed between 1909 and 1921, before the final plan, described in Geografisk Tidsskrift, was put into action in 1921. The expedition was to sail from Copenhagen on May 25, 1921. The first stop would be Godthab, then north to Upernavik, in order to stock up on supplies and specialist Greenlandic equipment. The Polar Inuit (Inughuit) members and dog teams would be picked up from the post at Thule, and then the expedition would sail south to Holsteinborg and finally set out for Hudson Bay by August 22. Headquarters would be established, from which a number of trips would leave, collecting many kinds of data, but particularly ethnographic and archaeological material. The Thule Committee, comprising Marius Ib Nyeboe (chairperson), Chr. Erichsen, Johan P. Koch, Ad. S. Jensen, Carl H. Ostenfeld, and Thomas Thomsen, would look after the interests of the expedition from Denmark and King Christian X of Denmark would act as Protector to the Expedition.

Expenses were estimated to be 315,000 Danish kroner, of which the Danish Government granted 132,000 kr, and private contributions raised a sum of 13,500 kr. In fact, the final expenditure was around 800,000 kr, due to the high costs incurred while purchasing supplies from the Hudson's Bay Company on various long trips, an extension of the expedition to Alaska, and the employment of a film photographer for a part of the journey (Mathiassen, 1945). The Thule Station eventually paid the remaining 650,000 kr over the years raised partly from its trade in fox furs.

The final members of the Fifth Thule Expedition included Knud Rasmussen (leader and folklorist), Peter (cartographer and biologist) and Navarana (housekeeper) Freuchen, Therkel Mathiassen (archaeologist and cartographer), Kaj Birket-Smith (ethnographer and geographer), Helge Bangsted (assistant and secretary), Jacob Olsen (interpreter and secretary), Arqioq and Arnanguaq, Nasaitordluarssuk ("the Bo'sun") and Aqatsaq, Iggianguaq and Arnarulunguaq, Ajako, and Qavigarssuaq (the Polar Inuit), and Leo Hansen (film photographer).

The Fifth Thule Expedition officially sailed aboard the Bele on June 18, 1921, taking Rasmussen, Mathiassen, Birket-Smith, and the majority of the expedition's equipment to Greenland. The Freuchens, Bangsted, Olsen, and of course the Polar Inuit were already in Greenland and would be picked up from various locations there. After a series of disasters, including a shipwreck and the deaths of Navarana, Ajako, and Iggianguaq, the expedition finally left the shores of Greenland for Arctic Canada on September 7, 1921. Eleven days later, the S0kongen anchored in the bay of a small island, which was subsequently christened Danish Island, and the base camp was established. On September 24, the S0kongen sailed and the expedition members found themselves alone.

The scientific work soon began. The position of the base camp was fixed astronomically, meteorological records were started, and on short excursions about the island geological, botanical, and zoological specimens were gathered. These activities would continue throughout the entire expedition, resulting in vast amounts of data. Much of the work done by the Fifth Thule Expedition involved such long-term projects as mapping the areas traveled, taking meteorological observations, collecting specimens, and of course hunting and securing provisions for the expedition members and dog teams. Danish Island was discovered to be separated not from the mainland but from another larger island, meaning that there were two straits to be crossed on long journeys. This caused considerable difficulty, as travel by dog sledge was time consuming. Sea ice conditions had to be taken into account at all times, and could not always be predicted.

On November 26, when the ice was stable, Rasmussen, Freuchen, and the Bo'sun departed for the Hudson's Bay Company post on Repulse Bay, hoping to make contact with the local Inuit. On December 4, they met a band of Netsilik Inuit returning from Repulse Bay to Lyon Inlet, and Rasmussen noted the similarity in language around the circumpolar north, which would help to demonstrate the basic unity of all Inuit cultures.

On January 16, 1922 Birket-Smith and Olsen traveled south to Chesterfield Inlet to begin ethnographic investigations. From here, Birket-Smith journeyed to Baker Lake and stayed for six weeks studying the tribes who came from other areas to trade and carrying out anthropometric studies. On May 15, Rasmussen, Bangsted, and Qavigarssuaq joined him in a trip further south in search of the Caribou Inuit, three tribes who were described as purely inland oriented. By June 25, five separate inland settlements had been visited, ethnographic material had been collected, and Rasmussen had committed many local legends to writing.

Meanwhile, Mathiassen and Freuchen, accompanied by a local couple and several of the Polar Inuit, had left for Baffin Island on February 28, 1922, traveling through temperatures of -50°C. They reached Iglulik (Igloolik), the largest settlement in the area, on March 30. The final part of this journey was covered by Mathiassen on foot, as there were not enough dogs for him to have a sledge of his own. From Iglulik, the group split into two: Freuchen to map the unknown west coast of Baffin Land and Mathiassen to the head of Admiralty Inlet to map the southern half of the fjord complex there. Despite a shortage of food, and a bout of temporary snow blindness that afflicted Freuchen, both missions were completed successfully and the reunited party returned to Danish Island on May 29.

With the approach of summer, Mathiassen was able to begin archaeological excavations at an old settlement called Naujan in Repulse Bay. From June 14, he worked alone, until Olsen arrived on July 8. Altogether, 12 houses, 50 graves, and part of a large midden were excavated. Another two houses at Aivilik were excavated, 3000 artifacts were collected, the surrounding area was mapped, and, as usual, geological and botanical specimens were gathered. On August 14, they traveled with a group of Aivilik Inuit to Southampton Island to excavate sites of the now extinct Sadlermiut tribe. By September 1, when the ground had frozen, some 800 artifacts had been excavated from ruins at Kuuk. Unfortunately, it now proved impossible to cross back to the mainland, and the pair had to winter on the island, living with the Inuit, but with limited supplies and ammunition. They learned that, in ignorance, they had broken some of the tribe's taboos by digging in the ancient ruins, taking stone samples from the rocks, and smashing caribou skulls to eat the brains. Relations became tense, and shamans blamed the Danes for sickness in the tribe. One of the Inuit was overheard urging her husband to kill the strangers. Later a gun discharged, making six holes in Mathiassen's inner coat but luckily not harming him. Finally, they were rescued by Audlanak who had been sent by Rasmussen when Frozen Strait became passable, and they reached Danish Island on February 21, 1923.

On March 23, 1923, Birket-Smith and Olsen set out to study and collect specimens from the coastal Inuit south of Chesterfield Inlet, and to study the Chipewyan Indians around Churchill, who were the southern neighbors of the Caribou Inuit. They traveled along the coast, proceeding south to Eskimo Point. Conditions were poor, and there was little game, so that plans to journey further inland were abandoned. On July 9, they continued south to Churchill, where there was a Hudson's Bay Company post. On the 11th, they sailed aboard the Nascopie to York, where ethnographic specimens were obtained from the Cree Indians, and then traveled by canoe up the river to Kettle Rapids. From here, a train took them through Winnipeg, Ottawa, Montreal, and New York, and the final voyage to Copenhagen saw them arrive on September 25, 1923.

Mathiassen left Danish Island on March 22, 1923, traveling via Iglulik to Pond Inlet, which lay midway between Repulse Bay and Thule. Again, he walked much of the distance, leaving each camp early in the morning, being passed by the sledges, and catching up with them in the evening. In May, he began excavations at Pond Inlet and Button Point, and ethnographic studies of the local Tununermiut. Cartographic work, as always, was undertaken: in particular, ascending Mt Herodier and mapping the region with a theodolite. On September 16, Mathiassen sailed aboard the Nascopie for Labrador and Newfoundland, and then traveled back to Denmark via Montreal, Ottawa, and New York, arriving on October 30, 1923.

Peter Freuchen remained on Danish Island until June 6, 1923, when he traveled to Chesterfield to have a frostbitten toe amputated. While waiting for the doctor to arrive on the Nascopie, despite his impediment, he made cartographic observations and excavated some ancient house ruins. He returned to the sealing ground at Frozen Strait, where other members of the expedition had spent the summer, arriving on October 5. On December 2, everyone returned to Danish Island, and the process of closing the base camp began. Bangsted left on December 28, and the remainder of the gear was divided between four local Inuit who had worked for the expedition.

Freuchen and the Polar Inuit began their journey home via Pond Inlet on January 19,1924. The year was a bad one for many of the Inuit tribes, and as they traveled they heard stories of a shortage of game, and passed settlements of starving people. An attempt to travel from Pond Inlet to Thule via North Devon and Ellesmere Land had to be abandoned due to poor ice conditions, although they ventured as far as Admiralty Inlet. Spring arrived early, the thaw making travel difficult. The Bo'sun fell ill from blood poisoning, and so Freuchen and a young Inuit called Mala traveled alone to Pond Inlet from Admiralty Inlet, to be picked up by the S0kongen. Freuchen and Mala reached Pond Inlet on June 15, purchasing more archaeological specimens, before sailing for Admiralty Inlet on August 2, and for Melville Bay and Upernivik on August 7. Freuchen returned to Copenhagen on September 27, 1924.

Helge Bangsted reached Chesterfield on February 10, 1924, hoping to travel on to Baker Lake and supplement the collections from the Caribou Inuit. There was famine here too, however, and although he delayed his trip until the beginning of April, the situation did not improve. Having managed to collect a few more specimens, he returned to Chesterfield, and then aboard the Nascopie to Churchill via Kettle Rapids and thence through Winnipeg, Ottawa, Montreal, and New York, arriving in Copenhagen on September 30, 1924.

Rasmussen himself began his journey west on March 11, 1923. Traveling through Pelly Bay, Shepherd Bay, and Wellington Strait, he reached a settlement near Cape Adelaide, where he traded for ethnographic specimens, including many valuable amulets in exchange for locks of his own hair, which was thought to hold great powers of protection. The summer was spent on King William Land, where the Netsilik tribe gathered, and there were ruined settlements to be excavated. In October, he traveled to the east coast of the Adelaide Peninsula, building a cairn for relics of the Franklin Expedition. Continuing west, he passed Melbourne Island on November 13 and met members of the Kitdlinermiut from the Copper Inuit tribe. The next day, the expedition arrived at a Hudson's Bay Company post on the Kent Peninsula, where the film photographer Leo Hansen joined the party. Ethnographic work among the "Muskox People," another branch of Copper Inuit, concluded Rasmussen's investigation of the intellectual culture of the Central Inuit.

Now Rasmussen set out by sledge over 2200 km to the Mackenzie Delta, where he would meet the Western Inuit. He met the first Alaskan Inuit on March 3, 1924, who proved to be English-speaking trappers. By the 17th, they arrived on Baillie Island and met Inuit who seemed more similar to Greenlandic Inuit than to their Central Inuit neighbors. On May 23, they reached Pt Barrow, the northernmost point in Alaska, at the height of the whaling season. Leo Hansen remained behind to film the whaler's festival before traveling by ship to Nome. Rasmussen's sledge journey was completed at Icy Cape on June 8, 1924, having covered around 6000 km in 15 months. He proceeded by boat to Pt Lay, and then to Pt Hope, which was described as "the ancient center of Alaska's whaling," where a large collection of archaeological specimens was purchased. Finally, Rasmussen arrived at Nome on August 31, where Inuit from all parts of Alaska had gathered, and he was thus able to study many tribes.

On a brief visit to Whalen, in Siberia, Rasmussen failed to obtain the necessary passport to expand his studies to the USSR, although he did manage to collect information from two Inuit. Ironically, when he arrived back at Nome the necessary permission was awaiting him, but it was too late to return. Instead, Rasmussen traveled from Nome to Seattle, and on to New York and Copenhagen, arriving on December 2, 1924.

These three years of exploration resulted in ten volumes of description, as well as numerous supplementary works. The official report comprises: Volume 1, Report of the Expedition, Topography and Geology (Mathiassen, Birket-Smith, Teichert, and Laursen, 1946); Volume 2, Botany (Gr0ntved, Hesselbo, and Lynge, 1937); Volume 3, Linguistics and Anthropology (Fischer-M0ller, Birket-Smith, and Ostermann, 1941); Volume 4, Archaeology of the Central Eskimos (Mathiassen, 1927); Volume 5, The Caribou Eskimos, (Birket-Smith, 1929); Volume 6, Material Culture of the Iglulik Eskimos, Ethnographical Collections from the Northwest Passage, and Contributions to Chipewyan Ethnology (Mathiassen, 1928; Birket-Smith, 1930,1945); Volume 7, Intellectual Culture of the Iglulik Eskimos (Rasmussen, 1929), Observations on the Intellectual Culture of the Caribou Eskimos (Rasmussen, 1929) and Iglulik and Caribou Eskimo Texts (Rasmussen, 1929); Volume 8, The Netsilik Eskimos, Social Life and Spiritual Culture, (Rasmussen, 1931); Volume 9, Intellectual Life of the Copper Eskimos, (Rasmussen, 1932); and Volume 10, Eskimo Archaeology and Ethnology (Mathiassen, Ostermann, and Holtved, 1952).

The passing of 80 years has, of course, seen various critiques of the observations and studies made by the various members of the Fifth Thule Expedition. The theory of Rasmussen and Birket-Smith, for example, that the Eskimo culture originated somewhere in the northern interior of Canada and then spread east to Greenland and west to Alaska, was challenged as early as 1925 by Mathiassen and has not subsequently held up to further research. Other, more specific criticisms have been that "some of his transcriptions were wrong, his sampling was weak, his numbers do not always add up" (Kleivan and Burch, 1988).

Not all the material that was gathered was immediately published, and even the official report was written over a span of nearly 30 years. Rasmussen himself died in 1933, and thus did not see the final compilation. It has been noted that the posthumous publications, while of great value in themselves, would have benefited further from Rasmussen's personal insights and memories. Other technical problems have also been recognized; for example, Volume 2 notes in the preface that none of the expedition members were trained botanists, and field notes were brief, making it "impossible" to use the material fully. Despite this restriction, Volume 2 comprises nearly 600 pages.

Other issues arising from the expedition include their political impact. Not everybody viewed the collections of Inuit artifacts and skeletal remains in the light of their benefit to scientific knowledge. In 1990, an Inuit politician accused both Mathiassen and Rasmussen of grave robbery, and called for repatriation of grave gifts and human remains. The National Museum of Denmark, while pointing out that the actions of the explorers had been acceptable by the standards of their day (although not perhaps the standards of the Inuit themselves, as Mathiassen's adventure on Southampton Island illustrates), also expressed sympathy with the Inuit communities involved, and the material was returned to Naujat-Repulse Bay, Pond Inlet, and Arctic Bay (Hansen, 1997).

Despite these and other criticisms, the work that was done by the Fifth Thule Expedition remains a classic reference on the shelf of Arctic researchers, and was invaluable for its presentation of basic primary source material, which further studies continue to reference.

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