Sunday, February 3, 2019

Do You See Ice?

Do You See Ice? 
Inuit and Americans at Home and Away
By Karen Routledge
Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2018, $50.00 (hardcover)

Reviewed by Russell A. Potter

Karen Routledge has written an extraordinary book, and she’s managed it by making a seemingly slight adjustment to the cultural spectacles through which the Arctic and its peoples, and those from elsewhere who have sojourned there, have been seen in their worlds, both familiar and strange. All too often, even the most seemingly modern and culturally “aware” books find themselves snared in the old truisms about the Arctic – its harsh, unyielding climate, its almost-malevolent ice, its isolation and apparent emptiness when compared with more temperate regions. She accomplishes this feat, remarkably, by making a sense of displacement her main theme – the displacement of whalers, following the lure of rich shares into a world they scarcely knew (and thus feared), and following Inuit who spent time in the “southern” world through their own experience of estrangement and display. Quite a few of these are accounts we’ve heard in some form or another, but never quite in this way.

Routledge is fortunate in that Cumberland Sound, the epicenter of her study, has so many stories of both kinds. It was, as she notes, brought to the attention of westerners by Eenoolooapik, who guided the Scots whaler William Penny to its shores in 1840. The subsequent discovery that overwintering there brought enormous advantages in the whale harvest led to a long period of mutual contact and cooperation, through which the bonds – material, cultural, and familial – between the Inuit and the whalers grew in strength and complexity, even as both remained in a sense strangers in each other’s lands. The experiences of whaling men who at first feared an uncertain time in an unknown land can thus be contrasted very directly with the alienation experienced by Inuit such as Ebierbing and Tookoolito, who were brought from Cumberland Sound to England in the 1850’s, and then to America and Greenland in their more than decade-long association with the explorer Charles Francis Hall.

The book is organized into four symmetrical, or rather parallel chapters -- "Americans in Cumberland Sound," "Inuit in the United States," "Americans and Inuit in the High Arctic," and "Inuit in Cumberland Sound." In the first, Routledge sets some of the experiences of early whalers against the Inuit cycles of the five seasons, from Aujaq (summer) to Upingaaq (spring). The device of using the Inuit seasons as the setting for the whalers' tales perfectly frames the double sense of these men and their unfamiliarity with all that was so deeply familiar to the Inuit. In one case, a small group of whalers who went AWOL from their ship -- something that happened more often than I'd realized -- becomes a cautionary tale as, even with some assistance from Inuit, they manage to have a pretty rough time of it, and surely those of them who lived, lived to regret their choice.

In the next chapter, the key figures are Ebierbing and Tookoolito, known to the whalers (and to Hall) as "Joe" and "Hannah." This is the most detailed and accurate account yet published of their time with Hall, and Routledge lays out all the complexities of their often-uneasy alliance with Hall and the Budingtons. She quite rightly points to the issue of the Qallunaat authoritarianism -- and expectation of obedience -- and its unfortunate intersection with the Inuit cultural tradition of avoiding confrontation. She illustrates this chapter with the posed photographs of the family taken in Groton, as well as with some of Hannah's drawings from the Hall papers. And she's right about the uneasy effects of authority -- you can feel it almost viscerally in a letter by Joe also in those papers (but not quoted in the book) -- although his command of English was less fluent than Hannah's, the sense he had of being bullied by the white man's loud demands comes through clearly:
2 years I stay Houdsons Bay try go King William Land then I give it up, meet 3 men from their tell me give it up make me afraid. Mr. Hall tease me all time make me go their never give it up. Next time I go like a soldier every body go so every body carry gun. 
The third chapter, the only one to depart from the Cumberland Sound region, deals mainly with the Greely expedition, mixing accounts of the alienation felt by the Inuit who accompanied them with Greely's men's own sad decline into starvation and cannibalism. It's perhaps the least of the chapters, but still quite strong -- and it's good to see a full account of the qivittoq, the lone and ghostly soul whose frightful isolation provides the cautionary opposite to the overall spirit of community and sharing intrinsic to Inuit life. The final chapter, happily, returns to the shores of Cumberland sound, offering some striking accounts from the time of first contact to the present, and entirely from the Inuit point of view.

It's wonderful to see that the author is donating the proceeds of the book to the Elders' Room at the Angmarik Center in Pangnirtung. When I visited the center last summer as historian to a group of expedition ship passengers, one of them asked "What do the Elders do in the Elders' room?" Our guide laughed, answering that they just talked, told stories, or sometimes played cards. This book, woven of their stories, ought to help support these basic pleasures for some time to come.

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