Review of GIVE ME MY FATHER'S BODY: The Life of Minik, the New York Eskimo.
by Kenn Harper. Foreword by Kevin Spacey.
Illustrated. 277 pp. South Royalton, Vt.:
Steerforth Press. $24.
Given the arrangements of power on the planet in the last few centuries, white men have had lots of chances to override the rights of other people with indifference. This does not mean that white men have a particular talent for oppression, but it does mean that they have had peculiar historical opportunities to develop, exercise and refine that talent.
Writing about this state of affairs can be risky. A move too far in one direction brings down upon the writer the accusation of bashing white men and romanticizing victims. A move too far in the other, and the writer is charged with celebrating injustice and ratifying a disturbing callousness. In ''Give Me My Father's Body: The Life of Minik, the New York Eskimo,'' Kenn Harper walks this tightrope with grace. A longtime resident of the Arctic who married into the community of Polar Eskimos, Harper tells the very sad and sometimes infuriating story of Minik Wallace, most of the time leaving it to his readers to allocate their own dosages of sorrow and anger. Originally self-published in 1986, the book has a new afterword recording developments that, in Harper's judgment, bring this parable of the unhappy alliance between scientific inquiry and imperialism to an appropriate ending.
In his search for the North Pole, Robert Peary used the Eskimos of northwestern Greenland, ''the most northern native inhabitants of the world,'' as the human resources for his explorations. ''These people,'' Peary wrote, deploying the favored phrasing of the imperialist, ''are much like children, and should be treated as such.'' In 1897, Peary took six villagers -- four adults and two children -- back with him to New York City, depositing them with the American Museum of Natural History and abandoning any responsibility for their care. Describing Peary's distancing of himself from these unfortunates, Harper uses the apt phrase ''washing his hands'' several times. Four of the Eskimos soon died from illness and infection in the first year. One returned to Greenland. The younger child, Minik, 6 or 7 at the time of his emigration, remained, orphaned and without countrymen.
Minik, however, became a member of the family of William Wallace, superintendent of buildings at the museum. Then the embroiling of Wallace in a scandal there, involving kickbacks from contractors, along with the death of Wallace's wife, Rhetta, drained most of the happiness from Minik's new life. He made various false starts at renewing his education; he dreamed of returning to Greenland and to his people; he took to imagining schemes for Eskimo leadership in the discovery of the North Pole.
And as an adolescent, Minik asked for the Museum of Natural History to release the skeleton of his father, Qisuk, so he could give him a proper burial. In an action that nearly defies belief, the museum had staged a fake burial, burying a cloth-swathed, human-sized log to trick the child into believing his father rested in the earth. In truth, the bodies of Qisuk and the other three Eskimos had become property owned by the museum.
In 1909, Minik returned to Greenland. He learned to hunt, and to hunt well; he relearned his native language; for a time, he lived as a married man. Perhaps most remarkably, he told tales about his life in the United States, recasting himself as a hotly pursued, ''tough and reckless outlaw'' who had escaped with a bounty on his head. Most poignant, having lived in New York yearning for Greenland, Minik now lived in Greenland and yearned for New York.
In 1916, he returned to New York, and, tellingly, on his first day back in the city he held a press conference, offering to sell inside Eskimo understandings of the contesting claims of Peary and Frederick Cook to the discovery of the North Pole. But, as Harper explains, Minik's timing was off; American attention was now on the start of World War I. And, as Harper further notes, ''the game was over in another sense, too. The newspapers did not take the same interest in Minik that they had a decade earlier, for he was no longer a wronged child but a grown adult.''
By 1917, Minik Wallace had found a job in a logging camp in northwestern New Hampshire. He became friends with Afton Hall, a local farmer, who brought him to his home in logging's off-season. Minik lived in considerable congeniality with the Hall family. In 1918, when he was stricken with the Spanish flu, Afton nursed him until his death, and buried him in a family plot.
In 1986, ''Give Me My Father's Body'' earned a hostile response from the natural history museum, which was determined to keep this unhappy story quiet. As Harper's afterword explains, the attention of two newspaper reporters stirred up public interest in 1992, leading the following year to the return of the other four Eskimos' bodies to the village in Greenland, and to their reburial. The plaque at their grave begins with the words ''Nunamignut uteqihut,'' ''which translates simply,'' Harper writes, as ''They have come home.'' Minik was allowed to remain in New Hampshire, the place where he had finally been, as Harper says, ''among friends.''
Altogether, Minik's ''tortured and lonely life,'' as Harper appropriately characterizes it, is one of the world's most melancholy stories. Literate and reflective, Minik left his own rich record of resentment: ''Why am I an experiment there and here?'' Minik, writing from Greenland, asked a friend in New York. Whites, he said, ''are the civilized men who steal, and murder, and torture, and pray and say 'Science.' ''
''It would have been better for me had I never been brought to civilization and educated,'' Minik told a reporter after his return to New York. ''It leaves me between two extremes, where it would seem that I can get nowhere.''
For the people back in Greenland, the reburial of the four Eskimos evidently counted for a lot. ''Among the Polar Eskimos,'' Harper reports, ''there is a profound sense of relief that the events that began over one hundred years ago are finally at an end.'' Readers will find this sense of completion and resolution striking. But they may find it hard to share.
Patricia Nelson Limerick is chairwoman of the Center of the American West at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and the author of ''Something in the Soil: Legacies and Reckonings in the New West.''