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Manitoba History: Review: Gisli Palsson, Travelling Passions: The Hidden Life of Vilhjalmur Stefansson

by Christopher Trott
St. John’s College, University of Manitoba

Number 51, February 2006

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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Gisli Pálsson, Travelling Passions: The Hidden Life of Vilhjalmur Stefansson Translated from the Icelandic by Keneva Kunz Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 2005, 374 pages. ISBN: 0887551793, $39.95 (hardcover)

In recent years, the work of Vilhjalmur Stefansson and the Canadian Arctic Expedition (1913-1918) has become a veritable publishing industry. In 1991, the diaries of anthropologist Diamond Jenness were published (Jenness 1991), in 2001 the diaries of Vilhjamur Stefannson (Pálsson, 2001), in 2004 a biography of George Wilkins (photographer) based on his diaries (Jenness, 2004). Now Gisli Pálsson has brought us a further biography of Stefansson. Why this continued fascination with this expedition and its enigmatic and charismatic leader?

Vilhjalmur Stefansson was born in Arnes, Manitoba (where there is a monument to him today), the son of one of the early Icelandic settlers to Manitoba. While he was a child, the family moved to North Dakota and Stefansson lived for most of the rest of his life in the United States. He became well known as an Arctic explorer and anthropologist, working in the Western Arctic among the Inupiat of Alaska, the Inuvialuit of the Mackenzie Delta region, and most famously for “discovering” the so-called “blonde Eskimos”, now known as the Copper Inuit of Dolphin and Union Straits and Victoria Island. In the days before extensive public support of research, Stefansson had to fund his work through selling articles and giving lectures. In this, Stefansson was a brilliant publicist and promoter, grabbing international headlines with his work. He undertook three expeditions to the Western Arctic, the first in 1906 - 1907 as the anthropologist on the Anglo-American Polar Expedition, the second in 1908 - 1912 on the Stefansson - Anderson Expedition, and the third in 1913 - 1918 as the leader of the Canadian Arctic Expedition. Originally, the Canadian Arctic Expedition was funded by American museums, but the Canadian government of the day perceived a threat to Canadian sovereignty over the Arctic islands and agreed to pay for the entire expedition itself. After the 1913 - 1918 Expedition, Stefansson became a well known writer and consultant promoting the idea of the “friendly arctic”, arguing that with appropriate preparation, Europeans could comfortably live in the Arctic and take advantage of the many resources available there. He inundated Ottawa with schemes to exploit the arctic (such as polar route air service and submarine exploration under the arctic ice cap), most of which were far-fetched in his day, but oddly enough, have since been realized.

Stefansson was a shameless self-promoter who was clearly an engaging and dynamic speaker and a wonderfully clear and lucid writer. Such self-promotion was born of the necessity to make a living out of his work, but in the process the quality and credibility of his work suffered. His “scientific” anthropological output is slim: one report for the American Museum of Natural History which was never finished and had to be completed for him by the museum director (he was away on another expedition at the time) and the rather peculiar ethnography, My Life with the Eskimo (1913), which reads more like a travelogue than an ethnographic report. His claim to have found “blonde Eskimos” (he hypothesized that they were descended from the Vikings that had settled in the arctic) was never substantiated. The Canadian Arctic Expedition was fraught with problems, not the least of which was the sinking of the ship, Karluk, with some of the crew and scientists on board. Stefansson’s own responsibility in the disaster has never been clearly established. Stefansson left the ship on a hunting expedition in the fall of 1913 while it was trapped in ice and never returned as the vessel began to drift westward in the ice towards Siberia. Further, there was an early dispute between the scientists on the expedition and Stefansson over the rights to each person’s diaries and field notes. Stefansson argued that he, as leader of the expedition, had all rights to the material and could determine when and where it would be published. Naturally, the scientists demurred, probably fearing that this would limit their own publications and careers.

Pálsson’s account does not pretend to be a definitive biography of Stefansson because, as he admits, there are already a number of fine biographies (and an autobiography) available. Rather, Pálsson brings new evidence to light that may help us to better understand this complex man. Pálsson is writing in the context of contemporary anthropology, which has been reviewing the work of the founders of the discipline and asking just how and in what context did they collect the data that make up the classical ethnographies within the discipline? This approach questions the intellectual and social upbringing of anthropologists to unearth the assumptions they may have brought to their work. In addition, it examines closely the relationships these anthropologists had in the field to determine exactly from whom and in what context they collected their data. Historically, anthropologists have claimed an objective neutrality in the collection of their field material, however, more recent thought emphasizes the influence of the researcher themselves on the collection of such material. While this is the context in which Pálsson initially wrote the book, its scope is actually far wider.

Vilhjalmur Stefansson, circa 1918.

Vilhjalmur Stefansson, circa 1918.
Source: Library and Archives Canada, V. Stefansson 2, N13585.

Pálsson is able to bring two new sets of evidence to the discussion. The first is the fortuitous discovery of a collection of letters (albeit incomplete) from Stefansson to his fiancée, Cecil Smith (of Toronto), and the second is a series of interviews that Pálsson himself conducted with Stefansson’s grandchildren in Inuvik. Together, this evidence provides profound insight into Stefansson’s work. To balance the account, Pálsson also looks at Stefansson’s long term affair with novelist Fannie Hurst and his marriage late in life to Evelyn Nef (of less interest to this reviewer).

Pálsson establishes that while he was engaged to Cecil Smith, Stefansson had an intimate relationship with an Inuvialuit woman, Pannigabluk; intimate enough that the couple had a son, Alex. While Stefansson’s relationship was well known in the North both to Inuvialuit (their cultural mores provide no reason to deny it) and northern administrators (Alex always used Stefansson as his last name), Stefansson himself consistently denied any such relationship. Pannigabluk is virtually erased from Stefansson’s published accounts, and while she appears frequently in his diaries, no mention is made of any relationship between the two. A critical entry that may provide insight into the relationship is crossed out in such a way that even Vatican palaeography experts cannot decipher it (p. 109)! Stefansson is listed as Alex’s father in the Anglican baptismal records of the time. Pálsson goes into careful detail to explore whether, at any time or to any person, Stefansson may have actually admitted the existence of his son in the North. The evidence is largely negative. This is despite the fact that he might have continued to support both Pannigabluk and Alex through a Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) account, although there are no HBC records to support this.

Why should we care about the sexual adventures of an anthropologist one hundred years ago? It is precisely because it is now clear that Pannigabluk acted as Stefansson’s primary cultural and linguistic interpreter, and that much of the data in Stefansson’s ethnography comes from Pannigabluk and her (evidently very strong) opinions. This means that the information that has been constituted as the baseline data on the Mackenzie Inuit is limited in scope, and raises the critical question of who was Pannigabluk and what was her position in Inuvialuit society? This is a much more difficult question to answer, but it now challenges researchers in the field to take into account this bias and re-read Stefansson’s work with new lenses.

Not only did Stefansson leave an important intellectual legacy in the south, he left an ongoing legacy in the North through his descendants there. Pálsson is the first researcher to approach Stefansson’s grandchildren and ask them what they know of their grandfather, and to explore Pannigabluk and Alex’s life after Stefansson left the north for good. The interviews with the Stefansson family reveal a great deal of bitterness over their lack of recognition and support, and especially over the way that Stefansson relied so heavily on Pannigabluk to survive in the arctic, all the while claiming in his written work that it was his own common sense that prevailed. More importantly, this is a good case study where the subjects of anthropological research are able to talk back to the Western intellectual tradition and provide a commentary on how anthropology has been conducted.

Pálsson’s book was originally published in Icelandic and has been translated into English. The Icelandic text included a great deal of geographic and historical information about Canada, which would be unfamiliar to Icelanders. Most of this information has been edited out of the Canadian edition, but occasionally there are comments in the text that would seem painfully obvious to many Canadian readers. At times, the text is stilted and pedantic (perhaps a function of the translation) and some readers may find the detail overwhelming.

Nevertheless, Travelling Passions is scholarship at its most fun. There is nothing like a little sex and intrigue mixed in with exploration and adventure to make a good read. The scholarship is thorough and original and the book is illustrated with numerous wonderful black and white pictures. Pálsson’s account provides sufficient background for those who are not familiar with the Stefansson story, but at the same time moves into new territory in both anthropological and historiographic research methods.

See also:

Memorable Manitobans: Vilhjalmur Stefansson (1879-1962)

Page revised: 12 March 2023

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