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Eccentric explorer Vilhjalmar Stefansson discovered the blond Eskimos

Posted in Discoveries, Exploration, Geography, Historical articles, History on Monday, 9 July 2012

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This edited article about Vilhjalmar Stefansson originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 744 published on 17 April 1976.

Vilhjalmar Stefansson, picture, image, illustration

Vilhjalmar Stefansson being attacked by a polar bear, by James E McConnell

Because there were so many great explorers whose names now belong to history, we tend to forget that there are just as many intrepid explorers belonging to our own times.

Because they did not set off in frail ships to find new continents their exploits may not seem so important, but the dangers they faced were real enough. In any case, exploration does not consist of simply going where no man has been before. It also includes going in a different manner from that of earlier travellers, and it also includes finding new tribes and races previously unknown to the outside world.

In that category we must include Vilhjalmar Stefansson, who proved that it was perfectly possible for a white man to travel through the Arctic regions for years on end, living only on the animals who live there. He also had the extraordinary experience of discovering a race of blond Eskimos.

Stefansson was a Canadian who had been brought up in the United States. As a young journalist he had visited the Eskimos living at the mouth of the Great MacKenzie River, and had become so fascinated by their way of life that he was thereafter to spend much of his life in the Arctic.

His great adventure began in the April of 1910, when he set off with three Eskimos from Langton Bay, an inlet in the Arctic Ocean, with the intention of exploring the great unknown wastes to the northeast.

It could hardly be called a well-organized expedition. His companions consisted of two young Eskimo men and an Eskimo woman, who seems to have been there mainly to do the cooking and mending. He had no good dogs, and only an old canvas tent full of holes to give them shelter from the bitter cold. All the males carried rifles, but they had a mere 906 rounds of ammunition, and these were all different calibres, so the cartridges that would fit one rifle would not fit another.

Unlike Stefansson, the Eskimos were not happy at the prospect before them. The dejection they so obviously showed was understandable enough. It was believed that somewhere along the route they were to encounter a tribe that killed all strangers.

As the party had provisions only for two weeks, it was necessary to shoot for the food as they travelled. Stefansson obtained most of the food, even going to the extent of venturing out in a raging blizzard to hunt caribou. Such behaviour seems pure lunacy, well in keeping with Stefansson’s generally eccentric approach to tackling the terrors of the Arctic.

In a book he published afterwards, he dismissed the incident quite calmly, saying that most Arctic blizzards were not bad enough to keep a healthy man indoors. Moreover, he claimed, it was easier to approach a caribou in a blizzard than it was in fine weather. He seems to have proved his point, for he went out and shot three of them.

This unexpected abundance of meat considerably lifted the morale of the Eskimos, and all went well for the party as they plodded onwards without mishap, beyond the one occasion when Stefansson was attacked from behind by a polar bear. He was in the act of climbing down a steep ice slope when he heard a hissing sound behind him. He turned and saw the bear lumbering rapidly towards him. Fortunately, he was carrying his rifle and was able to stop it in its tracks with a well-aimed bullet.

Stefansson dismissed this brush with death with one of his usual matter of fact statements. “No animal in the world,” he wrote, “can afford to give warning to a man with a rifle.”

After 19 days of steady travelling, they came across footprints and sledge tracks in the snow. The next thing they found was a deserted village of over 50 snow houses, far larger than any normal village. A clearly marked trail left the village and Stefansson decided to follow it. Leaving the Eskimo woman behind, Stefansson set off with the two men across the ice. The reason the woman was left behind was a matter of Eskimo custom. When approaching a strange and possibly hostile tribe, only the able-bodied men advanced.

The trail eventually led them on to sea ice, where Stefansson saw a number of little figures, each sitting on a block of ice, waiting for a seal to rise. They approached one of them cautiously, their faces wreathed in friendly, reassuring smiles. On seeing them, the seal hunter seized a knife and jumped to his feet. Then he began a sort of chant, and Stefansson, who was well versed in Eskimo beliefs, knew that the seal hunter thought them to be spirits, and was following out the necessary procedure when seeing one, which was that he should make some sound each time he drew breath, otherwise he would be struck dumb.

Finally persuading the seal hunter they were mortal, Stefansson began to talk to him, and was delighted to find that his dialect differed so little from the Eskimo’s, that he was able to communicate with him quite easily. The rest of the tribe gathered around him, and soon they were being treated like honoured guests. Seeing that all was well, Stefansson sent off one of his Eskimos to fetch the woman.

They stayed with the Eskimos for three days, and it was during that time that he heard from them of the Blond Eskimos, who, he was told, were to be found on Victoria Island.

As soon as he heard about, these Blond Eskimos, Stefansson was anxious to get on his way, and on the fourth day he left with one of his Eskimos on the trek to Victoria Island, a mere 16 miles (25 km.) away. Incredibly, he found the Blond Eskimos almost at once on the sea of ice, close to the shore of the island. As they arrived, some of them came forward and greeted Stefansson and his friend.

“Your coming has made us glad,” one of them said simply. Each guest was then taken to a separate house and fed. Even the dogs were given boiled meat. “Dogs like to be treated just like men,” Stefansson was told.

Such kindness was rare among Eskimos, who valued dogs, but were certainly not sentimental about them. But what amazed Stefansson more was the appearance of the tribe. Some of the men had strong, light brown beards, and many of the women had the delicate features of some Scandinavian girls. The Eskimo who had accompanied him put it aptly. “These people are not Eskimos. They merely talk and dress like Eskimos.”

But what was the explanation? It has been suggested since that the Blond Eskimos came into being as a result of mixing with the Hudson Bay Company free traders. The more probable explanation of the Blond Eskimos is that they are descended from the Scandinavian colonists of Greenland. Whatever their origin, when Stefansson left, he took away with him the memory of a kind and hospitable people.

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