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The true story of an Inuit boy who ended up in a New York museum

  • Author: David A. James
  • Updated: February 3, 2018
  • Published February 3, 2018

Minik: The New York Eskimo

Kenn Harper; Steerforth Press; 304 pages; 2017; $17

“Minik: The New York Eskimo” by Kenn Harper (Steerforth Press)

In the fall of 1897, a ship named the Hope sailed into New York City and received a hearty reception. It had been chartered by the already famous Arctic explorer Robert Peary, who was returning from the far reaches of Greenland, at the time the northernmost territory visited by an American. The ship was most notable, however, for six of its passengers. Peary had brought back a half-dozen Polar Inuit who, unbeknownst to themselves, were intended to be objects of scientific inquiry. By the following summer, four would be dead from disease, one would return north and the final member of the group, an orphaned boy of seven, would be left behind in America. His would not be a happy life.

"Minik: The New York Eskimo" by Canadian historian Kenny Harper is the heartbreaking tale of what befell the young exile as he came to adulthood in America, returned north to Greenland hoping to regain his heritage, then retreated back to America, adrift and without a place to call home. It's a story of cultural collision, deep misunderstandings and willful arrogance by people in power. It's one small chapter in the long history of mistreatment of Native peoples by Americans who saw them as inferiors. It's also something of an adventure story, albeit one that ends tragically.

Harper, a longtime resident of the Canadian Arctic who speaks the Inuit language fluently, initially heard the sad story of Minik in the 1970s. It spurred him into research that led to the 1986 publication of "Give Me My Father's Body." "Minik" is a revised edition of that book, expanding the tale and following up on rectifications for long-ago events that were spurred by Harper's research.

The Inuit brought to New York were delivered to the American Museum of Natural History, then a pioneering and leading institute that had been the major sponsor of Peary's journeys. Staffers sought to provide them with decent quarters, but they were treated as living exhibits. New Yorkers crowded to catch a glimpse of these exotic people who came from a place so far up the northern coast of Greenland that, until they were first visited by British explorer John Ross in 1818, they had thought they were the only people in the world.

America and its infectious germs proved too much for the six. All took ill repeatedly, with four dying in rapid succession. Among the dead was Minik's father Qisuk, whose bones, along with those of the other victims, would be quietly absorbed into the museum's inventory. Years later, when Minik learned of this, he would embark on a fruitless lifelong quest to reclaim his father — just one of the injustices heaped upon him.

Minik was farmed out to an employee of the museum, William Wallace, a valued staff member and an emerging businessman in his own right. For a few years, the boy enjoyed life as part of a seemingly ideal family. But Wallace was engaged in financial trickery with the museum and his businesses were houses of cards. It all fell apart and he was thrown into ruin. Still, he genuinely loved and cared for Minik and raised the boy as his own.

Harper follows Minik's coming of age in New York, his discovery of the fate of his father's skeleton and his rising disillusionment with America. Newspapers seized on to his story, causing the museum tremendous embarrassment, but not enough for the management to make right what had been done. Minik decided his only option was to return to his people in Greenland, and in 1909 he did just that.

When he arrived, Minik spoke not a word of Inuit, having lost the language in childhood. He was also accustomed to the comforts of urbanity. Yet despite these handicaps he appears to have adjusted to life in the north quickly. Determined to become Inuit once more, he became a master hunter and was soon fluent in his native tongue. For seven years he lived the subsistence life that was the only option at the time for the northernmost Greenlandic Inuit. Being bilingual, he was helpful to visiting Americans, particularly the members of the Crocker Land expedition, whose travails were recently retold in the book "A Wretched and Precarious Situation" (reviewed in this column a few weeks ago).

Minik's ability to slide between the two cultures was a benefit to others, but not to him. While on the outside he appeared to adapt well to Inuit life, he longed for the city. "He had become the true marginal man," Harper writes, "condemned to exist in two extremely different cultures and to feel at home in neither." In 1916, he returned to New York City and attempted with little success to cash in on his childhood fame. He then meandered north, eventually landing in a logging town in New Hampshire, where he fell victim to the 1918 Spanish Flu epidemic.

Harper has written an absolutely captivating narrative. He casts a deservedly critical eye on the management of the American Museum of Natural History. They placed their scientific objectives on a high pedestal that, in this instance, rested on the remains of Native people. When Minik ceased to be of use to them, they dismissed him as a problem to be disposed of. His humanity meant nothing.

Harper does place the events in the context of their time, when racism was rampant, but he makes it clear that key players knew what they were doing was wrong. A few Americans did show considerable compassion to Minik, but for most who encountered him he was a curio. To reporters he was a story to sell papers. The Polar Inuit, meanwhile, weren't entirely sure of what to make of him either.

Harper tells this story with deep compassion for the man who stands at its center, often drawing on Minik's own words, as well as reports from the time. "It would be difficult to imagine," one newspaper opined, "a more hopeless condition of exile."

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