Synopses & Reviews
In his search for the North Pole at the turn of the twentieth century, the renowned Robert E. Peary, long celebrated as an icon of modern exploration, used the Eskimos of northwestern Greenland as the human resources for his expeditions. Sailing aboard a ship called Hope
in 1897, Peary entered New York harbor with six Eskimos as his cargo. Depositing them with the American Museum of Natural History as live "specimens" to be poked, measured, and observed by the paying public, Peary abruptly abandoned any responsibility for their care. Four of the Eskimos died within a year. One managed to gain passage back to Greenland. Only the sixth, a boy of six or seven with a precociously solemn smile, remained, orphaned and adrift in a bewildering metropolis. His name was Minik. Here, a century after the fact, is his story.
A searing true tale of extraordinary darkness told with intensity and vigilance, Give Me My Father's Body is Kenn Harper's absorbing, intricately documented account of ruthless imperialism in the name of science, of cruel deceptions and false burials, and of the short, strange, and tragic life of the boy known as the New York Eskimo.
Parade Kenn Harper has written a remarkable narrative.
The Boston Globe A startling success.
About the Author
For more than thirty years, Kenn Harper has lived in Eskimo communities in the Baffin Region and in Qaanaaq, Greenland. He has worked as a teacher, development officer, historian, linguist, and businessman. He speaks Inuktitut, the Eskimo language of the eastern Canadian Arctic, and has written extensively on northern history and the Inuktitut language. He now lives in Iqaluit, capital of the new Arctic territory of Nunavut, and was recently elected a Fellow of the Royal Geographic Society.
Reading Group Guide
Reading Group Questions and Topics for Discusion
1. In rendering Minik Wallace's tragic story with such care, skill, and poignancy, Give Me My Father's Body is a true standout in the Arctic history genre -- a genre that has in the past been charged with jingoism and celebrating, among other things, the inherency of American imperialism. But what is perhaps most distinctive about this work is that it is crafted by someone who actually speaks the languages of his subjects and lives in the world about which he writes. Paying particular attention to Kenn Harper's Introduction, Epilogue, and Afterword, discuss the specific ways in which the author's experience, ideology, and personal background may have contributed to this book's unique historical perspective.
2. "Winners write history." How does this tried-and-true classroom standby which we've all grown up with speak to the issues surrounding this particular book (as well as to the Arctic history narratives that have preceded it)?
3. Thinking back to your high school or college history courses, what do you recall reading about Robert Peary and the American exploration community as a whole at the close of the nineteenth century? How has Kenn Harper's book challenged or even debunked many of the characterizations and so-called myths that have been perpetuated over the decades?
4. What aspects and shadings of this story would likely have been lost, overlooked, or simply interpreted differently had it been written by someone other than Kenn Harper?
5. In the long view, which of the following finally bears more weight upon a work of historical writing: the history that is being written, or the historian who is doing the writing? Explain.
6. Early on, Harper looks back to the archetypes of the arctic historical narrative (by such luminaries as Freuchen, Rasmussen, and Malaurie) and writes, "This book tells the story that they have all missed." In this deceptively simple statement, what might Harper be leaving unsaid? That is, why is it that this particular story has been largely overlooked and quietly elided by the United States' anthropological, historical, and museum communities for so many decades?
7. "Neither fish nor fowl, no longer a simple Eskimo and yet not a complicated Yankee, he was more than ever alone." In Give Me My Father's Body, the notion of "home" is paramount. How does the drama of Minik's painful search for a true home, for a lasting sense of connection, distinguish Harper's history from other histories you've read?
8. Discuss the techniques by which Harper's writing style (for example, his subtle and unadorned prose, as well as his tendency to leave many of the narrative's darker implications unsaid) lends to the book a gravity and an empathy that touch upon certain universal emotions. How does Give Me My Father's Body compare, both stylistically and thematically, to other histories you I've read about turn-of-the-century New York and the United States?
9. Given that many in today's Inuit community take issue with the use of the term "Eskimo" -- likening it to other antiquated terms like "Negro," "colored," and "redskin" -- what do you make of Harper's decision to use Eskimo throughout Give Me My Father's Body? Reread the author's discussion of this decision in his Introduction.
10. What kind of a man was Morris Jesup? For decades regarded as the leading player and key financier behind the development of the American Museum of Natural History into the world's bedrock of anthropology as well as an unassailable national institution, Jesup comes across in Kenn Harper's book as a character of great ambivalence and ambiguity, to put it mildly. What would you say was Jesup's chief motivation? The perpetuation of scientific integrity? The furthering of America's "manifest destiny"? His personal reputation? And what do you make of his about-face regarding Minik's welfare?
11. In conjunction with your discussion of Jesup, talk about Harper's presentation of the book's other principals, many of whom have been long championed as legendary heroes in the canon of American history: Franz Boas, Frederick Cook, Donald MacMillan, Knud Rasmussen and, especially, Robert Peary.
12. What is possibly the most unsettling aspect of Give Me My Father's Body is the fact that Minik's tragedy is only a single one among a long list of crimes and abuses visited on the Polar Eskimos by Peary and others in the name of science and American supremacy. For example, Peary absconded with the meteor, a landmark to which the natives had attached sacred significance, and which was also their sole source of iron. How did Peary, and his American backers, justify such an action? Discuss Harper's other revelations about indignities suffered by the Inuit, whether large or small.
13. Reread the book's epigraphs by Robert Peary, Osarqaq, and Erik Holtved. How do they inform the narrative that follows, and what, with their inclusion in his book, does Kenn Harper seem to be saying about the art of historical scholarship and about the natures of scientific inquiry, human myth-making, and cultural imperialism?
14. Could a tragedy like Minik's possibly happen today? Are indigenous peoples undergoing similar kinds of treatment even now? Explain.
15. As "a part of the Hall family," Minik finally experiences for the first time in his life the matchless relief of anonymity, enjoying what Harper calls "the happiest period of his adulthood, and the most peaceful." Discuss the implications behind Minik's death here in New Hampshire -- a state whose motto is "Live Free or Die," part of the remote "no-man's land of the Indian Stream Republic, the country that could never be." What effect does Harper achieve by underscoring these ironies and issues at the very close of his book?