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Issue: 7.1: Fall 2008
Guest Edited by Lisa Bloom, Elena Glasberg and Laura Kay
Gender on Ice

Hot Bodies in Cold Zones: Arctic Exploration

Gísli Pálsson

In her ethnographic account of Himalayan mountaineering, Ortner points out that mountaineering involves a "long-term encounter between two groups, two sets of people—one with more money and power than the other—coming together from different histories and for different reasons to accomplish a single task" (1999: 17). The encounter, she argues, involves "a group of men (later also women) pushing their bodies and each other up some of the highest mountains on earth", collectively engaging in a "serious game" of life and death (Ortner 1999: 23). I suggest there are interesting parallels with early arctic exploration. Arctic exploration was also a deadly serious game where people often risked their lives in a collaborative adventure, pushing their bodies and each other to high latitudes under the mixed banners of honor, survival, and empire. In the Arctic, the risks sometimes involved the complications of pleasure, Inuit "seamstresses" and Euro-American males engaging each other in intimate relations, establishing families and raising children in the compartmentalized context of emerging empires.

A growing body of literature emphasizes the importance of showing how the management of intimacy in European colonies was part of imperial politics. Such a project for the Arctic has hardly been begun. If sentiments, as Stoler argues (2002), are the "real stuff" of official archives, biographies deserve careful attention, illuminating contexts and regimes through private lives, at the intersection of self and history; indeed, the social sciences and the humanities, including anthropology, have recently seen such a turn to biographical methods. Here I apply Stoler's perspective in the context of the Canadian Arctic, focusing on the life and work of the Canadian-Icelandic anthropologist-explorer Vilhjalmur Stefansson (1879-1962). One source of evidence in this vein, I suggest, drawing on a recent article by Vanast (2007), is an early and neglected work by Stefansson focusing on the age of sexual maturity among Inuit (1920). Published in a medical journal, Stefansson's article has the appearance of a detached, scientific account. However, there seems to be a personal twist relating to his own involvement with the Inuit.

Stefansson was trained in anthropology and theology at Harvard University and the University of Iowa. Between 1906 and 1918 he went on three expeditions into the Canadian Arctic, each of which lasted between sixteen months and five years (see Pálsson 2001, 2005). Stefansson's name may not ring any bells for many modern readers. However, he was an ambitious and truly successful explorer in many respects. He quickly became a public figure in North America and Europe, well-known for his description of the "Blond Eskimo" of Victoria Island, his discovery of new lands in the Arctic, his approach to travel and exploration, and his theories of health and diet. For decades, he was an influential speaker on the lecture circuit both in North America and Europe and a respected commentator on geopolitics and the north, indeed anything arctic and Inuit.

Stefansson only sought for and accepted an academic position late in his life (at Dartmouth College to which he donated his vast library of arctic works). His publications, however, were extensive. His key ethnographic work My Life with the Eskimo (1914), one of the early, detailed, and perceptive descriptions of Inuit ways of life, is still frequently cited in anthropological works on a variety of Inuit issues. Overall, he is probably better known for his later work The Friendly Arctic (1921), based on his dramatic and fateful last major expedition during which several lives were lost. Here the writer plays the role of the surveyor, explorer, and orgnanizer rather than that of the acute cultural observer. The catchy title and the controversial thesis of the work helped to establish Stefansson's name internationally as well as in North America. Quite simply, Stefansson reasoned that Western (or Southern) explorers could only succede in the arctic context to the extent to which they learned to adapt to the local resources and seasonal fluctuations, living as the Inuit—going native, at least up to a point. While Stefansson's work on the "friendly" Arctic was rhetorical and contradicted his own practice in important respects, he had a good argument and his influence on arctic travel and discourse was substantial.

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© 2008 Barnard Center for Research on Women | S&F Online - Issue 7.1: Fall 2008 - Gender on Ice