Give Me My Father's Body:  The Life of Minik, the New York Eskimo

by Kenn Harper

Steerforth Press, April 2000, 300 pages, hardcover

ISBN 1883642531 ($24.00 / $16.80)

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Cultural Arrogance, Lies and

Cover-up by the 'Right People'


Kenn Harper's Give Me My Father's Body provides insight into turn-of-the-century imperial and colonial culture accepted by American society toward Native Americans, extended to the northernmost inhabitants of the earth the Polar Eskimo.  It illustrates the chauvinistic arrogance of our museum community and its agents "in the field" during that period.

The title came from a newspaper expose of the American Museum of Natural History's treatment of Minik, whose father and his three companions had died at the Museum in 1897 after being "exhibited," abandoned by one of their agents, explorer Robert E. Peary and left to succumb to tuberculosis in a damp basement room.  The original title refers to Minik's plea to obtain his father's skeleton, which had "been mounted and preserved at the Museum" following its dissection at Bellevue Hospital.  Ms. Limerick does, however, report the contemptible action of the Museum in staging a fake burial, something perfected by the Nazis and Soviets later in the century.

The issue of treating aboriginal tribes as but chattel to the particular expedition which comes in to contact with them was prominent with Peary, who saw the Polar Eskimo as but exploration inventory along with the dogs and sledges.   It also extends to his contempt for their welfare, having removed the three Cape York meteorites in 1894 and 1897 despite the fact that they constituted the Eskimo's only source of weapons and implements.  Peary biographers agree that part of his reason for bringing them back to the American Museum was to shift attention from his expedition failures.

Another might have been sheer greed.  Peary took the meteorites from Greenland, a country with a loose sovereignty to Denmark, without even asking the tribe which depended upon them, to "present" them to his wife, who in turn "loaned" them to the Museum.  Later Mrs. Peary "sold" them to the wife of Morris K. Jerssup, the president of the American Museum (and also of the Peary Arctic Club), who in turn donated them to the Museum.  The Peary's realized $50,000 in what must have been a period textbook manual for wills and trusts.

Actor Kevin Spacey (who may make a movie about the story) says in his foreword, "there is not a page in this book without its horrors and wonders."  When I read a description of this book in a newspaper article--about a six-year-old Eskimo boy who is brought to New York in 1897 by Robert Peary, then abandoned by him when the adults in the group become ill, and in effect set adrift when he is orphaned--I thought this take in itself sounded interesting.  But I was pleasantly surprised to discover the book to be far richer, with more interesting characters and unexpected twists and turns than I ever could have imagined."

Though the book has many new and revealing things to say about famous figures from the golden age of polar exploration and is among the first major books to tell its story from the perspective of the indigenous Inuit, it is largely a fascinating period piece about turn-of-the-century New York City.  The characters reveal themselves slowly, as in the best fiction.  Harper has done a world class job of flushing out the details, and his unadorned writing style allows the focus to remain on his characters and story--where it belongs.

Minik, incidentally, contributed something of value about the controversy between Peary and his onetime expedition surgeon Frederick A. Cook, over their respective claims to having reached the North Pole, Minik wrote of his friendship with both the Peary and Cook Eskimo companions, saying that Peary's account was held in doubt while "Cook made a great trip north."  More telling was the tribe's assessment of both as men:  "Peary is hated for his cruelty...(while) Cook is loved by all."  Yet like the native Americans, their opinions counted for little when it came to "the white man's business."

Ralph M. Myerson 

Copyright 2005 - The Frederick A. Cook Society