North Pole Legacy: Black, White, and Eskimo

by S. Allen Counter

Montpelier, Vermont: Invisible Cities Press, 2002


reviewed by Russell A. Potter


One of the most curious and affecting narratives of the untold histories of Arctic exploration, S. Allen Counter's North Pole Legacy was unfortunately allowed to fall out of print by the University of Massachusetts Press, its original publisher. This frustrating situation has happily been remedied by Vermont's Invisible Cities Press, which has not only brought it back in a handsome new edition, but has included a substantial afterword by Dr. Counter, which brings up to date the history of the families of Kali Peary and Anaukaq Henson since the book's original appearance in 1991.

Over the centuries in which Europeans and Americans explored what to them were the remoter regions of the world, there have been countless instances in which well-known explorers (almost all men) have had either brief sexual liaisons or long-lasting relationships with women from among the indigenous groups with whom they sojourned. The worst of these have been tantamount to rape, and even the best have been shadowed by unequal power-relations and exploitation, not to mention the great cultural gulfs across which these relationships occurred. In almost every case, however, the explorers in question made no mention of these relations in their official narratives, unless it was to allude to their having taken place amidst the ships' crews or other subordinate groups, among whom such things were, in their classist attitude, almost "to be expected." How many of these relationships produced offspring may never be fully known, though there are -- just to take one related example -- a goodly number of Inuit today who can probably trace their ancestry to a Scottish or American whaler.

In the case of Robert E. Peary and Matthew Henson, the fact that both of them had in fact had sexual relations with Inuit during their several trips to northwest Greenland, was very little known, and when any allusion to such things arose, it was sure to be quickly hushed up. Certainly no reference to such a thing was to be found in the published record, though readers of the original editions of Peary's books might have been startled to see a photograph of a naked Inuk girl lying on some rocks in what certainly seems to be a provocative pose. It took an outsider, one who could not get the best of his curiosity about the rumors and legends attached to these events, to discover the truth. and track down the children (and grandchildren and great-grandchildren) of Peary and Henson.

The story of how S. Allen Counter unearthed these suppressed histories is almost as engaging as the histories themselves. At the outset, he did not know what he would find; having heard rumors of an Eskimo son of Henson's, Counter decided to travel to northwestern Greenland to see if any further traces could be found. In order to obtain permission to travel to the isolated communities of the Polar Eskimos, he worked up a medical project studying hearing loss among northern hunters -- a legitimate study which he did, in fact, complete. On arriving at the remote village of Moriussaq, he was warmly greeted, and quickly discovered that what was a mystery to him was old news to the Eskimo. In fact, since he was the only other African-American to have ever visited their isolated settlement, it was quietly assumed by all whom he met that he must be a relative of Henson's. When he was introduced to "Anaukaq, the son of Mahri-Pahluk," he was incredulous -- could this man really be the son of Matthew Henson? Anaukaq, a bit bemused perhaps by Counter's reticence, took a more direct route: he reached out and rubbed Counter's hair with his hand. "Curly! We have the same curly hair . . . you must be my relative!" Not for the last time, Counter had to assure Anaukaq that he was not, in fact, a relative, but from that moment onward he became increasingly convinced that Anaukaq was indeed who he said he was.

In the interviews which followed with Dr. Counter, Anaukaq related the history of himself, his wife Aviaq, and his family, which included five sons, a daughter, and twenty-two grandchildren. He also had another relative whose existence was little known -- his "cousin" Kali. Kali was, in fact, the son of Peary and his Inuit mistress, Ahlikahsingwah. After the final departure of Peary and Henson in 1909, young Kali and Anaukaq had been adopted by two brothers, and grew up as best friends, hunting and traveling together for fifteen years. As adults, they had moved to different settlements, and Kali now lived in Qeqertarsaaq, forty miles further north. Anaukaq encouraged Counter to visit Kali, and Counter, eager to hear more of this untold story, did so at once. Kali confirmed Anaukaq's story, and from him Counter learned that both of them had in fact been born within a few days of each other in 1906 aboard Peary's ship the Roosevelt. Kali told the story of his older brother, whose name had also been Anaukaq, but who had died many years ago; he too was the child of "Peeurie" and Ahlikahsingwah. Like his "cousin," Kali wanted to know everything he could about his American relatives, but Counter could not at that point give him much in the way of details.

Promising to return as soon as he could with more information about their respective families, Counter flew back to the United States, and began the work of tacking down Henson and Peary descendents. This search is the subject of the book's most poignant chapter, entitled "Hallelujah! -- No thanks" after the initial reactions of the Henson and Peary families to Counter's news. Olive Henson, the explorer's great-niece, reacted with joy to the news that "Matt had a son" -- so far as the family had known, Matt had died childless. Counter's visit to her, and her gift of a quilt and other items to be taken to Anaukaq, are recounted with great understatement of feeling; the events themselves drive the emotions. The Peary family's stone-faced reception, beginning with denial and progressing through phone calls warning Counter against believing Eskimos, is recounted with equanimity -- which is far more, most readers will probably feel, than such cowardly innuendo deserved. The shocking degree of racism displayed by the supposed representative of the Peary family, which extended to accusations that it was the Eskimos themselves who demanded sexual relations as a price of their cooperation, shows clearly that, in some circles at least, many of the prejudices against the Inuit felt by nineteenth-century explorers are yet alive and well.

Counter then takes a chapter to recount Henson's own history with Peary, much of which is already well-known, and will not need repeating here. Nonetheless, though Peary no doubt deserves a modicum of credit for giving Henson as full -- and more -- a role in his expeditions as any white man, his callous indifference to Henson's situation (Henson, unlike Peary, was not considered to be "on duty" during their expeditions, and often had difficulty finding work between and after them), and his monomaniacal pursuit of his goal force even the generous reader to the conclusion that Peary is a man who cannot be admired for his character, but only for his achievements. Thankfully, Henson -- the only man who learned the language of the Polar Eskimos, and whom they regarded as a friend -- can be admired for both.

The final section of the book recounts Counter's successful effort to enable Anaukaq, Kali, and a few of their family members to visit the United States and meet with their families. They had, in fact,, both wished for many years to visit America, though they had some fears about such a journey (as well they might) since they both knew of the disturbing experience of Minik, the young Polar Eskimo boy who was taken south by Peary, only to be abandoned, and the bones of his father Qisuk spirited away to a museum (as recounted in Kenn Harper's book). Neither Peary nor Henson ever visited or contacted their Amer-Eskimo children after 1909, though there it is possible that Henson at least attempted to do so.

Here the tale begins to get a bit self-promotional, as Counter is too much present in a narrative that ultimately is about others; his description of the Eskimos' reception at Harvard is particularly onerous in this regard. Nevertheless, the intrinsic drama of the tale easily shines through, especially in moments of quiet emotion, as when Anaukaq, finally seeing his father's grave, tells Counter that he is now ready to go home and join his wife, who had died a some years earlier. The Peary family, put on the spot by Kali's presence, finally relented, and the explorer's son Robert E. Peary, Jr., shook hands with his half-brother and took a few moments to trade stories over glasses of lemonade. The Hensons invited Anaukaq to a barbecue, and the whole party joined them for a special service at the Abyssinian Baptist Church. Out of their element, the two old hunters appear strangely small and frail, though their presence testifies to the tremendous strength and dignity with which they have carried on their own lives. The contrast between the straightforward, calm, and direct manner of the Inuit, as opposed to the raucous, demonstrative, and sometimes duplicitous behavior of many qallunaat, has rarely been more vivid.

Counter notes these differences, though he also seems eager to find any demonstrable traits which suggest that Kali and Anaukaq have somehow, deep within them, the character and traits of their respective races and their shared paternal culture. He finds only a hint here and there -- for after all, both have lived their entire lives as Polar Eskimos. The Inuit community accepted them fully as its own, and they grew up with nothing like the kinds of prejudice and preconceptions about race and identity that have so strongly marked the quite different character of their American relations. There are larger, cultural issues at stake here -- but Counter, true to the informal, engaging tone of the book as a whole, comments on them only in passing.

The end of the book offers a new Afterword, written especially for this new edition. There is much here that continues and extends the story already told, and the updates about all the Eskimo Hensons and Pearys are full of small but fascinating details. There is also a great deal of material about S. Allen Counter himself, who among other things successfully lobbied the National Geographic Society to posthumously award Matthew Henson the Hubbard Medal (already given to Peary and Bob Bartlett). Certainly, Counter's actions are those of a generous man, a man of his word, a man who has gone to great lengths to right one of history's wrongs. Still, the undercurrent of self-promotion is persistent in this final section, and readers may find themselves skipping forward to get through the fluff.

Nonetheless, there are very few books in the history of Polar exploration with the vitality and dramatic interest of North Pole Legacy. Without detracting from Peary's accomplishments, it finally gives Matthew Henson his due; that the friendship and mutual respect between Peary and Henson's sons was perhaps greater than that between their fathers, is a testimony to the character of the Polar Eskimos. The story of Anaukaq Henson and Kali Peary is one which needed to be told, and by reuniting these men with their American families, Counter has gone well beyond the mere telling. It is to be hoped that this book is never again allowed to fall out of print.