Knud Rasmussen and the Origins of the Greenland Inuit: Ch 11 of Go Greenland

September 30, 2021
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WHILE I was in Narsaq I heard plenty of the Greenlandic or Kalaallisut language being spoken. About 50,000 out of the 56,000 people in Greenland speak Greenlandic, which makes it the majority language and one of the most successfully preserved indigenous languages anywhere.

The Danish colonisers of Greenland made Kalaallisut into a written language in the 1700s and did not teach Danish in the state schools on the island until the 1920s.

A lot of research into the origins and culture of the Greenlandic people was done by Knud Rasmussen, a Danish man with an Inuit grandmother on his mother’s side who was born in Jakobshavn, now Illulisaat. Rasmussen is famous as the leader of the Danish Literary Expedition, an epic journey across Greenland in which Rasmussen and his colleagues studied remote Inuit outposts and recorded their myths, tales and legends.

Knud Johan Victor Rasmussen, to record his full name, is very well known in Greenland and Denmark for his work with the Inuit. He sounded like quite the character — apparently, he had tried everything from acting to opera singing and eventually settled on becoming an anthropologist and explorer.

Rasmussen learned from the Inuit how to use a sled and train sledding dogs, setting out on his first expedition in 1902. He called his expeditions ‘Thule’ after the Greek word for the far north and set out to study the Inuit not just in Greenland but across Canada too. He had wanted to travel across Russia as well but in the early Bolshevik era, he wasn’t able to get a visa. He collected many artefacts on his travels, wrote books and gave lectures about the Inuit people, contributing to the understanding of their cultures.

There is a museum dedicated to Rasmussen’s memory in Ilulissat. Its exhibits are displayed inside the house in which he was born. Tickets to this museum also give access to the Ilulissat Art Museum, which I talk about a couple of chapters further on.

The Knud Rasmussen Museum, Ilulissat. Photograph by ‘Makemake’, August 2006, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

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