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Minik in New York shortly after his arrival, 1897.
|Died||October 29, 1918 (aged 28)
Minik Wallace (also called Minik or Mene ) (ca. 1890 – October 29, 1918) was an Inuk brought as a child in 1897 from Greenland to New York with his father and others by the explorer Robert Peary. The six Inuit were studied by staff of the American Museum of Natural History, which had custody. The adults and one child died soon of tuberculosis (TB), and one young man was returned to Greenland. After deceiving Minik by a staged burial, the museum put the skeleton of his father on exhibit. Adopted by the museum's building superintendent, William Wallace, Minik did not return to Greenland until after 1910. A few years later, he came back to the United States, where he lived and worked until dying of influenza in the 1918 pandemic.
Minik spent his early childhood in northern Greenland among his people, the Inughuit, the northernmost band of indigenous Inuit (Arctic Eskimos, as formerly called). He met Robert Peary when the explorer employed men of Minik's band during several Arctic expeditions.
The move to the US
In 1897, Robert Peary brought the Inuit Qisuk, his son Minik, and four members of the Northern Greenland band to the American Museum of Natural History in New York. Although Peary had invited the adults on the trip, it is unlikely they were clearly informed as to its purpose. Some agreed to travel to see new places; others did not want to be parted from relatives. Peary had promised that they would be able to return to Greenland. Soon after their arrival, the group became the objects of study, together with a meteorite which Peary had brought. The museum staff had not made plans for their care, nor for their return.
The adult Inuit soon contracted tuberculosis (TB), a widespread infectious disease in those years, which also occurred among indigenous peoples. Three adults and one child died. (Another young adult, the sixth member of the group, survived and was returned to Greenland.) One of the first to die was Minik's father, and the boy suffered. William Wallace, chief curator and superintendent of buildings, adopted the boy and cared for him. Minik pleaded for a proper burial for his father, with the traditional rites which only he as an Inuit could give. The curatorial staff wanted to preserve Qisuk's body for study, research that would be impossible if his remains were buried. They staged a fake burial for Minik's benefit: filling a coffin with stones for weight, and placing a stuffed "body" covered with a cloth on top. They performed the burial by lantern light, with Minik attending.
The staff sent Qisuk's body to Wallace's estate, which had a workshop for processing the skeletons of specimens. Qisuk's remains were de-fleshed, and the skeleton was mounted on an armature and returned to the museum for display. Wallace did not tell Minik about this nor of his own part in it. But, about 1906, New York papers published a story that stated Qisuk's skeleton was displayed in the museum. Minik learned through classmates' comments as the story circulated.
Wallace supported Minik in requesting that Qisuk's remains be returned to the son for traditional burial. The museum director, Hermon Carey Bumpus, evaded their requests, as well as other questions about the Inuit exhibits. Bumpus refused to admit the museum had Qisuk's skeleton. In the past, he had accused Wallace of financial irregularities and impropriety, and the curator resigned in 1901. Wallace continued to ask the museum for aid in financially supporting Minik, which Bumpus refused. The director tried to avoid investigation of the Inuit case. Minik was never able to reclaim his father's bones.
Return to Greenland
Minik tried to get Peary to return him to Greenland, and finally Peary and his supporters made the arrangements. Although they told the press they had sent Minik back "laden with gifts", the Canadian author Kenn Harper found documentation that the Inuit was returned to Greenland with little more than "the clothes on his back."
By that time, Minik had forgotten his first language and much of Inuit culture and skills; his life in Greenland was difficult. The Inuit took him back, and taught him the adult skills he needed. He became a fine hunter. He acted as a guide and translator for visitors, playing a key role in the Crocker Land Expedition of 1913-1917. At that time, Minik decided to return to the United States, and did so in 1916.
Return to the USA
After his return to the US, Minik worked at a variety of jobs; eventually he found work in a lumber camp in North Stratford, New Hampshire. His employer, Afton Hall, invited him to live with the Hall family, who treated him much like a son. Along with many of Hall's family and workers, Minik died during the 1918 flu pandemic, on 29 October 1918. He was buried in the Indian Stream Cemetery in Pittsburg, New Hampshire.
In 1986, Kenn Harper wrote a book about Minik, entitled Give Me My Father's Body. Convinced that the remains of Qisuk and the three adult Inuit should be returned to Greenland, Harper tried to persuade the Museum of Natural History to do this, as well as working through the "red tape" of the US and Canadian governments. In 1993, Harper succeeded in having the Inuit remains returned. In Qaanaaq, he witnessed the Inuit funeral ceremony for the remains of Qisuk and the three tribesmen taken to New York so long ago.
In popular culture
- The Brooklyn-based history band Piñataland recorded "If Ice Were Warm" on their 2008 album Songs for the Forgotten Future, Vol. 2. They wrote it from Minik's view.
- The historical podcast The Memory Palace dedicated an episode to Minik Wallace entitled "400 Words for 79th Street".
- Kenn Harper - Give Me My Father's Body: The Life of Minik, the New York Eskimo, New York: Washington Square Press, 2001
- Axel Engstfeld - "Minik The Lost Eskimo", (PBS: The American Experience series, 2008)
- Peter Lerangis - Smiler's Bones (Scholastic, 2005)
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