US explorers’ Inuit kin plug into globalized world
By Charles J. Hanley, Associated Press, Sept. 11, 2011
NUUK, Greenland (AP)—Two American explorers, one white, one black, made a historic assault on the North Pole a century ago and then headed home, leaving behind a legacy of daring and discovery, and of two little boys in sealskins—their half-Inuit sons.
Today it’s the descendants of those 3-year-olds who are exploring the world.
"He said, ‘I’ll find the way or I’ll make a way.’ That’s what I’m doing, too," Robert E. Peary II, 55, a well-traveled Inuit lecturer-performer, says of his famous great-grandfather, Rear Adm. Robert E. Peary.
Those bearing Matthew A. Henson’s name—Peary’s chief aide—are venturing beyond their remote Greenland birthplaces as well.
"I have that feeling, I want to be traveling always," says Avo Henson Sikemsen, 27, who recalls dogsled trips from her Arctic village as a girl, but who has since seen the world, from Cairo to New York. One cousin is even off to Harvard.
Over four generations, the two family lines, rooted in the planet’s northernmost communities, have multiplied, spread out, even intermarried, and are now plugging in to a globalizing world. But for decades their existence was unknown beyond the frozen fjords and towering icebergs of Greenland’s far northwest.
It was there, in the Thule region, that Peary’s party set up base in the 1890s to begin a series of Arctic expeditions that ended with the epic 1909 trek, after which the U.S. Navy officer was acclaimed as discoverer of the North Pole.
During those years 1,300 kilometers (800 miles) above the Arctic Circle, Peary relied heavily on Inuit—or Eskimo—hunter guides. But that wasn’t the only companionship he and Henson found.
Peary, a Pennsylvanian in his 40s with an American wife and daughter at home, had a relationship with a much younger Inuit woman, Aleqasina, who bore him two sons, one of whom died young. The Maryland sharecropper’s son Henson, also married but without children, had an Inuit mistress as well, Akatingwah. Their son, Anaukaq, was born in 1906, as was Peary’s surviving son, Kaala.
After the Americans left in September 1909, never to return or communicate with the Greenlanders, their Inuit families fell into destitution. But the youths learned from stepfathers the traditional skills of hunting seal, narwhal, polar bear—the essence of life in the harsh Arctic. With dogsled and kayak, Kaala Peary and Anaukaq Henson grew into formidable hunters and, by the 1930s, supporters of their own families. Kaala had five children—three daughters and two sons. Anaukaq had five sons who survived.
Admiral Peary’s forgotten son first came to outsiders’ attention through French explorer Jean Malaurie, who spent a year with the Polar Eskimo tribe in 1950-51 and later wrote of Kaala, who was almost killed by an enraged walrus while hunting.
Anaukaq Henson, who died in 1987, remained little known until Harvard University’s S. Allen Counter journeyed to Greenland’s far north in 1986 to confirm rumors of “black Eskimos.” The neuroscientist was campaigning for proper historical recognition for Matt Henson, whose accomplishments had been obscured because of American racial attitudes in generations past.
Counter succeeded in having the black explorer’s remains reinterred at Arlington National Cemetery near Admiral Peary’s grave, and he sponsored a U.S. visit by Anaukaq, Kaala and grandchildren in 1987, when the Greenlanders met for the first time with Peary’s American descendants and with Henson’s more distant relatives.
"I’d like to go to America again, to see those tall buildings," Anaukaq’s son Vittus, a solidly built 64, said in a recent interview in Nuuk, capital of this self-ruling Danish island.
Vittus and other descendants met with a reporter over lunch to talk, in a mix of Greenlandic and English, about the families and how they have grown and prospered—to number more than 60 in the great-grandchildren’s generation.
Most Pearys and Hensons still reside in Qaanaaq, some as hunters and fishermen. But others have struck out farther afield in Greenland, working as teachers, store clerks, home-care workers. Vittus is a machine operator in Nuuk. Some have moved to Denmark and elsewhere in Scandinavia, to Canada, even the U.S. Vittus’ son Anaukaq Matthew Allen Henson, 24, is in a six-month study program at Harvard.
Facebook keeps them in touch with each other. “We love Facebook. We’re on it all the time,” said world traveler Avo Henson Sikemsen, a government employee and daughter of a Henson grandson and an adopted Peary great-granddaughter.
One can find a spiky-haired great-great-grandson of “Pioulissouak,” the Great Peary, on Facebook, along with descendants whose “likes” range from yoga to Shakira, from “The Simpsons” to Las Vegas to Martin Luther King Jr.
None has struck out farther than Kaala’s multilingual grandson Robert II, or Hivshu, whose website describes him as a lecturer and translator, Eskimo storyteller and traditional drum singer, and whose appearances have spanned North America and Europe.
"I am just a human being like Admiral Peary, exploring my life like everybody does," he said by phone during a demanding 1,000-kilometer (600-mile) motorboat trek.
"Peary did what he did because he wanted to know more. Some people are testing their limits by challenging themselves. I do this because I want to seek, feel, inhale life."