Monday, January 11, 2010


I've been on something of a Thor Heyerdahl kick for the last few months reading-- for the first time-- Fatu-Hiva, Kon-Tiki, and now Aku-Aku.

Aku-Aku is a highly readable telling of the Norwegian Geographic Expedition trip to Easter Island in 1958. Heyerdahl is masterful at telling a story and keeping a sense of drama and mystery alive as the story unfolds. Of course he wouldn't be writing these book if he wern't engaged in some really amazing feats of exploration and experimental anthropology. When I'd read Huckleberry Finn, I became intently focused on a dream to build a raft with my friends and float around Lake Champlain. Well, that stayed a dream, but Kon-Tiki was a great read for armchair traveler such as myself. Aku-Aku lacks that aspect of drama, but nonetheless is compelling in taking the reader on an intimate journey to one of the most geographically remote places on earth, and one that has an abundant share of mystery.

Easter Island is home to the famous moia head that we've all seen. Heyerdahl and his expedition set out to answer the questions of who made the statues, how did they make them, how did they move them, and how did they stand them up. Doing this work in the mid-fifties, the island was still quite isolated, with only one ship visit a year. Hence there were still vestiges of the old ways and culture before Christianity and "civilization" started to edge out the traditional ways of the natives.

After dispensing fairly quickly with the mysteries of the statues, much of the rest of the book focuses on the treasures hidden in family caves that are only open to an appointed member of each family and passed down through generations. Heyerdahl's complex route to getting access to these caves is based, to a degree on his ability to manipulate the spiritual beliefs of the natives by convincing them that his spirit power --his Aku-Aku's-- was powerful enough that they cowed to it and then let him into these caves. It struck me that this was pretty suspect behavior in the name of enhancing museum collections. I don't buy his sense that it's okay to manipulate others belief systems when it comes to taking their valuable heirlooms.

In the end I found myself a bit critical and impatient with this story. I suspect Heyerdahl was making an effort to infuse what was essentially a scientific mission with some drama. Fair enough, but the work feels a bit dated and maybe a little dumbed down for popular appeal. Whereas "Kon-Tiki" was, just by its premise, a thrilling adventure, this work has to struggle a bit to pull the reader along.

Monday, December 21, 2009

My Life with the Eskimo

I recently finished "My Life with the Eskimo" by Vilhjalmur Stefansson (1879- 1962). It was published in 1913 and documents life amongst the indigenous cultures of the Northwest Territories and northeast Alaska.

Most striking to me in diving into this book was Stefansson's deep respect for the Eskimo demonstrated via his cultural sensitivity toward the history and traditions of these people and concern about the loss of these life ways amongst the Eskimo. In everything from housing, to hunting, religion, and diet, he makes note of how the indigenous culture is steadily becoming untied from its traditional roots and affixed to the habits, religion, and "luxuries" of the white mans culture that is moving in.

At the turn of the century the growing dominance and negative implications of white cultural infiltration in the sub arctic zone were well in play. Its refreshing and illuminating to read from the perspective of someone who can see through the supposed "progress" and "civilization" of his own culture. I think of this being an era before such complexity was really entertained; that god, guns and profit were where it was at and that was it.

What seems to be novel about Stefansson's approach is his belief that arctic travel could be based on living as the indigenous people of the arctic live --to "live on the country" as he says-- rather then come to the journey with mountainous piles of equipment and supplies to facilitate a trip supported through money and the import of all necessary goods. This approach serves him well and seems go in hand with his perceptiveness about the appropriateness of native technology, nutrition and belief systems.

There is a particularly dramatic turn of events when Stefansson encounters a village of Eskimo who had never before seen a white man --an indication of the remoteness of these people-- and amidst them sees for the first time the fabled "blonde Eskimo"; Inuit who showed physical characteristics that seemed to suggest prior European interbreeding. Stefansson speculates about possible movement of early Norwegians who colonized Greenland and then might have moved onto the northern areas of Canada. Subsequent DNA testing have shown these theories to be wrong.

Stefansson makes it clear that he sees "adventure" defining what happens when planning and caution give way to improvisation and careless execution. He seeks above all to avoid adventures and sees the successful journey as one where events are predictable and without incident. I appreciate this perspective. One might think it would suggest a boring book if "nothing" happens, but in truth the book is an engaging story of life and travel amongst a rapidly changing culture, while, for the most part, nothing catastrophic befalls the author or his companions.

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