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Manitoba History: Review: Christian Leden (translated by Leslie Neatby, edited by Shirlee Anne Smith), Across the Keewatin Icefields: Three Years Among the Canadian Eskimos, 1913-1916

by David Murray
Canadian Parks Service

Number 21, Spring 1991

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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Across the Keewatin Icefields: Three Years Among the Canadian Eskimos, 1913-1916, Christian Leden, translated by Dr. Leslie Neatby, edited by Shirlee Anne Smith, Watson and Dwyer 1990, xx, 298 pp. ISBN 0-920436-19-3.

Christian Leden, a Norwegian educated in Germany, is described in the introduction as “a traveller with an intense interest in the anthropology and music of indigenous people.” His book Uber Kiwatins Eisfelder—Drei Jahre Unter Kanadischen Eskimos was originally published in German in 1927, with Dutch and Hungarian editions following the same year. A Spanish edition was published in 1955.

Across the Keewatin Icefields is a book of discovery and exploration. It is fair to call Leden a traveller, as the book reads more like a travelogue than a work of a social scientist. It is in fact his diary, with some field notes. Christian Leden arrived in Churchill, on the shore of Hudson Bay in 1913, and immediately began trying to go north to the area of the Keewatin Inuit. His first impressions are bad; he seems to be having a bad time. He finds fault with the Inuit, the non-Inuit and the landscape. The Inuit are too “civilized” and partake too much of the traders’ goods.

This reader’s first impressions of Leden were likewise poor. The problem, as is so often found north of 60 degrees, lies in the unrealistic expectations of the person who is newly arrived in the North. In many cases they come with a romantic image of the natives as something akin to Rousseau’s “Noble Savage.” When the natives turn out to be only human, and two hundred years of contact with traders has resulted in some change in the culture and habits of these people, there is a gnashing of teeth and dashed hopes.

Christian Leden was a musical ethnographer who collected the music of “primitive” people. As with much of anthropology, especially at that time, the original intentions seem odd, colonial, imperialist, and pandering to theories of racial superiority. “Eskimos were primitive people” was an accepted statement. In Leden’s case, as in many more contemporary cases, once the anthropologist spends time with the people whom he intends to study, learns how they think, and shares some difficult and emotional experiences, his attitudes change. It is the process of that change in attitude that rescues the book. Leden seemed hardly conscious of the changes, but through the book he becomes more at ease with the people and the land. He begins to accept the Inuit on their own terms.
Leden seems to have had an impact on the world’s understanding of the Keewatin area, but it is difficult to ascertain exactly what that impact was. Leden’s work was certainly known to, and perhaps used by Rasmussen and Birket-Smith. Did the Fifth Thule Expedition profit from Leden’s expertise? For example, Leden mentioned his concerns over the fate of the muskoxen, and the question arises as to whether his concerns led to the government funding of the Hornby expedition and the eventual creation of the Thelon Game Sanctuary.

“Anyone [like Leden] who features himself in his own narrative, whether implicitly like Mowat, explicitly like Peary or surreptitiously like Steffanson, will inevitably document the landscape and its people as extensions of his own experience.” So writes John Moss in Arctic Circle Magazine. In his article Moss chronicles the ways that explorers, anthropologists, and other northern writers distort the reality of the Arctic through an “imaginative re-creation” of their exploits. Leden does this as well, as we are abundantly warned throughout the editorial notes. Should the notes be left out, or should all the other writers suffer the same fate?

The other personality at work in this book is that of the editor, Shirlee Anne Smith. Her copious footnotes, which, if paid attention too, as I did, threaten to turn the book into a debate between her and Leden. Smith’s notes are not always accurate nor appropriate. When Leden speaks of reindeer, Smith corrects him with a footnote which states “The author is referring to caribou, Rangifer arcticus arcticus” (p. 11). Caribou indeed, but Rangifer tarandus caribou are the subspecies, Rangifer tarandus groenlandicus are the barren ground caribou. In any case caribou are the same species as reindeer. Moose are the same species that Europeans refer to as elk (Alces alces), so Leden’s comment that North Americans call elk “moose” does not require the note “correcting” him that incidentally leaves the reader with the impression that they are different animals. Elsewhere Smith corrects a place name, stating that Leden’s “Kaminuriak” is a corruption of Qamanittuak, the Inuktitut name for Baker Lake. If true, the early part of this chapter would be hard to understand, for its puts Kaminuriak far to the northwest of its true position. Kaminuriak Lake is clearly marked on his map, and is still called that today on the topographic maps. It is a corruption of the Inuktitut to be sure, but it is not Baker Lake.

Leden, because of his attitude, the patchiness of the journal, and in some ways his lack of professionalism, has lost credibility in the eyes of the editor. Smith makes references which discredit Leden, to find fault with his interpretation, or give a different rendition to the story. On pages 164 and 165 Leden lists the Inuit “tribes” (these are also shown on his map). Smith then footnotes the section with a list of the Inuit groups described by Kaj Birket-Smith. Birket-Smith used the pronunciation of the Inland Inuit (especially the Harvaqtormiut) which has an “H” sound in place of the “S” sound used by the coastal people Leden spoke with. Birket-Smith also left some groups out, groups that still exist, especially the people of the Garry Lake area—the “Saningajormiut” mentioned by Leden.
Some other information would help in the understanding of the context within which Leden was working. References to other explorers that came before, such as J. B. Tyrrell and his brother, David Hanbury, Alphonse Gaste, and others, or references to other ethnographic work in the Arctic under way at the same time, such as Steffanson in the west, or Boas in Baffin, or even Peary in the quest for the pole, could have supplied useful background.

The weakness of this book is not so much with Leden, although there is much he could have written about, and didn’t. The editing, by treating the book as a history text, reduces the enjoyment of it as adventure and a chronicle of human experience. Nevertheless, I enjoyed the book. Leden had an interesting way of seeing northern life, had a dry wit, and had wonderful adventures. He was in the Keewatin before most other chroniclers. His observations on the Inuit were original, and are new to the published world. The photographs are wonderful, (developed in an igloo in most cases). In sum, the book is flawed (Leden could have written more, the editor perhaps less) but is a worthwhile read, nonetheless. Watson and Dwyer is to be commended for making this book available to English readers.

Page revised: 11 April 2010

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