The Intimate Arctic

An Early Anthropologist’s Diary in the Strict Sense of the Term*

Gísli Pálsson

Department of Anthropology, University of Iceland, Reykjavík, Iceland

A lively debate has taken place in anthropology in recent years on fieldwork and its representation in ethnographic accounts. At the same time, historians and cultural critics have dissected the ideology and rhetoric of early explorations. Here I examine the writings of the anthropologist and explorer Vilhjalmur Stefansson (1879-1962) in the light of current debates about textual representation, drawing upon recent discussions of ethnography, gender, and the power relations of early twentieth-century explorations. Stefansson went on lengthy expeditions into the Alaskan and Canadian Arctic and wrote extensively on his encounters with indigenous groups. I argue that while Stefansson was a perceptive ethnographer and explorer, he was silent in both his publications and his diaries about important aspects pertaining to his fieldwork, in particular the ethnographic contributions of his Inuit companions and his intimate relations with a native Woman named Pannigabluk. This silence, I suggest, contradicts the narrative trope Stefansson generally adopted, summed up in his concept of the "friendly Arctic." (fieldwork, exploration, intimacy, the Arctic, V. Stefansson)


Stefansson and the Inuit: "to know them as they are"

This article explores the writings of anthropologist and explorer Vilhjalmur Stefansson (1879-1962), particularly his expedition diaries, in the light of recent discussions of ethnographic fieldwork and arctic explorations. Between 1906 and 1918, Stefansson went on three expeditions into the Alaskan and Canadian Arctic, each of which lasted between sixteen and forty eight months. He published a number of books and articles on his travels and observations. There is also a voluminous literature on his life and work (see, for example, Hunt 1986). I shall focus on limited aspects of Stefansson’s writings and career, namely his relations with his hosts and their representation (or lack thereof) in both his diaries and publications. While Stefansson, I argue, was attentive to the ways of life of the Inuit, he was rather silent about other aspects, notably about the role of his key informants and his intimate involvement with the Inuit. I attempt to situate his diaries in the context of the dynamics of the team of explorers, the standards of anthropological practice among his contemporaries, the power relations of early twentieth-century expeditions, and the North-American Icelandic community he grew up with. Stefansson was a product of his time, firmly rooted in the gendered ideology of early twentieth-century anthropology and exploration (see Bloom 1993, Arnold 1996).

Stefansson, the son of Icelandic immigrants in Manitoba and North Dakota, originally studied theology at the University of Iowa. Gradually, he developed an interest in comparative religion and anthropology, and for some time he seems to have been torn between priesthood and anthropology. In the end he decided in favor of anthropology, "with the mental reservation that it was to be a humanistic anthropology" (Stefansson 1964: 45). After receiving his first academic degree in religious studies at Iowa in 1903, Stefansson became affiliated with the Anthropology Department and the Peabody Museum at Harvard University. He planned an anthropological field trip to Africa at the suggestion of his teacher, F.W. Putnam: "Putnam pointed out that nobody connected with our department has as yet made much of a study of Africa. What would I think of that field?" (Stefansson 1964: 55). In the end, however, Stefansson chose the Arctic. During the summers of 1904 and 1905 he voyaged to Iceland to study the relationship between health and diet. In 1905 he became a teaching fellow, "looked upon as the Anthropology Department’s authority on the polar regions" (1964: 55). Partly as a result of his early article on the history of the Norse colony in Greenland (Stefansson 1906) he was invited to participate in an expedition to the Arctic. He first spent a year (1906-07) among the Mackenzie Inuit, in a secondary role as an anthropologist and assistant. During the second and third expeditions (1908-12 and 1914-18) he occupied a leading position, in charge of both logistics and research.

Stefansson was an ambitious and successful explorer. He soon became a public figure in North America and Europe, well-known for his description of the "Copper Eskimo," his discovery of new lands in the Arctic (including the islands of Brock, Borden, Mackenzie King, and Meighen), his anthropological approach to travel and exploration, and his theories of health and diet. In many ways he was ahead of his time. In an exchange of letters in 1938 he argued that the word Eskimo was a derogatory term used by Algonquins, suggesting that the native term Inuit be adopted (Srebrnik 1998: 60). Stefansson’s fame was partly fueled by a series of controversies, involving, among others, dogmatic missionaries and envious competitors in the race for public recognition and media attention. His successes in exploration, however, the discovery and mapping of some of the last remaining land on earth, "have tended to obscure the fact that he was primarily an anthropologist" (Collins 1962: 8). Many anthropological works have referred to his writings and he continues to be cited in ethnographic and historical works on indigenous peoples of the North American Arctic, particularly Iñupiaq ("North Alaskan Eskimo"). Unlike many of his contemporary anthropologists he was keen to observe both contact and change; an interesting early paper focused on the trade jargon of Herschel Island (Stefansson 1909). Stefansson wrote some 24 books and more than 400 articles about the high north and its people.

Stefansson was a serious fieldworker, participating in the lives of the Inuit he visited, studying their language, living their way of life, and probing their way of thinking. In his account of the second expedition, written in 1913, he offers the following description of the method that later became known as participant observation:

They took me into their houses and treated me hospitably and courteously, but exactly as if I were one of them. They gave me clothes to wear and food to eat, I helped them in their work and joined in their games, until they finally forgot that I was not one of them, and began to live their lives before my eyes as if I were not there. This gave me a rare opportunity to know them as they are (1945: 2).

A related aspect of Stefansson’s approach to exploration is summed up in his notion of the "friendly Arctic" (1921). Stefansson argued that arctic explorers often made the mistake of bringing their environment with them (food, clothes, and methods of transport, etc.). It would be far more productive and viable in the long run, he argued, to adopt Inuit practices and flow with the Arctic environment (see Conefrey and Jordan 1998: 12). Pointing out that the Inuit saw no need to wage war with the environment in which they lived, he challenged the orthodox, literary notion of the Arctic as necessarily "barren, dismal and desolate" (1921: 20).


The sexual life of savants

In the summer of 1987, during a conversation with June Helm, Professor of Anthropology at the University of Iowa, I learned that Stefansson was reported to have a son, Alex, with an Inuit woman who accompanied him during the second expedition. I later found out that the woman was named Fannie Pannigabluk and that she had died from tuberculosis in 1940. Alex, I also learned, raised six children (Andy, Frank, Georgina, Rosie, Shirley, and Willy, all of whom live in the Canadian Arctic) with his wife Mabel Okpik before he died in April 1969, seven years after his father. While the existence of Stefansson’s son was apparently common knowledge in the Arctic, outside the Arctic Alex’s paternity had been a delicate and restrained issue that only surfaced a few times in the media and scholarly publications. Stefansson never publicly acknowledged either his son or his intimate, "conjugal" relationship with Pannigabluk. The silence about Alex and Pannigabluk and the latter’s role role in Stefansson’s fieldwork invites a number of interesting questions regarding exploration, the fieldwork encounter, gender relations, and the making of ethnographies, some of which will be addressed in this article.

At the time when Stefansson was completing his arctic journeys, another anthropologist who later became regarded as the pioneer of the ethnographic method, Bronislaw Malinowski, embarked on his trip to the Trobriand Islands in the South Pacific. With the publication in 1967 of the diaries of Malinowski, anthropologists became sensitized to the making of ethnographic texts. As a result, a lively discussion has taken place on the fieldwork encounter and its representation in anthropological accounts (for early examples, see Rabinow 1977, Boon 1982, and Stocking 1983). Often this discussion has been referred to, after a well-known collection of critical essays originally presented at a seminar in Santa Fe (Clifford and Marcus 1986), as the "writing-culture debate." While the "road from Santa Fe" (Allison et al. 1997) has been a rough and noisy one, evoking at times the image of the Tower of Babel, this debate has, no doubt, had a powerful impact on both ethnographic practice and interpretations of earlier texts. Not only has it raised important questions concerning the exoticism of anthropological accounts (Keesing 1989) and the authenticity of field reports (Sanjek 1990, Vermeulan and Roldán 1995), it has also drawn attention to a series of related issues concerning the subjectivity and presence of the anthropologist, his or her relations with local informants, the moral dilemmas of fieldwork (Okely 1992), and the social relations of ethnographic production (Pálsson 1995).

While Malinowski and some other anthropologists have produced detailed descriptions of the "sexual life of savages" (Malinowski 1929), and such descriptions have sometimes generated much heat and demanded public attention (Shankman 1994), ethnographers have rarely elaborated on their own sexual involvement in the field (Tuzin 1994, Seizer 1997). One reason is that sexual relations "refuse to stay objective and tidy; they bring real pain, joy and suffering to what is generally presented as an academic exercise" (Willson 1997: 25). Recently, the theoretical and ethnographic gaze has been increasingly directed at intimate encounters and erotic involvement in the field and their suppression in ethnographic accounts (see, for instance, Fine 1993, Wade 1993). The prevailing taboo on discussing intimate relations in fieldwork, it is argued, prevents understanding and elaboration of an important aspect of the ethnographic method (see Kulick and Willson 1995). "Leaving something unsaid," as Seizer argues, "is . . . an effective means of prohibiting its entrance into discourse, much as the taboo on talking about sex in the field has done until now" (Seizer 1997: 110).

I will argue that the narrative tropes of "living their life" and flowing with the "friendly Arctic," frequently employed by Stefansson to emphasize mutual involvement and collaboration of informant and ethnographer, contradict his silence on his own involvement with some of the Inuit. To draw upon Pratt’s analysis (1992) of the "mystique of reciprocity" in imperial travel writings, the mystique seems to break down when Stefansson faces a real case of reciprocity, involving his relationship with Pannigabluk and his son. At the same time, Stefansson’s silence about the ethnographic role of Pannigabluk reflects a more general private-public distinction, a distinction characteristic of the gendered view of early twentieth-century science (Haraway 1989). Before I explore Stefansson’s expedition diaries, I shall take a look at his publications and the letters of some of his friends and collaborators.


Stefansson’s "Eskimo family"

Stefansson’s earlier works are not very informative on his relationships with his hosts and companions, including Pannigabluk and their son Alex. There is no mention at all of Alex in My Life With the Eskimo (1945), originally published in 1913 right after the second expedition, nor, indeed, in Stefansson’s autobiography (1964). While there are many references to Pannigabluk in his earlier work, these references are typically brief and indifferent. Stefansson, for instance, has this to say about their early encounter in the autumn of 1909, in the early stage of his second expedition:

I took with me my favorite companion, Natkusiak, and an elderly countrywoman of his named Pannigabluk, whose husband had died the year before and who had been taken on with our party as a seamstress (1945: 117).

Stefansson notes that Pannigabluk was "talkative by nature" (p. 126) and that she "did not care very much where she went" (p. 158), but otherwise she is simply referred to as being "in charge" of his camps while he and his men were away. One of the photographs in Stefansson’s account of the expedition (1945) shows a woman leading the expedition team marching "across barren ground". That woman is probably Pannigabluk, but she is not named in the text.

Stefansson’s autobiography (1964), completed a few days before his death, is equally distancing and uninformative about his relationships with his Inuit companions:

I boarded the Karluk with Natkusiak and a widowed Eskimo woman, Pannigabluk, who came from Natkusiak’s part of Alaska. She was an excellent seamstress, something no party wintering on the arctic coast can afford to be without (p. 105).

In one case, Stefansson refers to Pannigabluk as being "persuaded" (p. 110), along with two Inuit men, to accompany him.

Stefansson’s descendants apparently saw no reason for suppressing evidence on their relation to the explorer. Interestingly, one of Stefansson’s grandchildren, Georgina Stefansson (one of Alex’s children), wrote a personal note (1961: 25), "My grandfather, Dr. Vilhjalmur Stefansson," in the magazine North, proudly describing Stefansson’s career and accomplishments. Georgina, then in Gr. 5 in Federal School, wrote the following:

As the grand-daughter of Dr. Vilhjalmur Stefansson, I am naturally very proud of him. Therefore I would like to tell you about him. . . .

When he grew up and finished his education, . . . he decided to explore and to learn everything possible about the north, and the people of the north. . . .

He married an Eskimo girl, Fannie Puniovaluk, who also helped him in his work. They had only one child, my father, who now lives at Aklavik, where he owns a freighter and hunts and traps in his spare time. . . .

Although I have never met [my grandfather] . . . I have always been proud of him, and I feel that I do know him because of the stories my dad has told me about him.

June Helm, my original source on Stefansson’s son, personally knew Alex as well as his wife Mabel and the two youngest children, Frankie and Georgina. Alex had been the guide of her former husband R.S. (Scottie) MacNeish on his two archaeological expeditions on the Firth River in the summers of 1954 and 1955. According to Helm, Alex told her that his father had not married until after Alex’s mother had died, the implication being that Stefansson was observing a moral commitment (Helm, personal communication).

While there were few references in printed works to Stefansson’s relationships with Pannigabluk and Alex, there was a lot of gossip, usually generated and driven by the heat of personal rivalry. Kenneth Chipman, a young topographer during one of Stefansson’s expeditions, eagerly commented upon the paternity issue in his personal letters from the Arctic:

I don’t know or haven’t heard of a man in this country, white or native, who doubts that the kid is Stefansson’s although he himself refuses to recognize openly the woman and child and to make provisions for them . . . people up here would accept the whole thing as a matter of course and pay no attention, but his failure to recognize them and make provisions (which is the usual thing and common among whalers and others) is arousing . . . comment (see Hunt 1986: 120).

In his biography of Stefansson, Hunt (1986) briefly comments on Stefansson’s relationships with Alex and Pannigabluk, in connection to the gossip about Stefansson. However, much of what the author himself has to say about the matter is relegated to a footnote (n. 15, p. 279):

Apparently, Stefansson offered to take mother and child "outside" and support them, but Pannigabluk preferred to remain in the Arctic. It is hard to imagine that he neglected to do so, for he was invariably generous to Eskimos even where he had no obligations to them.

Hunt adds that "Pannigabluk’s family took pride in their relationship to Stefansson," pointing out that her granddaughter’s note in the North (Georgina Stefansson 1961) "makes it clear that, despite gossip among whites, the Eskimos were satisfied. Had it been otherwise, Pannigabluk had ample occasion to complain, but she did not."

Alex may have been the source for the story about Stefansson’s offer to take Pannigabluk and Alex "outside." According to Helm, Alex claimed that his father ("Vilhjalmur" in Alex’s words) offered to take him and his mother with him when leaving the field, adding that his mother did not want to do that (Helm, personal communication). Alex also stated that if they didn’t go out with him Vilhjalmur said that he would severe all relations with the child Alex and his mother. Alex’s story should be taken with a grain of salt; for Alex the narrative may have justified the desertion of his father.

Late in his life, Stefansson married a young woman, Evelyn Baird (now Stefansson Nef). Stefansson told her that he refused to recognize Alex as his son both because his lawyers advised him to do so and because he was not the only member of the expedition who had sex with Pannigabluk. Stefansson suggested, according to his wife, that Rudolph Anderson, one of Stefansson’s closest collaborator during the second expedition, also had a sexual relationship with Pannigabluk (Stefansson Nef, personal communication). Anderson was trained in biology and his scientific background and credibility helped in funding the "Stefansson-Anderson" expedition. After the expedition, however, the relations between Stefansson and Anderson became increasingly tense and hostile.

Apparently, the only evidence available indicating Stefansson’s recognition of his responsibility for Alex is a letter from one of Stefansson’s friends, Richard Finnie (writer, photographer and film-maker):

According to a story I heard many years ago, there was at least one occasion when Stef, albeit non-verbally, seemed to take responsibility for Alex. In the middle of a conversation with some white men at Herschel Island, Stef was approached by Pannigabluk, who said, "Missionary going to baptize Alex; give me five dollars." Without comment, Stef fished out a bill from his pocket and Pannigabluk marched off with it (letter to Edward M. Weyer, 4 December 1973).

Whatever Stefansson’s reasons for silencing the issue of Alex’s paternity, Pannigabluk seems to have been quiet too. According to one of her granddaughters (Rosie), Pannigabluk, herself "a strong woman," asked her family "never to tell" about the connection with Stefansson (personal communication). Alex, however, kept the Stefansson name, and so do at least some of his children.

Soon after Stefansson’s death, on 26 August 1962, the issue of his "Eskimo family" surfaced again, this time in the letters of friends and publishers. About five months later, Stefansson’s biographer D.M. LeBourdais wrote a long and illuminating letter, enquiring about the matter. LeBourdais says that a publisher he was negotiating with (A. Wang) suggested certain changes to the manuscript. It is worth citing the publisher (quoted in LeBourdais’s letter to Richard Finnie of 24 Jan 1963) at some length:

We are convinced that it is wrong to omit any reference to Stefansson’s wife and son. . . . these facts are an important part of Stefansson’s story, and it is bound to be mentioned in articles, reviews, and other books. What we think the galleys call for is the addition by LeBourdais of a description of that situation. . . . This more than anything would make the book worth buying. The facts will probably be discussed soon, and the apparent conspiracy to keep these facts from being well known cannot last. LeBourdais is in a particularly strong position to do us all a favor by setting forth the facts clearly and simply. Many people ignorant of the whole story think Stefansson contemptible in his apparent neglect of wife and son.

"Unfortunately," LeBourdais comments, "this is a subject Stef never discussed with me."

LeBourdais added (letter to Richard Finnie, 24 January 1963), citing Noice’s work (1924), that Pannigabluk and her five-year-old son were with Stefansson aboard the Polar Bear in 1915 and again on Melville Island in 1916. He speculates that the fact that Stefansson makes no mention of Pannigabluk in The Friendly Arctic "might suggest that she was present in a private capacity and not a member of the expedition, as was the case during the previous expedition." Richard Finnie, Stefansson’s friend, responded by saying that since Stefansson himself chose not to talk about the matter "I should be disinclined as an old friend, now that he is dead, to try to make something out of it to satisfy a publisher’s notion that it would help sell books" (31 Jan 1963).

A decade later, however, Richard Finnie notes in a letter to Erika S. Parmi, Librarian at the Stefansson Collection in Dartmouth:

I met Alex Stefansson at Herschel Island in 1930 and again in the Mackenzie delta in 1939, when I visited with and photographed him and his family. . . .

The fact of Alex’s existence and identity has been well known to northerners and northern travelers for many years . . . I once spoke of him to Stef, but he seemed not to hear. . . .

I don’t want to offend or embarrass . . . anyone . . ., but now – with the principals dead – it is a matter of history. If I don’t deal with it, someone else is bound to and perhaps with an attitude less charitable than mine. I should like to speculate on why Stef chose to blot it out (29 October 1973).

Richard Finnie also wrote a letter to Edward M. Weyer, a friend and Arctic scholar, with similar queries about missing facts. Weyer responded with a long letter:

The only time I can recall Alex’s name being brought up when Stef was present was when you were showing him your album of photographs recently brought back from the Arctic. My recollection is that you pointed to a picture and said, "there’s Alex," and Stef just went on to the next page (4 December 1973).

Somewhat apologetic, Weyer adds (4 December 1973):

Eskimos would not have [the] . . . problem . . . within their own culture [of hiding the identity of the father of an adopted child]; and I hope Alex didn’t. As you know, it is less important who a child’s parents are than whose name-soul he is given, which in large measure determines who he is. Eskimos name their children after departed persons whose memory is so esteemed that they want the same qualities of personality to be "reborn" in another individual.

Richard Finnie responded a few days later (10 December 1973), apparently with a refreshed memory:

The only time I remember actually speaking of Alex to Stef was . . . in the summer of 1931 [1930?]. . . I said, "While at Herschel Island I met Alex." (I doubt that I said "your son," because I knew that the subject was touchy and didn’t want to risk offending him.) Stef’s response was that there were people he didn’t remember in the Mackenzie Delta area, and he immediately spoke of something else. . . .

If Stef did not really recognize Alex as his son, he could hardly have studied photographs of him in adulthood, for Alex bore a striking resemblance to Stef as a young man and was the only half-breed Eskimo I ever saw with a cleft chin.

Helm, too, was struck by the striking similarity of Alex and Stefansson:

Not long after the Arctic sojourn with . . . the Stefansson family [ Alex, Mabel Okpik and their children] , I went to an anthropology meeting . . ., a featured speaker was Stefansson. As he stepped out on the stage, I saw Alex’s [ physical] proportions (Helm, personal communication).

Alex, indeed, bears a remarkable resemblance to his father.

As we have seen, Stefansson’s publications made no reference to his Iñupiaq "family." Given the comments of some of his friends and companions on the matter it is pertinent to take a look at his diaries. Stefansson kept extensive diaries during his expeditions. These are potentially of central importance for understanding not only his relationship with the Inuit but also his ethnographic work and his later writings. Extensive selections from the diaries have been published (Stefansson 1919), edited by C. Wissler with Stefansson’s approval. The following discussion is based on the reading of the complete, original diaries that are kept in the Special Collection of the Dartmouth College Library.


The diaries of the second expedition (1908-12)

During his first expedition, Stefansson was employed by other scientists and explorers and perhaps for that reason his early diary entries are rather limited from an ethnographic point of view. The diaries he wrote during the second expedition, in contrast, when he was accompanied by Pannigabluk, are massive, containing hundreds of pages with vocabularies and names, descriptions of events, ethnographic observations, drawings, and geographical maps. Here Stefansson appears in the role of a more independent and alert observer, keen to note minute details important for understanding life in the Arctic. Sometimes there are no entries for a few days, at other times there are many pages of observations on particular issues or the events of the day.

The diaries are generally written in English. Sometimes, however, Stefansson reproduces sayings or statement in the Inuit language used by his companions and occasionally he switches from English to Icelandic, the language he grew up with in Manitoba and North Dakota. By using Icelandic he was effectively "locking" his diary, preventing his companions from reading sensitive information. Stefansson may also have "edited" his diaries with later users and their purposes in mind.1 This is not an unlikely possibility, keeping in mind Stefansson’s concern with what kinds of issues might be properly mentioned in his biography and what should be left out. Stefansson’s biographer D.M. LeBourdais wrote a long manuscript on Stefansson, but withdrew it from publication because he and Stefansson "had disagreed on one or two rather minor points" (letter of 24 January 1963). The major disagreement, it seems, concerned references to Stefansson’s health: "We argued all day without coming to an agreement. ‘Such things are never mentioned in biographies,’ he insisted."2 Stefansson’s friend Richard Finnie commented that Stefansson’s reticence about sickness was understandable; "it was unromantic and out of harmony with the picture of a hardy explorer and hunter on the march" (letter of 31 January 1963 to LeBourdais). Interestingly, in his preface to Mirsky’s account of the history of arctic exploration (1970), Stefansson reflects on the difficulties involved in getting and stating "the facts." Stefansson credits the author for writing a history

not for the aggrandizement of a nation or the ennobling of youth but rather to get at and state the facts. Her messages, when any, are those of the characters themselves. Those messages may conflict, for the explorers contradict each other and sometimes themselves (in Mirsky 1970: xvi; emphasis added).

Much of the text of the diaries from the second expedition focuses on daily activities related to the organization of camps, the collection and storing of food, interaction with Stefansson’s companions (including Inuit), and travels across a complex and changing landscape. There are particularly rich entries on the behavior of animals and hunting expeditions which Stefansson seems to have taken pride in. Stefansson appears to have made a distinction between his "scientific" tasks and his role as ethnographer, although the differentiation is neither explicit nor consistent. The former typically involved collecting one kind or another of specimens, describing travel routes, examining archaeological remains, and measuring people’s heads, a frequently mentioned activity. Details of the scientific mission seem to have been mostly recorded in separate journals. One of the main purposes of the expedition was to locate and observe those natives who use copper knives, the mysterious blond Copper Eskimo he had heard about during the first expedition. The ethnographic observations included in the diaries focus on a range of issues. There are, to mention a few, lengthy discussions of shamanism, religion, folklore, kinship, clothing, food, language, cleanliness, tattoo, and concepts of time, labor and wages.

Many entries dwell on the problems and anxieties of his companions, but Stefansson himself seems to be strong and healthy most of the time. There are some exceptions, however. On 10 August 1909 Stefansson writes: "For the first time in [the] Arctic I have caught epidemic cold." At one point (11 November 1909) he confesses that he wishes he were in a warmer climate and that he might never return to the North – if, that is, he made it back home.

A few times the diaries offer some reflection on themselves and the kind and amount of information they provide. Once (on 4 October 1909) Stefansson wrote a separate entry marked "This diary," commenting on the act of writing, the significance of observations or events he may have forgotten to record, and how others might read and use his notes:

Somehow I find it difficult to keep in mind the possibility that this record may sometime be worked out by someone other than myself and that entries sufficient for my purposes may not be of much significance to another.

The same entry continues, indicating that he is also worried about having too much data to be able to tell a meaningful story: "I must evidently get home soon to make a beginning of letting known my results – else I shall be submerged in accumulated mass . . .." Almost a year later (29 September 1910), Stefansson expresses a concern with having too little data due to temporary shortage of paper: "Have abundant paper now and promise of more, so shall – when time allows – make fuller diary entries . . . and include many things I have been habitually omitting." Malinowski was concerned with similar issues in his diaries (1968). There is an important difference, however. Stefansson’s diaries are not particularly personal in the "strict" Malinowskian sense. There is little about the author’s emotional states, the frustrations of fieldwork, and the details of his involvement with his companions, although, as I argue below, the reader is sometimes able to at least guess between the lines. Stefansson’s attitude to descriptions of intimacy and sex, in particular, contrasts with that of Malinowski. Malinowski with his Catholic background was more to the point, elaborating in his private journals on his bad moments, his frustrations, and his prejudices, while the Protestant Stefansson suppressed his moods and relations and "cleaned" even his diaries.

Stefansson’s comments upon his interaction with his Inuit hosts and companions are usually brief and objective in style. Most often they focus on fairly pragmatic matters such as camping and cooking, the division of labor in the camp, the organization of hunting etc. Many of the entries in the diaries elaborate on storytelling and the role of informants. Sometimes Stefansson refers to one kind of contract or another with the Inuit, usually for the purpose of eliciting stories. On one occasion (3 March 1910) he writes about annoying one of his informants with too much "cross-examining": "If I get him tired (as I have once or twice done) he becomes careless in his answers and unreliable saying ‘yes’ to anything or pretending he understands my question when he does not."

Often there are signs of mild disagreement and difference in opinion. A few times Stefansson challenges the folk wisdom of his hosts:

My own opinion is that neither Esk. nor Indians have a reasoned and reasonable theory of the movement of caribou, nor one based on sufficient (more than one-sided) observation. Neither seems to account rationally for the whereabouts of caribou when they do not actually see them … (22 January 1911).

Sometimes Stefansson comments upon tension due to differences in the understanding of location and logistics: "When I suggested we might be too far west of this river, [the Indian] . . . smiled superiously and said the people of the country understod such things better than strangers" (9 January 1911). At one point (20 April 1910) Stefansson mentions having quarreled somewhat angrily with one of his Inuit companions who said he "would leave now that I was going to start treating him as a captain does a white sailor, He was no dog to be starved." "I was forced to remind him," Stefansson adds, "that by white man’s law a servant hired for a year who quit work without good cause before his time was up, forfeited his wage." Once (21 January 1911) Stefansson states:

wife and daughter refuse . . . to let me measure their heads. W. … says he has often tried but never been able to get a photograph of the daughter and took the mother when she did not know what was being done.

These extracts from the diaries clearly demonstrate a conflictual and sometimes asymmetrical relationship between Stefansson and the Inuit which does not quite resonate with the egalitarian and sympathetic image he presented of himself in many of his publications.


Pannigabluk: "really a rather pleasant homecoming"

Pannigabluk is mentioned frequently in the diaries, often simply as "Pan." At first her name appears only sporadically. Her name (spelled as "Punguabluk") is first mentioned on 22 July in 1908. Her presence is also noted just before a diary entry for 1 January 1909, in connection with cephalic measurements, and again almost three months later (on 29 March) when Stefansson arrives at Flaxman Island, Alaska; "the widow Pannigabluk [is] . . . here also." From then on her name appears regularly, indicating that she is a fairly permanent member of the camps of Stefansson and his men, until the end of 1911. As already mentioned, Stefansson’s publications typically refer to Pannigabluk in connection with the everyday tasks of looking after camps, cooking, seaming tents, and making clothes. Such statements also appear in the diaries; "Pan. made herself the finest boots I have seen," Stefansson once notes (4 October 1909).

Judging from the diaries, however, Pannigabluk had a much more important role than the publications indicate as one of Stefansson’s key informants. Sometimes, it seems, Pannigabluk divided her time between her roles as informant and seamstress:

Rewriting text of "Man who married a goose" . . . trouble to verify text from Pan. who is burdened with other work and easily gets tired anyway . . . Pan. yesterday finished sewing a caribouskin tent cover and now working on boots (17 March 1911).

At one point (20 May 1910) Stefansson suggests that Pannigabluk is more efficient than he himself in eliciting ethnographic information from the people they meet. Pannigabluk frequently comments upon events that occur along the way and the people Stefansson and his companions run into. She elaborates on the names of Inuit people and native groups, the interpretation of dreams, seances, shamanism, hunting methods, polyandry, the raising of children, beliefs about animals - and numerous other issues. Stefansson, however, seems to maintain a private-public distinction, unable to think of Pannigabluk as a full collaborator in the making of ethnography. At times the diary indicates that in Stefansson’s view Pannigabluk is a little too talkative, a point, as we have seen, underlined in some of his publications.

Stefansson makes no reference in the diaries to intimate relations with Pannigabluk (or any other woman, for that matter), and their son Alex is never mentioned. On the other hand, between the probable time of Alex’s conception and the day of delivery there are a few significant entries involving Pannigabluk.3 While there are no direct statements about Stefansson’s relations with Pannigabluk, some of these entries might be interpreted as evidence for intimate relations, indicating Stefansson’s concerns for the pregnant Pannigabluk, for her well-being, and for the future of their child. These entries are presented here in the order in which they occur.

On 19 June, around the time of Alex’s conception, there is an entry about Pannigabluk’s account of her brother and her mother. A few days later (23 June) Stefansson writes:

Pannigabluk could not sleep and wanted to go duck hunting at 1:am. I had just been out to stop dog fight when she told me so. I suggested her cooking instead . . .. Meanwhile I hunted but got no game. Wake A[nderson] [Stefansson’s collaborator] and B[illy] [the "Indian" in Stefansson’s team] at 4:am. They had slept only 4 hours and P[annigabluk] and I nothing.

Significantly, given the complicated relations between them later on, at this point Anderson, Pannigabluk and Stefansson were in the same camp. On 1 September 1909 there is an entry about Pannigabluk’s body: "Pannigabluk plucks out[,] whenever they appear, any hairs from her armpit. Looks as if there would be quite a growth there if not plucked." Four days later the diary records:

Pan. tells me Mary . . . is now a ‘bad woman.’ ‘In what way?’ ‘She scolds all the time. Most women who live with white men get in the habit of scolding, contradicting and quarreling.’

Elsewhere (24 January 1911) the diaries refer to "race-blending," listing the names of people living with a person of a different racial background. Reading some of these diary entries one gets the impression of Pannigabluk as a strong, capable, and independent woman. Perhaps her statement about the "habit of scolding" testifies to her awareness of the danger of becoming too close to Stefansson, the potential threat to her autonomy posed by a stable relationship with one of the "white men."

On 4 October there is a long and interesting comment ("Immaculate conceptions") about fatherless children:

Pan. says Eskimo women frequently have children that have no father – sometimes they die at or before birth, sometimes they live. When they live they do not differ noticably from people that have fathers. Some women are afraid of these fatherless children and kill them at birth. . . . Pan. herself has had a fatherless birth – an abortion at Oliktok last spring when she was on her way west with Billy and Anderson. The fetus was about three inches long. She had never had connection with a man since the death of her first (only) husband – a fully year previous the abortion.

Again, Anderson is around. About two months later (9 December), on returning after many days on the trail away to Pannigabluk who is alone in her camp, Stefansson comments: "Found Pannigabluk all well up and cooking over a cheerful open fire in a cozy house . . . really a rather pleasant homecoming." In his biography Hunt notes the event, emphasizing that the hungry and weary travelers "staggered into camp" (1986: 45), but he fails to notice its significance as a potential commentary on Stefansson’s intimate relationship with Pannigabluk.

For 16 March 1910, when Alex would have been six days old, there is a long entry focusing on Pannigabluk, entitled "Eskimos way of thinking,": "When hungry . . . and impatient for me to come back, Pan. said she used to have seances . . .." This indicates that at the time of Alex’s birth Stefansson and Pannigabluk were not in the same camp and that Pannigabluk wanted him to stay with her. The entry, however, continues somewhat surprisingly on an entirely different note, with doubts about Pannigabluk’s ethnographic accuracy. Apparently, her failure to exactly forecast the success of hunting expeditions motivated one of the Inuit companions (Havinuk) to comment about her character: "Know now what sort of a woman Pan. is, and will not believe her in anything she says. If she had spirits she would [have] told the truth, for spirits know everything and never lie." Perhaps in noting this Stefansson is distancing himself from Pannigabluk under the emotional strain of fatherhood. These remain, however, simply speculations.

In the months following Alex’s birth there are several references to various issues relating to children and reproduction, including the health of unborn children, the practice of naming, native beliefs about name-souls, and taboos relating to menstruation. Often Pannigabluk is the source:

Pan. tells that among the western Eskimos . . . a woman who wishes her (unborn) child to be healthy and strong should eat the cartilage between the bones of the knee joint of caribou (29 January 1911).

Once Pannigabluk criticises the beliefs of particular Inuit groups about children’s upbringing:

[They] believe that if a child "before he gets understanding" (before seven or eight years) is continuously forbidden to do things it wants to do, continually told "don’t do that," "stop your noise" etc., [his] . . . ears become like dog’s ears (27 February 1911).

It seems reasonable to assume, given the relative absence of entries on childhood and childbirth elsewhere in the diaries, that these entries reflect, albeit indirectly, Pannigabluk’s and Stefansson’s concerns with the welfare of a particular infant, their son Alex.

As we have seen, Stefansson’s relationships with Pannigabluk and Alex are not entirely submerged in his diaries. The discussion in some of the entries quoted above, concerning pregnancy, children’s health, upbringing, fatherless children, and Inuit women who live with white men, does seem to have a personal twist. Also, the presence of the body and bodily experience, typically absent elsewhere in both Stefansson’s publications and the diaries (except in the occasional reference to sickness), is hardly a coincidence.


Relations of gender, power, and ethnicity

The relative silence on Pannigabluk, her role as key informant, and her relationship with the author in Stefansson’s writings should be considered within the context of the history of arctic explorations. During the first half of the twentieth century the arctic regions were seen as the last empty spaces in the colonization of the globe, the final frontier of "Man." Arctic explorers not only embodied the epitome of manliness, they turned the poles into theaters of male rivalry. The poles offered the ultimate opportunity for white, Western, masculine inscription. Such a bias, Bloom points out, structured the texts produced by arctic explorers in that the "complexity of the relation between master and servant in the pursuit of science . . . was consistently written out of the script" (Bloom 1993: 3). Much of what Bloom has to say about the attitute of the American explorer Robert E. Peary’s to exploration and the Arctic applies to Stefansson as well.4 Both Peary and Stefansson, Bloom suggests, "anchored the authority of their discourse under the banner of science and progress" (Bloom 1993: 128). And in this discourse women were, by definition, removed from the scientific enterprise, muted in Ardener’s sense (1975). The early Stefansson, then, was very much a man of his time.

Stefansson and Peary, however, represent important differences in personality and context. Peary made it clear, for instance, that he had an Inuit "mistress," at times employing pornographic language and imagery (see Bloom 1993: 105). In his autobiography, published in 1898, Peary refers to the "embarrassing position" of "being left alone and unprotected, with five buxom and oleaginous ladies, of a race of naive children of nature, who are hampered by no feelings of false modesty or bashfulness in expressing their tender feelings" (quoted in Bloom 1993: 104). Stefansson’s publications and diaries have little if anything of this sort. Also, while Peary had no ethnographic ambitions Stefansson thought of himself as an anthropologist. Perhaps the roots of Stefansson’s silence about his intimate relationship with Pannigabluk are to be found in the Icelandic community in Canada and North Dakota in which Stefansson grew up and his general Victorian view of sex. While he was a committed atheist and he ignored the fervent religious sectarianism of the North-American Icelandic community, he seems to have subscribed to its puritanical attitudes to sex. Apparently, whether at home or in the field, he was reluctant to talk about sexual matters. As a Canadian immigrant Stefansson may generally have been overplaying the desire to fit the British hegemony (on the immigrant tension in the writings of Icelandic Canadians, see Neijmann 1997).

The only occasion Stefansson’s diaries mention sexual behavior is in the context of "sexual hospitality." On 13 May 1910, Stefansson notes: "Have seen no sign of the ‘sexual hospitality’ which Mackenzie Eskimo have told me was part of ordinary courtesy to a guest." Perhaps he is referring to "co-marriage," a practice misleadingly called "wife trading" in both popular and scientific writings. The chance of observing such marriage during fieldwork might not have been that great, but the Inuit may have realized that such stories captured the imagination of white explorers. Co-marriage involved two couples exchanging sexual partners for a night (see Burch 1994: 18). In Iñupiaq society, a man and a woman who engaged in sexual intercourse were considered married for the rest of their lives, even if they never had intercourse again. This kind of marriage was different from that of residential spouses, but it was marriage nevertheless. Significantly, the children that any of the four ever had were considered siblings. Some accounts, including that of Stefansson’s granddaughter (Georgina Stefansson 1961), suggest that Stefansson and Pannigabluk were "husband and wife," "married" in North Alaskan Iñupiaq terms. Given Iñupiaq practice and custom the relationship of Stefansson and Pannigabluk must translate as "marriage." As Burch points out (1994: 8), a conjugal family was created "when a man and woman took up residence together and had sexual relations. That was all there was to it; Eskimos are among the few people in the world who did not recognize a marriage with some kind of ceremony."


The Anderson-Pannigabluk-Stefansson triangle

A satisfactory explanation for Stefansson’s reluctance to discuss his "marriage" with Pannigabluk and Alex must also take into account the intimate relations of Pannigabluk with Stefansson’s collaborator Rudolph Anderson. It is clear from the diaries that Pannigabluk occasionally accompanied Anderson who sometimes followed a trail different from that of the expedition leader, staying in Anderson’s camps rather than Stefansson’s. By Iñupiaq standards Pannigabluk may have been married to Anderson too. While monogamy was the Iñupiaq norm, polygamy was quite possible: "A few expert hunters had more than one wife (polygyny), the known record being five; having multiple husbands (polyandry) was also possible but extremely rare" (Burch 1994: 9). Anderson may not have regarded his relationship to Pannigabluk as a conjugal one. Unlike Stefansson, he did not claim or pretend to live the Inuit way; Stefansson, Hunt remarks, "was unable to interest Anderson in the Eskimo language. Anderson’s energies were directed to biology and zoology, and he saw no compelling reason to take up arduous language studies" (1986: 54). Pannigabluk, however, may have considered herself married to him, given the way in which some Inuit (including Alex) spoke about her relation with Stefansson. Pete Suvaliq describes the encounter of his Inuit father with Stefansson and his team in 1914:

All their clothing was made of cloth, even their boots. One of them was a scientist who was measuring adults’ heads. . . . Stefansson wanted to learn to hunt from my father. . . . Stefansson knew how to speak the Iñupiaq language for he had an Iñupiaq wife. His wife’s name was Paniugluk (The traditional land use inventory for the Mid-Beaufort Sea, n.d.: 196; emphasis added).

Perhaps Anderson and Stefansson were never sure which of them was the father of Alex, until Alex turned out to be a mirror image of Stefansson. Apparently, both of them shared a camp with Pannigabluk around the time Alex was conceived. As the leader of an expedition, Stefansson said, he was chosen to be the father (Stefansson Nef, personal communication). Significantly, Stefansson’s last diary entry about Pannigabluk (27 December 1911) also refers to Anderson. The last words are strangely abrupt:

Dr. Anderson started for Ballie Islands at ca. – took 2 sleds, 13 dogs, but very little meat as we fear hunger before he comes back in case I keep sick. Dr. A. took Palaiyak, Tannaumirk and Pannigabluk – the last to leave us permanently.

The entry continues with some words, but the author has scribbled over them, apparently to make sure they are not readable. In My Life With the Eskimo Stefansson refers to the split between him and Pannigabluk saying that she "had made up her mind to sever her connection with our party" (1945: 359). Pannigabluk may have been seeking revenge for Stefansson’s treatment of her as a temporary domestic object by provoking his jealousy.

We will probably never know the exact dynamics of that triangle. They may, however, partly explain Stefansson’s silence about Alex and Pannigabluk. Also, they may help to account for the fierce controversy between Anderson and Stefansson later on (see Diubaldo 1978). Anderson not only joined forces with ethnocentric missionaries in their critique of Stefansson’s approach to life in the Arctic and his respect for the wisdom of "illiterates" and "primitives," he also became one of Stefansson’s most brutal critics. Half a century after his collaboration with Stefansson ended, he would elaborate on Stefansson’s "communist" inclinations (see Hunt 1986: 117; see also Srebrnik 1998), with all the implications such statements might have during the witch-hunts of the McCarthy era. Stefansson was a controversial figure and his style of leadership as well as his cultural relativism, emphasizing the necessity and the charm of flowing with the rhythms and demands of the "friendly Arctic," annoyed many of his fellow travelers and competitors, including Anderson. Sexual competition, jealousy, and tension associated with doubts about the paternity of Pannigabluk’s son may have amplified such personal conflicts.



Attempts to find out "what really happened" in history are often plagued with uncertainty. Unfortunately, one cannot participate in lives that have already been lived. Historiography, however, is not pure fiction, nor is an anthropology of the past an impossibility. As Baxter remarks, while "it is difficult, often impossible, to observe at all, let alone as a participant observer . . . it seems sensible to use the published observation of those who have participated" (Baxter 1991: 123); written texts may allow anthropologists, he argues, to "follow Evans-Pritchard's way of putting ‘flesh and blood’ into our analyses." To some extent, the voices of earlier generations can be recovered, from letters, diaries, various kinds of published material, and the memories of people who witnessed the events of the past (see, for instance, Comaroff and Comaroff 1992, Kristmundsdóttir 1997). In this article I have tried to throw new light upon the writings of one of the early ethnographers, drawing upon a variety of written material.

Despite his important ethnographic contributions, Stefansson’s texts, I have argued, no less than those of Malinowski and most of their contemporaries, are rather weak on the context of fieldwork and the making of ethnography. Stefansson has little to say about his relations with Pannigabluk and her ethnographic contribution, although, clearly, she was not just "around." Pannigabluk was presented as primarily a domestic worker, with no formal recognition of her role as either spouse, partners, or key informant. Her role is reduced to that of a talkative seamstress. The diaries, however, hint at Stefansson’s intimate relationships with Pannigabluk. The frequency and timing of Stefansson’s entries on pregnancy, children’s health, upbringing, fatherless children, and Inuit women who live with white men is unlikely to be a coincidence. Some of the entries give an impression of Pannigabluk as a rather strong woman, suspicious, perhaps, that too much closeness might lead to degradation of self and character.

I have tried to account for Stefansson’s reticence to admit and seriously address his intimate relationships in the field. For one thing, we must keep in mind the intimate relations of Rudolph Anderson and Pannigabluk and the tensions that her dual "marriage" may have created. The larger social context, and the relations of race, ethnicity and gender characteristic for the expanding West at the beginning of the twentieth century, is another important factor. Generally Stefansson presents himself, in both his diaries and his publications, in terms of the heroic image of a masculine hunter and explorer, engaged in dangerous excursions into the wild domain of natives and animals, extending the realm of rationality, science, and Western civilization into "nature." For him and many of his contemporaries, fieldwork and geographical explorations were, above all, exercises for testing and strengthening the sensibilities of manhood against all kinds of odds. Accounts of such gallant journeys inevitably placed the natives, particularly women, in the back seat whatever their real contributions as spouses, partners, friends, key informants, or fellow fieldworkers and explorers. Gudeman and Rivera underline the need for expanding the community of ethnographic modelers (1990: 190). For them, to engage in fieldwork is to participate in a continuous conversation that allows no boundaries in either time or space, extending from the distant past to the present and from the local community to the larger world. It seems important to explore the potential of such an approach, to move from the genre of the ethnographic autobiography to the notion of fieldwork as a cooperative enterprise (Pálsson 1995: 171).

Stefansson was, by and large, a relativist in both his diary entries and his publications. For him, Franz Boas, the leading contemporary spokesman for ethnographic relativism, was "a somewhat intransigent theorist who was nevertheless the leading Eskimo authority of the day" (Stefansson 1964: 130-31).5 Stefansson definitely was an enthusiastic practician of the "scientific" art of measuring people’s heads (Collins 1962), but unlike many of his contemporaries (see, for instance, Evjen 1997 on anthropological studies of the Norwegian "Lapps") he does not seem to have been preoccupied with eugenics and racial purity. In fact, he was eager to combat the ethnocentric preconceptions of missionaries and some of his fellow explorers (see Hunt 1986). For Stefansson, however, some Aboriginal Peoples seem to have been more equal than others. While he usually provided the personal names of his Inuit companions, he tended to refer to others with the generic "the Indian." This practice may both reflect Inuit stereotypes and those of the North American Icelandic community. In his autobiography, Stefansson describes his encounter with members of the Sioux tribe, "the very tribe that the Icelandic community so greatly feared": "I cannot recall another time in my life when I made such a quick and thorough readjustment of long-held ideas" (1964: 19). The attitude of the Icelandic community towards Aboriginal Peoples, however, was both complex and contradictory. Apparently, there was racism as well as admiration (Brydon in press).6

By now, a whole decade has passed since the conception of the "writing-culture" perspective. During this time anthropologists have fiercely debated a series of "post-modernist" issues regarding ethnographic theory and practice, including the nature and role of textual accounts, participant-observation, and cultural representation, all of which are fundamental for a discipline traditionally focused on othering and cultural translation.7 As a result, anthropologists nowadays feel much less constrained than before by etiquette about how to write and what to write about. No single standard dictates how people do anthropology; indeed, there are many roads from Santa Fe. Most anthropologists nowadays would argue that it is important to be explicit about the effects of one’s presence, on the scene as well as in ethnographic texts. Awareness of the so-called "observer’s paradox" (to borrow an ethnolinguistic term) is seen as a condition for good, authentic ethnography; we know pretty well that while we arrive on the scene to record things as they are, our mere presence unavoidably shapes the course of events and, therefore, their representation. As a result, anthropologists generally feel compelled to situate their accounts and to reflect on the texts they write as well as their relations with their hosts and their readers. No doubt, much of the ethnographer’s private experience in the field, including that of sexual relations, will always end "off record," no matter how reflective and self-absorbed anthropologists become, if only because too much and too "thick" description may violate relations of trust and the ethics of fieldwork. Yet, intimate experiences may shed important light on the fieldwork encounter, gender relations, and cultural context. The point is not to indulge in voyerism or to naively insist upon exposure but rather to ask how and to what extent anthropological practice might benefit (and lose) from intimate relations and their ethnographic description.



* An earlier version of this article was presented as a Keynote Address at the 28th Arctic Workshop at the Institute for Alpine and Arctic Research (INSTAAR) at the University of Colorado, Boulder, on 12 March 1998. The article could not have been written without the help of several people and I thank them all. Philip Cronenwett and his staff at the Special Collection of the Dartmouth College Library located the unpublished sources which I use and made them available to me. June Helm (University of Iowa), V. Stefansson’s widow Evelyn Stefansson Nef, and Stefansson’s granddaughters Georgina and Rosie also kindly provided essential information. Óðinn Gunnar Óðinsson, Kristín Erla Harðardóttir, Baldur A. Sigurvinsson, Ásdís Jónsdóttir, Jónas Gunnar Allansson (all at the University of Iceland) helped in reading the microfilm edition of Stefansson’s diaries. Editor Don Kulick, Anne Brydon (University of Western Ontario), and two anonymous reviewers provided detailed and excellent comments. I have also benefitted from discussions and exchanges with Níels Einarsson (The Stefansson Arctic Institute, Akureyri, Iceland), Sigríður Dúna Kristmundsdóttir (University of Iceland), Astrid Ogilvie (University of Colorado, Boulder), and Halldór Stefánsson (European Molecular Biology Laboratory, Heidelberg). Needless to say, none of the persons mentioned is responsible for any errors there may be.

1. Sometimes a part of a page is missing, some words have been made unintelligible, and at least once (in the entry for 26 August 1909) a drawing has been glued on two pages, apparently on top of some text. It is also possible that some pages (even journals) are missing from the collection.

2. As it turned out, LeBourdais published a shorter book (1963) than planned about Stefansson, apparently with Stefansson’s approval.

3. According to two of Alex’s daughters, Georgina and Rosie, Alex was born on 10 March in 1910.

  1. Robert E. Peary was an ambitious explorer who claimed in 1909 to have discovered the North Pole. His claim was challenged by another American explorer, Frederick Cook. Peary and Stefansson were probably the most visible early tentieth-century explorers.

5. On Boas and the diaries he wrote when among the Inuit see Cole (1983).

6. Brydon’s analysis of public documents from Manitoba shows that Icelandic settlers colonized the property of a Saulteaux-Cree hunter-farmer, John Ramsey, refusing to pay any compensation. Ramsey claimed his rights in a written declaration in 1879, without any success.

7. Interestingly, given the concerns of the present article, the so-called "crisis in representation" has been partly driven by conflicting accounts of sexual behavior, by Freeman’s challenge to Mead’s ethnography of Samoans and the responses of his critics (see Shankman 1994).



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Unpublished sources

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