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Arctic Images: Portraying a "Friendly Arctic"

By Josh Hilliard
MALS 2009
Dartmouth College


Back to the online Vilhjalmur Stefansson Collection of Arctic Photographs


Vilhjalmur Stefansson’s "Arctic Images" were an integral part of his lecture tour carefully chosen to project an image of the "Friendly Arctic." Beginning in the 1920s and continuing into the 1950s, Stefansson’s popular lecture series rejected the Arctic he called "preeminently the land of imagination,"[i] that of a wasteland of snow and ice that dominated the discourse of the North. Stefansson sought to replace that harsh mythic North with his concept of a hospitable land of abundant resources. To eliminate these myths, Stefansson showed audiences glass lanternslides of scenes they may not initially have expected: green pastures, abundant flora and fauna, and everyday scenes from the life of the native people. Stefansson’s words and images advanced the idea of the friendly North that was new to his audiences and contrary to the popular image of the time.

By the time he came to Dartmouth in 1947 in his role as "Arctic Consultant," Stefansson was a world renowned and controversial figure. From 1906 to 1918 he explored northern Canada and Alaska as part of three different expeditions, mapping new lands and cataloging indigenous cultures. Unlike many Arctic explorers of his age, Stefansson lived among the Inuit people, learned to speak their language, and acquired many of the skills they had perfected for living in the North. Stefansson came to see the Arctic not as a harsh environment that must be fought, but as a land that would support a comfortable life for those who adapted their behavior to suit its unique characteristics.

After ten winters exploring the Arctic, Stefansson left the North and began his second career as a writer and lecturer. The early-twentieth century was the heroic age of exploration, filled with tales of men engaged in epic battle with nature as they charted the polar regions. Lecture halls filled with people of all ages eager to hear the tales of Stefansson, a new hero of the North. But, instead of awing his audiences with tales of his bravery and fortitude in the land of never-ending winter, Stefansson explained how comfortably he had lived in a hospitable land. "I have gone on one expedition after another and I have overcome many difficulties," Stefansson declared, "but most of them have been difficulties that never existed."[ii] According to Stefansson, the popular conception of the Arctic was not one of fact: "By presenting to you the North as it is I shall do my best to talk you out of the imaginary North, the North which has never existed on land or sea and belongs nowhere except in the minds of the people who where misinformed by books which were incorrect."[iii] Myths about the Arctic abounded and Stefansson saw it his duty to abolish them so that the friendly Arctic might be opened for development.

The lectures, illustrated by the images presented here, varied slightly from venue to venue, but always focused on informing audiences about the "true" Arctic as Stefansson saw it. Stefansson often opened his lectures with an admission of his own prior ignorance of the Arctic[iv] brought on by traditional schooling: "I do not believe there could have been one wrong idea about the Far North that I did not absorb in school. For, like you, I have been the victim of education. …I have held degrees from three American universities so I have absorbed every variety of misinformation. Not only absorbed it, for I have done my part in helping to pass it on."[v] Early in his career and much to his chagrin, Stefansson taught anthropology at Harvard where he passed on the teachings that he would later come to see as fantasy.

Stefansson traced misconceptions about the Arctic to the myths told by ancient peoples, primarily the Greeks and the Romans. He likened the perpetuation of Arctic misconceptions to the popular view of the ostrich. Elders, teachers, and peers have all told and retold the story of the ostrich that sticks his head in the sand when threatened. Though a powerful image, nothing could be further from the truth; in fact, the ostrich runs when frightened. Stefansson drew on common sense when he asked "what you would do if you were a hungry leopard and came to a place where there was a nice, fat bird with his head in the sand? Personally I would bite his neck."[vi]

Though Stefansson argued that the Arctic was friendly, many contemporary polar explorers and researchers disagreed with his basis hypothesis and made clear their reservations. The polar explorer Roald Amundsen – famous for being the first person to reach the South Pole and traverse the Northwest Passage – called Stefansson’s The Friendly Arctic "entertaining, and highly plausible to one who has not been ‘up there,’ but it is fantastic rot" and "a dangerous distortion of the real conditions [of the Arctic]."[vii] Rudolph M. Anderson, a zoologist and member of two of Stefansson’s expeditions, wrote, "Stefansson is the outstanding humbug in the exploration world at the present time – a persistent, perennial, and congenital liar who for years has made his living by sheer mendacity and skill in handling words."[viii] The Arctic explorer Donald MacMillan, a companion of Robert Peary, also doubted Stefansson’s claims, writing that when he thought of Peary "struggling back over the Greenland ice cap in 1895, followed by two starving men and one emaciated dog, of his frozen feet – and the stumps of his toes, or the Big Lead in 1906, I boil at that word ‘friendly’ when applied to a country where even Eskimos starve!"[ix] Missing from Stefansson’s lectures were images of privation and suffering as evoked by Amundsen, Anderson, or MacMillan.

If professional critiques were not enough, casualties in expeditions Stefansson both led and organized speak to the ‘unfriendliness’ of the North. The Canadian Arctic Expedition of 1913-1918 – the expedition in which Stefansson lived off the land comfortably for months – saw the death of eleven party members from the expedition’s Karluk, which sank after it became trapped in ice floes and was crushed. The crew escaped the sinking ship and traveled to different islands nearby; most traveled to Wrangel Island. Ultimately, eleven of the twenty-two men perished before being rescued. Not surprisingly, the lanternslides and lectures omit the demise of eleven men and the destruction of the Karluk.

In response to criticisms, Stefansson was quick to point out that the men who died in the disaster of the Karluk were not under his direct charge at the time of their deaths and were propelled into the situation that killed them because of decisions Stefansson explicitly warned against, namely the sailing of the Karluk into deeper waters. Stefansson explained that:

"No lives were lost among those under my command who lived by forage and acted on the general supposition that the arctic is friendly. Eleven lives were lost by the party 1,000 miles away from me who acted upon the theory that the arctic is exceedingly unfriendly and must be dealt with on that basis."[x]

The men of the Karluk were without Stefansson and in his view did not adapt themselves to the environment. Stefansson saw the death of the men as their fault, the fault of not accepting and living by his theory of a friendly Arctic. But what of the two men that died in the northern section of the expedition of which Stefansson was in direct command? Stefansson wrote that:

"both [were] engaged at the time they died in an enterprise which was contrary to my direct orders and the plan of which was inconsistent with my theories. … According to my frequently reiterated views, a tragedy is likely to result from such a violation of principle. A tragedy did result, but surely that does not prove that the theory violated is therefore unsound. A machine may be "safe to operate" without being foolproof. …I mean to assert no more of the North – it is "The Friendly Arctic," in spite of drawbacks and dangers, to those of us who know and love it."[xi]

Determined to prove his theories, in 1921 Stefansson encouraged four men to travel to the Arctic in an attempt to settle Wrangel Island, the same island upon which the men of the Karluk subsisted for a time after their ship sank during the Canadian Arctic Expedition. Always realizing the strategic importance of the Arctic, to say nothing of its potential resources, Stefansson hoped that the men could claim the island for Canada. When the Canadian government refused to assist the expedition, the men instead raised a British flag over their settlement, in essence claiming the land for Britain. At first the party seemed to be doing quite well, but within two years all four men had perished. Only Ada Blackjack, the Inuit woman who was hired in Nome, Alaska, as a cook and seamstress survived. Again, Stefansson saw fault with the men’s actions and not his theory; the men made mistakes such as not purchasing "an Eskimo umiak, or skin boat…. a far more important piece of equipment than they realized."[xii] In Stefansson’s eyes, it was "Accident and a certain amount of miscalculation [that] had canceled the success of the Wrangel Island party."[xiii] The theory of a friendly Arctic still held true and any setback could be ascribed to a failure to conform to the theory.

Though Stefansson’s theory of the friendly Arctic was disputed by contemporary polar explorers and academics, and thrown into doubt by the deaths of many of those exploring the region under his guidance, his accomplishments still offered the hope that the area could be habitable when one adapts their behavior and expectations to suit the environment. Though challenged on many fronts, Stefansson never altered his theories and continued to propound them until his death in 1962.




Notes

[i] Vilhjalmur Stefansson Lecture, "The Standardization of Error," 13 December 1928, Vilhjalmur Stefansson Collection, 12:19, p. 6, Dartmouth College Rauner Library.

[ii] Vilhjalmur Stefansson Lecture, "Speech at Town Hall, Melbourne" 14 June 1924, Vilhjalmur Stefansson Collection, 12:16, p. 3, Dartmouth College Rauner Library.

[iii] Vilhjalmur Stefansson Lecture, "Abolishing the Arctic," 9 November 1923, Vilhjalmur Stefansson Collection, 12:15, p. 69, Dartmouth College Rauner Library.

[iv] "I used to believe, for instance, that the North Pole was the hardest place to reach in the northern hemisphere, and that the North Pole was the coldest place on earth. … I knew, too, that the land in the Arctic was always covered with ice and snow even in midsummer, and I thought, even in midsummer, it was distressingly cold any place inside the Arctic Circle, not only on the mountain tops but everywhere; that vegetation up there was confined to a dozen varieties and these would be mosses and lichens. I thought that in the winter time most of the Eskimos lived in snow houses. I thought Eskimos drank oil and I even imagined they liked it. I thought that when you freeze your nose the proper thing is to rub snow on it." (Vilhjalmur Stefansson Lecture, "The Arctic and Sub-Arctic as they really are, to the best of our present knowledge and belief – climate, resources, people," 7 January, Vilhjalmur Stefansson Collection, 12:21, p. 2-3, Dartmouth College Rauner Library.)

[v] Vilhjalmur Stefansson Lecture, "The Arctic and Sub-Arctic as they really are, to the best of our present knowledge and belief – climate, resources, people," 7 January, Vilhjalmur Stefansson Collection, 12:21, p. 2, Dartmouth College Rauner Library.

[vi] Vilhjalmur Stefansson Lecture, "Abolishing the Arctic," 9 November 1923, Vilhjalmur Stefansson Colletion, 12:15, p. 88-89, Dartmouth College Rauner Library.

[vii] Ottawa Journal, undated clipping (March 1926?). Cited in Stefansson to Isaiah Bowman, 15 March 1926. Quoted in William R. Hunt, Stef: a Biography of Vilhjalmur Stefansson (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 1986), 215.

[viii] Anderson to Amundsen, 4 March 1926. Public Archives of Canada, Ottowa. Quoted in William R. Hunt, Stef: a Biography of Vilhjalmur Stefansson (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 1986), 222.

[ix] MacMillan to Marie Peary Stafford, 1932, Center for Polar Archives, National Archives, Washington, D.C. Quoted in William R. Hunt, Stef: a Biography of Vilhjalmur Stefansson (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 1986), 226.

[x] Vilhjalmur Stefansson Unpublished Article, "In defense of the ‘Friendly Arctic’" 14:5 p. 3, Dartmouth College Rauner Library.

[xi] Vilhjalmur Stefansson Unpublished Article, "In defense of the ‘Friendly Arctic’" 14:5 p. 2-3, Dartmouth College Rauner Library.

[xii] Vilhjalmur Stefansson, Discovery: The Autobiography of Vilhjalmur Stefansson (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1964), 257.

[xiii] Vilhjalmur Stefansson, Discovery: The Autobiography of Vilhjalmur Stefansson (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1964), 264.



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Last Updated: 2/19/13