The story of Minik Wallace is a stranger and sadder one than that of any other Inuk person brought from his home to the “civilized” world. That he was brought in the name of “science,” and repeatedly lied to and deceived by men who claimed its mantle, makes his story all the more horrific. And, unlike London’s Egyptian Hall or Barnum’s American Musuem, the American Museum of Natural History still stands in New York City, and the bones of some of Minik’s people are even today still stored somewhere among its basements and warehouses.
My friend Kenn Harper was the one to uncover Minik’s story, and eventually tell it to the world. Kenn was a schoolteacher in the Canadian Arctic, who learned Inuktitut and later married an Inuk woman who was a distant relative of Minik. He heard stories among her relatives in Greenland that got him thinking; they had all heard about Minik, the boy who had been taken south by Peary, come back as a young man, and then left again. What had happened to him? Kenn’s researches led him to the American Museum of Natural History, but archivists there said that they were sorry, no records relating to Minik or his adoptive father, Mr. Wallace — who had been forced to resign his post at the museum due to charges of embezzlement — survived. On the chance that something might be found in Mr. Wallace’s personnel file, Kenn requested it, and was amazed to find that it was here that the directors and scholars at the museum — including Maurice Jessup, Franz Boaz, and Theodore Kroeber — had buried all the documents of Minik’s life. These documents enabled Kenn to write the book that became Minik: The New York Eskimo.
They tell a sad tale of scientific exploitation, full of the kinds of trickery and lies we hate to associate with such esteemed anthropologists as Boas (who would later direct the research of Zora Neale Hurston) and Kroeber (who later had his own Minik-like issues with a California Indian named “Ishi,” and whose daughter was Ursula Kroeber Le Guin, the distinguished science fiction writer). Yet quite beside the deception, which — in his stepfather’s words — led Minik to “lose faith in the people he had come among,” there is the issue of whether, even in a kinder and gentler world, it is any more fitting for a human being to become a “specimen” than it is to be a circus sideshow. In the end, we’re not talking about individual motivation, but the entire scientific worldview of the early 1900’s, and its legacies today.
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