Knud Rasmussen, Eskimo Folk-tales

Citation: Rasmussen, Knud, and W.J. Alexander Worster. Eskimo Folk-tales. London: Gyldendal, 1921.


This is a collection of Inuit folk-tales as told to Greenlandic-Danish ethnography Knud Rasmussen over the course of his research. More than half of the stories originate from the “Polar Eskimos” of Smith Sound, with the rest taken from Inuit living in various parts of Greenland.  

Scope/Organization/Main Points: The stories seem to be organized by theme, if loosely, with sections features bears, island dwellers, and man-eaters.

Points of Importance/Interest: In ethnographic accounts like this, the stakes of writing and reading become clear. In the introduction, Rasmussen (?) notes that the folk tales that he has recorded include “parallels to the fairy tales and legens of other lands and other ages,” as well as providing historical evidence, though they are otherwise works of fantasy (7). Such comparisons and characterizations indicate a need to render familiar Inuit worldviews and stories, with a concomitant tendency to universalize the particularities (of life, place, and peoplehood) that such stories describe. Nevertheless, the stories persist in remaining not fully accessible to their reader.

What can I say? The stories are varied and full of hunting, shapeshifting, wizardry, violence, and magic. Of course, the characterizations of people are familiar — everyday folk driving dog sleds and hunting walruses, for example – but mixed with the supernatural. The stories both meet and exceed my expectations for what Inuit talk about when they tell stories. I was often confused and unsettled reading these stories, particularly given the casual pervasiveness of death and violence in them.

I am starting to notice that Indigenous stories seem to beg, for whatever reason, to be read as biography rather than story. I suspect that this is linked to the Eur-American need to render Indigenous peoples wholly knowable, one-dimensional, and fixed in time. I’m constantly having to remind myself that these are not biographical accounts per se, but stories that constitute various and likely disparate worldviews. A slew of personalities populate the stories, indicating a cacophony of perspectives and potential subjectivities.

One way of approaching these stories is by looking at moments of ethnographic refusal (Audra Simpson).  In her discussion of Kahnawake’s membership debates, Simpson refers to one particular interview as a way of demonstrating that jurisdiction over representation, practices and knowledge can subvert anthropological desires for a pure and static account (110). Moreover, the limit of representation marks an awareness of and responsibility to sovereignty: conversation reaches its completion at the point where “representation would bite all of us and compromise the representational territory that has been gained in the past hundred years, in small but deeply influential ways” (111-12). “Rather than stops, or impediments to knowing, those limits may be expansive in their ethnographic nonrendering and in what they do not tell us” (113).”

Moreover, it is unclear whether Rasmussen, the storyteller, or the unnamed narrator within the story who is articulating the moment of ethnographic refusal, the edge of the conversation.

The phrase, “Here I end this story: I know no more” (19) closes the story “Nukunguasik Who Escaped from the Tupilak.” Other stories include, “Here ends this story” (74, 141, 147); “And I have no more to tell of him” (80); “And that is all I know about the Giant Dog” (96); “This story I heard from the men who came to us from the far side of the great sea” (106).

Stories often end with the death of their protagonist, unceremoniously. One such story ends, “He came to his own land, and there at a later time he died. And that is all” (37). Such endings are clearly practical, in that an ending is required, but their briskness encapsulates a whole unspoken world.  I did notice, however, that the stories that end, “Here ends this story” – arguably a more self-assured conclusion, are ones that Rasmussen attributes to West Greenland (157). Was he perhaps more familiar or comfortable with these stories? Did he feel like he had more authority to convey these stories, as opposed to the tales with endings that defer to the original storyteller, or more explicitly to a lack of knowledge, which Rasmussen heard from a “Polar Eskimo” in Smith Sound (157), further from his home?



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