Recensions

Stefansson, Vilhjalmur 2001 Writing on Ice: The Ethnographic Notebooks of Vilhjalmur Stefansson, edited and introduced by Gisli Palsson, Hanover, University Press of New England, 336 p.[Notice]

  • David Morrison

…plus d’informations

  • David Morrison
    Canadian Museum of Civilization
    Hull, Canada

Vilhjalmur Stefansson is perhaps the most controversial and perennially fascinating of all arctic explorers and anthropologists. A vigorous, shameless, self-promoter in his own lifetime, in the forty years since his death he has continued to garner an extensive press, both good and bad, including numerous biographies (Le Bourdais 1963; Gregor 1977; Diubaldo 1978; Hunt 1986), and a key role in published accounts of the Karluk disaster (McKinlay1976; Niven 2000). It might be thought that the well was now dry, and there was little new to be learned about (or from) even so multi-facetted a figure. Not so, or at least not quite. The latest offering on the subject of Mr. Stefansson and his career comes from Gisli Palsson, Writing on Ice: The Ethnographic Notebooks of Vilhjalmur Stefansson. As Palsson points out, previous biographies and popular accounts have focused almost exclusively on Stefansson as an explorer and, later, as a public figure and prophet of the North. It is time to re-assess Stefansson in his first if not his most important role, that of anthropologist. The book consists of two parts; a collection of short introductory chapters written by Palsson (pp. 3-78), and a selection from Stefansson’s ethnographic diaries (pp. 81-313), which in manuscript form are part of the Stefansson Collection at Dartmouth College. The diaries cover the first two of Stefansson’s three arctic expeditions, the first between 1906 and 1908, when he was at least theoretically attached to the Anglo-American Polar Expedition (also known as the Mikkelson-Leffingwell Expedition), and the second from 1908 to 1912, with the Stefansson-Anderson Expedition. Diaries from his third and by far most ambitious expedition, the Canadian Arctic Expedition of 1913-1918, are omitted, since they contain, as Palsson notes (p. 3), "little of value on either Inuit society or native-white relations." The introductory chapters cover a variety of topics. Stefansson’s expeditions and the diaries as documents are briefly described. More importantly, there is a discussion entitled "Reflections on Fieldwork" which sets out Palsson’s primary interest with the Stefansson diaries; the revelations they contain on the "dilemma" of fieldwork and the making of ethnographic texts. Palsson compares the Stefansson diaries with other posthumously published private ethnographer’s diaries, which contain intimate details, private thoughts and subjective elements never meant for publication. His interest is the light these diaries throw on the field-contact situation, on the ethnographer as an active participant in a dynamic social situation, and on the making of anthropological texts as a subjective, creative act. The Malinowski diaries (Malinowski 1989) have become anthropological classics. Palsson notes that major excerpts from the Stefansson diaries were published long ago (Stefansson 1914), but have never evoked the same response. In large part, he attributes this to the fact that they were edited by a colleague of Stefansson’s, Clark Wissler, "who discarded precisely the kind of material that sparked the debate on Malinowski’s diaries" (p. 22). So what details did Wissler supress? What is in the Stefansson diaries that hasn’t already been published, and what does it tell us about the complexities of Stefansson’s "doing" of anthropology? Unfortunately for Palsson’s purposes, by far the most important revelation in Writing on Ice is a fact about which the diaries are entirely silent; Stefansson’s "country marriage" to his Inuit (Inuvialuit) seamstress Pannigabluk, which resulted in the birth of a son, Alex. Although it has been common knowledge in the western Arctic for 90 years, most previous biographers have been either ignorant of this important aspect of Stefansson’s private life, or oddly reticent to divulge it. Hunt (1986: 120-121), for instance, treats the accusation (which he learned of from missionary Charles Whittaker) …

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