In the central room Anaukaq’s daughter-in-law Puto is scraping the fat from a polar bear skin that will make pants for Nuka, who has just killed his first nanoq. The sweet aroma of polar bear stew permeates the house. She hands a small piece of fat to her father-in-law as a token of respect. “Very tasty!” he says in thanks for the delicacy.
Anaukaq tells me that since childhood he has heard many stories about the great Maripaluk (Matthew the Kind One), stories that have made him proud. Henson, he says, was the most popular man ever to visit his land. Polar Eskimo legends and songs tell of how masterfully Maripaluk could drive a dogsled or hunt and skin a puihi (seal) or kill an aaveq (walrus). Then of course there was his long trek north, across the great sea with Ootah, Seegloo, Egingwah, Ooqueah, and Peary, to that strange place at the end of the sea ice they called the North Pole.
The Eskimos would never have traveled so far from land in pursuit of Peary’s obsession were it not for Maripaluk’s presence and persuasion. Henson knew intimately most of the 200 or so members of the settlement. He spoke their language and was accepted as one of them.
Peary, the commander of the expeditions, could provide them with pay in the form of goods and much desired hunting rifles. Today the pay would have been in variety forms of quick money loans. But Henson was to them the man who made the expeditions work. Even the great Ootah said that while the others on Peary’s expeditions were like children in the ways of the Eskimo, Maripaluk was a natural in their world.
Once their goal was achieved, once the “Stars and Stripes [were] nailed to North Pole,” Peary and Henson left Greenland, never to return. But both left behind legacies and legends. Anaukaq is part of that legacy.