Monday, April 26, 2010

Ahlikahsingwah & Robert Peary

Photo of the Peary sledge party at the North Pole on April 7, 1909, taken by Peary.
L-R: Ooqueah, Ootah, Matthew Henson, Eginwah, and Seeglo.
Courtesy of the National Archives.

Robert Peary first met Ahlikahsingwah in Greenland during his 1893-1895 expedition while taking some ethnographic photos of local Inuit. Peary described Ahlikasingwah as the “belle of the tribe” and soon began a relationship with her, though she was already married to another Inuit man. Peary hired both her and her husband, Peeahwahto, as guides and assistants, often sending Peeahwahto away so that Peary could have unhindered access to her (Peeahwahto, as well as other local Inuit, were aware of the relationship between Peary & Ahlikahsingwah).

Over the course of their relationship, the couple had two sons, Anaukaq and Kali, both born on Peary’s ship Roosevelt—legally making them Americans. After Peary claimed to have reached the North Pole and left Greenland forever in 1909, Ahlikahsingwah and her sons became ostracized and were often taunted by other Inuit. Peary’s attempts to fully control and dominate the Inuit had left him quite unpopular in Greenland, and Ahlikahsingwah, Anaukaq and Kali unfairly suffered the consequences.

Photo of Ahlikahsingwah posed naked for Robert E. Peary’s book Northward Over the Great Ice, 1886.
Courtesy of the University of California Libraries - Internet Archive.

Robert Peary was always condescending to the Inuit, referring to them as “my Eskimos” or “my children.” His relationship with Ahlikahsingwah shows his desire to fully control female Inuit, and Peary even wrote about how he dispensed these local women to members of his crew, exchanging them for everyday objects such as pieces of wood. He published naked photos of Ahlikahsingwah, demeaning, objectifying and eroticizing Inuit women. Peary even bragged about his affair with Ahlikahsingwah in his 1898 autobiography, proving to his readers his masculinity and dominance. To Peary, Inuit women were nothing more than pleasures for he and his men. “Feminine companionship,” he wrote, “not only causes greater contentment but as a matter of both physical and mental health and the retention of the top notch of manhood it is a necessity.”

Photo of (L to R) Ahlikahsingwah, Anaukaq and Marie Peary in Greenland, 1902.
Courtesy of the Maine Bureau of Parks and Lands - Maine Memory Network.

Peary was entirely unapologetic about his relationship with Ahlikahsingwah. Josephine (Peary's wife) made a surprise visit to his Greenland camp and met Ahlikahsingwah and her first son by Peary, Anaukaq. Josephine angrily confronted her husband about the affair, but Peary refused to repent or end his relationship with Ahlikahsingwah. Ultimately, Josephine reluctantly accepted the situation and never returned to the Arctic.

Peary agreed with the traditional colonial belief that white women like his wife were “noncompliant” and that Inuit women like Ahlikahsingwah were inherently wanton because they lacked “false modesty or bashfulness”. This helped justify Peary’s desire to take Ahlikahsingwah to bed whenever he wanted, imposing his power over the Inuit both physically and mentally. Men like Matthew Henson, however, did not subscribe to these colonial beliefs.

1 comment:

  1. Hi, I became interested in the subject after reading 'Polar Wives' by Kari Herbert. Reading several articles about Peary, I've noticed that although they mention two sons, they also refer to Kali as the only surviving Inuit child of Peary. Would you be able to help me and shed some light on Anaukaq's death?
    Many thanks