On Narrative Expectations: Greenlandic Oral Traditions about the Cultural Encounter between Inuit and Norsemen

By Thisted, Kirsten | Scandinavian Studies, Fall 2001 | Go to article overview

On Narrative Expectations: Greenlandic Oral Traditions about the Cultural Encounter between Inuit and Norsemen


Thisted, Kirsten, Scandinavian Studies


AMONG ARCHEOLOGISTS as well as Eskimologists, the Greenlandic stories about cultural contact and hostilities between Inuit and Norsemen have long been disputed. Today no one believes that Inuit attacks on the Norsemen were the sole reason for the disappearance of both the Western (Nuuk/Godthab) and Eastern (Qaqortoq/Julianehab) Settlements. Recent research rejects these stories as sources of insight into the Middle Ages, though discussion of the narrative expectations associated with them and the role they play is important in understanding the Inuit storytelling tradition. And though they cannot be considered as sources of historical insight into the medieval encounters between Inuit and Norsemen (qallunaatsiaat), a careful consideration of these expectations will prove to be an excellent source for the history of the encounters in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries between the Greenlandic Inuit and the Europeans (qallunaat).

H.J. RINK AND THE COLLECTION OF THE GREENLANDIC ORAL TRADITION

Contrary to the widely held view in Europe, literacy was relatively widespread in Greenland as early as the middle of the nineteenth century. The trained catechists were able to write extended texts in different genres such as sermons and personal letters. Fortunately they also turned their to attention to recording their oral traditions in writing and in doing so remained close to the codified language typical of oral performance. The first collection with which the Greenlanders were involved was made in northern Greenland in 1823-28 by the Danish priest, Peder Kragh (1793-1883). He, however, never saw the project through to publication but forwarded the entire collection to Hinrich Rink (1819-93), who between 1858 and 1868 made the first large-scale, systematic collection of Greenlandic oral traditions.

With a background in the natural sciences, Rink went to Greenland for the first time in 184-8 in order to pursue a mineralogical/geological investigation of the island's resources. Upon his return to Denmark after three years of study, he gained employment with the Commission for the Administration of Greenland and was initially posted to the south of the island. In 1853, he was appointed administrator of Julianehab and took up residence in Greenland on a more permanent basis. By this juncture in his career, he had traveled the whole of Danish western Greenland from the north to the south. On the basis of these travels, Rink wrote a detailed description of the area covering all its features from geography and climate through products and resources to the inhabitants and their lifestyle. The compendium was published as Gronland geographisk og statistisk beskrevet 1-2, 1857 (revised English version: Danish Greenland: Its People and its Products, 1877). As a result of these journeys, Rink knew that the Greenlanders were able to read and write and that they were eager to obtain new and more varied reading material.

In 1855 Rink moved to Nuuk/Godthab and became inspector (a leading administrator) of southern Greenland. (1) During the winter of 1856-57, he was on a leave in Denmark, where he acquired a small printing press and an even smaller lithographic press, which accompanied him upon his return to Greenland. In an "invitation" dated April 22, 1858, Rink issued a call for written narratives and illustrations that could entertain and instruct the Greenlanders. High among his desiderata were "Gronlandske Sagn eller Digtninger, som nu vedligeholdes blandt Beboerne af visse Egne ved mundtlig Fortaelling eller Sang" (Greenlandic legends or poetic works that still might be retained by the inhabitants of certain localities in Greenland as either oral narration or song). (2) This collection of the oral traditions became part of a multi-faceted national project. Rink also established a series of local councils in which leading hunters took part in the administration of their own community--forstanderskaber--to educate the Greenlanders and return to them some of the political power they had lost as a result of colonization. …

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