Jacob Olsen, a Greenlander in Canada, part 1

Jacob Olsen, the Kalaaleq whom Canadian Inuit called Jaaku, on the Fifth Thule Expedition. Unknown photographer. (Photo courtesy of Arktisk Institut, Denmark, #269043)

The importance of Jacob Olsen in the Fifth Thule Expedition is often overlooked.

He was the interpreter and secretary of the expedition. Unlike the six Inughuit on the expedition, who spoke neither English nor Danish, Olsen, a Kalaaleq from west-central Greenland, spoke Kalaallisut (west Greenland) and Danish.

The Inughuit spoke Inuktun, a dialect of the “Eskimo” language related to Kalaallisut and all Canadian Inuktitut dialects. Knud Rasmussen spoke Inuktun and Kalaallisut, as well as Danish and English. Peter Freuchen spoke Danish, English and Inuktun. The other three Danes spoke neither Inuktun nor Kalaallisut.

The Aivilingmiut and Iglulingmiut who interacted with the expedition on the Danish island called the Inughuit Akukittut – people with short tails over their parkas. They had heard of these people on trade trips north to Pond Inlet. This word is used today, usually with a “-miut” suffix – Akukitturmiut – for all Greenlanders. But Jacob Olsen was different. He was a Kalaaleq and the people of the Melville Peninsula had no knowledge of West Greenlanders.

Olsen’s father, Samuel Olsen, was the head catechist of Sisimiut (then Holsteinsborg). Jacob’s older brother, Gustav, was a close friend of Knud Rasmussen and had been the first missionary to the Thule district. Another brother Julius worked as a catechist among the Inuit of East Greenland.

Jacob was born on November 22, 1890. After graduating from Nuukt Seminary, he took up duties in Qeqertarsuaq (then Godhavn). He was, moreover, a skilled dog handler and proficient in the use of the kayak. He was a natural for the expedition and in the summer of 1921 Knud Rasmussen recruited him.

Olsen, who worked in the village of Ujarasugssuk, had only three hours to consider Rasmussen’s offer. He accepted and left his family in Qeqertarsuaq where they will stay while he is away.

Early in the expedition, Olsen made a number of trips from the Danish island to Repulse Bay (now Naujaat), where there was a Hudson’s Bay Company post with a small Inuit community nearby.

In the spring of 1922 he traveled to Chesterfield Inlet with ethnographer Kaj Birket-Smith. Olsen stayed there while Birket-Smith continued to Baker Lake.

In Chesterfield he enjoyed the hospitality and knowledge of the Inuktitut-speaking trader Solomon Ford. He also spent a lot of time at the Roman Catholic mission and met its founder, Father Arsène Turquetil, and a young priest, Lionel Ducharme.

In addition to his work as an assistant to Danish scientists, Olsen preached the gospel to the Inuit he encountered, both at expedition headquarters and on his various travels.

It was a period of religious upheaval in the Naujaat region. The influences of the Chesterfield Catholic mission moved north around the same time that the Inuit prophet Umik arrived from the Pond Inlet area with his particular version of Christianity. Into the mix came Jacob Olsen, a man with six years of theological training under his belt, speaking a dialect of the Inuktitut language and having an interest in proselytizing.

In a 1990 interview, the famous Anglican Inuit pastor Noah Nashook said, “My first introduction to Christianity as a young boy was near Naujaat by preachers from Greenland who arrived by boat. I was so young that I don’t remember my reaction.

Although his name is not mentioned, Olsen is the only member of the expedition who could have been described as a preacher.

Of the six Inughuit, one, the young woman Aqattaq, had been baptized in Thule; the others were baptized in Nuuk the day before they left for Canada, all of whom had witnessed preparations for baptism during the previous three years. But there is no indication that they proselytized.

Olsen kept a detailed diary in Greenlandic in which he recorded Inuit songs and customs, as well as notes on his work in archeology and on collecting artifacts.

A man he met in Chesterfield Inlet and mentioned by name was Pilakapsi. Olsen spoke to him quite emphatically about Christianity, and eventually Pilakapsi said he wanted to know more. Because Olsen was leaving soon, he referred him to Father Turquetil.

Another of the Danes, Helge Bangsted, wrote in his diary: “They [the Catholic fathers] I really want Jacob to convert to Catholicism and become a catechist here. “But I won’t,” said Jacob.

In his own writings, Olsen noted that Catholic priests made overtures to him three times.

Peter Freuchen wrote of Olsen that he was too busy casting his seed among the Inuit to care about any preaching. But this accusation is suspicious – Freuchen had made similar slanders, in almost the same terms, against a West Greenland missionary in Thule. Perhaps it is Freuchen who takes the opportunity to show his well-known dislike of missionaries.

The Canadian Inuit were called Olsen Jaaku — in Greenland he was known as Jaakunnguaq. He admired the Inuit, got along well with them and praised them for their kindness, friendliness, helpfulness and hardiness.

He particularly admired the Aivilingmiut for their construction of snow houses – their skill and speed. He marveled at a complex of multi-domed snow houses he saw in Mattuq (Bury Cove), which housed four families. He even took notes on the calls used to lead dogs in a team and compared them to the calls used in Greenland.

Greenlandic scholar Robert Petersen summed up the man: “He was physically strong and skilled in all kinds of sports, and he was also endowed with a good sense of humor. He was able to prove himself in many areas among the Aivilingmiut and be accepted.

The Aivilingmiut had abandoned the art of kayaking, but Jaaku had brought his kayak with him and shown them how to use it. They recalled it three decades later when they told Petersen how impressed they were to see Jaaku rolling his kayak.

In contrast, the inland Inuit had retained the use of their kayaks for use on the lakes. Knud Rasmussen wanted to show them how the Greenlanders roll a kayak, but didn’t realize that the Caribou Inuit kayak was not made for such feats. He found himself in a dangerous situation – upside down in an unfamiliar kayak.

Olsen was critical of the syllabic writing system that the Inuit of the eastern Canadian Arctic had recently adopted. He wrote sarcastically:[The characters] are very well suited to what they are supposed to do! They are not able to show the words as they are. So there are many possibilities for misunderstandings. How, indeed, to show the pronunciation of syllables?

Robert Petersen, writing about Olsen and editorializing on the subject, summed it up this way: “It’s convenient to learn, but impractical to use.”

Next episode – more on Jacob Olsen

Taissumani is an occasional column that recalls events of historical interest. Kenn Harper is a historian and writer who has lived in the Arctic for over 50 years. He is the author of “Minik: The Eskimo of New York” and “Thou Shalt Not Murder,” among other books. Feedback? Send your comments and questions to [email protected]

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