Knud Johan Victor Rasmussen

1879-1933

Knud Johan Victor Rasmussen was born in 1879 in Jakobshaun, Greenland. His father, Christian Rasmussen was a Danish missionary who married an Inuit from the local tribe. The first language Rasmussen learned was Inuit. It wasn't until later that he attended school in Birkerod and learned to speak Danish. Knud grew up around the Polar Regions and the outdoors. He dreamed of exploring the northern regions of Greenland and was fascinated by Eskimo legends and folklore. Part of his dream was to search out the more remote Eskimo tribes and study them.

Knud attended college at the University of Copenhagen but failed to graduate. At the age of twenty-three Mylius Erichsen took Knud under his wing for Knud's first expedition refered to as the "Danish Literary Greenland Expedition" (1902-1904). Knud served as interpreter and afterwards authored The People of the Polar North (1934).

In 1910 Knud and others created the “Arctic Station of Thule”. Thule was the northern most post in the world. For the first year other scientists and him worked out of the base on the Eastern coast. Small groups would venture out and return to the base to share their findings. Most of this work was ethnography. The scientists would spend a few weeks with various tribes to learn their customs. The group also was able to create more detailed maps of the area than was known before. From this base several expeditions were formed; these expeditions were known as the “Thule Expeditions”. There were eight expeditions in all, in these expeditions Knud and his team proved the Peary channel did not exist, mapped the northern coasts of Greenland, and explored the Eskimo cultures from many different scientific angles.

The fifth expedition was the most well know of all the Thule Expeditions. This expedition started out June 17th, 1921 in Copenhagen and went all the way to the pacific. There was a special boat built for the trip called the “Seaking” which weighed one hundred tons. During this expedition Knud wrote in thirty-two journals and became known as the first man to cross the Northwest Passage on dog sled. He brought with him specialists of zoology, geology, and mineralogy. He left himself to explore the folklore of the cultures. He would take down the legends in Inuit to be later translated into other languages. He would translate the legends into Danish himself. When he returned from the trip he was given a Ph. D from the University of Copenhagen. This journey, which lasted over four years, spawned a few well-accepted books from Knud.  

The translation of the Inuit language into any of the European language families is extremely difficult. Many Eskimo words are indescribable and others can only be described using several words from any other language. Because of Knud's Inuit roots he was able to do very well in his translations. Knud was able to see deeper into the Inuit stories and had an overwhelming comprehension of them. Knud opened new doors for research into the Inuit culture.

Rasmussen had a theory that Inuits and Native American Indians shared common ancestors. He believed that groups of Inuits split off from their homeland and traveled south over many years. Knud was never able to establish which was the earliest Inuit culture because during the Eighth Thule expedition he died at the age of fifty-five on December 21st, 1933.

Knud Rasmussen was an excellent explorer, interpreter, and translator. He documented many Inuit legends that may have gone unnoticed without him. His work helped future explorers and he will always be remembered as the first man to cross the Northwest Passage by dog sled.

References:

Rasmussen, Knud. Across Arctic America; Narrative of the Fifth Thule Expedition. New York, London, G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1927.

Thalbitzer, William. Knud Rasmussen: In Memoriam. American Anthropologist vol. 36. 1934.

Written by Sam Alley

Edited by Marcy L. Voelker, 2007