The Native Greenlander: Folktales of Greenland

Translated by Susan Stanley. Edited by Heinrich Rink. 2020. Hanover: International Polar Institue Press. 192 pages. ISBN: 9780996748087 (hard cover).


Reviewed by William Hansen, Indiana University

[Review length: 879 words • Review posted on April 9, 2020]


[Cover ofThe Native Greenlander: Folktales of Greenland]

The first edition of this fascinating little work appeared in 1859 in Nuuk, Greenland. Entitled Kaladlit Okalluktualliait, it was the first book printed in Greenland, accomplished on a hand press, and featured traditional narratives gathered in the Kalaallisut language from native Greenlanders, along with illustrations made by a native artist. The stories were collected by the Danish administrator and scholar, Heinrich Rink (1819-1893), and the accompanying woodcuts were created by the seal-hunter and walrus-hunter, Aron of Kangeq (1822-1869). Subsequently Rink’s book was translated into Danish, and now, thanks to the IPI (International Polar Institute) Press, we have an English translation based upon that edition.

Heinrich, or Hinrich (as his name is more often spelled), Rink was a multi-faceted person. A geologist and glaciologist, he spent many years in Greenland holding different appointments for the Danish government. Rink founded a monthly Kalaallisut-language newspaper, Atuagagdliutit (“Readings”), which was supported by the Danish government and distributed to readers free of charge. In his day Greenland was a colony of Denmark; later it became part of the country. A natural anthropologist and folklorist, it seems, he became closely acquainted with the language and culture of the native Inuit and authored many books and essays on different aspects of Greenland and its inhabitants. Much like the present book, but on a larger scale, is Rink’s compilation of 150 folk narratives, which he himself translated into English: Henry Rink, Tales and Traditions of the Eskimo, with a Sketch of their Habits, Religion, Language, and other Peculiarities (Edinburgh, 1875). In 1889, Rink and Franz Boas collaborated on an article, “Eskimo Tales and Songs,” that appeared in the Journal of American Folklore.

The present volume offers fourteen narratives collected by Rink from Inuit informants over a period of years. Some of them were taken down from dictation, as in the case of the first story: “A Qaqortoquian [= resident of Qaqortoq] named Jonathan, also called Samek, has told this peculiar story and it has been recorded from his oral account for the knowledge of his countrymen” (15). Others, such as the seventh story, were evidently written down by the narrators themselves: “This is the end. Aron has written it” (109). The texts give the impression of having suffered little editing or rewriting by the collector.

The narrators of Hinrich Rink’s fourteen stories, all named, are males. The characters in the stories are mostly males, and the predominant themes are of the sort that, one might imagine, appealed mostly to males—hunting at sea and on land, adventure, contesting, violence, and so on. Recurrent character types include strong men, big men, agile men, good kayakers, skillful hunters, and successful fighters. Such men often possess irrepressible energy and may seek to test their strength and skills by competing with other men in racing, wrestling, casting stones, and the like. Another recurrent type is the killer, the man who has murdered one or more of his fellow human beings, sometimes without obvious motive, and is feared by the community. A third kind, frequently present but not foregrounded, is the sorcerer or magician. Memorable and unusual motifs include boats disguised magically as calved ice, or ice floes; flying umiaqs (traditional workboats); and the use of animal or human heads by persons to play with like balls.

An interesting situation found in several of the stories is contact between Inuit people and early Scandinavian settlers. Europeans became aware of Greenland in the 900s. Before the end of the century, Erik the Red led a group of Icelanders to settle on the island, and their descendants probably encountered Inuit peoples sometime in the 1200s, after which the two groups had sometimes friendly, sometimes unfriendly relations. Ultimately the Inuit adapted better to the challenging conditions of life on Greenland, for Inuit communities have persisted there to the present day, whereas the Scandinavian settlements died out around 1500. Strikingly, Inuit oral traditions of interaction with Nordic settlers were still alive some 350 years later when Rink collected his Greenlandic oral stories.

Readers familiar with medieval Icelandic saga literature will notice similarities between Inuit and Icelandic prose narratives. In both, the principal characters as well as the sites of the action are generally named, so that the narratives have the feeling of reports of things that really happened, however much or little credence the stories may have enjoyed. Both traditions show a fascination with strong men, macho men, men who do not readily forgive an insult, so that blood-feud and revenge are common themes. A man craving revenge might well trap his enemies in their house and burn them alive. Women are mostly secondary characters but sometimes play the role of provocateur, inciting men against each other.

Susan Stanley’s translation is very readable but suffers here and there from a wrong choice of word, such as “lonely women” for “lone women” (57) and “compassionate to learn” for “passionate to learn” (86). However, the meaning is rarely unclear. The strange expression, “throw an arrow” at someone (15 and 95), seems to refer to casting a harpoon.

Lovers of folk narrative who may wish to sample a less familiar—to many of us at least—storytelling tradition will find much to delight and much to ponder in the present book, which I warmly recommend for its fascinating storytelling and fine illustrations.

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© Journal of Folklore Research, 2020. Last revised January 22, 2022.