North Pole Legacy: Black, White & Eskimo.


Introduction by Deirdre C. Stam: By the 1980’s, when S. Allen Counter began to take an interest in the contact of Arctic explorer Robert Peary and his assistant Matthew Henson with the Greenland Inuit, it may have seemed to most readers that the story of the North Pole conquest was largely played out. The old debate of who got to the magic spot first seemed to have stalled with supporters of Peary and Frederick Cook at loggerheads. New insights into the exploration of the polar region were slow in coming, despite the partisan and non-partisan efforts of astronomers, physicists, mathematicians, historians, latter-day explorers, and nautical experts to find the definitive answer to the Peary-Cook debates over who got there first, or indeed whether either made it at all. There were outposts of research such as The Peary-MacMillan Arctic Museum and Arctic Studies Center at Bowdoin College, of course, where curators diligently combed through hard evidence of all kinds to piece together a detailed and objective narrative of Peary’s years in the Arctic. By and large, however, by then public attention to exploration was focused elsewhere, such as continental Antarctica, outer space, and more mundane but promising regions of scientific research. The human element was certainly considered by researchers in Peary/Henson studies, but more through the lens of the hard rather than soft sciences. There were some exceptions. There had been published anthropological observations of the Inuit culture – most notably by explorer Vilhjalmur Stefansson and even Peary himself. And interest in Henson largely invoked contemporary racial issues by the 1980’s. But in general public interest in exploration seemed to have turned elsewhere. Neurophysiologist and social historian Counter introduced a unique blend of methodologies to the understanding of the Peary/Henson experience in the far North with his book North Pole Legacy; Black, White and Eskimo (1991). Acting as participant observer and ultimately as actor in the lives of the explorers’ Inuit progeny, Counter overcame many physical and administrative barriers to develop personal relationships with the indigenous descendants of Peary and Henson, to elicit community memories of their forebears, and ultimately to bring about meetings in the U.S. of the explorers’ U.S. and Inuit descendants. Sharing the fact of African-American ancestry with Henson, Counter was particularly interested in the life experiences of Henson and his Inuit descendents and the possible role of racial prejudice in their lives.