I have mixed emotions about museums. I absolutely adore them, and I think they are unparalleled as places of enlightenment. But on the other hand, let’s face it, in many cases a lot of the things contained therein were either stolen or obtained under shady circumstances. So I feel guilty for my love.
For example, I once had the opportunity to visit the American Museum of Natural History in New York, and oh, what a treat that was. But while gazing in awe at the largest of all the meteorites housed therein, I had no idea how sad the story was behind it. If I had known, I may have looked at it quite differently. My awe would still have been there, but it would have been mixed with sorrow.
According to an article entitled “Minik and the Meteor”, The meteorite in question, called the Cape York meteorite, was part of a 4.5 billion year old asteroid, weighing 200 tons, that struck the earth about 10,000 years ago. It landed in what is now Greenland. Fast forward to the 1800’s, and explorers in the area found out that the local inuit were making iron tools, and that iron was coming from some mysterious distant “mountain”.
It took explorers nearly another 100 years to actually get the inuit to reveal this mountain’s location, and they probably only did so because with so many explorers showing up and trading with them, the rare source of iron wasn’t quite as valuable to them as it once was. (Little did they know, those visits would eventually all but dry up, so they should have held on to this important resource.)
So when Robert Peary launched his 1894 expedition, in an effort to reach the North Pole, little did he know that his focus would shift. In exchange for a gun, an inuit man led him right to the source. It took 11 days.
Without asking any kind of permission, Peary took two of the smaller meteorites on that expedition. He returned in 1896 to obtain the largest one, which was 11 feet across. It was dragged onto Peary’s ship and christened Anighito, the middle name of Peary’s daughter. It weighed 36.5 tons.
He was also asked by the museum to obtain something else: One living inuit for “study”. Peary decided to bring back six. The more the merrier. In addition, he brought back a bunch of bones of their ancestors , also obtained without permission, and removed under great protest.
He talked these poor people into coming with him by promising them “nice warm houses in the sunshine land, and guns and knives and needles and many other things.” They also expected to be brought back after a year. One of the Inuit in question was a little boy named Minik, who accompanied his father.
According to later interviews with Minik, Peary was nice enough when they were still in Greenland, making many promises and reassurances. But the minute they were on board, they were packed in the hold like dogs and virtually ignored.
After arriving in New York, they were quartered in a damp cellar in the bowels of the museum. Within weeks they were all sick. Four of the six, including Minik’s father, were dead within 4 months. That left Minik and one adult male alive. That man promptly returned to Greenland, leaving Minik alone.
The dead Inuit were dissected by medical students, and their cleaned bones were stored in the museum, as part of their collection. Minik was adopted by an employee of the museum, and raised in a loving family in the Bronx, but he always felt like a freak. His whole life, he tried and failed to get his father’s remains back.
In 1909, a very bitter and defeated Minik returned to Greenland at about the age of 18. He had forgotten the language. He didn’t know how to hunt. He learned quickly, but he missed city life. He returned to New York in 1916. He tried one last time to retrieve his father’s bones. Once again, the museum wasn’t having it.
He then moved to New Hampshire, became a lumberjack, and lived on a farm with a friend. And then, as the final insult, he died in 1918 in the Spanish Flu epidemic. He was only about 28 years old.
Minik’s father was finally laid to rest in Greenland in a church cemetery in 1993. Minik still rests in New Hampshire. Aside from headstones, there are no monuments to either of these ill-used and tragic men, unless you count the meteorite itself, which museum visitors can happily visit without ever knowing its whole story.
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