In 1897 the polar explorer Robert Peary returned from northwestern Greenland with some specimens for the American Museum of Natural History in New York: six real live Inuit, including a man named Qisuk and his son Minik. With no immunity to European diseases, four of the people soon died, and one returned to Greenland, leaving only little Minik.
The bodies were preserved and exhibited by the museum, and Minik was adopted by Walter Wallace, one of the staff. For 12 years he stayed in New York, forgetting his native language and trying unsuccessfully to have his father's body given a decent Inuit burial. He returned, defeated, to Greenland, but by now he had become too acculturated to successfully make a complete transition, and went back to New York in 1916. He soon died in the 1918 flu pandemic. He is buried in New Hampshire, but the bodies of four other "specimens," including his father, were repatriated to Qanaaq in 1993.
Minik is one of a number of such "primitive" people brought back to "civilized" countries to be studied and as curiosities to grace the salons of the rich and famous. His story illustrates the tragedy of many and the outrageous callousness and hypocrisy of some ethnographers. While this practice has disappeared, there are distinct parallels with the attitudes of some modern-day people who adopt children from the third and fourth worlds, more as cultural ornaments than as children.
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