To “Lure On the Gentle Reader”

Approaching Historical Representations of Gender and Sexuality in the Arctic through Rockwell Kent's Salamina

in Sibirica
Author:
Susan B. Vanek PhD Candidate, Binghamton University, USA svanek1@binghamton.edu

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Jette Rygaard Associate Professor, University of Greenland, Greenland jery@uni.gl

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Abstract

While historical depictions of gender and sexuality propagated by outsiders continue to resonate through contemporary representations of Arctic peoples, researchers have only now begun to unpack these persistent ideas and their role in shaping current struggles for access, inclusion, and equality. This article aims to contribute to this growing discussion by examining the depictions of Greenlandic women and sexuality in Rockwell Kent's Salamina (1935). Drawing on a sensationalism that has long been a fixture of Arctic accounts and later media, Kent described Greenlandic women as childlike and highly sexual but still knowable, reinforcing existing hierarchies of power built on constructions of gender and race. This article interrogates the artist's depiction of Greenlandic women and its relation to broader representation of Indigenous peoples in the Arctic.

He is perhaps fortunate that the people of Igdlorssuit do not read American books, for they would find, if they did, that he has been frank in both his admirations and his dislikes. He has been frank, too, in his account of what happens to a white man, temporarily unattached, who finds himself in a Greenland community where the women have no conception of romantic love but otherwise much like their enfranchised sisters in the States…Perhaps it is well that Igdlorssuit is hard to get to. One American artist playing havoc with feminine Eskimo hearts seems perfectly natural and all right. A hundred American artists might make international complications.1

The historical depictions of Indigenous women propagated by missionaries, explorers, artists, and other such travelers are far from relics of the past but instead continue to echo through contemporary representations of Arctic peoples. Even as Indigenous artists, filmmakers, and researchers, along with other scholars, have sought to unpack, upend, and destabilize these persistent phantoms, they endure, appearing in new forms and continuing to shape contemporary struggles for access, inclusion, and equality. This article aims to contribute to the growing discussion of gender and equality in the Arctic by interrogating one such historical account, that of American artist and author, Rockwell Kent, in his book Salamina (1935). Living in Greenland in the early 1930s, Kent produced some of his best known artworks, as well as, Salamina while residing in the small community of Illorsuit (formerly Igdlorssuit), located in the Disko Bay region of northwest Greenland. Written as a chronicle of his time in the village, the work is one of the few accounts by an outsider who was permitted to stay in the ostensibly “closed” colony, and it was explicitly crafted to capture the attention of a mass audience in the United States. Describing Greenlandic women as childlike, highly sexual, and exotic, yet still knowable to the Western observer, Kent sought to “lure on the gentle reader,”2 replicating representations of Indigenous women already common in American and European media at the time and still strikingly familiar today. Building on a sensationalism that has long been a fixture of explorer and traveler accounts of the Arctic and later carried by film and other media, such depictions reinforced already existing hierarchies of power built on constructions of gender and race that relied upon the commodification of women and their bodies. Focusing on Kent's Salamina, supplemented by newspaper and archival sources as well as the artist's other works, this article interrogates this depiction of Greenlandic women and its relation to broader representation of Indigenous peoples in the Arctic at the time, while touching on their lasting legacy. It also raises questions about how we position ourselves as researchers and as foreigners to Greenland when approaching such one-sided historical accounts.

Approaching Salamina

We first became acquainted with Kent through our participation in a larger project that examined the artist's stay in Greenland and utilized his photographs of the country as a springboard for discussions about change and continuity in contemporary Greenlandic communities. While reading Kent's written material about his time in the country in preparation for this work, we were discomforted by his presentation of Greenlandic women, which he described as “beautiful and unmoral,” as childlike, as caretakers of men, and as objects of desire. We had planned to discuss Kent's writings, including his presentation of women, during our project interviews, but upon starting the fieldwork we found that all the individuals who had known Kent well during his time in the country had since died, leaving little written regarding the artist.3 Of the very few individuals in the communities we visited that did remembered Kent, they were very young children at the time of his stay and their recollections, along with the scant stories that remain about the artist, were limited to short anecdotes about the oddity of an American living in a small Greenlandic village before the Second World War. In addition, his book Salamina was never translated into Kalaallisut (Greenlandic) and the Danish translation received only a limited release in Denmark in 1936. Thus, while almost all the individuals who chose to speak with us were familiar with Kent's landscape paintings of Greenland, few had read or even heard of the book Salamina.

So, how could we, two white women from the United States and Denmark, respectively, approach the depictions of Greenlandic women in Kent's writings? Was analysis of such an antiquated and now rather obscure account even necessary? The answer to the latter is easily yes. Kent's descriptions of women in Greenland seem oddly familiar even today, part of broader representations of Indigenous women that continue to be reproduced in film, television, video games, and other media. Interrogations of such constructions are necessary to shed light on persistent underlying hierarchies of power and inequality built around ideas of gender, sexuality, and race, including their enduring legacy of violence against Indigenous women and girls. Yet, we cannot provide the analysis from an Indigenous or a Greenlandic perspective that this topic requires. The works of scholars such as Birgit Kleist Pedersen, Mariekathrine Poppel, Gitte Adler Reimer (formerly Tróndheim), Inge Seiding, Karla Jessen Williamson and others offer analyses of gender, identity, and sexuality in Greenland from historical as well as contemporary perspectives that we cannot.4 Instead, our work here provides only a minor contribution. In this article, we dissect Kent's depictions of Greenlandic women in Salamina in relation to broader Western narratives regarding Inuit women. Focusing on Kent's work as a travelogue but also a commercial product, we explore how the author's account drew on already existing sensationalized narratives of the North as realm of adventure, danger, and romance. In particular, we examine the representations of Greenlandic women in Salamina and how they served to both support constructions of “traditional” gender roles in the US and Europe while also serving as objects of adventure and allure for Western audiences.

Travel Writing and the Sensational Arctic

Kent's Salamina falls within a long-held Western practice of travel writing. While having its roots in the earliest explorer and traveler accounts recounting ventures into the “unfamiliar” and “unknown,” travel writing as a literary genre first reached popularity in English during the early modern period.5 Captivating Western audiences with tales of “mysterious” lands, “exotic” peoples, and boundless wealth, such productions, as Mary Louise Pratt, Edward Said, and others remind us, were far from objective representations of a place or people, but were at their core the construction and examination of the self vis-a-vis the production of the other.6 Motivated by various and often competing interests, such writings “exist betwixt and between the factual report and the fictional account, personal memoir and ethnography, science and romance.”7 Travel writings has a singular place in the history of the Arctic. Long “imagined yet, unseen,” the notion of the frozen, alien, and isolated North was carried to European and North American populations through such explorer and traveler accounts, with the possibility for wealth, fame, and prestige they promised drawing successive waves of expeditions to the region well into the nineteenth century.8 Growing even more sensational in the early twentieth century, accounts of expeditions became a common feature in newspapers and other media that broadcast carefully crafted images of the explorer and the Arctic to the public, scientific societies, and potential sources of funding. Through such material, as well as in fictional literature, exhibitions, drawings, and later in photographs and films, ventures to the North took on an even greater aura of adventure and danger, with the figure of the explorer framed as a national hero and often serving as proxy for rivalries between states, such as in the race to the Poles.9

As the Arctic became increasingly visible through these accounts, so too did the Indigenous populations of the region. Once depicted as largely uninhabited, descriptions of Arctic peoples were increasingly included in representations of the North, sometimes depicted as savage but more often positioned as childlike, innocent, and peaceful, free from the corrupting effects of modernity but highly susceptible to their lures. Serving as the “exotic” other vis-a-vis the West, Inuit peoples were among the Indigenous groups positioned as a “natural” or “essential” people, bound to the environment and serving as relics of human origins that were locked outside and frozen in time. This representation allowed for the Indigenous peoples of the Arctic to be used a baseline of early humanity to which the West could be compared and ideas of “progress” analyzed. Diverse Inuit peoples and cultures along with their histories were collapsed, here, into a stylized and stereotyped feature of the Arctic itself, adding to the mystery and allure of the region.10 European and American women were largely excluded from this masculine domain; it was a realm defined as that of the singular white male explorer venturing beyond the constraints of Western society in a heroic quest for territory, knowledge, and national prestige.11

By the time of Kent's travel to Greenland, these representations of the North had become staples of popular media accounts, including film. Lucrative adventure-melodramas popular in the 1920s and 1930s drew on the mystique of the North and other such “exotic” locations as backdrops for tales of danger and romance. The Arctic was portrayed as a harsh, empty, and isolated landscape inhabited by caricatured “primitive people” who were happy and helpful but naïve. Popularized further through successful pseudo-documentaries, most notably Nanook of the North (1922),12 and fueled by decades of sensational media accounts and explorer travelogues chronicling earlier attempts to discover the ‘mysterious Polar Continent’ with its yet ‘uncontaminated’ groups of Inuit, these representations became commonplace and naturalized, serving as the foundations on which Arctic cinematic adventure-melodramas and other such sensational fictions were built.13

Inuit women in films such as Eskimobaby (1918), Eskimo (1932), and Igloo (1932) were cast as naïve and child-like while also highly sexual, often with little agency of their own and acting as objects of men's fantasy or desire.14 Unlike Native American women from outside of the Arctic who were often positioned within the already existing common Western binary of virgin/whore (in that context “Indian princess/squaw”), the caricatured image of Inuit women in European and American media was that of “children of nature,” innocent of morality or other such trappings of “civilization” that would mark sex as anything other than a biological act.15 This construction allowed Inuit women to serve as a means to demonstrate men's virility, particularly that of the heroic explorer/outsider, and to tantalize the audience without the violation of Western taboos. Yet, their position was also familiar: like their European and North American counterparts, this depiction of Inuit women placed them firmly within the sphere of the domestic, as caretakers of men and the home. A “primitive” baseline for humanity, such constructions supported dominant norms related to gender roles in the West while also naturalizing them. Childlike but not children, “exotic” while familiar, and hypersexual yet naïve, Inuit women were thus situated as a component of the Arctic adventure—a selling feature—their bodies serving as a commodity that also reinforced and legitimized racial and gender constructions “at home.”16 Kent's Salamina both reproduced and expanded upon these representations of Arctic and Inuit women.

Rockwell Kent in Greenland

Rockwell Kent was reaching the pinnacle of his notoriety when he first ventured to Greenland (see Fig. 1). He was already well-known in the United States and abroad for his illustrations and paintings as well as for his numerous well-publicized controversies, including his “revolt” against the dominance and gate-keeping of art institutions like the National Academy of Design.17 Kent also drew attention as a vocal advocate of what he saw as American virtues and its democratic tradition, through his membership in the Socialist Party of America and as an outspoken critic of capitalism and its deleterious influence on the country, particularly in regard to the plight of workers and minority populations. These political views were littered throughout his writings, including the material he produced about Greenland.

Figure 1.
Figure 1.

Knut Nielson, Salamina, and Kent in his one-room home, ca. 1931. Rights courtesy of Plattsburgh State Art Museum, State University of New York, USA, Rockwell Kent Collection, Bequest of Sally Kent Gorton. All rights reserved.

Citation: sibirica 22, 1; 10.3167/sib.2023.220104

The impetus for Kent's initial venture to Greenland sprang from a housewarming party, during which a friend and guest, Arthur Allen, mentioned his son's plan for a three-month trip to Greenland. Kent immediately offered to join the venture, and upon their assent began his preparations to journey to the island. The party of three, include the 46-year-old artist and the two 22-year-olds, Sam Allen and Lucien Cary, set out from Nova Scotia aboard the 33-foot cutter, Direction, to begin their 600-mile trip to Nuuk (formerly Godthåb) on 17 June 1929. However, complications from weather caused the vessel to wreck upon Greenland's southern shores. Uninjured, Kent's companions returned to the US, while the artist remained in the country, traveling and completing over 40 works during his three-month stay.18 The events of this first voyage were broadcast by The New York Times and chronicled by Kent in his book, N by E (1930).19 Kent departed Greenland at the end of that summer via steamer to Copenhagen, along with Danish explorers Knud Rasmussen and Peter Freuchen. Upon the ship's arrival, the artist was met by his wife, Frances, and the pair would stay with Rasmussen and his family while in Denmark. Although the relationship between the artist and the explorer would later sour,20 Kent's friendship with Freuchen as well as other Danes connected to Greenland continued to flourish, opening doors for him in Greenland, which including aid in navigating the Danish colonial bureaucracy that permitted his stay in the heavily regulated colony.21 Freuchen appears to have highly recommended Illorsuit on what was then known as Unkjendt Eiland (today, Illorsuit Island) as the location of Kent's future stay in Greenland.22 A friendship also seems to have grown between Kent and the Director of the Greenland Administration, Jens Daugaard-Jensen, who provided Kent with information on acquiring building materials for a house in Illorsuit, rental of a boat, and how to receive permission to travel and stay on the island.23

Kent arrived back to Greenland in the summer of 1931 aboard the steamer M/S Disko for what was described in the colonial administration's records as a study of the life and conditions of the population in Greenland.24 He settled in the small village of Illorsuit and built a house with materials ordered from Denmark, which he positioned to overlook the community.

Lying uphill from the settlement, it was enough removed from other house sites to promise privacy, and yet so reasonably situated as to offer no suggestions that seclusion had been sought for. My window, like all windows of the settlement, would face the view; yet, in the foreground of my view would be the settlement itself with all the action of its daily outdoor life enlivening its stage.25

Kent would live in Illorsuit until September 1932. During this time, he hired Salamina, a recently widowed Greenlandic woman with three children, to be his kiffaq (roughly translated to “housekeeper” and spelled kifak by Kent). She was highly recommended by the Danes Kent met in the larger town of Uummannaq (formerly spelled Umanak) and, along with two of her children, she traveled with the artist to Illorsuit. They lived together in his small house and developed an intimate relationship. While in Illorsuit, Kent would travel by dogsled, hunt, paint, and write, while also gathering a group of friends that he maintained correspondence with even years after leaving the country.26 Kent was joined by his second wife, Frances, during the final days of his stay, and both would depart the island in 1932. Kent returned to Greenland for a final sojourn in 1934–1935 with his son, Gordon, and would again reside in Illorsuit.27

Kent chronicles his stay in Greenland from 1931–1932 in Salamina. It is written as a series of vignettes that begin descriptively but become increasingly introspective toward the end of the account, with the author discussing his political views along with thoughts on race, colonialism, morality, and love in relation to his experiences in Greenland. Throughout the work, Kent's experiences are the focus, although the text occasionally drifts from a first-person to a third-person perspective, with the author entering into the thoughts of others and recounting events that occurred prior to his arrival to the country. The book was published originally in English in 1935 and was written to appeal to a mass audience in the United States. As Kent explains in his introduction, “At any rate that's what the story is about—that, and much more: Adventure, Romance, brave men and beautiful unmoral women (Good Lord, this is the twentieth century and I must lure on the gentle reader).”28 Much of this “lure” was cultivated through Kent's presentation of Greenlandic women and his often not-so-subtle hints at sex and sexuality.

Women in Salamina

Before approaching Kent's presentation of Greenlandic women in Salamina or our analysis of it, it is imperative that we remind the reader of both the limitations of this article as well as our positionality. As mentioned earlier, we are both white women from the US and Denmark, respectively, and as such can offer no insight into Kent's work from an Indigenous or Greenlandic perspective. However, even focusing our analysis on the artist's depiction of Greenlandic women in relation to similar representations popular in the West requires caution and introspection. For instance, we both were raised within the remnants of the “traditional” Western gender binary that Kent overlays on Greenlandic society, and thus it seems almost natural for us to assume that the gendered hierarchy and stereotypes we grew up with were also prevalent in Greenland. Yet, as Williamson points out, such expectations are not only mistaken, but can undermine discussions of Indigenous perspectives on gender and sexuality.29 It is also imperative to remain mindful of the real women like Salamina that Kent described (see Fig. 2), individuals who cannot offer a counter to his claims, as well as the contemporary Indigenous women who continue to experience the effects of the representations discussed in this article, including the violence and devaluation that they engender.

Figure 2.
Figure 2.

Salamina in Kent's Home, Illorsuit ca. 1931. Rights courtesy of Plattsburgh State Art Museum, State Univeristy of New York, USA, Rockwell Kent Collection, Bequest of Sally Kent Gorton. All rights reserved.

Citation: sibirica 22, 1; 10.3167/sib.2023.220104

Much like the depictions of Inuit peoples already widespread in Western media, village life in Greenland throughout Kent's Salamina was described as an example of human society in an earlier or “primitive” state of being. For the author, Greenland was an idealized prototype of communal life that was in the process of being lost, corrupted by the “progress” being carried to the island by Danish colonists and missionaries. “…they're not today, the nature children that they were two centuries ago. They have unrest, they want. And of so glittering an aspect is even the first tentative advance of Progress that it casts into gloom all that which had been light before.”30 This notion of “progress” served a dual purpose for Kent: as a foil against which the author could level his critiques of capitalism and modernity; and as a reason to disregard any aspects of Greenlandic culture or society that conflicted with his views of communal life. Kent did stress that what separated Greenlanders from the West was not race, writing that “All races are created equal” and that the Greenlandic People were “equivalent to us.” Instead, he insisted the divide was a matter of time and development, not blood.31 This positioning allowed for the outside observer, here Kent, to view and analyze the unfolding effects of “progress” as they were occurring while setting up an already common hierarchical division vis-à-vis the construction of the other. Greenlandic society and culture could thus serve as a vehicle through which the West could reflect upon itself.32 For Kent, this critique centered on the deleterious effect of capitalism and what he described as the ills of romantic love. The latter focused almost exclusively on the behavior of women and their relationship to sex.

A strict gender binary was written into Kent's narrative, with ascribed roles closely mirroring those common in the United States at the time. Greenlandic men, particularly those that Kent developed close friendships with, were assigned attributes associated with an idealized construction of Western masculinity. They were brave and stoic, though sometimes childlike in their understanding and always separate from their Western counterparts. Hunters, for example, were lauded for their nonchalance in the face of dangers associated with venturing out into the harsh North in search of sustenance:

I had hoped, in this story of Greenland to avoid overstressing the hardships of life of the Greenlandic hunter. His land—the frozen North; his element—the sea; its risks—the storm, ice, the hazards of the hunt: these are enough to send a shiver through the spine. To play them up would be to melodramatize the North, and to falsify completely the truth that they are undramatic everyday to Greenlanders. The hunter takes his risks, endures his hardships, easily. That's character.33

However, Kent's admiration of Greenlandic men was inextricably linked to the environment and particular activities. Men from larger settlements or in the employ of the Royal Greenland Trading Company rarely received similar praise.

Women were described by the author in complimentary opposition to men, much as they were in Europe or America society. The female sphere was that of the domestic, which included the care of the home, children, and men. Failure to fulfill this role, for whatever reason, was described as adversely affecting men and society. “Hendrik was short and immensely powerful; he was capable in all things—including the procreation of children. Yet, he was not one who prospered. But much in Greenland hangs on the woman's management, and Sophia [Hendrik's wife] was not only always having children, she was lame.”34 Men, in the artist's view, could not thrive without a female caretaker to provide for their mundane wants and needs, this included Kent. In describing his need for a Greenlandic kiffaq, the author explains:

The friends of men might better feel for those unfortunates for any cause or anywhere left womanless. There is nothing brave in living by yourself—unless ones wants to make heroic virtue out of housework. I don't. Who—it had troubled me—would keep my stove alight, my food from freezing up? Who'd have my dinner ready when I came from work? Wash up, trim, fill my stinking blubber lamp? Make my skin clothes and keep them in repair? Work my boots—those temperamental Greenlandic kamiks?35

Women's work was menial and unremarkable, but necessary in that it allowed for the dangerous and brave exploits of men. This understanding is demonstrated not only through Kent's statements but also through his lack of any detailed description of women's labor. Kent mentions long hours in the company of Salamina while she engaged in various tasks, but her work receives little mention. This sits in contrast to his description of men's activities, such as hunting, which fills pages of the narrative. Kent's primary discussion of women, instead, centered on their bodies, sexuality, and Kent's sexual encounters.

While the role assigned to Greenlandic women in terms of their labor was described in a similar fashion to that of women in the West, their appearance and approach to sex, according to Kent, marked them as separate. Throughout the book, the introduction of a female character is accompanied by a description of her appearance and often Kent's assessment of her attractiveness. Regina, the Greenlandic wife of a Danish trader, is described as having “abundant beauty; long braids of raven hair coiled heavily about her head, an olive skin, red lips, and teeth as white as sun-bleached ivory.”36 Anna, Kent's intermittent kiffaq before his employment of Salamina, and with whom he claimed to have had a sexual relationship, was described thus: “Her narrow eyes were as though drawn by a master hand with firm, strong, delicate precision; her nose—we'll leave that out; her Maker nearly did. Her mouth was, we'd say, huge, no doubt about that.”37 This focus on appearance serves not only to rekindle an aura of exoticness that may have been lost through the familiarity of their mundane labor, but also to mark Greenlandic women as physically distinct from their European or American counterparts, a distinction that would be drawn in even greater relief through Kent's discussion of sex and sexuality.

In Salamina, Kent set-up a dichotomy between what he described as “romantic love” in the West, linked to intercourse as well as attachment, possessiveness, and jealousy, and sex/love in Greenland, which he primarily described as a physical act:

Love, as we understand it, as we, fabricators throughout the centuries of the now top-heavy structure of romantic love, have made ourselves believe it to be, is all but unknown in Greenland. It is through the interdependence of the sexes both for the satisfaction of their sexual appetites and for the performance of the routine of living had no need of romantic stimulant. They fornicate: they like to. The mate: they have to. And mutual possessiveness with its attendant jealousy, which is virulent in Greenland, only appears as a safeguard of the economic partnership and its biological result, the family.38

The artist was adamant that what he defined as romantic love in the Western sense did not exist in Greenland, with marriage and sex simply a means to support the social unit, procreate, and satisfy desires. Thus, sexual activity was unencumbered by the morality or social taboos that had become mapped onto the act in the West. Again, drawing on the representation of Greenlandic life as an example of an earlier state of society, Kent described sex/love in Greenland as existing in its “natural” state. This is an understanding that had been lost to “Progress” in the West and a distinction which only Kent could apprehend and transcend. “Jealousy, the fear of losing to another what is ours, is so closely woven into the fabric of romantic love that only those of us who don't much care, or who are preternaturally wise and self-controlled, are free of it.”39 This distinction between sex/love and romantic love and his positioning of himself in relation to it is pivotal to Kent's depiction of women in Greenland, his self-described behavior toward them, and the allure of the Arctic he drew upon to entice the reader.

According to Kent, Greenland allowed an unrestrained environment for his “cursed libido,” an almost fantasy world in which all women were fascinated by him and through which his desires could be fulfilled without repercussion or attachment.40 He recounted lightly camouflaged sexual encounters with Pauline, Anna, and Salamina, first in Salamina and later in greater detail in his Greenland Journal, published in 1962. These are depicted as singular episode of adventure—of pursuit, struggle, and finally acquiescence—that received no mention after their occurrence. These encounters, according to Kent, were devoid of attachment, possessiveness, or jealously both on his part and from the point-of-view of the women involved. The only Greenlandic character that attempted to curtail Kent's behavior was Salamina, which Kent attributes to her role as caretaker of his daily needs. Kent, situating himself as outside of the constraints of Western society and above feelings of possessiveness or jealousy that he ties to romantic love, is free to partake of intercourse in its “nature” state. “What we stigmatize as fornication and adultery is, with them, a natural pastime, spiced by being slightly wicked.”41 Situating himself in the role of the Arctic explorer, Kent becomes the image of stereotyped male virtue with the ability to apprehend and bravely travel within and outside the confines of modernity.

Greenlandic women, in contrast, were confined to the “primitive.” While positioning their labor within the constructed realm of the domestic so familiar in the West, their relation to sex/love as well as their appearance marked them as an “exotic” other. Sex is described as “no mystery” to the Greenlandic population, and while women were unrestrained by the conventions of romantic love, as defined by Kent, they also could not understand or partake of it.42 Kent's description of Regina both illustrates this perspective and reveals the perniciousness of it:

A pagan girl. How little had two hundred years of Christ affected what ten thousand unregenerate years, ten times that, had made her! Say what we will of truth and beauty emanating as the light from Heaven, God's abode: she trod a pagan earth. Her roots were there; its moisture oozed about her feet and nourished her. Her race's ancient ways lived on in her. “Beauty is strength,” its poets might have said, “strength beauty.” Men wooed by force; rape was ritual that crowned a courtship. She could little fall for words, or give herself, as a young tree could bend toward the wind.43

While Greenlandic women's relation to sex/love, as described by Kent, was unrestricted by Western conventions, it was also confining, positioning them as an example of humanity's “primitive” past and legitimizing rape and violence against them. This description is not only wrong but supports and justifies the abuse of Greenlandic women as natural, a construction that continues to feed into the disproportionate levels of violence experienced by Indigenous women.

Replicating the tropes that were so common in film and media by the time of Kent's arrival to Greenland, the author drew a distinction between Greenlandic and Western women while still maintaining and naturalizing the overall female role as domestic, as that of a caretaker, as unheroic, and as unremarkable. This distinction served to not only legitimize Kent's behavior toward women in Greenland and the US, but also to add a sensationalism to his account. The Western observer was not treading into the profane but, in the context the author crafted, simply glimpsing the “natural.” “Exotic” women and unrestricted, sometimes violent, sex were part of the Arctic and the adventure it promised. Readers could experience Kent's only slightly masked sexual encounters through the narrative without violation of Western taboos and without conscience, as there was no attachment or consequence in the Greenlandic context and the behavior under observation was simply biological. Greenlandic women and their bodies were objects employed to sell books, films, and other products, facets of the representation of the Arctic as a masculine realm of adventure, danger, and romance. It should also be noted that the first English edition of Salamina featured Kent's stylized drawing of the actual Salamina, naked and bathing in a fjord. However, this image was replaced in all subsequent editions.44

The reception of Salamina at the time of its publication by both the American and Danish media hints at the prevalence and acceptance of this representations of Inuit peoples and Indigenous women. Released in 1935, the English-language book received largely positive reviews in the United States. The work was described as “captivating” and “sensory” allowing the reader to experience the “vicarious pleasures of traveling.”45 Although, according to the review by The Chicago Tribune, the book would have “special appeal to men,” describing aspects of the narrative as “life utterly simple, in one room, with no superfluous ‘things’; human relationships without the intricacies of any emotions other than the most primitive ones, happiness without complications…”46 Kent's description was also noted for its honesty, including what was described in reviews as the book's candid descriptions of Greenlandic society as well as specific individuals. “His aim, as far as one can tell,” the review in The New York Times reads, “is to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.”47 His description of Greenlandic women and society as a whole are accepted as part of this “truth” and are not questioned.

The reaction in Denmark after the release of the Danish-language translation of Salamina, by contrast, was mixed, and was the focal point of a minor controversy. However, it was not Kent's description of Greenlandic society that drew the ire of the press but instead his depiction of Danes and the colonial administration in Greenland. Kent described Danes in Greenland as kind and hospitable but also lazy, greedy, and inept. “For people, hired, put there, to remember things and get them done they're dismally incompetent.”48 (42) He also criticized the exploitation of Greenlanders’ labor and the resources of the country for the benefit of Denmark. This description in itself prompted backlash from the colonial administration, but would also be the center of a wider controversy in which Kent's account was used to support a call to dismantle the colonial administration's monopoly on trade. This scandal, coupled with fears that the book could spoil the reputation of Denmark abroad, was met with a severe response from the Danish colonial administration. It was asserted that Kent was an alcoholic and his description of Danes in Greenland was simply an attempt at revenge directed against the colonial administration for not providing him with an adequate supply of whisky.49 However, Kent's descriptions of Greenlandic society and women remained unquestioned and received even minor praise. “This book contains, on the one hand, some of the most beautiful and sympathetic depictions of life in Greenland ever published, and it is provided with many excellent illustrations by the author himself.”50 As in the reception of Salamina in the US, the representation of Greenlandic society in Kent's work is accepted as “truth,” hinting at the pervasiveness of the representation of the Inuit peoples it both replicated and supported.

Conclusion

So, what can an analysis of Kent's presentation of Greenlandic women in Salamina tell us? Does it have any relevance today? And does such research prompt a re-evaluation of ourselves and our position as researchers?

The portrayal of any group of people, particularly those produced by individuals outside the group being discussed and by those in positions of power and privilege, deserves scrutiny. Such analyses can shed light on the construction and endurance of particular representations while revealing much about those that produce them. Kent's work examined in relation to other popular Western representations of the Arctic, Indigenous peoples, and women demonstrates the ubiquity of these ideas, which can be traced back centuries through travel writing and later fictional media. Such representations have been reinforced and compounded through repetition, feeding into and supporting depictions of Indigenous peoples that were widely accepted by audiences in the United States and Europe by the early twentieth century. Through these constructions, Greenlandic women and their bodies were transformed to be part of Arctic adventure— naïve, child-like, but also hypersexual objects through which men could vicariously fulfil their desire without constraint or consequence. Analyzing such constructions can tell us much about those producing and consuming them as well as their lingering effects today.

Second, even as contemporary efforts to upend such representations have increased, the image of Indigenous women reproduced by Kent in his account of Greenland continues to seep into popular media today. From the most recent image of a helpful Pocahontas (1995) to that of Powaqa in The Revenant (2015), a character who is primarily the subject of rape and abuse, Indigenous women in media continue to be cast in the role of assistant and “exotic” love interest of foreign men and/or as the subject of violence, particularly sexual assault and murder.51 These pernicious representations, repeatedly reinforced through historical accounts like Kent's as well as in contemporary media, have had lasting effects on the lives of Indigenous women in the Arctic and beyond. This is perhaps most visible to the outsider in the disproportionate rate of gender related violence and crime that effects Indigenous women and girls. In Canada, for instance, there is an ongoing discussion about the shockingly high number of missing and murdered Indigenous women and the disturbing high rates of domestic violence experienced by women and girls. These instances have largely been ignored by the authorities and the news. 52 A similar pattern is also seen in the US but has garnered even less attention.53 These instances are part of larger patterns of gender-related violence experienced by Indigenous women across the North, which have recently been highlighted in the United Nations report on Gender and Equity in the Artic.54 In Greenland, these trends are visible in the high rates of domestic violence.55 Gender related violence and crime that affects Indigenous women and girls but receives less attention than that affecting non-Indigenous women can, at least in part, be traced to stereotypes of Indigenous women, such as those propagated by historical accounts such as Kent's.

The continued presence of these representations, as well as their lasting legacy on the lived experience of Indigenous peoples, should provoke our attention as researchers, but it also calls for caution and a reflection on our positionality. While analyzing one-sided historical works, such as Kent's, it is easy to lose sight of the real people being discussed. While they may appear as little more than aspects of the author's adventure or as props in his examination of “progress,” the individuals described in Salamina were much more than simply characters in Kent's account. As so many authors have also pointed out, we must be aware of our own relationship to the material, the individuals, and subjects being discussed, as well as the limitations of our own perspectives. As white women from the US and Denmark, we do not share the experiences of the Indigenous women, including the impact of the representations discussed in this article. At the same time, we do have an intimate relationship with the traditional Western construction of sex and gender that Kent drew upon, a connection to which we must remain vigilant in order not to inadvertently impose it again. In this article we support the call to examine broadly accepted representations, their histories, and their lasting effects—but to do so with caution, introspection, and deference.

Acknowledgments

We would like to thank the communities of Illorsuit, Uummannaq, Sisimiut, and Nuuk, as well as the other members of the “Rockwell Kent” project, Denis Defibaugh and Axel Jeremiassen, for their patience, openness, and support. We would also like to extend our appreciation to the US National Science Foundation's Arctic Social Science Program (Award Number: 1524176) for funding this work, and the Archives at State University of New York Plattsburgh (Rockwell Kent Collection) and Nunatta Katersugaasivia Allagaateqarfialu—Greenland's National Museum and Archive for their aid.

Notes

1

R. L. Duffus, “Love in Greenland's Icy Mountains,” The New York Times (27 October 1935), BR5.

2

Rockwell Kent, Salamina (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2003 [1935]), xxix.

3

Some correspondence between Kent from his acquaintances in Greenland are housed in the Smithsonian and consist mainly of greetings and updates. Reel 5187, Frame 115–768, Greenland, 1928–1939, undated, Rockwell Kent papers, circa 1840–1993, bulk 1935–1961, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian. Online https://www.aaa.si.edu/collections/rockwell-kent-papers-9557/series-1/reel-5187-frames-115-768.

4

See: Birgit Kleist Pedersen, “Greenlandic Images and the Post-Colonial: Is it such a Big Deal after all?,” in The Postcolonial North Atlantic: Iceland, Greenland and the Faroe Islands, ed. Lill-Ann Körber and Ebbe Volquardsen (Berlin: Nordeuropa-Institut der Humbolt-Universität, 2014); Mariekathrine Poppel, “Mænds vold mod kvinder i samliv” (Doctoral Dissertation, Ilisimatusarfik, 2020; Inge Høst Seiding and Peter A. Toft, “Koloniale identiteter: Ægteskaber, fællesskaber og forbrug i Diskobugten i første halvdel af det 19. århundrede,” in Fra Vild til Verdensborger, ed. Ole Høiris and Ole Marquardt (Aarhus: Aarhus Universitetsforlag, 2011); Gitte Tróndheim, “The Flexibility of Greenlandic Women,” Indigenous Affairs (IWGIA) 1–2 (2004); Karla Jessen Williamson, Inherit My Heaven: Kalaallit Gender Relations (Nuuk: Inussuk, 2011).

5

William H. Sherman, “Stirrings and Searchings (1500–1720)” in The Cambridge Companion to Travel Writing, ed. Peter Hulme and Tim Youngs (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 17–36.

6

Mary Louise Pratt, Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation (London: Routledge, 1992); Edward Said, Orientalism (London: Penguin Press, 1977).

7

Judith Hamera and Alfred Bendixen, “Introduction: New Worlds and Old Lands: The Travel Book and the Construction of American Identity” in The Cambridge Companion to American Travel Writing, ed. Alfred Bendixen and Judith Hamera (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 2.

8

Russell A. Potter, Arctic Spectacles: The Frozen North in Visual Culture, 1818–1875 (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2007), 3–5.

9

Michael Bravo and Sverker Sörlin, “Narrative and Practice—an Introduction,” in Narrating the Arctic: A Cultural History of Nordic Scientific Practices, ed. Michael Bravo and Sverker Sörlin (Canton, MA: Science History Publications/USA, 2002), 3–32; Richard G. Condon, “The History and Development of Arctic Photography,” Arctic Anthropology 26, no. 1 (1989), 59–62; Shelagh Grant, Polar Imperative: A History of Arctic Sovereignty in North America (Vancouver: Douglas & MacIntyre), 193–216; Nancy Fogelson, Arctic Exploration & International Relations, 1900–1932: A Period of Expanding International Interest (Fairbanks: University of Alaska Press, 1992), 29–38; Beu Riffenburgh, The Myth of the Explorer: The Press, Sensationalism, and Geographical Discovery (London: Belhaven Press), 1–7; Martin Thomas, “What Is an Expedition?: An Introduction,” in Expedition into Empire: Exploratory Journeys and the Making of the Modern World, ed. Martin Thomas (New York: Routledge, 2015), 1–5.

10

Ann Fienup-Riordan, Eskimo Essays: Yup'ik Lives and How We See Them (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press); Kristen Thisted, “The Power to Represent: Intertextuality and Discourses in Smilla's Sense of Snow,” in Narrating the Arctic: A Cultural History of the Nordic Scientific Practices, ed. Michael Bravo and Sverker Sörlin (Canton, MA: Science History Publications, 2002).

11

Lisa Bloom, Gender on Ice: American Ideologies of Polar Expeditions (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993), 2–6.

12

Robert J. Flaherty, dir., Nanook of the North (USA: Pathé Exchange, 1922).

13

Fienup-Riordan, Eskimo Essays; John Andrew Gallagher, “S.O.S. Iceberg: Arctic Wastes, Antic Adventures,” American Cinematographer 73, no. 11 (1992), 86; Scott MacKenzie and Anna Westerståhl Stenport, “Introduction: What Are Arctic Cinemas?,” in Films on Ice: Cinemas of the Arctic, ed. Scott MacKenzie and Anna Westerståhl Stenport (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2014), 56–57; Carl Nørrested, Blandt eskimoer eventyrere kolonisatorer og etnografer: Grønlandsfilm/Amongst Eskimos, Adventurers, Colonisers and Ethnographers: Greenland on Film (Copenhagen: Forlaget North, 2012), 6–10; Andrew Stuhl, Unfreezing the Arctic: Science, Colonialism, and the Transformation of Inuit Lands (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016), 43–44.

14

Walter Schmidthässler, director, Das Eskimobaby (Germany: Neural-Film, 1918); Ewing Scott, director, Igloo (USA: Universal Pictures, 1932); W.S. Van Dyke, director, Eskimo (USA: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM), 1933).

15

S. Elizabeth Bird, “Gendered Construction of the American Indian in Popular Media,” Journal of Communication 49, no. 3 (1999), 72–77; Fienup-Riordan, Eskimo Essays, 6–15; Jennifer L. Gauthier, “Embodying change: Cinematic representations of Indigenous women's bodies, a cross-cultural comparison,” International Journal of Media & Cultural Politics 11, no. 3 (2015), 286–291.

16

Stuart Hall, Representation (New York: Sage Publications, 1997), 37; Donna J. Haraway, Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature (New York: Routledge, 1991), 149–181; Ann L. Stoler, “Making Empire Respectable: The Politics of Race and Sexual Morality in 20th Century Colonial Cultures,” American Ethnologist 16, no. 4 (1989), 635–636.

17

Rockwell Kent,” The Academy Cachet,” The New York Times (3 April 1927), E12; The New York Times, “Artists Open War on Design Academy,” The New York Times (20 March 1927), 2.

18

Frederick Lewis, “The Stormy Petrel of American Art,” Scandinavian Review (Summer 2012), 8–13.

19

Rockwell Kent, N by E (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1996 [1930]); The New York Times, “33-Foot Boat Sails Today for Greenland on 3-Month Trip; Rockwell Kent in Crew,” The New York Times (18 May 1929), 11; Associated Press, “Allen Yacht is Lost on Greenland Rocks,” The New York Times (20 July 1929), 1; The New York Times, “Allen Relatives Here Await News of Wreck,” The New York Times (21 July 1929), 4.

20

Niels Barfod, Manden bag helten: Knud Rasmussen på nært hold (København: Gyldendal, 2011), 336–372.

21

Susan B. Vanek, Andreas Mentrup-Womelsdorf, and Jette Rygaard, “An Odd Assortment of Foreigners in Greenland: Towards the Political Implications of Arctic Travel during the Late Interwar Years,” American Studies in Scandinavia 54, no. 2 (2022), 53–54.

22

Lewis, “The Stormy Petrel,” 15.

23

Letter from Jens Daugaard-Jensen, 23 October 1930, Reel 5173, Frame 1322–1323, Denmark Correspondence, 1929–1937 undated, Rockwell Kent papers, circa 1840–1993, bulk 1935–1961, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian. Online https://www.aaa.si.edu/collections/rockwell-kent-papers-9557/series-1/reel-5173-frames-1272-1349; Letter from Jens Daugaard-Jensen, 27 February 1931, Reel 5187, Frame 115–768, Greenland, 1928–1939, undated, Rockwell Kent papers, circa 1840–1993, bulk 1935–1961, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian. Online https://www.aaa.si.edu/collections/rockwell-kent-papers-9557/series-1/reel-5187-frames-115-768.

24

Kongelige Grønlandske Handel, Beretninger og Kundgørelser vedrørende Kolonierne i Grønland for aarene 1928–1932 (København: Trykt hos J.H. Schulz A/S, 1933), 886.

25

Kent, Salamina, 23. Emphasis in original.

26

Ibid.; Rockwell Kent, Greenland Journal (New York: Ivan Obolensky, Inc., 1962).

27

Lewis, “The Stormy Petrel,” 16–21.

28

Kent, Salamina, xxix.

29

Williamson, Inherit My Heaven, 7–8.

30

Kent, Salamina, 301.

31

Ibid., 326–327.

32

Johannes Fabian, Time and the Other: How Anthropology Makes Its Object (New York: Columbia University Press, 2014 [1983]); Eric R. Wolf, Europe and the People without History (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997 [1982]).

33

Kent, Salamina, 328.

34

Ibid., 120.

35

Ibid., 47–48.

36

Ibid., 10.

37

Ibid., 46–47.

38

Ibid., 319.

39

Ibid., 320.

40

Lewis, “The Stormy Petrel,” 16.

41

Quoted in: Lewis, “The Stormy Petrel,” 16.

42

For discussion of the representation of Greenlandic women in fiction see: Kirsten Thisted, “Skyld, skam og soning: Affektive relationer i Udstedsbestyrerens datter, et hovedværk i grønlandsk litteratur,” in Grønlændernes syn på danskerne: Historiske, kulturelle og sproglige perspektiver, ed. Ole Høiris, Ole Marquard og Gitte Adler Reimer (Århus: Århus Universitets Forlag, 2019)

43

Kent, Salamina, 13.

44

Scott Ferris, “Forward: In the Presence of Light,” in Salamina, author Rockwell Kent (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2003 [1935]), xiii–xiv.

45

Fanny Butcher, “The Book Week Has a Special Appeal to Men,” The Chicago Daily Tribune (26 October 1935), 15 ; Theodore Hall, “No End of Authors,” Washington Post (30 October 1935), B10.

46

Butcher, “The Book Week Has Special Appeal to Men.”

47

Duffus, “Love in Greenland's Icy Mountains.”

48

Kent, Salamina, 42.

49

Grønlands Styrelse, “Grønlands styrelse svarer paa vore angreb: En opsigtsvækkende erklæring om orgierne paa Grønland.” Grønland: Danmarks Fremtid 9, no. 1–3 (1937): 2–5; Inge Kleivan, “Rockwell Kent: En engageret amerikansk kunstner i Grønland i 30’erne,” Tidsskriftet Grønland 35, no. 6–7 (1987), 175–190.

50

Grønlands Styrelse, “Grønlands styrelse svarer paa vore angreb,” 3.

51

Mike Gabriel and Eric Goldberg, directors. Pocahontas (USA: Bueno Vista Pictures, 1995); Alejandro G. Iñárritu, The Revenant (USA: 20th Century Fox, 2015).

52

Taima Moeke-Pickering, Sheila Cote-Meek, and Ann Pegoraro, “Understanding the ways missing and murdered Indigenous women are framed and handled by social media users,” Media International Australia 169, no. 1: 54–64 (2018); Pauktuutit Inuit Women Canada and Dr. Elizabeth Comack, Addressing Gendered Violence against Inuit Women: A Review of Policing Policies and Practices in Inuit Nunangat, 2020, Online: https://www.pauktuutit.ca/wp-content/uploads/Pauktuutit_Addressing-Gendered-Violence_English_Full-Report.pdf; Sherene H. Razack, “Sexualized Violence and Colonialism: Reflections on the Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women,” Canadian Journal of Women and the Law 28, no. 2(2016): i–iv.

53

Annita Lucchesi and Abigail Echo-Hawk, Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women & Girls: A Snapshot of Data from 71 Urban Cities in the United States, Urban Indian Health Institute (2018). Online: https://www.uihi.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/11/Missing-and-Murdered-Indigenous-Women-and-Girls-Report.pdf.

54

Arctic Council, Pan-Arctic Report: Gender and Equality in the Arctic: Phase 3 (April 2021). Online: https://arcticgenderequality.network/phase-3/pan-arctic-report, 192–218.

55

Tine Curtis, Finn B Larsen, Karin Helweg-Larsen, Peter Bjerregaard, “Violence, Sexual Abuse and Health in Greenland,” International Journal of Circumpolar Health 61, no. 2: 110–122 (2002); Poppel, “Mænds vold mod kvinder i samliv.”

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Contributor Notes

Jette Rygaard is Associate Professor, Emerita, PhD at Ilisimatusarfik (University of Greenland) in the Department of Culture, Language, and History. Her research has focused on visual anthropology, literature, and media, and has often centered on issues related to children and youth in Greenland. She was Co-PI on the recently completed five-year project Rockwell Kent and Early 1930s Greenland, funded by the US National Science Foundation, and is a founding member of the UArctic Thematic Network, Children of the Arctic. Email: jery@uni.gl

Susan Vanek completed her MA degree at University of Alaska Fairbanks and is currently a PhD Candidate in sociocultural anthropology at Binghamton University (State University of New York). She was Co-PI on the five-year project Rockwell Kent and Early 1930s Greenland, funded by the US National Science Foundation. Her current research focuses on infrastructural development in the Arctic as part of the InfraNorth project (https://infranorth.eu/). Email: svanek1@binghamton.edu.

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Sibirica

Interdisciplinary Journal of Siberian Studies

  • Figure 1.

    Knut Nielson, Salamina, and Kent in his one-room home, ca. 1931. Rights courtesy of Plattsburgh State Art Museum, State University of New York, USA, Rockwell Kent Collection, Bequest of Sally Kent Gorton. All rights reserved.

  • Figure 2.

    Salamina in Kent's Home, Illorsuit ca. 1931. Rights courtesy of Plattsburgh State Art Museum, State Univeristy of New York, USA, Rockwell Kent Collection, Bequest of Sally Kent Gorton. All rights reserved.

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