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Kaladlit Okalluktualliait (Greenlandic Folktales): Contentious histories of preserving indigenous oral traditions

Erika Delbecque17 May 2021

This blog post was written by UCL student Sae Matsuno (MA Library & Information Studies) as part of a two-week work placement at UCL Special Collections. Sae’s Twitter handle is @O_Aspirations. 

19th-century folklore books that travelled from Greenland to UCL

Rasmus Berthelsen, title page of Kaladlit Okalluktualliait, Godthåb, 1859-1863. © UCL Special Collections.

Kaladlit Okalluktualliait (1859-1863) is a multi-part work (four volumes) of Greenlandic oral folklore collected, written, illustrated, published and preserved. The organiser of this large-scale preservation project was a Danish geologist/colonial official Hinrich Rink (1819-1893). As Inspector of South Greenland, Rink requested all Greenlanders to record in writing their local legends and poems. He worked with native artists/catechists to illustrate the stories and translate the texts into Danish. Among them, Âlut Kangermio – better-known as Aron of Kangeq (1822-1869), Rasmus Berthelsen (1827-1901) and Lars Møller (1842-1924) are notable figures.

The three volumes housed in UCL Special Collections were originally owned by the Peckovers, a leading Quaker family in Wisbech, England; and donated in 1967 to Library Services by the UCL emeritus professor L. S. Penrose (1806-1974). For the last few years, the item has drawn more attention through the National Trust exhibition at Peckover House (2019), publication in Art History (Hatt, 2020) and the Liberating the Collections project at UCL Special Collections (2021).

Voices, languages and tensions in colonial Greenland

Kaladlit Okalluktualliait is a finely executed print work, including woodcut plates, many of which were hand-coloured. One example is an illustration for “The Man Not to Be Looked at by the Europeans”. In this story, an Inuk was made by his mother’s charm unbearable for European sailors to see. As no Europeans dared to look at him, the man had the freedom to steal from them. Angry sailors came to attack the man, but no one could shoot him even when he challenged them to do so.

An illustration for “The Man Not to Be Looked at by the Europeans”. Kaladlit Okalluktualliait, Godthåb, 1859-1863. © UCL Special Collections.

Winter house (Rink, Tales and Traditions of the Eskimo, 1875). Courtesy of HathiTrust.

In the history of printing, Kaladlit Okalluktualliait is considered as one of early milestones of the print culture in Greenland. (Oldendow, 1953; Thisted, 2001) Rink continued to collect folktales and translated them into other languages. Among them, Danish (Eskimoiske Eventyr og Sagn, 1866) and English (Tales and Traditions of the Eskimo, 1875) editions, of which copies are also held at UCL Special Collections, can be accessed via HathiTrust Digital Library. Tales and Traditions and Danish Greenland (1877) – written also by Rink – are of note, as they were richly illustrated by Âlut, Berthelsen and other indigenous artists.

Dog sledges in front of winter houses (Rink, Danish Greenland, 1877). Courtesy of HathiTrust.

Rink certainly played a central role in promoting Greenlandic cultures (see the chapter “The Greenlanders Sketched by Themselves” in Danish Greenland). However, I hesitate to call their relationships “collaboration” because of the power imbalances between Denmark and colonial Greenland. In this context, many questions arise. Who decided which folktales were to be included in the volumes? Were the artists allowed to create their works in their own ways, or did they follow Rink’s instructions? Who chose illustrations that accompanied the texts? What have been the benefits of this project for the Inuit?

As I read the relevant literature (see below for references), it becomes more clear that there are complex ambiguities between preservation and exploitation, sounds and pictures, as well as between spoken and written languages.

For instance, Hatt characterises the production of Kaladlit Okalluktualliait as a process where “[t]radition was eroded”. (2020: 313) His article helps us to critically think about:

1) transforming indigenous oral traditions to texts and images, as a result of which the stories may lose their orality (e.g. accents and vocal expressions) and get detached from the local storytelling practice;
2) translating those texts into other languages, through which cultural values and nuances may not be fully expressed or understood;
3) publishing and selling the intangible heritage of indigenous peoples as collectibles, while Inuit communities can be excluded from the life cycle of collections.

Interdisciplinary potential

As much as we appreciate the artistry of Kaladlit Okalluktualliait, we should also put these historical and ongoing tensions at the centre of our attention. By doing so, the print work can be used as a gateway to engage with indigenous oral traditions, as well as to explore and better understand how these traditions function (or stopped functioning) in Inuit societies. This item can be a meaningful part of interdisciplinary teaching, learning and research across Indigenous Studies, Postcolonial Studies, History, Literature, Arts and more.

References:

Hatt, M. (2020) ‘Picturing and counter-picturing in mid-nineteenth-century colonial Greenland’. Art History, 43(2), pp.308–335. Available at: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/1467-8365.12498 [Accessed 4 May 2021]

Hauser, M. (1993) ‘Folk music research and folk music collecting in Greenland’, Yearbook for Traditional Music, 25, pp.136–147. Available at: https://www.jstor.org/stable/768690?seq=1#metadata_info_tab_contents [Accessed 30 April 2021]

Kahn, L. and Valijarvi, R. (2020) ‘The linguistic landscape of Nuuk, Greenland’, Linguistic Landscape, 6 (3), pp. 266-295. Available at: https://discovery.ucl.ac.uk/id/eprint/10094235/1/Kahn_linguistic_landscape_nuuk__centrevsperiphery_final.pdf [Accessed on 30 April 2021].

McDermott, N. K. (2015) Unikkaaqtuat: traditional Inuit stories. PhD dissertation. Queen’s University. Available at: https://qspace.library.queensu.ca/bitstream/handle/1974/12806/McDermott_Noel_K_20154_PhD.pdf.pdf?sequence=3&isAllowed=y [Accessed on 30 April 2021].

Montenyohl, E. L. (1993) ‘Strategies for the presentation of oral traditions in print’, Oral Tradition, 8(1), pp.159–186. Available at: https://core.ac.uk/download/pdf/160495057.pdf [Accessed on 30 April 2021].

Oldendow, K. (1958) ‘Printing in Greenland’, Libri, 8(3-4), pp.223-262.

Petterson, C. (2012) ‘Colonialism, Racism and exceptionalism’, in: Loftsdóttir, K. and Jensen, L. (eds.) Whiteness and postcolonialism in the Nordic region: exceptionalism, migrant others and national identities. Farnham, Surrey, England: Ashgate, pp.29-41.

Thisted, K. (2001) ‘On narrative expectations: Greenlandic oral traditions about the cultural encounter between Inuit and Norsemen’, Scandinavian Studies, 73(3), pp.253–296. Available at: https://www.jstor.org/stable/40920318?seq=1#metadata_info_tab_contents [Accessed 30 April 2021].