In April 1897, six polar Eskimos arrived in New York City. Far removed from the home they had known in Greenland, where their Inuit community numbered just 234 people, they found themselves in the heart of a teeming metropolis. The youngest of the band was seven-year-old Minik, who remembered his first impression of the city as "a land we thought must be heaven."
The Eskimos were the exotic cargo of explorer Robert Peary, whose ambitious quest to reach the North Pole would leave him unable to oversee the Eskimos' care once he left them in New York. Within months, four of the Eskimos died and one returned home to Greenland, leaving Minik an orphan. For more than a decade, Robert Peary would persist in his efforts to reach the North Pole, while Minik struggled to create a home and an identity thousands of miles from his native land.
American Experience presents Minik, the Lost Eskimo, a one-hour documentary that tells the parallel stories of an Eskimo and an explorer whose intersection forever changed the trajectory of many lives. From filmmaker Axel Engstfeld, the film examines an overlooked chapter in the history of American exploration, and provides a thought-provoking study of the sacrifices made and the lives irrevocably changed for the sake of discovery.
"Getting to the North Pole meant everything to Robert Peary," says Bruce Henderson, author of True North: Peary, Cook and the Race to the Pole, in the film. "He was obsessed, and he was determined. And nothing or nobody was going to stop him."
Peary's mission would not be slowed by the care of and responsibility for the six transplants he brought to New York. While he had worked hard to forge relationships with the Inuit people of Greenland — they were trading partners, guides, sled drivers, and interpreters — the Eskimos he had abandoned in New York could do little to help him, and in turn, Peary did little to help them. He delivered them to New York's American Museum of Natural History, where they were housed in an overheated basement, and treated as specimens and spectacles. This new world quickly took its toll on the Eskimos; four succumbed to illnesses to which they had no immunity, and one returned home.
Alone and out of place in New York, Minik benefited from the benevolence of one person — William Wallace, the superintendent at the Museum of Natural History. But despite being adopted and raised as part of the Wallace family, Minik never really felt at home in this foreign land. It would be more than a decade before he would again see his native Greenland. In 1909, the very same year that Lieutenant Peary claimed to have reached the North Pole, Minik returned to home, only to find himself a stranger in his homeland as well. Minik had forgotten his native language and had to relearn the skills of hunting and fishing. Even a year after his return, Minik felt alienated and struggled to adapt to life with the Inuits.
"Why am I not longer fit to live where I was born? Not fit to live where I was kidnapped?" Minik wrote in a letter to an old friend. "Why am I an experiment there and here, and tormented since the great white pirate interfered with nature and left me a helpless orphan, young, abandoned, 10,000 miles from home? I don't think both ends and the middle of the Earth are worth the price that has been paid to almost find one pole."
Back in the United States, Peary was celebrated as the founder of the North Pole — a fact that the Inuit people openly doubted. Minik continued to try to adapt to the Arctic, but gradually, he began to long for the life and the comforts he had left behind in New York. In 1916, he returned to America. After nearly a lifetime of living in limbo, it was just two years before Minik fell prey to the flu epidemic of 1918.
"Minik is a tragic story that offers a picture of the dark side of exploration," says American Experience executive producer, Mark Samels. "While we celebrate the adventurers who expand our horizons, the discovery of new lands often comes at a price. In this case, it was the innocence and lives of not just Minik, but also the Inuit people."