Skip To Content
Minik poster image
Aired March 31, 2008


Film Description

In April 1897, six polar Inuits 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."

Within months, four of the Inuits 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.

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 Inuits 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 Inuits; 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."


Director of New Media
Maria Daniels

Associate Director of Interactive Design
Kim Ducharme

Project Coordinator/Podcasts
Ravi Jain

Stephen Fitzmeyer

Editorial Researcher
Nancy Farrell

Photo/Archive Research
Anna Fort

Design Production Assistant
Dan Buckley

Jen Holmes

Pat Breen
Alexia Dellner
Michael Satalof


Reversioned by
Susan Bellows

Edited by
James Rutenbeck

Narrated by
Joe Morton

A film by
Axel Engstfeld

Director of Photography
Hans Jakobi

Hans Günter Wagener

Josef van Ooyen


Young Minik
Anuu Jin Boldsaikhan

Old Minik
Uuganbayar Tserendorj

Bayrkhuu Sukhee

Saikhantuya Sukhee

Dr. Boas
Zdenek Stepanek

Zdenek Havlicek

Dr. Dailey
Martin Krehak

Additional Photography
Roland Breitschuh
Edward Marritz

Jeff Hirschorn

Assistant Camera
Boris Hölter
Monika Allegretti

Sound Recordist
Karel Martinek
Richard Fleming

2nd Unit Director
Fritz Baumann

Chief Electrician
Vaclav Kovarik

Lubos Vavrina
Dennis Krombach

Ivana Speldova

Set Dresser
Tonda Masnicak

Milan Petriski

Nevena Thielova

Zuzana Machova

Sound Editor
Tim Mc Leish

Assistant Sound Editor
Katarina Knocke

Nicky Lazar
Melissa Hammel
Achim Scheunert
Christian Heynen

Sound Mix
TBS Ton & Bild Service

Production Manager
Marcus Boehnke
Valérie Lang
Eva-Maria Wittke (NDR)

Production Assistant
Lennart Mogk
Juliane Kessler

Line Producer Prague
Igor Kristof

Production Accountant
Andrea Rupp

Archival Footage
American Museum of Natural History, New York
National Geographic Society, Washington, D.C.
National Archives, Washington, D.C.
Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.
Nationalmuseum, Kopenhagen
Arktis Institut, Kopenhagen
National Film Board of Canada
Footage Farm, London
New York Public Library
American Philosophical Society
Lars Aby
William Long

Commissioning Editors
Bernd Michael Fincke -- NDR 
Ulrike Dotzer -- ARTE 
Werner Fitzthum -- ORF

Sales Agent
Films Transit International Inc.

an Engstfeld Film GmbH production in association with NDR, ARTE, ORF, Epo-Filmgesellschaft m.b.H., Wien supported by Filmstiftung NRW, BKM, Media

©Engstfeld Film GmbH / NDR 2005

For American Experience

Post Production
Vanessa Ezersky
Greg Shea
Glenn Fukushima

Series Designer
Alison Kennedy

On-line Editor
Spencer Gentry

Sound Mix
John Jenkins

Series Theme
Charles Kuskin
Mark Adler

Production Manager
Nancy Sherman

Jay Fialkov
Janice Flood
Maureen Jordan
Scott Kardel

Project Administration
Julie Cresswell
Kelsey Dorwart
Susana Fernandes
Pamela Gaudiano

Brand Director
Sarah Montague

Marketing and Communications
Laura Bowman
Jen Holmes
Patrick Ramirez

Project Manager
Lauren Prestileo

New Media
Kim Ducharme
Nancy Farrell
Anna Fort
Ravi Jain
Stewart Smith

Director of New Media
Maria Daniels

Series Editor
Susan Bellows

Senior Editor
Paul Taylor

Coordinating Producer
Susan Mottau

Series Producer
Sharon Grimberg

Executive Producer
Mark Samels

©2008 WGBH Educational Foundation
All rights reserved


Narrator: In the summer of 1897, the explorer, Robert Peary, arrived in the northern reaches of Greenland on his third expedition to the Arctic. A lieutenant in the U.S. Navy, Peary had spent the last ten years surveying and charting Greenland's ice caps in search of the most direct route to his ultimate destination — the North Pole. 

Peary had long been drawn to the uncharted territories of the Arctic. As a sickly young boy he had been captivated by stories of polar exploration. Later, after becoming a naval engineer, he borrowed $500 from his mother and bought passage on a ship to Greenland. While there he found his destiny: He would become the discoverer of the North Pole. "No man could obtain a more royal monument," Peary declared, "than to have his name written forever across the mysterious rocks and ice which form the North Pole."

Bruce Henderson, Author, True North: Peary was part of an age of exploration. And I've always looked on him as being one of the last of the old time explorers. And by that I mean the late 19th century explorers who just didn't much care about the people of a new land where they were going, or the wildlife, or anything like that. They just wanted to get where they wanted to get in Peary's case, the North Pole. He was somebody who was so determined to achieve fame, which being the discoverer of the North Pole would get him, that he was ruled by that.

Narrator: Now, Peary was back in Greenland with an audacious scheme to excavate an enormous meteorite and take it back to sell in the United States. He planned to use the profits to finance his first full-scale assault on the Pole. 

As always, Peary turned to the local Inuit for assistance. Over the years, the men had driven his dog sleds and the women had sewn his clothes. They had also helped finance his expeditions. In exchange for biscuits and coffee, the Eskimos gave Peary fur and ivory, which he sold at a huge profit back home.

Bruce Henderson: Peary's relationship with the Eskimos was certainly symbiotic. They got something out of it too. They got guns, they got sewing needles, pots, pans, some things that they wouldn't have gotten otherwise if they hadn't traded with Peary or some other white explorer that came in the area. What Peary got was, in my estimation, a lot more. Peary would not have survived in the polar regions without the natives, without their knowledge, without their experience. 

Narrator: On this trip Peary was also intent on fulfilling an unusual request from the Museum of Natural History in New York. The museum's curator, Franz Boas, wanted him to bring an Eskimo back for study in New York.

Ira Jacknis, Anthropologist: In the late 19th century, there was a tradition of anthropologists working with visiting primitives, ethnic people, to bring them from their foreign countries to the metropolis. And I think what was in Boaz's mind, is he was thinking, Well, here is this explorer going to this very distant area with people who are virtually uncontacted. And if we can bring a native person to New York to help us document our collections this would be a wonderful opportunity to get a lot of information very quickly, and then he would go back the next year.

Narrator: That August, the western coast of Greenland was largely free of drift ice, and Peary was able to navigate through to Cape York, the southern-most settlement of the Polar Eskimos. That year two families were living in the region, including Qisuk and his seven-year-old son Minik. 

Minik (as portrayed by actor): I lived in a little igloo with my father. My mother was dead and I had no brothers and sisters, so I loved my father very much. Everyone liked my father. Qisuk, they used to say, is the best hunter of all our people. 

My father and the rest of the men saw the big ship when it was far out in the water and they went out in the kayaks to meet it. I stayed ashore and watched. Soon Lieutenant Peary and the others would come ashore. We knew what white men do, so our men hid all the furs and ivory to keep them from being stolen.

Narrator: When Peary came ashore, he asked Qisuk and Minik for their help. A few years earlier Peary had convinced an Eskimo to show him his people's only source of iron — three giant meteorites buried in the ice. Peary then laid claim to the meteorites, even scratching his initials on the surface of one. Qisuk and several others labored for nine days until finally they heaved the forty ton meteorite on board Peary's ship. The explorer paid them with guns, knives, and biscuits. Then he made a startling proposition.

Minik (as portrayed by actor): Lieutenant Peary asked if some of us wouldn't like to go back with him, where there were great buildings and railway trains and lights and many people, and where the sun shone every day in winter and where people didn't have to wear heavy furs to keep warm. He coaxed my father and the brave man, Nuktaq, who were the strongest and wisest heads of our tribe to go with him to America. Our people were afraid to let them go, but Peary promised them that they should have Nuktaq and my father back within a year, and that with them would come a great stock of guns and ammunition, and wood and metal and presents for the women and children. So my father believed that for so much good and comfort for his people they should let him and Nuktaq make the trip. Nuktaq could not part from Atangana, his wife, and his little girl, Aviaq, so he took them with him. My mother was dead, and my father would not go without me, so we said a last farewell to home and went on Peary's ship.

Narrator: And so six Eskimos set off on the long journey to America. Also onboard were skeletons Peary had secretly stolen from Eskimo graves. Like the meteorite, he hoped to sell the bones to the Museum of Natural History. 

Narrator: On September 30, 1897, Robert Peary's ship docked at Ordinance Wharf, directly adjacent to the Brooklyn Bridge. Peary had cabled ahead with news of his exotic cargo. Now a huge crowd eagerly awaited his arrival. Twenty thousand people visited the ship on the first two days to see the giant meteorite and the six Eskimos. But no one was more impressed than young Minik. Never before had he seen so many people. At most his Inuit community comprised only 234 people, spread over many miles. Now he found himself in the heart of a teaming metropolis.

Minik (as portrayed by actor): Oh I can remember it very well, that day when we first saw the big houses and saw so many people and heard the bells of the cars. It was like a land that we thought must be heaven. When they took us ashore, they brought five big barrels — they held the bones of our people who had died. When we asked them why, they told us that they were bringing them here to put in nice boxes, where they would be kept safe forever.

Narrator: Peary had arranged for the meteorite to be taken to the American Museum of Natural History, but no one had made arrangements for the Eskimos. 

David Hurst Thomas, Curator: There was a lapse of two years between the time that Boas made his initial request and Peary arrived in Brooklyn. Boas had completely forgotten about that as a possibility, and in fact, he was up to his ears in sending out anthropological expeditions on the Jessup expedition, to the North Pacific. So he was stunned when he found out that Peary had brought Eskimos back to work with anthropological recording here at the museum. 

Narrator: The museum placed the Eskimos under the care of its superintendent, William Wallace. Wallace scrambled to free up space in the basement to accommodate the four adults and two children. Word soon spread that Eskimos were being kept at the museum and crowds gathered outside, hoping to catch a glimpse of the exotic visitors. Many were disappointed to learn that the Inuit were not on display in an exhibit.

New York Times reporter accompanied Minik on a tour of Central Park. "The sight of a bicycle man made him howl with glee," he noted, "and he was amazed at the size of the 'big dogs' as he called the horses he saw in the driveways." The Eskimo men showed an interest in the local women, and even made proposals of marriage to a few. But within a few weeks the Eskimos came down with colds that became progressively worse. Franz Boas was worried. "Although I am not formally responsible, the whole thing falls on my shoulders," he confided to a friend. "I feel a stone around my heart." Boas contacted Peary.

Franz Boas (as portrayed by actor): "My Dear Lieutenant Peary, We feel very much disturbed regarding the health of the Eskimo family at the museum, and I beg to ask if you will kindly call and give us your advice as to what is best to be done for them. They seem to have severe bronchial trouble, and we fear that it may turn into pneumonia. Sincerely, Franz Boas

Narrator: But Robert Peary did not reply. He was en route to Europe for a series of lectures promoting his plans for an expedition the Pole. 

Bruce Henderson: I don't think he felt any responsibility for the Eskimos once he dropped them off at the museum. There's no evidence that he visited them, asked them to dinner, talked to them, cared about them ... He really gave them so precious little.

Narrator: Boas attempted to find the Eskimos a way back home. 

David Hurst Thomas: The closest that Boas could arrange was to get them back to Labrador. But Labrador is a long way from Greenland and he decided that would be a mistake. So they stayed here and, of course, they sickened in the New York environment.

Minik (as portrayed by actor): In the hospital, all my father ever did was think about me. He never slept and kept watch over me, day and night. He didn't sleep; he didn't eat. When they brought him something, he demanded that they feed me. And when I seemed to have an appetite, big tears would come to his eyes.

Narrator: Boas visited Minik in the hospital and was impressed with his intelligence. "The boy had begun to pick up a few English words as soon as he reached this city," Boas noted. After six weeks at Bellevue, the Eskimos' health had improved enough for them to return to the museum. This time they were given a more comfortable space on the sixth floor where anthropologists were eager to study them. 

Ira Jacknis: The essential anthropological problem at the time was to try to account for the history of human cultures. How did all these people get to be the way they are? And how were they related or not related? This was really not known at the time. Now, if you measured their bodies, you could compare the measurements of one group to the measurements of people on different continents. The visit of Minik and his family really fits into a much larger story of American anthropology. The overarching world views that anthropologists are working with are very, very racist, built on the notion that the white people are at the top of a ladder, that dark skinned people are at the bottom of the ladder. Boaz enters with a very different perspective, and he's really horrified with all this. And he doesn't buy the initial assumptions. 

Narrator: Boas set out to collect data from the Eskimos that would challenge conventional notions of a racial hierarchy amongst the world's peoples. 

Ira Jacknis: His most radical notion is to say that people are not arranged in a hierarchy of more primitive to more advanced, and to better and worse, but that all people are essentially the same.

Narrator: But Boas' studies were cut short in January 1898 when the Eskimos again became sick, forcing them to return to the Hospital. 

Minik (as portrayed by actor): The worst thing for my father was when he got so weak and had to stay in bed and couldn't come over to me. I cried the whole time and couldn't eat anything because I was afraid my father was going to die. He very nearly choked during the night. He was calling out for home, for his family, his friends — and me. I buried my head in my pillow and just cried.

When I got to feeling better they allowed me to go over and lie down next to him. He knew he was going to leave me and was filled with the most awful grief. "Your father's spirit will always be with you, Minik," he said in our language. He swallowed heavily, and I knew he was going to die.

Narrator: On February 17, 1898, Minik's father died. Initially there was a disagreement over who owned Qisuk's remains. Eventually, an agreement was reached: his internal organs and brain would remain at Bellevue for study, while his skeleton would be sent to the Museum of Natural History, to Franz Boas.

Ira Jacknis: The whole experience of Minik and his family, I think, was devastating to Boas. It was a situation that got out of hand. It really — it was nothing that he ever dreamed would happen, and nothing he ever wanted to happen. When things like this happened, you just made the best of it.

Narrator: Boas had the skeleton cleaned and mounted for the Museum's collection. He then made a decision that would come to haunt him. Boas had museum staff stage a funeral of Quisik on the museum grounds for Minik to witness. Boas would later say the ceremony was intended to comfort the young Eskimo. 

David Hurst Thomas: What Boas said is we wanted to spare Minik, the child, the pain of knowing that his father had been rendered into a skeleton and was on the shelves with the rest of the anthropological specimens. So they proceeded with the funeral. Boas took it fairly lightly. He said, "Well, we're doing what's the best for the kid," But today it looks pretty callous.

Ira Jacknis: I think Boaz thought, Well, it's very unfortunate these people died. He didn't want them to die. He certainly did want them to return to their home lands. But he thought, Well, now that they were dead, it was — something could come of it, some good could come of their death, and science could learn from the records of their skeletons.

Narrator: Boas notified Peary of Qisuk's death. From San Francisco, Peary telegraphed a reply: "Deeply regret Eskimo's death. Confident everything was done. Entire responsibility mine." After Qisuk's death, William Wallace took Minik and the other Inuit to live with him in the Bronx. But the Eskimos' health continued to decline. Within a few weeks, Atangana, who had been the first of the Eskimos to sicken, also died. 

Nuqtak prepared a traditional Inuit burial ritual for his wife. According to a detailed account by one of Boas' assistants, Nuktaq carried her out of the house into the barn. He then "began to talk to the body, speaking fast and in a very low voice," the assistant noted. "With one hand he lifted up the blanket covering her, and passed his other over her body from her forehead to her heart. He reproached her for being a Shaman and not being able to cure herself, and added 'I am sure I shall die myself.' Then he took her by the shoulder, and shook her hard, telling her to remain where she was. On the tenth day after her death, Nuktaq was very anxious to see the grave, and according to Inuit tradition planned to visit it every ten days thereafter."

Narrator: By spring, Minik's health had improved, but the others were still gravely ill. Wallace took the ailing Eskimos to upstate New York, where he owned a farm. He hoped the mountain air would improve their health, but their condition only worsened. On May 14th, Nuqtak died. Ten days later his twelve-year-old daughter Aviaq also died. Franz Boas instructed Wallace to send Nuktaq and Aviaq's bodies back to New York where their skeletons would be archived alongside Qisuk's. 

After his companions' death, Uisaakassak refused to return to the house in which Nuktaq had died and moved into an old shed near the local church. "It is very difficult to keep him there contented," noted Wallace, who managed to convince Peary to take the 23-year-old Eskimo with him to the Arctic that summer. 

Eight-year-old Minik, however, remained in New York. Wallace and his wife, Rhetta, had grown fond of the boy. They took him into their home and set about raising him as one of their own. He became known as Mene Wallace, and took the middle name Peary. It had been a year since Peary brought the six Polar Eskimos to New York. Now, Minik was the only one left in America.

Narrator: Robert Peary arrived in Greenland in the fall of 1898. He would spend the next four years in the Arctic, on his most ambitious effort yet to reach the North Pole. "If there is no route," he declared, "then I shall make one." But almost immediately Peary encountered a series of setbacks. During the first winter, while pushing North through intense storms and temperatures hovering near minus sixty degrees, the explorer developed frostbite on his feet, requiring the amputation of seven toes. Undeterred, he made another push north. Nothing was heard from him for more than a year, and for a while he was feared lost. 

On each advance north, Peary relied on the Inuit to drive his sledges. But with each failure to reach the Pole, the number of natives willing to accompany him dwindled. In the spring of 1902, despite the promise of rewards, Peary was able to convince just four Eskimos to travel northward with him across the frozen sea ice. 

Bruce Henderson: They thought these crazy white men were going to get them killed. They were taking them out onto areas of the ice flow and whatnot that no native in his right mind would go out on, because the ice cracks when it gets too thin, certain time of the year, whatnot. Peary would say, We're going there, because I want to get there. Until the white man came looking for the Pole, the Eskimos didn't really much care about the pole. And why should they? There wasn't any game there. There wasn't any water there. It was a place to go and die. And the natives had always tried to stay away from places where you would go to die. And they thought it was rather curious that these guys like Peary wanted to go to these dangerous places that, frankly, they were afraid of.

Narrator: On April 21, 1902, dangerous weather conditions dealt Peary another crushing setback. Stalled by storms and rough ice and still more than 300 miles from the Pole, Peary was forced to turn back.

Bruce Henderson: The Navy put right in his orders: You will get to the Pole. We are giving you paid leave to get to the Pole and to represent the Navy, United States Navy. And nothing short will suffice. Well, he came up short.

Narrator: As Peary struggled to reach the Pole, Minik was settling into life in America with the Wallaces. He divided his time between the family home in New York and their country retreat upstate. He became close friends with the Wallace's young son Willie and attended Mount Hope Public School, where he learned to read and write. "Born in a land where life means nothing more than a mere physical existence," a journalist noted, "he has been brought by accident into an American home to enjoy all that that means." Minik was enjoying the material comforts of life in America. Then, suddenly, Minik's new life began to unravel. 

In 1901, after being accused of fraudulent use of museum funds, William Wallace lost his job at the museum. Three years later, Wallace's wife, Rhetta, died; Willie was sent away to live with relatives. Minik dropped out of school. He and his foster father shared an apartment on 14th Street, while Wallace struggled to make ends meet.

Peary was also struggling. When he returned from his failed attempt to reach the North Pole, he was dismayed to learn that public support for his efforts was waning. It took him three years to revive public interest in another expedition, and to raise funds from wealthy patrons.

Bruce Henderson: Peary was a networker, whether it was the President of the United States, or whether it was any other of these industrialists, wealthy men, Peary did have a way of garnering their support and raising money. And he was certainly a showman. He could go on tours and circuits, and talk about the North Pole, and show the Eskimo dogs, and tell rather dramatic stories. He did have some charisma and he could get people to believe in him. 

Narrator: Finally, Peary managed to raise $100,000 to build a new expedition ship, which he named after President Theodore Roosevelt, one of Peary's most prominent supporters. In July 1905, the explorer set off for Greenland, only to return a year later, having failed to reach the Pole once again. 

Bruce Henderson: Getting to the North Pole meant everything to Robert Peary. He was obsessed, and he was determined. And nothing or nobody was going to stop him.

Narrator: With Roosevelt's support, Peary convinced the Navy to give him another three years of paid leave to pursue his Arctic expeditions. In July 1907, he announced what he felt certain would be his last attempt to reach the North Pole. "I believe I shall win this time," he wrote Roosevelt. "I believe this is the work for which God almighty intended me ... "

That same year, Minik made a shocking discovery. From newspaper accounts he finally learned the truth about his father's burial. It had all been a fake; his father's bones were being held at the museum. The seventeen-year-old Eskimo grew melancholic and restless. "We did our best to cheer him up," Wallace wrote, "but it was no use. His heart was broken. He had lost faith in the new people he had come among."

Chester Beecroft, a prominent New Yorker, was moved by Minik's plight and took his case to Washington. Beecroft requested that the government support Minik and his education. In a letter to President Roosevelt, Beecroft described Minik as "a national guest and a national prisoner" whose condition "is becoming a national disgrace." But no one came to Minik's aid. 

Narrator: In June 1908, as he was making final preparations for his expedition north, Robert Peary received a letter from William Wallace. 

William Wallace(as portrayed by actor): "Dear Lieutenant Peary, Minik desperately wants to visit his people up north and I beg you to allow him to accompany you on your journey. Please let me know if you can fulfill this request."

Narrator: "I have received your letter of June 23," Peary replied, "and while I would like to please Mene in this matter, I regret that my ship will be too crowded for me to take him this summer. Or if he is very anxious to get some things from up there, I shall be glad to try to send him back a kayak or a sledge or whatever he may most desire." 

More than ever, Peary felt himself in an intense race to reach the North Pole. The previous year, Frederick Cook, a physician and Peary's former colleague, had announced his own plans to reach the Pole using a new route. While the Rooseveltstill lay docked in New York, Cook was making his way to Northern Greenland. 

Bruce Henderson: There's no doubt that Peary was getting increasingly desperate. And I think he felt that he didn't have much time left. And, indeed, he didn't. When he left on his last polar expedition, he was 51 years old, 50, 51. I think he thought that it was now or never. 

Narrator: Upon his departure, Peary made a dark promise: "This time I will reach the Pole or die." That August, Robert Peary finally set up camp in Northern Greenland. The following winter he set out with 22 Eskimo drivers, and 246 dogs — one of the largest Polar expedition teams ever assembled. Six weeks later, while still more than 100 miles from the Pole, the size of his crew had dwindled to just four Eskimos. Peary would later claim that with this small team he reached the North Pole on April 9, 1909. Upon his return to the U.S. Peary's claim was echoed across the country. 

Reporter(archival): Here is the cap and climax the finish, the closing of the book on 400 years of history. The discovery of the North Pole on the 6th of April 1909 by the last expedition of the Peary Arctic Club means that the splendid frozen jewel of the north, for which through centuries men of every nation have struggled and suffered and died, is won at last and needs to be worn forever by the stars and stripes. 

Narrator: But almost immediately, doubts surfaced as to whether Peary had actually reached the Pole.

Narrator: The same month that Peary supposedly reached the Pole, Minik decided to leave New York. Increasingly frustrated at the Museum's refusal to return his father's bones, he struck out on his own for Greenland with just five dollars in his pocket. Minik wrote of his decision to Chester Beecroft, who passed his letter along to the press.

Minik (as portrayed by actor): "When this reaches you I will be well on my way. You made a brother of me when all the others that were responsible for my being stolen from my own country failed."

"... I don't see any chance in New York and I don't want to be a burden for you any longer ... So I go away. They won't give me my fathers body out of the museum and they never keep their promise, so I'm disgusted and will leave it all if I can. Never mind where I am, I'm just working North. I am homesick and disgusted and when Commander Peary, who brought me to New York told me had no room for me on his ship, I lost hope."

"This is probably the last letter I will ever write. You see I worked my way up here and you can guess how hard it is to beat your way without any money, and many days I have been hungry and many nights I have cried. Now I am in Canada, and I am sick and weak and have no more strength to fight off the awful want to die."

"My poor people don't know that the meteorite that Peary took, it fell from the star. But they know that the hungry must be fed and cold men must be warmed and helpless people cared for and they do it. Wouldn't it be sad if they forgot these and got civilized. I remember one day you told me that the sure way to get revenge is to be unlike the one that hurt you. I'm going to die smiling at Peary and the scientists..."

Narrator: When Minik's letter was published, his plight created a national furor. Six weeks after leaving, a bedraggled Minik returned to the city. The San Francisco Examiner promptly published an article with a banner headline announcing Minik wanted to shoot Peary. "I would shoot Mr. Peary and the Museum Director," Minik reportedly said, "only I want them to see how much more just a savage Eskimo is than their enlightened white selves." Robert Peary's wife, Josephine, was enraged. The Minik affair, she feared, was becoming a threat her husband's reputation. 

Bruce Henderson: Minik was giving interviews with newspapers. From Peary's point of view, he didn't like getting bad press. I mean, that was the last thing Peary wanted. He wanted everything to be positive. He wanted the money flowing in, the support, the accolades, everything. And so Minik was a problem.

Narrator: Josephine Peary and a group of Peary's supporters made arrangements for Minik to join a relief expedition taking supplies to the explorer in Greenland. On July 10, Minik, now eighteen, finally left for his Arctic home. But not before he was forced to sign an agreement stating he would never return to the United States. 

Narrator: In August 1909, Minik looked out on his native land for the first time in twelve years. As his boat sailed into Melville Bay a thick layer of fog shrouded the water. Then a ship became visible in the distance. On board stood Robert Peary, clad in fur skins. He was awaiting passage to New York, where he would make public his claim to have reached the Pole first. Before Minik could leave the ship, Peary forced him to sign a document saying that he had received provisions and supplies from Peary: "All that is needed to make me entirely comfortable." 

When Minik disembarked, the local Inuits gathered excitedly around him. The ship's crew explained that the young man was the son of the great hunter, Qisuk. Minik was silent; he had forgotten his native language. With gestures, the Eskimos welcomed him back home. Sodaq, a powerful shaman, took Minik under his wing and began to reintroduce him into Inuit life. But after a year, Minik was still having trouble adapting. He confided his alienation to his old friend, Chester Beecroft. 

Minik (as portrayed by actor): 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. See all the white bones. Where is my father? Why am I not longer fit to live where I was born? Not fit to live where I was kidnapped? Why am I an experiment there and here and tormented since the great white pirate interfered with nature and made a failure and left me a helpless orphan — young, abandoned — 10,000 miles from home? I have no friend here or anywhere. I am lonely. Come up here and I will show you how to find the Pole. I will make you king. Then if you want me, I will go back to New York with you, or stay here, or go to Hell for you, my friend when there was none. 

Narrator: Minik also told Beecroft that many Eskimos doubted that Peary had ever reached the Pole.

Bruce Henderson: Although Minik, I don't think is an objective observer when it comes to Peary. And certainly he did have his issues with Peary, and I think he was embittered. At the same time, I think that Minik was reporting what he was hearing among Eskimos, and that was there was doubt that he had made it that far. The rest of the world at that time was gathering around Peary and acknowledging him as the discoverer of the North Pole, and Minik's going, "well, wait a minute. This might not have happened."

Narrator: As details about Peary's dash to the North Pole emerged, it became apparent that he would have had to travel across the ice at an unprecedented speed to reach the Pole when he claimed. Peary continued to press his case. He won the endorsement of the National Geographic Society, and eventually his well-connected supporters convinced Congress to certify that Peary had in fact reached the Pole first. 

While Peary worked to secure his place in history, Minik continued trying to adapt to life in the Arctic. He relearned his native language and lived with an Eskimo woman for a while, but they quarreled often and Minik again struck out on his own. His language skills enabled him to find work as an interpreter on American expeditions in the region. But gradually, he came to long for the life he had known in New York.

In the fall of 1916, after seven years in his homeland, Minik left the Arctic and returned to America. Confident the Polar controversy still captivated the public, he contacted the press, intending to sell the true story of the discovery of the North Pole. But Americans were preoccupied with a growing war in Europe and no longer interested who had made it to the Pole first. As he waited for offers that never came, Minik worked briefly in a machine shop, visited with old friends, and considered starting a trading business. He talked about returning to Greenland, but never acted on it. Instead, he applied for American citizenship. 

In the winter of 1917, Minik headed north to New Hampshire, where there was a demand for lumberjacks. Life in the lumberjack camp was hard and the conditions primitive. The timber was cut in winter so it could be sent downstream to sawmills in the spring. Minik was in New Hampshire a year before the flu epidemic that was sweeping the country reached the camps in October 1918. Minik contracted the disease. Seven days later, on October 29th, Minik died in the home of a friend.

Ira Jacknis: The story of Minik is a tragedy where someone frankly becomes a stranger in both worlds, all of his worlds, his native world, his newfound world. Raised as an Inuit, he comes to New York at an early age and finds himself an, an orphan ... There's so much that he's uncomfortable with that's difficult for him in New York ... But he makes a go of it like many immigrants. He's trying to learn a new way of life, but it's not fulfilling him so he tries to go back, which many immigrants do. He goes back and tries to rebuild his traditional life and then that doesn't work out either because he's a different person, he's not an Inuit. He has different ideas, different perspectives, different ways of looking at the world that he's gotten in New York. He's caught between worlds. He's not fully Inuit, he's not fully American, he's somewhere in between and those are very sad cases and I think Minik's life is somewhat of that story. 

Narrator: Within a few decades, the type of research that Franz Boas had conducted on Minik and his family transformed theories of cultural difference, discrediting 19th century concepts of a racial hierarchy. Appointed to the faculty at Columbia University, Boas would come to be regarded as the founder of modern American anthropology. Robert Peary died in 1920, at the age of sixty-three. Nearly fifty years after his death, the National Geographic Society re-examined Peary's records and concluded that most likely Peary had fabricated his claim to have reached the North Pole. The meteorites Peary brought back from Greenland and sold to the Museum of Natural History for $50,000 remain a popular exhibit. 

In 1993, nearly a century after their deaths, the bones of Qisuk, Nuktaq, Atangana and Aviaq were taken back to Greenland by a representative from the Museum. Minik's body was not among them. He lies buried in a cemetery overlooking a stream in Pittsburg, New Hampshire.

Additional funding for Minik provided by

  • funder icon