Minik was raised in Greenland among the Inughuit or Polar Eskimos, the northernmost group of Inuit on Earth. He became acquainted with Robert Peary when the explorer employed members of Minik's band on his many Arctic expeditions.
The move to the US
Minik was brought with his father, Qisuk, and four other members of his Northern Greenland band to the American Museum of Natural History in New York by Robert Peary in 1897. Although not quite brought against their will, these six Inuit were only vaguely informed as to the purpose and meaning of their trip; some wanted to see strange places, others simply did not want to be parted from their relatives. Peary promised them all that they would be able to return. Yet on their arrival, it became clear that they, along with a meteorite that Peary thought of scientific value, were to be objects of study and exhibit, human zoo animals more or less, and that there were no plans for their care, let alone for their return.
The scandal of Minik's father's body
The adult Inuit soon all became ill with tuberculosis which they were ill prepared to fight off, and all eventually died. One of the first to die was Minik's father, Qisuk, and the boy was inconsolable with grief. Minik pleaded for his father's body to receive proper burial, with traditional rites that only he (Minik) could administer. Yet already there were plans to preserve Qisuk's body for study – study impossible were he to be buried. The Museum's curatorial staff, among them the eminent anthropologist Franz Boas, decided to stage a fake burial for Qisuk. They filled a coffin with stones, atop which a stuffed "body" was hidden under a cloth, and buried the box by lantern-light with Minik attending.
Following the death of all the adult Inuit, Minik was left a virtual orphan and was eventually adopted by William Wallace, head of the Museum's custodial staff. Qisuk's body was sent to Wallace's own estate, where he operated a workshop for processing the skeletons of biological specimens, and there it was de-fleshed and mounted on an armature. In this form, Qisuk's body was returned to the Museum for display as the skeleton of a Polar Eskimo. Minik was yet unaware of this fact, and his adoptive parents carefully kept their secret. Despite this, after a space of a few years, the New York papers picked up on the irony of Minik's father's bones being on deposit in the museum, and the story circulated widely. When Minik heard his schoolmates talking about how his father's bones were in a museum, he at once became quiet and despondent. As William Wallace recalled, "We did our best to cheer him up, but it was no use. His heart was broken. He had lost faith in the new people he had come among."
Minik's pleading with the museum authorities and the publicity that the case had garnered were to be fruitless; his father's body was never released. He then turned his attention to Peary, hoping that the explorer might intercede to help him, but again his efforts were in vain. "Peary's Eskimo Son Want to Shoot Him," ran the headline in a tabloid of the day. Nevertheless, Peary did nothing for quite some time.
Return to Greenland
After eventually giving up on attempts to change the Museum's mind, Minik placed his trust in a campaign to get Peary to at least return him to his home. Peary and his camp, after considerable pressure, eventually made the arrangements for Minik to be brought back to Greenland on one of the supply missions. Although they represented themselves as having sent him back "laden with gifts", his biographer Kenn Harper found clear evidence that on the contrary, Minik was returned to Greenland with little more than the clothes on his back.
Minik had forgotten his language and much of his culture, and his life in Greenland was fraught with new difficulties. His people took him back, and taught him the skills he needed to know; he even became a fine hunter. He also acted as a guide and translator for visitors, playing a key role in the otherwise misguided Crocker Land Expedition of 1913. This latest acquaintance with American visitors proved another turning point and Minik resolved to return to the United States, and did so in 1916.
Return to the USA and death
On his return to the US Minik worked at a series of miscellaneous jobs, eventually he found work in a lumber camp in North Stratford, New Hampshire. His employer, Afton Hall, took him under his wing, and invited him to live with his family. Minik, along with many of Hall's family and workers, succumbed to the terrible influenza outbreak of 1918, dying despite the best medical attention on 29 October 1918.
His father's new burial
Convinced that the remains of Qisuk and the three other adult Inuit who died with him should and still could be returned to Greenland, Kenn Harper worked his way through the resistance of the Museum of Natural History (which was reluctant to re-examine the case) and the red tape of two governments before finally being able, in 1993, to stand before a new grave in Qaanaaq in northern Greenland and witness the ceremony denied to Minik nearly a century earlier.
- Kenn Harper - Give Me My Father's Body Iqaluit, Nunavut: Blacklead Books, 1996 (ISBN 0920245781).