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The Franz Boas Enigma: Inuit, Arctic, and Sciences.

THE FRANZ BOAS ENIGMA: INUIT, ARCTIC, AND SCIENCES. By LUDGER MULLER-WILLE. Foreword by ROSEMARY LEVY ZUMWALT. Montreal: Baraka Books, 2014. ISBN 978-1-77186-001-7. 186 p., maps, b&w illus., bib., index. Softbound. Cdn$24.95. Also available as an ebook.

In his lifetime, Franz Boas, the pioneer anthropologist who has been called "the father of American anthropology," produced a remarkable total of 725 publications of widely varying length. These include 87 works that deal with the Inuit or the Arctic, of which 47 were written in German. Ludger Muller-Wille points out that, not surprisingly, these latter works are largely unknown and have tended to be overlooked by Anglophone scholars. His aim in the present work is to bring these works to the attention of that readership and also to recall some lesser-known aspects of Boas's life.

All Boas's works on the Inuit and the Arctic, including his seminal work The Central Eskimo (Boas, 1888), derive partly or wholly from his research and travels in Cumberland Sound and area in 1883-84, when he and his servant/research assistant Wilhelm Weike were based at the Scottish whaling station at Kekerten or were traveling with the Inuit. Boas's experiences during that year have been made readily available to the Anglophone reader by Muller-Wille through two earlier books (Muller-Wille, 1998; Muller-Wille and Gieseking, 2011).

A major aim of the present volume is to at least make the Anglophone scholarly community aware of the existence of the substantial and rich source of geographical and anthropological material on the Arctic and the Inuit represented by Boas's writings in his native language.

Muller-Wille has presented an outline of Boas's background and early life: the son of a well-to-do German Jewish merchant in the town of Minden (Westphalia), he attended various universities (Heidelberg, Berlin, and Kiel) and emerged with his PhD in Physics in 1881. Thereafter, following his obligatory year of military service, his career took a drastic change in direction. News of preparations for the First International Polar Year, moving forces behind which were the Germans Carl Weyprecht and Georg von Neumayer, contributed to Boas's growing interest in the Arctic. This, the first programme of international coordinated scientific research in the polar regions, took place in 1882-83. Aimed primarily at meteorology and terrestrial magnetism, it involved 11 nations, which mounted 14 expeditions, 12 in the Arctic and two in the Subantarctic. One of the German stations was established at Kingua Fiord at the head of Cumberland Sound, Baffin Island. Boas, who had shifted his focus to the Inuit (or the Eskimo, as he called them), saw his opportunity. He arranged with the German Polar Commission for him and his servant/assistant, Weike to be transported to Baffin Island on board Germania, which was dispatched to Cumberland Sound in 1883 to evacuate the German scientists from Kingua Fiord.

Boas had made serious preparations for his year with the Inuit. He began to learn Inuktitut, using published materials based on the closely related languages of Greenland and Fabrador. And, remarkably, he published two works, based on written sources, even before traveling to the Arctic: one on the earlier distribution of Inuit in the North American Arctic, and the other on the Netsilingmiut. To partly finance his expedition, he signed a contract with the newspaper Berliner Tageblatt for a total of 18 articles: three trial articles on various topics, followed by a further 15 articles based on his experiences and research in the Arctic, which were published in the newspaper over the period from August 1883 to April 1885. Thereafter, from September 1884 to 1894, he produced a further 24 publications (of varying length) in German that dealt with the Arctic or the Inuit. In terms of topics, they run the gamut from Inuit settlement and migration, to Inuit stories, the geography of his field area in Baffin Island, his collection of ethnographic materials, Inuit songs, Inuit religious beliefs, Inuit string games, and the dialect of the Inuit of Cumberland Sound. Many of his articles were accompanied by his meticulous maps, which included a remarkable number of Inuit place-names. Muller-Wille has included a comprehensive list of Boas's writings on the Inuit and the Arctic, both in German and in English. This list represents one of the main contributions of the work.

The other significant contribution deals with a somewhat puzzling aspect of Boas's career path. When Boas came south from Baffin Island in September 1884, he stayed for about six months in the United States, in part to give a number of lectures and make contacts at various scientific institutions, and in part to visit his fiancee Marie Krackowizer at her family's holiday home in upstate New York. Returning to Germany in March 1885, he gave a further series of lectures at different institutions. In January 1886, he filed his application to be considered for the Habilitation qualification with the Faculty of Philosophy at Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universitat zu Berlin. Complying with the regulations, along with the application he submitted his PhD dissertation, 12 of his publications, a list of three topics for two compulsory lectures, and his curriculum vitae. This documentation was perused by two assigned assessors, and in due course, he presented the two compulsory lectures, both, strangely, on physical geographical topics. He received his Habilitation certificate in early July 1886, entitling him to the title Dr. habil. and qualification as Privatdozent, which would allow him to teach geography and ethnography at any university in Germany. By the fall of 1886 he had submitted a detailed teaching programme to the Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universitat zu Berlin. But he never taught any of the courses he listed. On 27 July 1886, he landed in New York and applied for immigrant status. In late January 1887, he began his first paying job as assistant editor at the journal Science and on 10 March he married Marie Krackowizer.

Why, having jumped through all the hoops required for his Habilitation, with the strong possibility of an academic career in Germany, did he abandon that career and emigrate to the United States, with no immediate prospect of employment? The decision was probably due in part to his inability to accept the rigidity of the German academic system, but undoubtedly the anti-Semitic attitudes already prevailing in Germany also played a role. Very significant is the fact that in 1933 he wrote an open letter to General Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg, the President of the German Reich, expressing his concern and outrage at Nazi policies, especially those aimed at the Jews. This letter had a wide clandestine distribution.

In presenting a synopsis of Boas's early career, Muller-Wille has stressed this rather puzzling abrupt change in direction in Boas's career path. While this discussion is an important contribution, it is overshadowed, in terms of importance, by his detailed listing of Boas's publications, in both German and English, pertaining especially to the Arctic and the Inuit. Muller-Wille's book complements wonderfully his earlier works on Boas and his year on Baffin Island.


Boas, F. 1888. The Central Eskimo. Sixth Annual Report of the Bureau of Ethnology 1884-85. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution. 339-669. (Facsimile reprint: Coles Canadiana Collection. Toronto: Coles Publishing Co., 1974).

Muller-Wille, L., ed. 1998. Franz Boas among the Inuit of Baffin Island 1883-1884: Journals & letters. Translated by William Barr. Toronto: University of Toronto Press. 298 p.

Muller-Wille, L., and Gieseking, B., eds. 2011. Inuit and whalers on Baffin Island through German eyes: Wilhelm Weike's Arctic journal and letters (1883-84). Translated by William Barr. Montreal: Baraka Books. 279 p.

William Barr

Arctic Institute of North America

University of Calgary

2500 University Drive NW

Calgary, Alberta T2N1N4, Canada

wbarr@ucalgary. ca
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Author:Barr, William
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jun 1, 2014
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