NUUK, Greenland — Two American explorers, one white, one black, made a historic assault on the North Pole a century ago and then headed home, leaving behind a legacy of daring and discovery, and of two little boys in sealskins — their half-Inuit sons.
Today it’s the descendants of those 3-year-olds who are exploring the world.
“He said, ‘I’ll find the way or I’ll make a way.’ That’s what I’m doing, too,” Robert E. Peary II, 55, a well-traveled Inuit lecturer-performer, said of his famous great-grandfather, Rear Adm. Robert E. Peary.
Those bearing Matthew A. Henson’s name — Peary’s chief aide — are venturing beyond their remote Greenland birthplaces as well.
“I have that feeling, I want to be traveling always,” said Avo Henson Sikemsen, 27, who recalls dogsled trips from her Arctic village as a girl, but who has since seen the world, from Cairo to New York. One cousin is even off to Harvard.
Over four generations, the two family lines, rooted in the planet’s northernmost communities, have multiplied, spread out and even intermarried and are now plugging in to a globalizing world. But for decades their existence was unknown beyond the frozen fjords and towering icebergs of Greenland’s far northwest.
It was there, in the Thule region, that Peary’s party set up base in the 1890s to begin a series of Arctic expeditions that ended with the epic 1909 trek, after which the U.S. Navy officer was acclaimed as discoverer of the North Pole.
During those years 1,300 kilometers (800 miles) above the Arctic Circle, Peary relied heavily on Inuit — or Eskimo — hunter guides. But that wasn’t the only companionship he and Henson found.
Peary, a Pennsylvanian in his 40s with an American wife and daughter at home, had a relationship with a much younger Inuit woman, Aleqasina, who bore him two sons, one of whom died young. The Maryland sharecropper’s son Henson, also married but without children, had an Inuit mistress as well, Akatingwah. Their son, Anaukaq, was born in 1906, as was Peary’s surviving son, Kaala.
After the Americans left in September 1909, never to return or communicate with the Greenlanders, their Inuit families fell into destitution. Many years later, Kaala, who died in 1998, recalled wearing dogskin clothes as a boy, a badge of poverty.
But the youths learned from stepfathers the traditional skills of hunting seal, narwhal and polar bear — the essence of life in the harsh Arctic. With dogsled and kayak, Kaala Peary and Anaukaq Henson grew into formidable hunters and, by the 1930s, supporters of their own families. Kaala had five children — three daughters and two sons. Anaukaq had five sons who survived.
Admiral Peary’s forgotten son first came to outsiders’ attention through French explorer Jean Malaurie, who spent a year with the Polar Eskimo tribe in 1950-51 and later wrote of Kaala, who was almost killed by an enraged walrus while hunting.
Anaukaq Henson, who died in 1987, remained little known until Harvard University’s S. Allen Counter journeyed to Greenland’s far north in 1986 to confirm rumors of “black Eskimos.” The neuroscientist was campaigning for proper historical recognition for Matt Henson, whose accomplishments had been obscured because of American racial attitudes in generations past.
Counter succeeded in having the black explorer’s remains reinterred at Arlington National Cemetery near Admiral Peary’s grave, and he sponsored a U.S. visit by Anaukaq, Kaala and grandchildren in 1987, when the Greenlanders met for the first time with Peary’s American descendants and with Henson’s more distant relatives.
“I’d like to go to America again, to see those tall buildings,” Anaukaq’s son Vittus, a solidly built 64, said in a recent interview in Nuuk, capital of this self-ruling Danish island.
Vittus and other descendants met with a reporter over lunch to talk, in a mix of Greenlandic and English, about the families and how they have grown and prospered — to number more than 60 in the great-grandchildren’s generation.
In a testament to how closely knit they remain, great-granddaughter Eqilana Henson, 49, grabbed the reporter’s notebook at one point and in a flash sketched out the entire family tree.
Robert E. Peary II explained the closeness.
“We have family relationships stronger than in Western countries, because in this area we have to survive, and family members are important for survival, and we keep it that way.”
This Peary great-grandson, who lives in Sweden and also goes by the Inuit name Hivshu Ua, was reached by mobile phone in the ancestral village of Qaanaaq, where he was visiting and hunting with relatives after piloting a small boat five days up Greenland’s west coast.
Most Pearys and Hensons still reside in Qaanaaq, some as hunters and fishermen. But others have struck out farther afield in Greenland, working as teachers, store clerks, home care workers. Vittus is a machine operator in Nuuk. Some have moved to Denmark and elsewhere in Scandinavia, to Canada and even the U.S. Vittus’ son Anaukaq Matthew Allen Henson, 24, is in a six-month study program at Harvard.
Facebook keeps them in touch with each other. “We love Facebook. We’re on it all the time,” said world traveler Avo Henson Sikemsen, a government employee and daughter of a Henson grandson and an adopted Peary great-granddaughter.
One can find a spiky-haired great-great-grandson of “Pioulissouak,” the Great Peary, on Facebook, along with descendants whose “likes” range from yoga to Shakira, from “The Simpsons” to Las Vegas to Martin Luther King Jr.
None has struck out farther than Kaala’s multilingual grandson Robert II, or Hivshu, whose website describes him as a lecturer and translator, Eskimo storyteller and traditional drum singer, and whose appearances have spanned North America and Europe.
“I am just a human being like Admiral Peary, exploring my life like everybody does,” he said by phone during his demanding 1,000-kilometer (600-mile) motorboat trek.
“Peary did what he did because he wanted to know more. Some people are testing their limits by challenging themselves. I do this because I want to seek, feel, inhale life.”
This 21st-century “explorer” has striking Caucasian features, as did grandfather Kaala. Similarly, many Hensons are darker than other Inuit.
It’s known that Aleqasina was later shunned by some Inuit because of her relationship with the admiral. Even Hivshu remembers, as a child in the 1960s, “they said I was not a real Eskimo.” Hensons, too, sometimes faced neighbor children’s taunts as “kulnocktooko,” black people.
But such attitudes haven’t kept Pearys from leadership positions in Qaanaaq. And the Hensons “are very proud of their black heritage,” said Inga Hansen, a Greenland television journalist who is close to the family. “Many people know who the Hensons are.”
Great-granddaughter Aviaq Henson, 32, a Nuuk business-school teacher, is so proud of her lineage that she persuaded the Greenland postal service to issue a stamp in 2009 commemorating her American ancestor. He’s pictured in Inuit furs against a backdrop of an Arctic map showing the 1909 route to the North Pole.
The map evokes another lingering legacy: century-old skepticism that Peary and his dogsledding band of Henson and four Polar Eskimos actually made it to “90 degrees north.” Some contend they went off course by tens of kilometers (miles).
Their descendants naturally defend Peary’s claim, and they believe they found heavyweight backing two years ago, in a message from U.S. President Barack Obama marking the expedition’s centennial.
“That shows President Obama believes they reached the pole,” insisted grandson Qidtlaq Henson, 59, a Qaanaaq schoolteacher.
Obama has won a niche in the Henson pantheon. He crops up as a favorite on family Facebook pages. In a prominent place in the Qaanaaq schoolhouse, so far from the White House, so near the North Pole, hangs a picture of the American first family for the 150 children to see, kids who in many cases can trace their heritage back to two Americans, black and white, who sojourned there so long ago.
Why is America’s first mixed-race president special? A smile went around the Nuuk lunch table, until Eqilana Henson finally spoke up.
“Why is he special?” she said. “Most likely it’s because it’s in our blood.”