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Foster Mother

Knud Rasmussen, the Inuit-Danish anthropologist of the early 20th-century, traveled the polar north collecting stories and songs. When I read his 1921 collection of Greenlandic folktales, I was instantly drawn to the story of the old woman who lived in the Angmagssalik region of East Greenland.

This woman's hut was perched on the shore of a tiny village probably much like Kulusuk. All her neighbors, Rasmussen writes, lived above her on the rocky hillside. The woman's loneliness was second only to her hunger. Because she was wildly destitute, the hunters often brought her seal meat and blubber.

Sometimes while they were out hunting, the village men were lucky enough to kill a polar bear. In Kulusuk, I was introduced to this "King of the Arctic" and learned about its plight. Today hunters in the Angmagssalik region can capture only 25 polar bears per season--they are a protected species.

Anyway, one time the hunters in the story killed a mother bear. They must have felt bad about the bear's orphan cub, because they brought it back to the village. And someone got the idea to give it to old woman. Maybe because she was an old and alone, maybe somewhat not in her right mind, or maybe because the line between human and animal is so fragile, the women took the cub into her house. She put him beside her blazing lamp to thaw him out then roasted some blubber and fed him. And she let him sleep in bed with her at night.

In this story, I was amazed that the cub continued to sleep with the old woman night after night. I could imagine the intimacy, but it also made me feel tense, afraid for the old woman. Anyway, under her care, the cub grew quickly. She talked to him, and he learned human speech, and he grew a human mind.

But at least part of him was still bear because when he asked his foster mother for food, he would sniff.

The woman was no longer alone. Villagers brought food for the cub. Children came to play with him. He would break their toy harpoons, but when he wanted to touch them or rough house, he would sheathe his claws.

Soon the cub grew too strong for the children. So the adults played with him until he grew too strong for them, too.

So the men took the bear hunting. And they found that whenever the bear was with them, they always caught seals. He was a better hunter than even the fiercest among them, and he never stayed home, even in the most violent weather.

As time passed, the men realized that the bear himself could be hunted, so they asked the foster mother to put a sign on him so the hunters could recognize him. She made him a collar of plaited sinews and strapped it around his neck.

Eventually, people from beyond Angmagssalik heard about this bear who could not be touched. They vowed not to kill him, because they also heard the foster mother could not survive without him.

Except one man, who said, “If I ever see that bear, I’ll kill it.”

The bear continued to live with the old woman hunting in winter on the ice and hunting in summer in the sea. The woman continued to teach the bear. She would say, “If you ever meet a human you don’t know, treat him as if he were your kin. Never harm anyone unless they attack first.”

Then one day, the bear was out hunting during a storm and didn’t come home until much later than usual. When he arrived he came inside and sniffed at his foster mother then sprang onto her bench. The foster mother went outside and found the body of a dead man. She didn’t recognize the man. Without going back inside, she ran to her neighbor’s window, crying, “The bear has come home with a dead man.”

The woman and her neighbors saw the dead man was a stranger from the far north. He was in his underwear, which meant he had been running and sweating so hard that he had discarded his fur garments. They later learned that the man was trying to kill the bear, and that his own kinsman told the bear to strike back.

But the old woman knew what it meant. She said to the bear, “You’ll die if you stay here.” She wept inconsolably as she said this. The bear thrust his muzzle onto the floor and wept, too.

“You have kin far away,” she said.

So the bear set out. But before he did, the old woman dipped her hands in oil and smeared them with soot, then stroked the bear on his side. The bear sniffed at her and left.

People now say that in the far north they will sometimes see a bear as big as an iceberg with a black spot on its side.


Knud Rasmussen spent his life exploring the polar north. In 1910, writes author Nancy Campbell (The Library of Ice), Rasmussen set up a base camp in Qaanaaq, which he named Ultima Thule, because, he said, it was "the most northerly post in the world, literally, the Ultima Thule." Although Thule has been used for centuries as a name for different regions of the world, and Ultima Thule is apparently the name for the northernmost location in Ancient Greek and Roman literature and maps, I'm fascinated by Rasmussen's early travels to and from his Ultima Thule and its connection to the the oddly shaped celestial body twisting through space, dubbed by scientists in 2014 as Ultima Thule. (Ultima Thule has since been rebranded Arrokoth, which in the Powhatan language means "sky" or "cloud.")

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