Caught in the Middle: The Tragic Life of Minik Wallace
This fall the Peary-MacMillan Arctic Museum is marking the 100th anniversary of the death of Minik Wallace, an Inughuit man who was orphaned while living in New York City in the late 1890s, with a photography exhibit, Caught in the Middle: the Tragic Life of Minik Wallacein the foyer of Hubbard Hall.
Minik, or Mene as he was sometimes called, was born about 1891 in northwestern Greenland. He died in Pittsburg, New Hampshire in 1918 as a result of the influenza pandemic. His life was shaped by his father’s decision, in 1897, to travel from their home in Greenland to New York. Robert Peary, who spent that summer in Greenland, had been asked by staff at the American Museum of Natural History to bring an Inughuit man to New York to work with the museum for a year so they could learn more about Inuit culture. In the end, six people made the trip, three men, a woman, and two children, including Minik and his father Qissuk.
What began as an adventure ended in tragedy. Within months Qissuk and three of the others had died of tuberculosis, leaving Minik, aged about 7, an orphan far from home. William Wallace, an employee of the museum, adopted him and for the next decade Minik lived the life of an American middle-class boy, attending school, playing sports, and going to church. His life was disrupted in 1907 by the shocking discovery that his father’s body, rather than being buried as he had been told, had been processed by museum staff and his bones stored in the museum. Minik was unsuccessful in his campaign to have his father’s bones returned to him for burial. Disillusioned, he moved back to Greenland but later returned to the United States, where he succumbed to Spanish flu. His upbringing left him feeling like an outsider in both places. He was an early example of the dislocation felt by many Indigenous children sent to residential schools in subsequent decades.
Caught in the Middle is on view in the Hubbard Hall foyer at the museum’s entrance through January 20, 2019. The Museum is located on the first floor of Hubbard Hall on the Bowdoin College campus and is open Tuesday through Saturday 10 AM – 5 PM and Sunday 2 – 5 PM. Closed Mondays and national holidays. The foyer is open to the public daily during the semester from 8 AM – 6 PM. Admission is free.