August 04, 2010

Ólöf the Eskimo wannabe

Stephen Bridenstine brings the following to our attention in his Drawing on Indians blog:

UCSB Anthropologist Tells the Story of 20th-Century Con ArtistFrom the late 1880's to the early 1900's, Ólöf Krarer regaled listeners with incredible stories about her native Greenland and her own Eskimo heritage. She crossed the country, giving lectures and presentations––more than 2,500 in all––to audiences that included such luminaries as senator and presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan.

There was one catch, however: Krarer was not an Eskimo, and she had never set foot in Greenland. She was, in fact, a dwarf from Iceland who had immigrated to the United States at the age of 18. Unable to find steady employment outside of circus sideshows, she decided to reinvent herself as the Eskimo people assumed her to be.

Eventually, she changed her country of origin to Greenland––there were no Eskimos in Iceland––and took to the lecture circuit, sharing everything she knew about Eskimo culture. But nearly everything she said to the tens of thousands of people who flocked to hear her speak was a lie.

In her new book, "Ólöf the Eskimo Lady––A Biography of an Icelandic Dwarf in America" (The University of Michigan Press, 2010), Inga Dóra Björnsdóttir, a lecturer in the Department of Anthropology at UC Santa Barbara, tells Krarer's life story and explores how one woman was able to fool so many people, including experts of the day. She places Krarer's story against the backdrop of America's fascination with the wild north and the expansion of the railroad, both of which propelled Krarer and her lies around the country.

"America at that time was the country with the greatest number of ethnic groups," Björnsdóttir said. "It was––and perhaps still is––the place where immigrants could most easily reinvent themselves and lead a life that would have been impossible in their native countries. At the same time, Americans were very ignorant about life and cultures in foreign lands, and harbored great prejudice against minorities and foreigners, a fact that Ólöf certainly used to her advantage."
Stephen adds:Anyone with enough ignorance and guts can dress up as an Indian and claim to be 100% authentic. It takes something else all together to make those people into full-fledged celebrities. The throngs of adoring public that flocked to see Ólöf Krarer made her into that instant but short-lived celebrity.

Her story also parallels other individuals who adopted Native identities. She completely re-invented herself in America, from a disabled Icelandic dwarf into an accepted cultural icon. While I appreciate this positive spin on the story, it doesn't change the underlying fact that she was a complete fraud.
Comment:  This is an excellent example of what I was saying in Indian Wannabes = Celebrity Wannabes. For some recent examples of this phenomenon, see:

Megan Fox as Sarah Rainmaker?!
Kesha goes tribal at Bamboozle
Heidi and Spencer adopt "Indian names"
Simpson:  "I am an Indian"
The truth about Tinsel Korey
Juliette Lewis plays Indian

As I noted in The Political Uses of Stereotyping, Americans have a long history of "playing Indian." Playing Eskimo is a small subset of that. Since you'd have to wear a parka, eat blubber, and so forth, it's understandable why most wannabes prefer to be "noble" Plains Indians.

For more on our fascination with the Arctic and "Eskimos," see:

Frankenstein's monster = Eskimo
Review of The Terror
Icy indigenous expeditions
Charles Dickens on "Esquimaux"
The doomed Franklin expedition

For more on the subject in general, see Eskimos:  The Ultimate Aborigines.

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