This Week in History


A Remarkable Anthropologist

For the week of Monday February 4, 2008

On February 10, 1886, Diamond Jenness was born in Wellington, New Zealand. Recognized for his anthropological and ethnological studies of the Aboriginals and Inuit of Canada, his work led to a better understanding of these peoples.

Diamond Jenness [left] and W. L. McKinley on board the Karluk in 1913
© Rudolph Martin Anderson / Library and Archives Canada / C-086412
Jenness first studied at Victoria College in New Zealand and then enrolled in the school of anthropology at Oxford University, England, in 1908. During his last year of studies, he led a university-funded  anthropological expedition to study the peoples of the D’Entrecasteaux Islands in New Guinea.

In 1913, he was invited to join the Canadian Arctic Expedition as an ethnologist to observe Inuit for three years. He began his work in Alaska because one of the expedition ships, the Karluk, became icebound during the journey to the Northwest Territories. While Jenness and other members of the expedition were ashore, the ship became dislodged from the ice and wrecked, leaving only a few survivors. In 1914, after purchasing another ship, the expedition was able to reach the Canadian Arctic. Jenness directed his attention to the Copper Inuit of the Coronation Gulf region. He was so keen about his research that he was adopted by the family of Ikpukhuak, an Inuk he knew fairly well, and lived with them for a number of months. He brought back to the Geological Survey of Canada a detailed analysis of this tribe complete with, among other things, cultural objects and stories. 

Copper Inuit Ikpukhuak and his wife
© G.H. Wilkins / National Museum of Canada / Library and Archives Canada / e002280200

In 1916, Jenness joined the Canadian army and served during the First World War. Three years later he settled in Ottawa to work on publishing the material collected during his Arctic expedition.

Throughout his long career at the National Museum of Canada (now the Canadian Museum of Civilization), he continued to study Canada’s Aboriginal peoples, often conducting fieldwork. In 1925, he examined objects found on southern Baffin Island and concluded that they came from a very ancient people, whom he named the Dorset. The following year Jenness became chief of the Museum’s anthropological section. He wrote a number of critical works including The People of the Twilight, published in 1928, and The Indians of Canada, published in 1932. He retired from the Museum in 1948, but continued his research until his death.

He was recognized with many prestigious distinctions throughout his life, and a peninsula on Victoria Island (Northwest Territories) was named after him. He died on November 29, 1969, in Ottawa. Diamond Jenness was designated a National Historic Person of Canada in 1973.

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