Adieu to Malaurie | Polarjournal
Jean Malaurie was famous for his work in the Far North, and for his commitment to the Indigenous polar populations. Image: Claude Truong-Ngoc / Wikimedia Commons

French ethnologist and geographer Jean Malaurie died on February 5 in France at the age of 101. PolarJournal looks back at the career of a passionate and committed man.

Writing a retrospective article on the life of Jean Malaurie is a bit like trying to fit a mountain into a box. The exercise is impossible in the face of such a monument. Malaurie is one of those men who have experienced a particular destiny, and who have produced a dense and rich body of work.

Scientist, explorer, adventurer, geographer, ethnologist, writer, publisher – Jean Malaurie seems to have lived several lives, all crowned with success, judging by the list of awards and honorary titles he has received. Grand officier de la légion d’honneur, Commandeur des Arts et des Lettres, Grand-croix de l’ordre national du Mérite, CNRS medal, Sage of the Peoples of the North, honorary doctorate from several universities in France and abroad, goodwill ambassador to UNESCO. The list is as impressive as the number of institutes and foundations he has created in a career spanning seven decades.

The common thread is always the desire to raise awareness for the Indigenous circumpolar peoples. Yet nothing predestined this geographer to become a friend and defender of the Inuit.

Malaurie in Thule in 1951. Image: Fonds Jean Malaurie

Studying stones and men

Jean Malaurie was born on December 22, 1922 in Mainz, Germany, into a bourgeois, Catholic and austere family. His father, a historian, often told him about the great Germanic epics, perhaps passing on to his son the eloquence that would contribute to his fame. The family returned to France, near Paris, in 1930.

In 1940, France was invaded by the German army. The Third Reich imposes the STO (Compulsory Work Service for the Germans) on the country, exploiting French labor. While Wehrmacht soldiers were at the front, over half a million French workers were forcibly recruited by the occupying forces and sent to Germany to keep the country’s factories and infrastructure running. However, several thousand men and women refused to join the STO, entering the de facto underground. Malaurie was among them until the liberation of Paris in August 1944. His refusal of the STO was, as he would later say, his first act of independence.

After the war, Malaurie joined the University of Paris, where he studied physical geography and dynamic geology. Although there is still a long way off, it’s the stones that will bring the scientist closer to the humanities and the Inuit. In 1948, the French Academy of Sciences appointed Malaurie geographer-physicist for the French Polar Expeditions. Founded by another great name in the French polar world, Paul Émile Victor (PEV to his friends), the mission has just been given the green light by the government to explore the Arctic with Greenland and the Antarctic in Terre Adélie.

From geography to anthropogeography

While part of the expedition is busy establishing a base at Eismitte, on the ice cap, Malaurie remains on the coast, mapping the mountains of Disko Island. And establishing initial contacts with the local population. It was here that the idea of anthropogeography was born, with the need to put people back at the center of science. “On my first mission to Greenland with Paul Émile Victor in 1948, I was struck by the dictatorship of the hard sciences. The expedition included physicists and geophysicists, but no biologists or ethnographers. A great polar expedition that forgot about the inhabitants !”, he confided in an interview with French newspaper Libération, in December 2, 2016.

In his view, there was a need to broaden the scope of research. He exposed his view to PEV and faced a refusal. The study of populations was not part of a program that was intended to be similar for the Arctic and Antarctic. A nonsense for Malaurie who decided to pack up.

From one extreme to the other, he found himself in the Sahara desert, carrying out geomorphological studies for the CNRS. Paradoxically, it was in the furnace of North Africa that he received the telegram that changed his life. It came from the Danish government and included three words: “Greenland authorization granted”.

Without even waiting for CNRS funding, he set off without equipment or credit to Thule, in the far north of Greenland, for a fourteen-month mission. And he arrived alone, much to the astonishment of the Inuit, who were wondering what this tall, nearly six-foot-tall man was doing there on his own. Malaurie immersed himself in his hosts’ way of life, sharing their food and learning their language with ten words a day.

Malaurie traveled to Siorapaluk, 150 kilometers north of Thule in 1951, in Greenland’s northernmost Inuit community. Although he was not there to study the Inuit – he came as a geocryologist – the six Inuit families gathered in Siorapaluk were watching him and gradually getting used to the young scientist. Image: Fonds Jean Malaurie

Malaurie’s mission included mapping this largely unexplored land. With the help of four Inuit, he set to work mapping 1,800 kilometers of coastline on Ingelfield and Washington lands, as well as Ellesmere Island, naming places and fjords with Inuit and French names. In the process, Malaurie and Kutsikitsoq, one of the Siorapaluk Inuit, became the first men to reach the North Magnetic Pole.

One day, his comrades took him to a glacier to show him, they say, something that might interest him. The sight left the young scientist speechless. In front of him lied an armada with thousands of men busy building a military base. In fact, the Danish government had secretly given the USA permission to set up an outpost with nuclear weapons. He realized just how threatened the Inuit and their way of life were.

A man of letters and actions

On his return to France, he began writing a book about his experience, defending the Inuit. Released in 1955, Les Derniers rois de Thulé (The Last Kings of Thule) has been a huge success ever since. Even today, the work is considered one of the best books ever written on the Inuit, making Malaurie the leading French specialist on these peoples of the Far North.

Malaurie’s first book, Les Derniers Rois de Thulé (The Last Kings of Thule ) is a literary success and one of the leading works on the Inuit.

From the late 1950s to the 1990s, Malaurie embarked on some thirty expeditions to the Arctic, from Greenland to Siberia. He was a frequent speaker to governments seeking his expertise on Arctic Indigenous populations, and had founded several centers and institutes dedicated to the Arctic and its study, always from an interdisciplinary perspective.
He also became a publisher with “Terre humaine”, a collection of anthropological stories written in the first person, which he founded in 1954. If the already famous Les Derniers Rois de Thulé is the first volume to be published, the second will become no less eminent. Written by Claude Lévi-Strauss, Tristes tropiques is considered one of the landmark works of ethnology.

An amateur painter himself, Malaurie will publish L’Art du Grand Nord (Citadelle & Mazenod), a 600-page compendium of the art of circumpolar Indigenous peoples. From the Inuit to the Sami, from the Ainu to the Siberian and Alaskan Arctic peoples, this monument weighing almost 4 kg will help bring circumpolar art to a wide audience. Image : Jean Malaurie

Malaurie was as interested in Inuit animist thought and shamanism as he was in the future of these peoples, whose upheavals he could already foresee in the wake of ever-faster modernization. In particular, he was one of the first to talk about the tremendous mineral resources lying in the Arctic soil, and the problems and opportunities these deposits could bring to Indigenous populations, especially if their traditional way of life were to be sacrificed. He wrote in Lettre à un Inuit (Letter to an Inuit), published in 2022, that “Any society without transcendence, inhabited by a predominantly materialistic civilization and governed by financial forces alone, is doomed in the long term”.

Deceased in Dieppe on February 5 at the age of 101, the Frenchman from the Far North will receive a final official tribute at Les Invalides on Tuesday February 13, before his ashes are buried in northwest Greenland, near Thule. This land where he felt so at home, as he confided in a documentary made in 2009: “There were times when I’d lie on the tundra, arms outstretched, saying to myself ‘I’m happy! Too happy!”

Mirjana Binggeli, PolarJournal

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