ANCHORAGE - After hearing about the "inland Eskimos" of Alaska, Norwegian explorer Helge Ingstad lived among them for nine months, learning the language, listening to their stories and recording their songs.
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Ingstad photographed and filmed the Inupiaq Nunamiut Eskimos of Anaktuvuk Pass to document what already was a vanishing lifestyle among nomadic caribou hunters of interior Alaska.
Ingstad - who is best known as the discoverer of a Norse settlement in Newfoundland that established Vikings came to North America 500 years before Columbus - lived with the 65 Nunamiut Eskimos from September 1949 to May 1950.
On his last night with them, he was sitting in a tent with elder Simon Paneak and a promise was made, said Trude Paulsson, cultural affairs officer with the Royal Norwegian Embassy in Washington, D.C. Paneak told Ingstad that the 4,880-foot mountain near Anaktuvuk Pass would be named after Helge Ingstad. He also said the Nunamiut Eskimos would not forget their promise.
And they didn't, Paulsson said. The U.S. Board of Geographical Names made the name Ingstad Mountain official in April soon after a required 5-year wait following the explorer's death. Ingstad died in Oslo, Norway, in 2001 at age 101.
"It turns out the people in Anaktuvuk always referred to this mountain as Ingstad Mountain," Paulsson said Wednesday.
This weekend, a traditional Eskimo feast will be held at Anaktuvuk Pass, about 475 miles north of Anchorage, to honor Ingstad. Norwegian Ambassador Knut Vollebaek, Ingstad's daughter Benedicte Ingstad and Ingstad's grandson Eirik Ingstad Sandberg will be attending, as well as two-time Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race winner Robert Sorlie of Norway.
Sorlie also is the keynote speaker this week at a two-day memorial symposium on the changing Arctic being held at University of Alaska Fairbanks.
Ingstad introduced Sorlie to dog mushing. When Sorlie was 9 years old, he borrowed a dog descended from one that Ingstad had received from Norwegian Leonhard Seppala, credited in 1925 with spearheading an effort to drive a dog team to Nome to deliver serum to fight a deadly outbreak of diphtheria. The modern-day Iditarod is based on that achievement.
Ingstad first learned about the Nunamiut Eskimos, who lived isolated in the Brooks Range, from his brother when he was recuperating from a hip problem in California.
"He said 'No, that can't be true. Eskimos live on the coastline," Paulsson said.
In true Ingstad fashion, the lawyer turned adventurer decided to find out for himself and chartered a plane that took him from Fairbanks to Anaktuvuk Pass. Once over the tiny village, the pilot asked Ingstad if he was sure he really wanted to be dropped off.
"Ingstad said, 'I see some dogs mushing on the ground, just put me down there. I will be fine,"' Paulsson said.
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During that winter, the Eskimos, who lived in tents fashioned from caribou skins, taught Ingstad how to fish and hunt. In the evenings, he listened to their stories and songs.
"He spent the whole winter with them," Paulsson said. "He was one of them."
Ingstad organized a large number of photos and recordings of songs that he made while living with the Eskimos. He also wrote a book "Nunamiut - Among Alaska's Inland Eskimos" in 1954. The book is being reissued this month.
In 1980, Ingstad gave a collection of books, tapes, films and photographs to the village, where residents now number about 300. The collection helped establish the Simon Paneak Memorial Museum.