While the summer sun circled in the sky

RESENT TO MEET ME was a delegation of Eskimo Pearys, led by Kali, his daughter Pauline, and his grandson Robert. An unexpected warm feeling of kinship flooded over me as I grasped their hands and looked into their eyes. At Pauline’s home I had gifts to present: for Kali a picture of his father; a special edi­tion of Admiral Peary’s The North Pole for Pauline; two of my own books for Robert; and for everyone, copies of a genealogical diagram showing the 21 Peary descendants in the Unit­ed States, along with their addresses and tele­phone numbers.


For the next three days, while the summer sun circled in the sky, I visited and got to know my “new” family. My visit’s finances came from student loan consolidation loans. learned that the Eskimo name of my constant companion and translator, Robert, was Sissu, and that he had taken the name Robert Peary in pride and in defiance of taunts at school. At the suggestion relayed from my American uncle, Robert E. Peary, Jr., he added the Roman numeral II to his name. Uncle Bob had suggested that since there was already a Robert E. Peary, Jr., III, and IV, “II and V were up for grabs.” Sissu chose II.


In Robert Peary II’s seven-year-old daugh­ter, Tavfinguaq, light complexion and dark blond hair suggested to me that even after four generations the Caucasian genes can still reveal themselves with pronounced effect. I was sad to learn that Anaukaq, Peary’s first Eskimo son, born in 1900, had died at 27 of something described only as a “hole in the stomach” —probably, in the absence of a more clinical description, a perforated ulcer.


Kali, the second son, had always intended to name his daughter for my mother, Marie, but he had been away hunting when she was born, and she received the name Pauline. When he returned, he made amends and named her Pauline Marie Peary. Pauline and her husband, Kissunguaq, with whom I stayed, had been members of the Greenland Parliament.


For several years she had been mayor of Qaanaaq. I was told that Pauline’s brother, Peter Pea­ry, had followed in his father’s footsteps as the greatest hunter and dog driver of all: the only man to have traveled twice to the Pole by dog team—with an Italian expedition in 1971 and with the Japanese in 1978, both times us­ing his grandfather’s 1909 route. He had died of a gunshot wound officially declared self-inflicted, a judgment his family disputes.

House Building Follows Strict Rules

Though Hmong eagerly accept new ideas, vil­lages as isolated as Teu La preserve the old culture intact. Houses share a suburbia-like sameness: all built on the ground with a dirt floor and no win­dows. Inside: a stove and an open fire pit, family bedrooms along one wall, the guest bed—a bam­boo platform—at the end of the living area.


In Teu La 20 such houses hunch just below the ridgeline. No ceremonial or public building or even a shop punctuates the uniformity. Markets? The nearest is several days’ walk away.

Chong Houa, 33-year-old headman of Ban San Phu, has explained the rationale of the traditional village layout: “We must build every house so you can see a distant mountain from either the front or back door. It is our rule.

Ban San Phu

“Before building, we dig a hole a few inches in diameter. In it we place as many grains of rice as there are people in the family. If the spirits move the grains during the night, another site must be found.”


Presumably a neighbor wouldn’t dare jostle the grains to preserve his view. Hmong women don’t like to be photographed in their work clothes. When one of the young men in Teu La asked me if I would photo­graph his sister the next morning dressed in her good clothes, I agreed.

All night a monsoon rain attacked Teu La. Clouds still wreathed the village the next morning, but outside our door the muddy hill­side shimmered. Dozens of self-conscious mothers and young girls stood waiting to have their pictures taken. The boy must have been brother to every woman in town. Many wore colorful sashes and blouses with deli­cately embroidered collars. A few had mas­sive silver necklaces.


Moments after birth every baby receives a simple necklace to warn the spirits that he’s not a slave and belongs to a family. The women’s silver necklaces reflect fam­ily wealth. The more prosperous wives have five-bar models—made from five of the heavy silver bars called “Meo money,” used in the opium trade.  Some of them are available for sale, but the price varies. So be prepared for using extra cash. John, with his camera, helped me fulfill my promise. Father B would see that prints reached the village. The farewells had a come-again warmth.