Q: Do you attribute your youthful appearance to the all-meat diet that your late husband, Vilhjalmur Stefansson, favored?
A: Partly, because I don't permit myself to get fat. I also exercise vigorously three times a week. Primitive Eskimos living on an all- meat diet were never obese. That was one reason that later in life, Stefansson returned to what he called the "Eskimo diet" of meat and fish and water. No vegetables, no carbohydrates. He'd been overweight and he found it difficult to lose weight. He would lose weight and then gain it back again. So he went back on that diet, and of course I joined him.
Q: Was there any medical research done on the all-meat diet?
A: Yes. The first time outside the Arctic that Stefansson went on a meat diet, it was at Bellevue Hospital in New York. According to the dietetic thinking at that time, you would die if you went on an all- meat diet.
Stefansson knew the Eskimos were thriving on it, but the doctors threw up their hands in horror. They were sure that he was going to get scurvy because they couldn't find any Vitamin C in meat. Yet Stefansson had cured three cases of scurvy by feeding fresh meat to some of his men on an expedition.
Q: In your book, "Within the Circle," you expressed surprise that many people have a variety of misconceptions about the Arctic region.
A: Lots of people still think of it as the "frozen" north, it never gets warm, six months darkness and six months light -- which is only partly true. There's more daylight than darkness. People talk about the polar ice cap as though there was a solid mass of ice over the Polar Sea, which is in fact a liquid ocean with a thin covering like an eggshell of moving ice. It's constantly in motion.
People don't know that the sea ice is salt and glacier ice is fresh and that sea ice will freshen in time.
Q: Were there any specific bits of wisdom that Stefansson proposed that were not followed through?
A: He proposed having many scientific stations floating around in the Polar Sea, giving us information about the polar ice and about the weather and about the life below. He thought that we should cultivate some of the Arctic animals in the lower regions, such as the musk-ox. Musk-oxen don't need barns and you could cultivate them for the marvelous cashmere-like wool that they produced.
His main thesis was not to fight the Arctic, but to make friends with it. Instead of fighting the cold, learn how to protect yourself. Eskimos could be comfortable in the extreme temperatures, in their primitive houses. The white man often came with very cumbersome and ineffective clothing.
I remember during World War II, our soldiers in the Arctic would waddle, carrying 40 or 50 pounds of Arctic gear. The Eskimo had about a 6-pound suit. They could sit motionless at 50 below and fish in perfect comfort, while our soldiers would get frostbite and immersion foot and all sorts of things.
The quartermaster corps would "improve" upon his opinions -- put a zipper on an Eskimo-designed coat, something which wiped out the whole principle of how the Eskimos handled clothing. Metal is a good conductor of the cold and the zipper would get stuck in very cold weather.
Q: What will happen to the Innuit Eskimo when the Arctic becomes industrialized? Will they end up on reservations like the Indians of the western United States?
A: I don't think so. The Eskimos are much more extroverted and adaptable. We bring the dangers to them. In the beginning, disease -- you might say germ warfare -- like measles, whooping cough. Tuberculosis killed off great numbers of Eskimos. The first measles epidemic killed one in four people in the Arctic.
Eskimos never had any form of alcohol. They now drink. Since their ancestors never drank, they are much affected by drink. They can go beserk. Drunkenness and suicide were unknown in the Arctic before the white man came. Primitive Eskimos were healthy and beautifully adapted to their environment. We brought in carbohydrates. Primitive Eskimos never had a decayed tooth in their heads. They'd wear them down by softening the skins with their teeth and using their teeth as tools, but they were never decayed. With our diet, of course, their teeth are as rotten as ours.
Probably the saddest thing that the white man has brought is psychological. Primitive Eskimos thought they were the greatest people in the world and the white man was the helpless one who needed their help. We've taught them that they're second-class citizens, that they have to work for money in order to survive in the kind of civilization that we brought there. Instead of a team of dogs to pull the sleds, they have to have a Ski-Doo machine. Somebody has to earn cash money in order to buy the gas. There's been a culture shock of enormous proportions.
They are very attractive people. Most people who have lived with them think they're wonderful. Like almost every primitive peoples, they have a certain type of politeness. They were very hospitable, until their hospitality was abused.
Q: In regard to their their hospitality: I have heard that when a visitor arrived at the Innuit camp, he was treated to everything, including the Eskimo's wife. Was that true?
A: It was true if you use our so-called Christian notions that a wife belongs to her husband, that he has property rights over her. The Eskimos didn't have that kind of concept. They thought that women were autonomous and could do what they liked. Also, they didn't think of sex the way we did. They had a much more relaxed attitude. The notion of adultery was not present.
An Eskimo would think, "Well, if it's agreeable to my wife . . . ." He would have no objection to his wife sleeping with somebody. He would mind if the man abused his wife; he would mind if his wife were insulted. He would be very angry. But if she were willing and found the man attractive . . . .
You simply can't think of it in terms of our civilization; you have to get into the Eskimo way of thinking. From their point of view it made sense. If a man was going on a journey and his wife was pregnant, finding it difficult to travel, he might take another woman along because the woman had to look after his fur clothing. If they had sex, nobody would seem to mind.
Q: Did you ever in your wildest dreams think that you would be doing Arctic exploration, prior to meeting your husband?
A: No. And I think it's a little highfalutin' to think of it as Arctic exploration. I think of it as research and journalism. I wrote books. I didn't have a scientific expedition to the Arctic. I was pretty much a summer traveler who went along with notebook and camera and gathered material. I also worked in what was then, in the '40s, the largest polar library in the world in New York . Scientists came from all over the world to use the books. I was on good terms with people who were doing upper-atmosphere studies or sea-ice studies or permafrost. I loved the variety of the inquiries. I learned the jargon of a lot of the sciences. I never went to college; that was really my college. I was good at languages. We needed someone who could do the Russian research. So, I went to Middlebury and became fluent in Russian. So when I traveled in the Soviet Union, I could go without a guide.
In choosing men for polar expeditions, Stefansson used to say that much more important than bravery was adaptability, the ability to change when the circumstances changed, to be adaptable about your food and your circumstances and cheerfully adjust. Now that I'm a psychotherapist, I found that one of the definitions of good mental health is the ability to change with the circumstances. That may be why I'm young for my years. I'm interested in everything. Nothing is outside my ken. I'm never bored. Even if I'm stuck at a dinner party next to somebody who is boring, I instantly become the visiting anthropologist and think, "What makes him boring? How would you change it if you had a chance to?"
I'm constantly playing a kind of game with myself that keeps me percolating. I decided in my 20s that I would become in a sense more radical as I grew older, to be able to tolerate new ideas and to integrate them with my system.
Q: Did you go into this field as an evolution from your explorations?
A: No. About 10 years ago I went on a trip to Alaska. Stefansson had died and I married this marvelous historian, John Nef. Scribners had asked me to do a new edition of my Alaska book. I was north of Point Barrow, which then housed the naval Arctic research laboratory.
I went out with a scientist, beyond the shore lee, to where the whaling was going on. He wanted to measure a whale carcass. I went off and was taking pictures and I went through a snow bridge on the ice and into the water. I was about a 1,000 yards away from the scientist and his Eskimo assistant. Since I'm so limber I thought, "Oh, I can handle this." I could get out because I had land on both sides of me. But I forgot how heavy water is, and when my ski pants filled with water I had what felt like 40 extra pounds. The more I struggled, the faster I was sinking. I ignominiously shouted for help, in a ladylike way to begin with, but finally when they didn't hear me, shrieking at the top of my voice.
The Eskimo heard me first and they both came running. When they got to me the water was up to my chest. I wasn't the least bit worried about my own safety, but I had my cameras and it was the beginning of the trip and I knew that if salt water got into my cameras, it was the end of my little expedition. I thought this was very funny, since I had written or helped write the manuals telling you exactly how not to do what I had done. That is, if you go off by yourself you carry a stick and poke through the snow and make sure there is solid ice down below. The Eskimos thought it very amusing that Stefansson's widow should go through the ice.
I telephoned my husband a few days later and told him, but he didn't think it was funny. He had lost his first wife, and by the time I had come home, he was sure that I was never coming back. He was depressed. He lost 15 pounds. I said, "Good heavens, I don't have to go to the Arctic. But I have to find something else to do because I'm used to working."
I remembered that a good friend, a psychiatrist in New York, had said, "If I had only gotten you 25 years ago, I could have made the best analyst in the world of you." I was 60 years old when I started my training, and I commuted for three years, from Washington to New York. But John Nef was wonderfully supportive, as long as it wasn't the Arctic.
Q: Has the day of the great explorer disappeared forever?
A: The great explorers now are the space explorers but the requirements are different. What made a good polar explorer in the old days was to be a leader, a master of men. The astronauts don't even have the power of life and death over themselves. The station back in Houston decides what happens. In the old days it was really a man against nature. An explorer had to have many facets -- good judgment, good eyesight. Stefansson was a good hunter, good at languages. He spoke Eskimo eventually -- something very few explorers were able to do. You had to make judgments. When a disaster struck you had to reorganize and see how you were going to go on with your program, what you were going to keep and what you were going to give up. You had to learn how to take care of yourself, to learn how not to get frostbitten, and to keep your clothing dry.
People still go to do scientific research in the Arctic, but they have turkey dinners on Thanksgiving and live in comfortably heated houses. Their largest problems are psychological ones -- getting along with each other, not having feuds, and how they handle the women scientists who now go on the expeditions.
Q: What do those who come to work in the Arctic, the scientist and the oil man, do for excitement?
A: The oil driller and the scientist have different modes. The oil driller is liable to drink and have fun and go after the girls. The scientist reads, listens to music. Stefansson used to carry an India-paper edition of poetry. He came back knowing them by heart. He attributed his writing style to the fact that he had too few books, all of them classics, when he ws a young man. He had to read them over and over again.
People make their own enjoyment. Some find the ability to be alone very difficult. Nobody should go off in isolation unless he has psychological resources. Isolation will precipitate depression unless you are doing something that interests you. Or you have a purpose. Or unless you like being alone.
Q: Was there much rivalry among the explorers?
A: Oh yes. In the old days, explorers were like prima donnas. There was lots of internecine warfare and jealousy and dramatics. Roald Amundsen thought Stefansson was a fake and said so in his books. Stefansson turned out to be right. There was a lot of excitement and rivalry.
Q: Didn't that sort of spur it, though?
A: Yes. You have to ask the question, "What makes a man an explorer?" Ambition. The idea of wanting to be a little immortal, to have your name on a piece of land, to discover something that no one else has discovered. It's thrilling. Any of us would want to do it. Think of the first man walking on the moon. Stefansson discovered three large islands. It must have been thrilling to walk on an island and say, "Nobody, not even an Eskimo, has been on this island." To be the first.