Our Original “Nanook”

Explorer Donald B. MacMillan, Class of 1898, delivered the following talk at Bowdoin’s Commencement Dinner on June 20, 1918.

The polar bear shot by explorer Donald MacMillan, Class of 1898.

One animal—above all other animals in the Far North—is spoken of almost with reverence. The Eskimo who is happy in this animal as his protector is doubly armed. In the semidarkness of the stone igloos, I have listened to their stories of the chase, have noted the tense, eager, expectant faces of the children, have felt the hush as father drew back his arm for the fatal blow. Nanook, the Polar Bear, has the respect of every Eskimo of the Smith Sound tribe of North Greenland. In the selection of the King of the North as the Guardian Spirit of Bowdoin athletics, Bowdoin has selected well. Upon him, she can place her trust. . . . His courage has never failed. His strength is beyond belief. His vitality is astounding. Seen a hundred miles from land swimming with long, easy strokes, not a particle of ice in sight; seen in a gale in Baffin Bay on an ice pan, almost concealed by flying spray freezing as it strikes; seen in the darkness of the long winter night with the temperature at fifty and sixty below zero. And seen in the spring, mounted on an iceberg looking out over glittering icefields, he seems an inherent part of the Great White North, a true representative of it all. When crossing Smith Sound in 1916, a cub, forty pounds in weight, was captured and lashed to my sledge. Within a few hours, he became so tractable that the lashing was removed. He followed at my heels for fifteen miles. Henceforth, “Bowdoin,” as I called him, was my boon companion. We climbed the big hills in search of flowers, the cliffs for the eggs of the burgomaster gull. We roamed the stretches of those silent fiords. With the passing of the days, his strength increased. I harnessed him to my sledge—always going where he wanted to go, never where I did! One night he escaped. I found him in the morning seated on top of his box, looking intently off beyond the three outer islands which guarded the entrance to our harbor. He hardly noticed my approach. I sat down beside him. I understood. Far off at the edge of the ice, I caught the silvery sheen of the open waters of Smith Sound and knew that in him there was being awakened a desire to contend, to struggle, to fight for his food, that which makes life sweet. It has come to us all—the teacher in the classroom, the physician hurrying to the bedside of a patient, the lawyer preparing briefs, the businessman in his office. Through and beyond it all, we catch the glitter of the ocean, the grandeur of a particular mountain, the winding of a familiar stream, the waving and the music of evergreens, the sound of the rapids, the brush shelter, the smell of a wood fire—the call of primitive man echoing down through the centuries. Here for my cub there was a home, plenty of food, a life of ease. But out there, more than this—an opportunity to match his strength, his cunning, his patience, his powers of endurance against violent winds, a tossing sea, a grinding ice pack, the antagonistic elements of the Arctic. For this he was born. One week later, the box was empty. Bowdoin’s mascot had gone. The centuries-old precedent that Bowdoin is following in selecting the polar bear as a symbol of qualities and characteristics worth extolling is exemplified by the Eskimo’s amulet, one of primitive man’s most valuable possessions and, undoubtedly, one of his first creations. Many and remarkable are the stories told among primitive people of the strange power of the amulet—a simple and implicit faith in that which is admired. And this faith, this assurance of safety, is placed upon what? A bit of polar bear skin, or perhaps a section of a wing, feather, or the single talon of the white gyrfalcon, the dominant bird of northern bird land, the bravest, the swiftest of all. Sometimes the red web from the foot of the black guillemot, energetic and skillful in the capture of its food, is selected; sometimes the tip of the bill of the glaucous gull, fearless and strong in flight; a bone from the flipper of a seal, ever watchful and alert—a selection of that animal admired for certain qualities possessed. Favored indeed is the Eskimo whose amulet—which might be founded upon any one of dozens of items—

Commencement Dinner in Sargent Gymnasium, 1918.

has as its orientation the mighty polar bear. When in conversation with a Polar Eskimo boy a few years ago, I noticed a small packet suspended from his neck. From this amulet, Eskimo word for such a charm, one which contained a bit of polar bear skin, he was never separated. It accompanied him in his play, on his hunting trips, and to his bed in the igloo at night. In that sealskin locket, a locket which was never opened, and was ever close to the heart of the lad, was his Protective Guardian Spirit. In that, he had absolute faith, and upon that, the mother depended for the safety of her son now, and for success later, when he should become the honored and respected hunter of the tribe. It was one of those glorious days in May far up among the bergs bordering the Humboldt Glacier in North Greenland when we crossed a fresh trail. Instantly every whip was snapping; every dog straining at his trace. Within twenty minutes, our bear was in sight. Crawling to the front of the leaping sledge, I slipped the twelve ivory rings and my dogs were away with flying traces. Arriving on the scene a few minutes later I found our thirty powerful dogs encircling a beautiful specimen. Not a dog dared to go near. Encouraged by my presence, one charged in a bit too close. The bear’s head whipped around like a coiled spring. He seized the dog in his teeth, whirled him in the air, and slammed him down, a misshapen mass. “That dog is dead,” I thought. But in a few minutes, he was a hundred yards away and still going. Two other dogs were similarly treated and retired covered with blood and with tails between their legs. That particular bear is here with me today. He has journeyed from his home almost within the shadow of the North Pole here to Bowdoin College. Here he is to remain. May his spirit be the Guardian Spirit not only of Bowdoin Athletics but of every Bowdoin man.

 

This originally appeared in Bowdoin Magazine, spring/summer 2018.

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