I am adding this comment in May, 2017, now many years after it was originally written (I never read Facebook messenger and only today, have come across the two comments included below). I understand that this piece has offended many Inuit (Inuk is singular) people. That was never the intent. They very much resent white folks coming to the Arctic, spending a little time, and writing things like this. I certainly never intended to hurt anyone, only to have some understanding. I never pretended to be an expert. What is written here is the only thing I have ever read or found that helps to understand Inuit thinking. When I left the Arctic, I was very confounded by all the experiences I had. Most of the interpretations are from a friend who worked as a teacher for 15 years in Nunavut – another white guy who tried to understand Inuit culture and was probably just as perplexed as me. Most of what is written are generalizations – they my be total bullshit or have at least some truth in them. Obviously, the two comments below would have you believe there is little truth in any of it. Possibly these two Inuk came from progressive communities or families where education was valued. But that was certainly not my experience. Again generalizations are just that and do not represent 100% of any community.
Now in 2017, after 89 countries, cultural context is one of the fascinating parts of travel, and one thing that drives me to continue to love a life on the road. It probably is very ignorant to try to interpret cultures – especially as it probably takes a life time to understand anyone as a foreigner, and then it is easy to get it all wrong. Please forgive me in my quest.
I would welcome any comments about anything here to help me understand and would be happy to add them to this article. Here are the only two that I received on Facebook and print here freely. I am leaving the post as originally written for anyone to read and form their own opinions as to what a piece of misinformed garbage it apparently is. If anyone wants to add something, please write me at my email address firstname.lastname@example.org (I purposely have no contact on this website and believe that this is the only place I have any contact info). I would be happy to put them all here.
Tracey Sarazin: “Your blog, “Inuit-Understanding Culture Context” is circulating around to Inuit on social media and it is offending many. As an Inuk, I am also offended. Your blog is very patronizing and full of misinformation. You clearly do not know enough to be speaking about us and although you say you do not mean to be criticizing and judgmental, you clearly are being criticizing and judgmental and in a very ignorant way. I do not have the time nor the patience to educate you but I would appreciate if you took that garbage off the Internet. We have enough challenges and issues facing our people, we don’t need to have to defend ourselves by “know-it-alls” that come up for a short period of time and think they can explain to the world about us. Many of us are very capable and successful and just because at your short-lived time, in limited places, does not give you the right to speak as an expert on Inuit.”
Marc Illuk: “I am inuk and read that thing your brain regurgitated onto the Internet. You said to help scratch your itch as to why Inuit are the way they are. Well, you European Canadians are just as fascinating. At your age, you should know that things are the way they are and that’s it. You are not a very intelligent person, you are a very narrow minded person, and I hope your ignorance drives you up the wall.”
THE ORIGINAL ARTICLE UNEDITED
I had the wonderful experience of working in the Canadian Arctic on five occasions from 2001-2006. I was a general practitioner with a special interest in dermatology. I contacted the governments of the North West Territories and Nunavut, told them about myself, and wondered if they had any use for my services. Subsequently I worked for five 2-4 week periods over five years. Three times I worked in the NWT and twice in the Kitikmeot District of Nunavut. I eventually worked in every town in both areas (except Yellowknife and Sach’s Harbour). Sometimes I worked for two weeks in one town, but more often would fly into a town for a day, see all the patients the nurses in the health centers had rounded up, sometimes stay for one to three days, and then fly to the next town. Refer to my article “Working in the Canadian Arctic” for details of my experience.
I was confounded by Inuit behavioUr. There were so many things that happened that I didn’t understand and that often frustrated me. I left the Arctic feeling disappointed in my medical contribution. It was not until I was able to have long conversations with a friend who had worked on Baffin Island as a teacher for 15 or so years that I came to understand some of the cultural context of Inuit behavioUr. Understanding cultural context is crucial to dealing with any person of a different culture. Without that understanding, dealing with the people of that culture is impaired, misunderstandings occur, and relationships suffer.
This was my first encounter with the idea of cultural context. I have been a world traveler since 2006 and spend 4-6 months every year in a foreign culture. Most recently, I spent four months in India, a culture that could not be more different than Western culture. After reading the book “Being Indian” by Pavan Varma, my appreciation of Indian culture increased dramatically and helped my travels immensely. In my travels, I once met a young American who worked for the UN. He recounted all the problems created when the UN works in an area, cultural issues are not understood, and the results are poor. They now try to send in anthropologists to help clarify the needs and then determine the most appropriate response to the local problems.
I appreciate the problems inherent with me writing about the culture of a people I was only been exposed to for a few months. One would have to live in Inuit communities for many years to truly understand why things are the way they are. Criticizing and judging their way of live is understandably not appreciated. I do not mean these ideas to be critical or judgmental, only an attempt to try to understand their behavioUr. I would appreciate any comments or insights that would further that understanding.
The Inuit of Canada were a very successful culture prior to “adopting Western culture”. They had spread across the entire Arctic all the way to Greenland. They had thrived in the harshest environment known to man. They were incredibly resourceful. They had developed world – renowned art. Since abandoning their hunter-gatherer lifestyle especially since the 1950s when they moved into towns, they have not done well. Alcoholism, drug abuse, suicide, relative poverty, western diseases, and wife abuse are all rampant problems. Every community in the Arctic can only be accessed by airplane. Two barges supply the majority of their food, diesel for the electric generators that supply all the electricity for each town, gasoline for their snowmobiles, those ATVs, boats etc,, and most everything else.
Cultural Roles of Men and Women
Basic roles of men and women in the Inuit culture are for men to be good at hunting and building igloos, and women to be good at being a housewife and having babies. Now with little hunting available, no employment, marginal education, and little meaning in life, it is no wonder that drugs and suicide risk are high. Few Inuit girls escape high school without getting pregnant. Again a poorly achieving fifteen year old would get little respect. Having a baby is now a reasonable route to gain that respect. Babies are everywhere in the communities – many are being raised by middle-aged women, often the grandmothers, aunts, and neighboUrs of the baby.
The RCMP, the police force in the north, do not enforce laws as they do in the south. Underage girls commonly are in sexual relationships with older guys. Statuary rape charges don’t happen. Spousal abuse is common. In the south, charges and separation of the couple are automatic, but not in the north. Courts come to the each town every 2-3 months. Preliminary hearings and trials often get postponed and delays are routine. After a year has passed, the issues are old and may not be relevant to the present social situation.
Living in the Present.
In Taloyaluk, Nunavut, I saw an Inuit woman with severe general psoriasis especially involving her scalp. She would not see another doctor with much expertise until I returned in one year, and complicated methods of treatment that could not be adequately supervised by nurses would be inappropriate. As a result, I gave her the most aggressive treatment I could involving local therapies, but did not expect great results except for her scalp. I saw her one year later and there was absolutely no change. I tried to determine if she had filled the prescriptions even once, her response to that treatment, how long she used the therapy, and the difficulty of using the products. She was unable to answer any of the questions. No matter how much I questioned, there were no answers. Unsure how I would treat her this time, I became irritated and raised my voice. She became more irritated with me. Inuit live in the present. The past and future aren’t part of the equation. (this is the goal of present advice for emotional health that we are all encouraged to adopt).
Each child is viewed as a unique individual and basically allowed to grow up with little guidance. Inuit discipline their children minimally. Almost any behavioUr seems to be tolerated. Primary aged school children decide if they want to go to school. At any community function, children run wild often completely out of control. It was not unusual to see young children in the clinic who would not undress in order to be examined. Mom was powerless to get cooperation. Once May rolls around and it is light throughout most of the night, kids are up all night playing outside. Their whole diurnal rhythm is reversed and school attendance in May and June drops appreciably.
There are many possible reasons for this style of parenting. Many hunter-gatherer societies similarly don’t discipline children. It apparently relates to having fewer material possessions that could be affected by neglectful behaviour on the part of children. In farming cultures and more complex societies, there is a significant increase in the level of discipline. If the gate to the corral is left open and all the cattle escape, that would be bad news. During the winter especially, when the Inuit lived on the ice in igloos relying on seals for everything, each family lived alone. More than one family would not be able to survive in one area – there would only be enough animals to support one family group. The climate was severe. In that situation, children were in constant contact with their parents and there were no other distracting influences. Parenting is best accomplished by modelling good behavioUr. As a result, direct discipline was simply not necessary. MisbehavioUr could be lethal. It is also vital that boys grow up to be good hunters and build a good igloo and girls grow up to know how to prepare seal, maintain the blubber lamp and stove, sew clothes and all the other duties required for a couple to function and survive. Both spouses had to be good at their respective jobs or they would starve. Any young adult would not be marriageable if he/she did not acquire all the skills to function as a hunter or housewife. Being not married meant continuing to live with your parents. Once the Inuit moved into communities, all these variables changed. The hunter-gatherer lifestyle disappeared. Families were no longer isolated. Food, clothing and everything required was bought from the Coop store. Peer pressure became the main influence.
Education not valued.
The average Inuit graduating from grade 12 functions at a grade 6 level. It is not practical to fail children. There is little value in holding children back to repeat a grade as improvement in their math or reading skills is unlikely to occur anyway. The main result is that the child would have to establish a whole near peer group with a new pecking order. Often they would not fit in creating a new social problem. If you have a group of children that get along well, keep them together. Homework is never given in Arctic schools. Few children would do it anyway. Once the days get longer and kids are up most of the night, it is not uncommon to miss every morning of school often for weeks at a time. Reading in the home is not encouraged. Parent/teacher meetings are rare and never occur in the home. Parents uncommonly are involved in the school. Schools are viewed as potential employment for the parents, not as a school for their children. They have little control of their kids anyway and complain that their children simply “won’t listen”. During the summer holidays, with no positive influence from school, education digresses further. The Arctic is unlikely to attract good, qualified teachers, especially ones who stay for long periods of time. Prior to moving into communities, schools were simply not available, and education beyond being a good hunter or housewife was completely unnecessary. Books did not exist and even once available, reading is not a common pastime.
As a result of all this, the ability of Inuit children to pursue post-secondary education is significantly impaired. Few can compete with students schooled in the south. Over time all these problems should slowly improve. As parents and children start to appreciate the value of education, especially post secondary education and training, things should change. Change is thus multi-generational.
The children that do best in school have educated parents with a job, and who thus value education. Interestingly, families that go out on the land regularly also do better. They learn Inuit ways and are more confident in their culture. Those that have also adopted “white” ways do better.
Inuit men tend to kill everything that moves. “National Geographic” profiled the community of Arctic Red River during the annual narwhal migration. Hundreds of animals swim past the community just offshore every spring. Men line the beach with high-powered rifles shooting the animals. It takes a very accurate shot to be effective – otherwise the animal simply sinks and dies. A 13-year-old shot for several hours without making an effective kill and simply wounding many animals. Hunting behaviour goes something like this: the animal is viewed as presenting itself to the respectful hunter. If the hunter did not kill it, it would be offended and not return. When the Inuit were hunter-gatherers, starvation was a constant threat. Freezing was always available as a ready method of food preservation. When all the seals were hunted out in a particular area, the family moved on. The only weapons were harpoons and spears.
The Inuit still value “country food”. When May arrives and the days are long, almost everyone spends time out on the land hunting and fishing. Wild game reappears as a significant part of the diet. Eskimo means “raw meat eater” and the Inuit still eat much of the game raw. Now high- powered rifles are the only weapons. ATVs, snowmobiles and motorized boats provide the transportation. Hunting efficiency is thus exponentially improved. Along with this improved ability to kill, hunting philosophy has not moved past the ancient hunter-gatherer mentality.
Each town receives a quota of polar bears each year. It is a very important status symbol to get a bear. A percentage of that quota goes to the sport hunt – those are the best guides who must have a dog team to conduct the hunt. The remainder of the bear are assigned to the rest of the community. If in the sport hunt, the entire benefit belongs to that hunter – in the mid 2000s, white hunters from the south, usually American, paid $25,000 for the privilege of shooting a bear. Since the polar bear was added to the endangered animal list by the USA, importing the hide would be prohibited and I would imagine there are fewer hunters now.
Unemployment is high in the average Inuit community. Most jobs with much responsibility – managing the hotel or Northern Store, or teaching – are done by whites from the south. Most Inuit do not have the education or vocational skills to do these complex jobs but you can’t have the whites doing everything. Sometimes Inuit are given responsibility they are not able to handle. Even if they are incompetent at their jobs, it is a step forward to have Inuit in these jobs as they may eventually do a competent job. Much of the available work is as laborers outside the community and requires the absence from home for 2 or more weeks at a time. Jobs in town are often industrial with 10-12 hour workdays. First the Inuit are very family oriented and do not want to be away from their families or community at all, no less for long periods. With a good job, one could often afford a new snowmobile, ATV, car or truck, and a new boat and motor. Inuit culture says that are all your possessions are completely accessible by your extended family. When away from home for any length of time, even a 12 hour work day, all your stuff would be used by your brother or father-in-law. It would not be uncommon for things to get broken or simply break down from routine use, Upon returning from work, your quality possessions were often not available for your use. It is better in the long run to stay in your community, have low-quality or old equipment that would not be attractive for use by your relatives, maintain what you have in good running order, and thus always have something to use when you need it. Welfare provides a house, sufficient food, and often a few cigarettes.
For Indians living below the tree line, getting wood illustrates the culture of having to share everything you with your relatives. In the fall, it would not be wise to cut and split all your wood for the winter. Your brother would simply come and take most of it. You could not refuse him. As a result, you get just a little in the fall, and go back out throughout the winter, even though most of the dead wood is covered by snow and the only wood available is live trees.
The Inuit are the only known culture that was completely drug free. There were no plants and thus no source of drugs or the ability to distill alcohol.
Drug and alcohol use are common in most Inuit communities as they are in many aboriginal communities across Canada. Lack of work and purpose in life, depression, and decaying community and social values all contribute. Aboriginals have a well-known genetic impairment of alcohol metabolism that contributes significantly to alcoholism. Despite many communities having been declared as “dry”, alcohol and drugs are widely available. Bootlegging is a good source of income.
THE POLAR BEAR
Depending on whom you ask, the North’s sentinel species is either on the edge of extinction or an environmental success story. The science, is complicated, contradictory and controversial. The environmental movement has never had a higher-profile than the polar bear. Every discussion about global warming mentions the polar bear.
The polar bear, or nanuk, has been a significant part of Inuit culture for thousands of years. It is popular in northern art and legend and as prey for hunters. Hunting polar bear was a delicate ritual in ancient times, and great respect was paid to the bear, even in death. After killing a bear, a hunter would hang the skin inside his igloo for several days, letting the animals spirit settle into the afterlife with offerings of tools, and other gifts. Once content, the spirit would let other bears know, and they, too, would want to be hunted. Most of the bear taken in the hunt would be used: bones were carved into tools, the hide was made into bedding or clothing, and the meat was shared throughout the community.
From its double-layered coat to the furry underside of its paws, the polar bear is well adapted to frigid Arctic temperatures. A male Ursus maritimus, the largest member of the bear family, can stand more than 3 meters tall on its hind legs, weigh 600 kilograms, and live up to 30 years. A female gives birth every three years or so, usually to twins that stay with their mother for two or more years. The polar bears diet consists primarily of the skin and blubber of ringed and bearded seals. it hunts seals using its keen sense of smell and incredible patience, tracking down birth lairs or waiting hours for a seal to surface at a breathing hole.
Today, in some areas, bears are considered dangerous by families camping on the land, and are more of an economic tradition than a sacred one. In most of Canada’s north, however, polar bears are still highly respected. Hunting traditions remain similar to times past, with the exception of a shift from the dogsled to snowmobile pursuit. The proper way to hunt and how to handle the skin properly is important and the meat from the polar bear remains a regular part of the winter diet n places where the animal is plentiful.
Scientists study and count polar bears using two methods: Capture-recapture helps determine the health and range of a population. Blood samples are taken, height and weight measured, and ear tags applied to identify the country of origin. Drugging bears is dangerous for both the animals and the scientists, stressing them in an affront to traditional ecological practices. In aerial surveys, helicopters are used to count bears along a predetermined line. This can be tricky, as polar bears blend in well with the ice and bears in dens or behind ridges can be missed. Observations from knowledgeable local residents may be more reliable than managers and researchers on polar bear trends in their area. When managers request reductions in quota because of ill-founded concerns, hunters are within their rights to address the misconceptions. Some subpopulations haven’t been counted in decades. And some are counted more frequently but with slightly different survey areas or methodologies from year to year (10 of the 19 areas with bears are data deficient). Polar bears can have a huge range, often across international boundaries and hundreds of kilometers of ice and open water. The success or failure of a single subpopulation might say little about the health of another. They can dig into dens or camouflage themselves on snow fields. With ice breaking up earlier, a bear on land is easier to spot from a helicopter than a bear on the ice, so detrimental ice breakup may actually mean that a higher count could actually be evidence that bears are doing worse. As polar bears are long-lived and reproduce slowly, counting the number of bears alive today might not paint an accurate picture.
There are 19 subpopulations of polar bears in the world, of which 13 are in Canada.
1. Southern and Northern Beaufort Sea. Consisting of Alaska, Yukon and Northwest Territories: in or predicted to decline.
2. Viscount Melville Sound. Off the northern coasts of Victoria and Banks Islands, could increase with changing sea ice conditions.
3. McClintock Channel. Off eastern Victoria Island, has seen numbers drop from 900 to 300 over last 30 years.
4. Lancaster Sound. Off Baffin Island’s northern coast, has a declining population.
5. Gulf of Boothia. Off the NW end of Baffin Island, is stable.
6. Foxe Basin. Part of northern Hudson Bay. Has one of Canada’s largest populations, increased from 2,300 in the early 2000s to now at 2,570.
7. Norwegian Bay. South of Axel Heiberg Island and west of Ellesmere Island, are genetically different from all other polar bears worldwide. Status unknown.
8. Western Hudson Bay. Debatable. Every fall, hundreds of bears gather near Churchill, Manitoba waiting for the bay to freeze so they can head onto the ice to hunt for seals. Known as the Polar Bear (Tourism) Capital of the World, Churchill has the most accessible population of polar bears in the world, drawing an estimated 10,000 visitors a year. For $11,439, one gets 10 days in the Tundra Buggy Lodge, essentially an oversized RV parked at the water’s edge. By mid-November, these bears have not eaten a full meal for four months. They are in energy-conservation mode and laze about in front of the crowds, walk in circles, lick at the ground, and just generally killing time. Tourists jostle each other for photos, some bears wander into town. From 1984 to 2004 the bear population declined from 1,194 to 935, but a new study shows the population to be 1,013 instead of the projected 676. But now sea ice is breaking up 2-3 weeks earlier than it did 3 decades ago making bears more visible and producing a higher count. The number of cubs in Western Hudson Bay is dramatically lower than in the past. Adult bears may be able to survive a few lean years but juvenile bears are much more vulnerable. There is a direct correlation between warm years and skinny bears. It is estimated that 40-73% of pregnant bears could fail to deliver healthy cubs if ice breakup happens one month earlier than in the 1990s. Just outside of Churchill is Wapusk national Park where in springtime thousands of snow geese nest when the bears are coming ashore. As ice breakup occurs earlier, the overlap between bears and birds gets closer. Even though it takes the contents of about 50 nests to equal the caloric equivalent of just one seal, it is possible that these birds could help offset the effects of sea ice loss.
9. Southern Hudson Bay. Most southerly population in the world. These bears have had ice-free summers for thousands of years. Stable.
Three populations shared with Greenland:
10. Baffin Bay. Decreasing in number.
11. Kane Basin. Decreasing in number.
12. Davis Strait. Between Greenland and Baffin Island. Increased from about 900 animals in late 1970s to about 2,100 today but may now be in decline. Both the extent and thickness of the ice have been declining dramatically, which could mean problems but this population is 233% bigger than four decades ago. The real cause of the increase is because in 1983, the european Economic Community banned the importation of the hides of whitecoat harp seal pups. Usually polar bears feed on ringed or bearded seals but the bears gorged on harp seals.
13. East Greenland. Unknown.
14. Arctic Basin. Unknown.
15. Barents Bay. Shared with Norway and Russia. Unknown but could be in decline.
16. Kara Sea. Unknown.
17. Laptev Sea. Unknown.
18. Chukchi Sea. Shared with Alaska. Unclear but could be in decline.
Warming temperatures are affecting the range of the polar bear populations, shrinking their habitat, and eventually, their numbers. While some northern bears may benefit from a more readily available diet, southern bears could find that food sources such a seal are more difficult to hunt and that food sources such as seal are more difficult to hunt and that human=bear encounters occur more frequently, Melting sea ice forces bear to fast for longer periods of time, impacting reproduction rates and the overall health of a population. Warming temperatures increase human traffic, bringing pollution that impacts both bears and their prey. Impacts from warming are unfolding at different rates and different time scales. Polar bears that make their home in James Bay – at the 53rd parallel – have experienced ice-free summers for thousands of years, but those in the high Arctic contend with pack ice so thick that it’s impossible for them to hunt seals. Here an increase in open water could potentially make hunting easier.
Besides global warming, hunting is a significant assault. For communities with enforced hunting quotas, selling tags to sport hunters can be an important source of income, with hunting packages selling for $20-25,000. Sport hunters must employ an Inuit guide and a dogsled. The meat, hides and cultural continuity are also important to the communities. Hunting rules are determined by individual provinces and territories, so a bear in Hudson Bay could wind up being managed by Manitoba, Nunavut, Ontario, Quebec and possibly even Newfoundland. Factor in the laws of in the other four polar bear nations – the United States, Russia, Greenland, and Norway – and worldwide confusion results. Two-thirds of the world’s polar bears live in Canada, and about 600 are legally hunted there every year. Of that, 86% of the hunting occurs in Nunavut. Inuit and Cree have harvested Hudson Bay polar bears for 6,000 years. Harvest levels in modern times have ebbed and flowed according to management and political priorities. Since 2004, allowable harvest levels in western Hudson Bay, have dropped from 56 to 38 and then to 16 – a number that was shared between Manitoba and Nunavut and also had to include unplanned “defence kills”. While the Nunavut government enforces strict rationing laws, hunters in Quebec have no annual quota and recently killed 90 bears in one season. With an annual harvest of about 450 bears in Nunavut, there have been only a handful of poaching incidents, far fewer than seen with other big-game species worldwide. But with quotas going down at the same time that locals are seeing more bears than ever, the level of respect is at risk.
To add even more complexity, for stable or increasing populations, an overabundance of bears may lead to competition for food, decreasing the overall health of the population. Hunting could improve overall health. If ice loss accelerates, there may be bears starving during increased open-water periods and hunting quotas may need to be increased to control populations.
So bear populations are either increasing or declining. Hunting is either an ecological outrage or a perfectly sustainable aboriginal right. However, the majority of polar bear scientists agree that if the current state of things looks shakily stable, the future for bears is poor. Unlike some endangered species that can be saved by roping off a grove of trees, polar bears live locally but suffer globally. What is really important is the impact of the rest of the world on global warming. Currently, the best estimates places the worldwide population between 20,000 and 25,000 animals. Prior to the 1973 worldwide restriction on commercial polar bear hunting, the number was dramatically lower, possibly as low as 5,000. They are not endangered but that has not reached public consciousness. The percentage of people on earth, or even Canada for that matter, who have ever seen a polar bear approaches zero. In that context, it’s hard to understand what extinction really means. The new inability to see an animal that you never had the opportunity to see before. Of course the polar bear has intrinsic worth beyond its value to humans, but is it really more valuable than the thousand other threatened species whose names you have never heard of. The polar bear exists in a space that is as much theoretical as it is tangible. It seems likely that the future of the polar bear is bleak – although its current status (05/2013) is almost certainly stronger than the international conversation would have one believe.
EXCERPTS FROM “KABLOONA” by Gontran de Poncins
This book was published in 1941, after he had spent 15 months in 1938/39 travelling and living amongst the Inuit of the central Arctic. He spent his time in Coppermine (Kugluktuk), Gjoa Haven, Pelly Bay (Kugarik), Perry River, and Cambridge Bay. These are all communities now in the Kitikmeot District of Nunavut, all towns (except Perry River) that I have spent time working. Over that period of time he learned the way of the Inuit and the book provides many insights into their behavior. He called them Eskimos and I will continue that despite its inappropriateness today.
He flew into Coppermine but that was the end of the plane rides. Coppermine in 1938 had a government radio station, no hotel, a dentist 1/year, a priest, police, Hudson Bay Store and some white trappers. The rest of his travel was by boat or more often dog sled. Because it was the summer, he took a boat to Perry River and then on to Gjoa Haven on King William Island. It was then a long dog sled trip over 250 miles to Pelly Bay on the Boothia Peninsula and the same back to Gjoa Haven and Perry River where he arrived on April 7, 1939. On May 25th, he then took a sled again across the ocean to Cambridge Bay on Victoria Island. On May 31st he boarded the RCMP boat, the St. Roch to return to Coppermine where he waited almost 2 months to get his ongoing boat, the 106’ Audrey B. over 57 days around Alaska to Vancouver.
Types of Eskimo
There were three types of Eskimo that he encountered. The ones in the west closest to Alaska had the most contact with white men and had grown into the white man’s way of life. Half way to civilization, they possessed treasures, hunted with rifles, could add and subtract, traded at the Post with an open account, their outer coat was covered with ornamental tails and furs of different colors, gloves hung on cords run through their sleeves, sat in chairs, smoked tailor-mades and consumed huge amounts of sweets like jam. In Coppermine, Eskimos were thought of as “no good” meaning that they were failures as white men. White men never penetrate into the Inuit world. Those living around Coppermine in the summer were a miserable lot, living in shabby tents, seedy and “gypsy” like. In their wretched poverty, they scavenged throughout the town picking up any little bits of metal, wood or rope. In the winter though, they became hunters. In Coppermine, he could see none of the generous hospitality and frankness of primitive people elsewhere. His early observations found them cunning, suspicious, and shy with no practical intelligence.
The Netsilik around Gjoa Haven on King William Island had a primitive existence tainted by more limited contact with whites. There were only 25 men, women and children in 10,000 square miles on the island. They too lived in wretched poverty in tents made of coal sacks. They were snuffling, lack luster and characterless men clad in rags – mere remnants of what they had been. They spoke pidgin English so that the white man might understand them.
The primitive Eskimo (the Pelly Bay Eskimo was his best example) had had almost no contact except for a priest who had lived amongst them for many years and these Eskimo lived most like the Inuit had for 20,000 years. Whereas he could communicate with other Eskimos, here he could not understand scarcely a word. The abundance of seals here produced a powerful and dignified community. The will of the people was expressed in common discussion and decision creating a social existence as in older days. The degree of prosperity and well-being here contrasted with the pseudo-civilized life in Gjoa Haven. He found the Eskimo here very generous and courteous. Showing great hospitality, when he entered an igloo, his boots and socks were removed for him, and his clothes taken and hung on the drying racks. The next morning, his clothes were returned scraped clean, soft and dry. His presence was honored. True primitive hospitality welcomes the stranger and seeks to incorporate him into their society. They are intent on keeping them among them as long as possible. It is important to bring and give gifts. Then tea was brewed and food provided. If you wanted to leave, it might offend them.
The more he learned, the greater the difficulty in penetrating the Eskimo mentality – their sense of logic is very different from ours. They led a primitive but ceremonious existence. It was impossible to know the Eskimo through an exchange of ideas. They have no capacity for generalization and are unable to explain themselves to you. Each incident or event adds something to your knowledge of them.
They are a very happy, cheerful people. Happiness has nothing to do with climate but is a disposition of the spirit. Living in the most rigorous climate on earth and in the most depressing surroundings imaginable, haunted by famine, shivering in their tents in the autumn, working 15 hours per day to get enough food, months of darkness, they are always laughing. A man is happy leading the life that suits him. This produces a spiritual life of infinite subtlety, full of shades and gradations, of things sensed and unexpressed. At the trading posts with all the comforts, the Eskimo seems dull, miserable and sullen, but fling him in a blizzard, they come alive. The Eskimo “grin” reflects a mental attitude, part of their social convention, and a sign of good breeding.
Their life was very simple with no worries. They had everything they needed (but in our terms, they had virtually nothing at all). They had accepted their life completely and never criticized it. They are a very shy people. But also they are very proud. The ultimate flattery is for the white man to emulate them. The always do what they want to the moment the notion comes to him to do it. It would not be unusual to stop in a blizzard any time they want tea or build a temporary igloo
He thinks, then stops thinking, then he thinks again, but is unable to pursue a train of thought from beginning to end. They did not appear to reason at all, but to brood, to ruminate, to grapple with a thought or image and become absorbed with it to the point of obsession. A mental problem is not a subject for thought but for torment. The Eskimo life is one heavy with silence and external passivity, things felt and not expressed. Despite being one of the most cheerful people in the world, in moments of despondency, they were capable of a level of intensity of moodiness to readily surrender their lives by suicide.
Once he had made up his mind, there was no dissuading him from his decision. If the decision was to commit suicide, nobody intervenes, and in indeed will often assist him in ending his life. “Let people die the way they want to – a soul that is thwarted in its manner of death will create mischief in the future.” This reflects an element of individual liberty and respect for personality displayed by the community. A strong article of their moral code was total noninterference in a neighbor’s affairs. You can’t tell an Eskimo anything especially when you are traveling on his sled and dogs.
Eskimo mores are a direct reflection of the material circumstances in which they live. Because of the environment, necessity commands and probably explains every phase of Eskimo manners. Nature permits no degree of refinement as it allows no significant degree of leisure.
When a man’s mother was old and no longer much good for anything, she would be abandoned. On a day of a blizzard, with the whole family agreeing, the son took her out to sea to freeze to death. Camp was struck and everyone would leave her to die. He was fond of her, had always been kind to her, but this was a hard, material life, and the family had to “face the facts”. Old people were told in advance what her end was to be. They would submit peacefully without recrimination. Sometimes, the old person would be the first to suggest this end for themselves.
This is communicated in their attitude towards property. Nothing possessed intrinsic value, but its value was large or small according to whether they disliked or disdained something. They are not precisely charitable, but are ready to share all they have with their kind. In practice a variant of communism, they would give anything to anybody, lend anything, or help one another in a completely unselfish way. It was not precisely that everything was owned in common. It was better than that, each member was concerned that all the others were provided for. If someone was absent when food was distributed, his share was put aside in the corner of the igloo in the “big feed”. It was best as a white man entering their community, to turn over all his food on the first day. They would then be fed without a word. Someone who shared all his food was regarded with the highest esteem. If rich in provisions, he cannot resist the impulse to consume it all or give it away. However this was always a direct swap or a claim on the other fellow in the future. A free gift was incomprehensible and exchange was normal. If a gift is given by the white man, it begins a process of despising him, and the Eskimo will then cunningly try to exploit him.
They did not view their existence as harsh, but as their own unchallenged kingdom. All the animals were theirs, there were no marauders, slaves or armies, theft was unknown in their quasi-communist community, poverty was not thought of, and there were no neighbors to hate them.
No Eskimo would say that another was mistaken or lazy. For example, a couple was completely incompetent in providing for themselves. But they always survived because of others helping them out. Despite that, there was never an impatient or angry word spoken about them. No one said “He was too lazy to hunt” but rather “He did not trap this season”. Why he did not trap was nobody’s business. If an Eskimo is criticized, he will remain impassive, will not reply, and will generally get up and leave. They do not reveal their thoughts.
They had no need to think of time, effort is the essence of their existence. There is no rush to do anything as there is always time enough. It is considered bad behavior to be in haste.
Visiting is a huge part of their life. Most Eskimos from the mainland and other islands would come to visit Gjoa Haven at least once per year. They would come simply to visit and would visit everyone if possible. Because of isolation and difficulty of life, the spirit of visiting is more highly esteemed in the Eskimo than in any other culture. May was the great month for visiting and Eskimos would come from all over to the posts. Great enthusiasm was shown for each arrival. The instinct of sociability never dies.
Eskimos know none of the social pleasantries that are part of our daily life. Thank you or good-bye are never spoken. An Eskimo parts from his family without receiving advice or even a wave of the hand. There was a total absence of effusions, embraces or vain words of farewell. The nearest thing to a farewell he saw was a woman bringing out her husbands snow building gloves (they close at the wrist). She said “You, you leave”, and his answer was “You, you stay”.
With nothing to do in the long nights in the igloo their sexual life is intense. Spring brought on a sexual frenzy, copulating in a sense of delirium, inexhaustible and insatiable.
Children. Eskimo children are never disciplined. This results in tyrannical children who are masters in their family. They spoke edicts to their parents and were instantly obeyed. When questioned, adults answered without impatience. Parents never showed irritability. For example, it was not uncommon for a child to want tea in the middle of the night. Mother would get up and make it with limitless patience. The kids walked around with long greasy hair hanging over their faces. Children are generally naked inside the igloo and especially when kept in mother’s hood. Children had a great vitality never showing fatigue when outside.
Women. There is something impalpable with primitive women – some spring or power which they never reveal. It is always they who prompt their men and enjoy their triumphs in secret. The hand of the Eskimo woman is always busy: trimming the wick of the lamp and then sucking the oil off their fingers or wiping it off through their hair, or scraping skins (weather, snow and water soak and harden clothes; continued scraping softens them making them wearable and usable; 2 or 3 scrapers and teeth did the real softening making the skin white and supple as a glove).
Exchanging wives was common and the women were not consulted. It was tradition that this be observed as friendship had its obligations. It was not a token of hospitality but simply automatic especially between hunting partners (Eskimo usually hunt in pairs). It provided relief from some of the monotony of their existence. Between husbands, there was never any question of compensation but a bachelor was expected to give a gift in return for the favor. The woman was as little compensated as consulted. To ask an Eskimo to lend you her wife is completely natural. He would be asked openly in front of a room full of people. The rest takes place as casually as the request. All sleep together in the same igloo. The Eskimo knows nothing of jealousy. Swapping wives was something of an honor. If the white man picked her out of all the women, the rest would think more highly of her. The husband would expect something from the kabloona in return.
The woman was not an object of inferiority. They make up for it by superior cunning. They almost never fail to get what they want and all inevitably get the better of their husbands. All women are well-trained in the art of wheedling, They repeat with tireless insistence until the husband is worn down by her persistence.
Names. Everyone had three names, the one given at birth, the name used by their friends, the name he gives to the white man. They also often may change their name completely. It was not important if names were gender incorrect. Babies were named to placate the spirit of a dead man or woman for whom the child is named.
He did not understand the Eskimo language well enough to grasp its inner essence. Therefore, one could never know the man who speaks it. Language is the faithful mirror of a people’s spirit. Phrases were uttered in as sober a manner as their faces. It was the gleam in their eye that told more than six of our sentences concerning desire, repugnance, or other emotion that contains a touch of the unexpressed which makes these people so mysterious and attractive. The shades of expression seemed infinite. Rather than a simple yes or no, there were a scale of gradations.
Wrinkling nose is the Eskimo word for “no”.
In conversations, each Eskimo talks in turn. Women take no part in the conversation but listen carefully and join in the laughter.
Like all hunter-gatherer societies, food is consumed in great quantity when available. Rationing food is not done by the Eskimo. The highest reward is not possessions nor treasure but a full belly. They also eat enormous amounts to keep warm. Everything – birds, small fish, seal, caribou – is best consumed raw because of the difficulty in cooking. Frozen fish is the complete food. It tastes great especially if frozen instantaneously, retaining its pristine flavor throughout the winter. Food that has rotted is often preferred as it is “spicier” and fresh is often tasteless. In comparison to rice, it will keep you warm for hours. Eating is communal. Long slices of fish or seal are passed around clockwise each taking a bite and cutting with a knife close to the lips. A fish could go around so rapidly that you could not swallow fast enough. All food was stored in a corner of the igloo called “the big feed”. Whenever one is hungry, he simply goes over to the corner and cuts off a piece. Seals were stacked up vertically frozen.
Tea is drank in huge quantities and the average family goes through 60 pounds per year. It takes 2 hours to make on a seal oil lamp and then they allow it to cool as they don’t like any drink hot. After sipping it noisily, they wipe the mug of leaves with their fingers and eat them. The teapot is never empty of leaves and each time a new handful of tea is added.
Attitudes toward and by the white man
After he had settled in wherever he went, his igloo or tent would often be filled with a series of visitors, one after another. Each would stay long enough to examine him closely and then leave to take home their impressions. He didn’t dare speak or move conscious that the gestures and words of the kabloona were in their eyes violent, direct and ludicrous. A single scowl or fit of anger will assure that white man a wretched life for the rest of his stay with Eskimos. One must learn to put up a brave front.
He visited a fish camp near Coppermine consisting of several tents beside a stream. Etiquette meant that, as a guest, he visited each tent alone leaving a gift for the occupants in each. There were no thank you’s or talk from the solemn, stony faced Eskimos. After, when they visited his tent, there was a total change of attitude. They opened all his possessions and took everything. Eskimo etiquette meant that nothing be left unconsumed.
The white man tended to look at the Arctic as a personal enemy. To the Eskimo, white men seemed like children – impatient, asking too many questions, always wanting to get somewhere, and when things go wrong, we show our discontent without fear of losing face. White men give orders by saying “I want” rather than “I should like”. We easily show our nervousness and stupid arrogance. We think we are masters wherever we go. The Eskimo feels constantly obliged to sooth and placate us. We were viewed as inept – couldn’t build an igloo, carry a heavy pack, sew hides or boots, or scrape a skin, ie we did everything badly. But he never interferes or gives advice as we do. Instead he waits until you have done the job and when you are finished he comes calmly forward, undoes your work, and does it all over again.
They never lied with the intent to injure, but they often used white lies to sooth white men. They simply omit to affirm everything, taking care to not commit themselves. This leaves a back door through which to retreat. A white mans way of putting his questions makes answering them difficult for the Eskimo. Rather than asking a question directly, it is best to attenuate it by explaining in a round about fashion what you are getting at. Sometimes the explanation takes so long, that after 20 minutes, the Eskimo is tired. It is best to reassure them about each subject of inquiry, that he need not be afraid to answer, so great is the fear of committing themselves.
As a result, the Eskimo often parodied the white man with penetrating insight that was not aggressive or mean-spirited. The Eskimo’s best vengeance was ridicule during which the white man must remain indifferent and dignified. Things would be all normal the next day.
The main problem with white men interacting with Eskimos is that they think only of themselves – my tea, my tin of tobacco, my sleep. Eskimo life strips one of his egotism. Human life depends on the solidarity of everyone. It is the community that stays alive, not the men. The community has the poor hunting season or a good one, goes hungry or is well fed.
The underlying Eskimo code was that everything in the igloo belonged to everyone else in the igloo. Even though they never stole, they had a right to your tobacco, for example. Their language is concrete and not abstract so they have no way of explaining rights, along with difficulties in understanding the language in the first place. The family would team up to procure tobacco. The man would come in and make a direct attack. For an Eskimo the white man’s face and actions are an open book. Or the wife would be sent and with their persistent wheedling could get what they wanted. Sometimes a child would be given the job. Occasionally, the wife would be given to the white man and she would bag everything she could get her hands on.
The kabloona had to be careful in how in talks to the Eskimo. If a long trip was in the offing, the white man would say that he was in a hurry to get there. This would not result in the Eskimo hurrying. The way to do it would be to say “I want to go to Pelly Bay. It will take a long time to get there. You are young and probably do not know the way well. Your dogs are not worth much. Nobody else is available but we will go anyway.” This would result in a fast trip.
The main commodity of trade were fox skins. They could not understand their desire for something that they had little use for. Even to wipe things, the ptarmigan makes a better rag. It wasn’t possible that the white man could have so many things that needed wiping.
They could not understand the white man’s justice. Killing was common, but in their eyes was always just and often an act of communal devotion. In summary, the Eskimo and white were astonished and bewildered by each other.
The more one enters into the mood of the Eskimo and shared their view of a situation, the better humor that puts them in and then there was nothing they would not do for one (and they could be confoundedly helpful when they want to be). The contrary was equally true. If you resisted them or were not shrewd enough to play their game according to their rules, they had a thousand ways to make you pay for your stubbornness.
At the store and trading
In negotiations, the Eskimo displays stolid pride and an unshakeable confidence. He is the great hunter who will get the better of the Kabloona. The woman usually gets what she wants but her husband makes several errors. He hasn’t enough money for what he really needs. His vanity and deep social sense get the better of him. He trades for things that will be rapidly bestowed upon others. He feels that he has to get the better of the trade or else lose face. No matter what the trade, he leaves with the feeling that he had got the best deal. He believed that the white trader was crazy because the fox was a useless animal, he allowed the Eskimo to go into debt and this was foolish, and the precious and beautiful things received for useless fox proved the kabloona had a lack of intelligence. He was thus a fit subject for exploitation but the Eskimos inconsistency and lack of perseverance gets in the way.
Routines through the seasons
In the winter on the sea ice, seal and polar bear are hunted. The daily routine everyday was the same with the same chores: ice the runners, harness the dogs unleash the 40’ foot whip and then go fishing or sealing. With dogs and a family to feed, there is need for 50 pounds of food/day. In the winter the land is white and clean, purified by the snow.
In the spring, there was a feeling that the earth was born again and that one was witnessing its creation. A resistance to sleep comes on and many sleep only when too weary to stand. This “Eskimo madness” affected everyone but especially the young. They seemed to be wandering all over outside at all times of the night. The spring is also the great time for visiting. Unfortunately, spring was repellant, sordid, haggard, and brown. The post was surrounded with ashes and all the garbage uncovered by the melt (tins, jars, rotten potatoes) that had been strewn everywhere. Temperatures hovered around freezing and he found that intolerably warm. Rubber boots were much more useful than moose skin boots. The Eskimo moves into their tents. Any object thrown onto the ice would melt down several feet into the ice. The color of their skin would change from brown to purple because of the re glow over their cheeks from sun exposure. Dancing and drumming occurred most months. When the river thaws, there is Arctic salmon to catch and caribou are hunted. In the fall, the river fish return. . Frozen lakes are fished with jigging, and the Arctic fox is trapped.
Sea ice is the real home to the Eskimo. Fish and seal are more plentiful and constant than caribou and more to the Eskimo’s taste. Water under the ice is warmer than the frozen ground so an igloo is warmer than a tent even the summer.
An igloo is the iconic Eskimo structure. The Arctic is a polar desert and snowfall is relatively small, usually less than 15” per year. Snow to build the igloo is often found in drifts and cracks in the ice especially out on the sea ice. Blocks are first cut to make the bottom row. Size of the igloo depends on the amount of snow, and the size of the family to be housed. Walls continue up in a spiral and are carefully trimmed to incline in and fit closely. Most of the upper blocks are removed form the inside so that a platform (iglerk) is formed. A tunnel entrance lower than the inside is constructed to be closed with a block of snow. When all the blocks are in place, a shovel is used to powder the snow. This fine snow is thrown over the igloo to plug all the chinks. The seal oil lamp, activity and food warm up the interior significantly. The companionship, warmth, security and sense of family life produce a real sense of home. One was able to strip off all their clothes and get into sleeping bag comfortably. When the lamp goes out, the temperature drops and the sense of coziness is gone. Igloos become decrepit as they age. An old igloo is very cold as the snow turns to ice that is a perfect conductor of cold. If uninhabited for a few weeks, the inside walls become coated with a damp mold. Without a lamp, an igloo is a grave.
There is a stench to an igloo. It is a warm, strangling aroma mostly from the corner with its carcasses heaped up – frozen foxes, quarters of bear and seal all stiff and covered with frozen blood.
In Pelly Bay, the igloos were much more spacious, about 12’ in diameter. The porches were built to contain 2 large niches, one for the dogs and the other for the harness and equipment. Each igloo housed 2 families, one on each side of the porch and each with its own large 3 foot long seal oil lamp. This permits at one and the same time a private life and a communal life. Whereas the iglerk filled three-quarters of the inside at Gjoa Haven, here it took up only half of the floor space. Occasionally three igloos are built together so as to open into a central lobby. Long term igloos often have a big porch that doesn’t require bending down to enter.
Inside, the older igloo is black from the seal oil lamp. Everywhere are stains of seal blood and the droppings of puppies. Fish bones, gnawed fish heads and sordid rags litter the floor in front of the iglerk. A heap of frozen meat is piled on the ground next to the lamp and seals are stood up against the wall. The general filth implies a general contempt for cleanliness. In Gjoa Haven, six slept in one small igloo built for three, all in a row squeezed together. Water dripped from the ceiling onto his face. All occupants are naked in their caribou sleeping bags. A tin is available to relieve oneself in the middle of the night. The Eskimo seem to be constantly spitting and coughing in the igloo.
Occasionally in storms, the canvas normally over the sled is thrown over the igloo. The corners are held down with blocks of snow but often the tarp flaps all night in the wind. In a storm, when the block is removed, the igloo fills with fine blowing snow. Waiting out a storm, the Eskimo sits on the edge of the platform folded forward like puppets. Arms are out of the sleeves folded across their chest. They doze off and on with time meaningless. Their mind is void of all thought and image and time passes with no idea of duration. They think and feel nothing, have a blank mood and no state of mind. What is one day among all the days of a life time?
Comfort in an igloo is a matter of organization. Everything must be within reach once seated on the iglerk – matches, drinking snow, can to boil water, tobacco tin, chamber pot, and the ability to change the position of clothes hanging from the drying rack.
Merely to spend one night in an igloo involved a hundred detail he had to learn one by one. There was a trick to beating the snow off ones clothes without covering the inside of the igloo with snow. If not done, all the hides had to removed off the iglerk and the snow beat off them. All your things are arranged within easy reach from your sleeping bag. Life in an igloo involved a certain rhythm: build the igloo, patch and shovel fine snow over the outside, bring in everything you need, bury the rest in the snow, build the iglerk and cover it with hides, place everything within reach on the iglerk, start the Primus or seal oil lamp, first mug of tea (still in overjacket as there is work to be done outside), bring in blocks of snow for drinking water and to block the entrance to the porch, go out and feed the dogs, come in and beat clothes with snow beater, second mug of tea with outjacket off, prepare meal, smoke cigarette, eat your meat frozen or boiled, third mug of tea, second cigarette, spread sleeping bag and take off clothes, hang clothes on drying rack, last mug of tea, make sure stove and matches within reach on awakening, last cigarette, last conversation, and finally sleep. A neophyte is totally in the way, no help and only a hindrance. In so small a space, every false move causes problems for someone else. He would have done better to have done nothing.
At night, ice-covered his face as his breath froze the instant it left his lips. In the morning, the igloo was filled with a grey mist that was hard to see through. He couldn’t shave, he was so covered in ice that he couldn’t speak, and it was so heavy and burdensome, the ice was impossible to remove with his hands. If pulled off, his face would bleed, and then the blood froze. Despite the freezing cold, he never shivered as the cold was around you, not in you because of the low humidity.
The waking routine of the Eskimo man is unique. He hawks and spits for half an hour, then grumbles and mutters until his wife cuts off a piece of fish for him. All the time he is eating, he pants and grumbles at the children and wife. Between each bite, he sucks his fingers noisily. He then tells a story or recounts his dreams. Once his appetite is satisfied, he is in good humor. Through much panting and snorting, he lights the Primus stove to brew 2-3 mugs of tea. He then gets dressed and goes fishing.
The seal oil lamp
The seal oil lamp consists of an open soapstone vessel filled with seal blubber which melts as the flame heats it. The wick is made of a kind of cotton grown on the tundra shaped into a saw tooth length floating on the edge of the vessel. For more light, the wick is lengthened, for less, it is shortened. Smoking means that it is too long and if it sputters, 2-3 chunks of blubber are added from a barrel. He was amazed with the beauty of the lamp producing warmth and security. The simple, communal existence and fraternal calm of the igloo resulted in a sense of home.
The ulu or circular knife was beautifully designed. It is the only workable shape for a woman sitting on an iglerk in an igloo. It requires only a movement of the wrist, not the elbow.
Bowls were made of musk ox skulls. They were most often used to collect and drink seal blood.
A louse catcher is made of caribou bone with a tuft of polar bear hair glued to the end. It attracts lice eaten by cracking them between their teeth.
A vessel for holding seal oil used for travelling was made from a block of ice, trimmed and shaped into the desired form. A seal skin was stretched over it, holes were bored in opposite sides and handles fixed making a resistant receptacle.
Ptarmigan skins were the classic towel of the Arctic. One would last the entire winter without washing.
They were very clever with their own tools on the trail or hunt, but were all thumbs with white man’s tools.
The dog sled
The dog sled is the mainstay of travel in the winter. In the 30’s, runners were made of steel, but snow clings to steel runners, freezes and impedes movement. In the summer, mud is taken from a lake bottom, heaped on the land where it freezes in the winter. When needed, it is broken off in chunks and boiled over a seal oil lamp. It is smeared boiling on the runner where it freezes roughly, then a file or carpenters plane is used to trim and dress the mud into perfect shape. Water is taken into the mouth and sprayed on a bear skin which is rubbed over the runners producing an even coating of ice. The sled glides effortlessly. Often it is necessary to re-ice on the trail.
The sled is packed in a specific way. Caribou hides are folded in three to fit exactly on the bottom, heavy boxes are next (heaviest in the middle, tallest in front to serve as a windbreak), then the frozen fish and seal, then the small things like sleeping bags, stoves, personal effects, gifts (plugs tobacco, triangular skin needles), and snow knife. The whole thing is covered with a canvas sled cover and tied down. There is only one way to do it – the Inuit way.
Routine on the trail
Stops were frequent – a leisurely cigarette, the runners might have to be re-iced (sled would have to be unloaded and reloaded), one man could go off hunting a bird and everyone would have to wait, brew tea, or get lost and have to discuss the route. Whenever an Eskimo wants tea, he would say “Perhaps you would like to stop and make tea?” You had better smile and say that you were about to suggest the same thing. The question really meant “I’m going to stop and make tea.” To live dependent on the Eskimo was to live day-to-day suspended in uncertainty.
It is difficult to see a camp or igloo from any distance in the flat, white landscape. The most reliable sign of a camp is to find sled tracks, and the dogs would follow them in. They were able to gauge the age of the tracks, who made them, and the weight of the sled.
When they cross the ocean, they do not go straight across but tend to follow the coast to see landmarks.
Arrival in a community had a certain etiquette. It was important to make your entrance on your sled in an unconcerned way. One would stop behind a ridge to make his sled look ship-shape, the sled cover smooth and his impractical nice boots on. They would enter smoking a cigarette, looking neither left or right and showing no pleasure at the sight of friends, no impatience to shake hands or exchange smiles, and show a sober and concentrated air. When down from the sled, they would rush to chain their dogs, but then would shake hands with all including women and children and babies in their mothers hood. The handshake was learned from the white man but transformed into a slow ceremonious elevation of the hand to the face, and hands shaken with a charming grin.
At a new camp, you never knew what to expect. Sometimes, they would shake your hand and turn away, and other times, would do everything for you – push your sled up a rise, unharness your dogs, or help you with your load. One never understood the difference in attitude.
Like all nomads, they were able to collect their belongings quickly and strike camp at the least sign of danger. They could be gone in an hour.
Their fishing technique in streams consisted of building a stone dam across a creek and separate circular stone traps upstream into which the fish swam. When the traps were full, the men harpooned the fish with a 3-pronged harpoon. The fish was dried or eaten raw on the spot. A fish was passed around the circle, each took a bite cutting off the fish with a ulu next to the lips.
Lake fishing was totally different. The snow off the lake was cleared in a 12’ circle. By shading his eyes, the Eskimo is able to gauge the depth of the ice. With an ice chisel, he is able to cut a hole in the ice up to 5’ deep in a matter of minutes, stopping every 4-5 minutes to remove the ice chips and water from the hole. A windscreen of 3 snow blocks is built up wind from the hole. While kneeling on a caribou hide, he moves the jigging line with its attached lure of a small fish made of bone with 2 moving fins using his left hand. In his right hand is a 3-pronged harpoon which is lowered gently into the hole and then the fish is speared as it swims by. Accompanied by monotonous humming, the left hand is moved as regular as a metronome up and down for hours.
Hunting seals was an exciting time. Out on the hunting ground, the dogs are unharnessed and chained to an anchor fixed in the ice, and tea is made. The men spread fanwise over the sea each with 2 specially trained dogs on a 30’ lead plus a sack containing the tackle. The dogs are lead into the wind and soon begin to pull and trot. When closing in, they proceed more slowly nose to the snow and suddenly stop in their tracks sniffing the ground when the aglic or seal breathing hole is found. It doesn’t pierce the snow but even the men could smell it if it was a bull seal. Every seal keeps a number of breathing holes open in the ice. While the ice is forming, the seal bobs up and down for air so frequently that the sea freezes very thinly between visits and he can easily break through. The ice is 6-8’ deep around the hole and snow collects over the ice, hiding it. Seals often come to sit on the ice beneath the snow forming an arch of snow (this is where the female bears its young). A curved feeler is moved through a circle to determine how large the hole is and where its center is. The dogs are moved 100 yards downwind as seals have very acute hearing and smell. A marker shaped like a knitting needle is inserted through the snow into the water. The hunter fastens a steel spearhead to the harpoon and rests it horizontally in front of him on a pair of forked sticks. A loop of cord around his hand is tied to the detachable spearhead and he stands absolutely still ready for the kill. When the marker rises, he drives the harpoon down with one powerful stroke imbedding it deeply in the seal. The handle is detached and he pulls on the cod with all his strength to bring the 100-pound seal to the surface.
With several breathing holes, it would not be unusual for the hunter to spend as long as 3 days motionless in the extraordinary position with feet together, head down, bottom high. When a seal is speared, he yells to the other hunters who abandon their breathing holes and race in to help. The first there gets a choice quarter, the hunter the hindquarters, and the rest is distributed through the camp. A rite to Nuliayuk, the goddess of the sea, is performed.
A snow knife is used to butcher the seal. All the men kneel down in a circle around the seal. A small incision is made in the abdomen, a hand is inserted and the liver is drawn out. It is cut into as many pieces as hunters. A slice is set on the snow before each of the men. Next pieces of blubber are laid next to the liver and Nuliayuk is thanked for the gift. Each sticks a pointed stick into the liver and swallows it in a gulp with blood running down their chins, followed by the blubber. The successful hunter returns to the camp while the others go back to their hunting. A hook is placed through the nose of the seal and the dogs drag it back. The seal is shoved though the porch and butchering begins. The wife has the honor of cutting up the meat and distributing it. First the seal is skinned, the blubber is removed and set aside, the blood is scooped out with a ladle and poured into a bowl, and the meat is distributed in the proper order.
He found the hunting of caribou disgusting. The ineptitude of the hunters was inconceivable. They were like children too excited to stop what they had started. Animals were shot many times. The animals were butchered with skill. They tore at the choice cuts of meat with their teeth, gulping it down. The bulk of the meat, useful bones and valuable sinew is put into a sack improvised out of the hide. Back at camp, they ate again. Hands, faces and coats were covered with spattered blood. Squatting like cavemen in the snow, the tendons were ripped out of the legs with their powerful teeth. Tongues are great delicacies and are placed on the ground to dry. The dogs also had an enormous feast and both animals and men grew fatter and greasier by the hour. Faces of the men were shining and stomachs bloated. During the night they woke up to eat again.
The Eskimo taught him above all to discard things: haste, worry, rebelliousness, and selfishness. He found a peace he had never known outside, a source not of suffering but of joy, a sense of the brotherhood of man. If lost, the Eskimo would not worry, he would simply build an igloo and wait out the storm.
De Poncins wrote near the end of the book “This book teaches you nothing, only what I have gone through. One cannot be taught in words to live with a people 20,000 years old behind one’s own point of evolution. You are living with them, not they with you, so you must learn to submit.”