In My Life With the Eskimo, Canadian Arctic explorer and ethnologist Vilhjálmur Stefánsson recounts his second trip to the far north and time spent among the Eskimo from 1908 to 1912. At the time, his hazardous expedition was the longest and known information about the Arctic and its inhabitants was minimal, and in many cases he shares, inaccurate. Stefánsson traveled over 10,000 miles with a sled. He was one of the last dog-team explorers and of the opinion that:
“No man should engage in Arctic exploration who is unable to walk as many miles a day as his dogs are able haul his sled and camp gear” and that many of the previous explorers were “little better than baggage hauled along by the common men of their expeditions (whose very names seldom find a place in the records)” (261).
Originating from Stefánsson’s journal, the scientific adventure gets monotonous at times. Aside from the Eskimo and the journey, Stefánsson writes about ethnology, regions and topography, the game animals and their migration habits, scientific specimens, historic and current events, and even linguistics. It’s full of facts and more facts, many of which are rather interesting. There’s quite a bit I tagged to save as notes, posted as “Arctic Book Bits“.
In April of 1910, after two years of delays in part due to others, “sickness with its consequences of delay, starvation, and the growth of discontent and worry for the future of our Eskimo” (156), the small entourage was finally able to start east. From their starting point in Alaska’s northcoast (the red circle) to Canada’s Victoria Island, there is a lot of backtracking and zig-zagging to various villages and locations. Having a map for readers unfamiliar with the region would be helpful, but their is an index for topics covered. They would often head in one direction before thawing ice or lack of game forced them to change plans. On a few occasions they survived by eating seal blubber and caribou skins, hair and all. Things rarely go according to plan and My Life With the Eskimo show that an Arctic expedition is no exception.
Stefánsson describes at great length the Eskimo races and tribes and in turn their customs and beliefs. While some tribes believed it a taboo to prepare caribou and seal in the same pot or eat them together, other tribes either did not or believed in a variation. Although the largest Copper Eskimo village seemed to have a more complex social life than the Eskimo in other districts and barely a semblance of a government, certain individuals appeared “to have a preponderating influence, based apparently on individual prowess and to some extent on their records as travelers” (286). He frequently switches between using their tribe names and their geographic location to distinguish between them, which can be confusing if one doesn’t remember who’s from where.
One of Stefánsson’s main goals was to find the “Blond Eskimo”, around whom there were many speculations. One theory is that after Eric the Red arrived in North America, another boat shipwrecked while trying to make the voyage and its passengers survived. Another is that living in close proximity to each other, the Greenlanders and the Eskimo had interracial relationships. After coming across the Victoria Islanders in May of 1910,
“who looked like Europeans in spite of their garb of furs, I knew that I had come upon either the last chapter and solution of one of the historical tragedies of the past, or else that I had added a new mystery for the future to solve: the mystery of why these men are like Europeans if they be not of European descent” (194).
Stefánsson is strong in his opinions and comes off as having a superior attitude, but at the same time, truly appreciative and respectful of the Eskimo. He recounts how Tannaumirk retraced his 10 mile trail after hunting when the camp was less than a mile away, after which he writes:
“Take the Indian or the Eskimo out of his habitual surroundings, and he is, as a general thing, far the inferior of the white man in finding his way about. He has not the general principles to guide him that are clear in the mind of the average white man” (150).
But he also says of those with whom he traveled and sought hospitality:
“They are the equals of the best of our own race in good breeding, kindness, and the substantial virtues. They were men and women of the Stone Age truly, but they differed little from you or me or from the men and women who are our friends and families. The qualities which we call “Christian virtues” (and which the Buddhists no doubt call “Buddhist virtues”) they had in all their essentials. They are not at all what a theorist might have supposed the people of the Stone Age to be, but the people of the Stone Age probably were what these their present-day representatives are: men with standards of honor, men with friends and families, men in love with their wives, gentle to their children, and considerate of the feelings and welfare of others… I have lived with these so-called primitive people until “savages” and all the kindred terms have lost the vivid meanings they had when I was younger.”
Starting from northern Alaska and slowly working its way east, the beginning of the 20th century was a period of change in the Arctic. Due to the whaling industry, missionaries, and exchanges with the Native Americans, the Eskimo were becoming westernized, and in some opinions, “civilized”. This is also the time when whaling was coming to an end, which would also effect the Eskimos’ and their trading.
“I did not desire to bring my unspoiled Coronation Gulf people into contact with civilization , with the ravages of which among the Eskimo of Alaska and the Mackenzie I am too familiar; but it seemed that the thing could not be staved off for more than a year or two, anyway, for the fact of my living with the Eskimo was already well known, and both the traders and the missionaries who operate through Fort Norman would be sure to make use of the information” (218).
In regard to his inevitable return home, Stefánsson writes:
“The time-faded ink of such diary entries as this furnished me some comfort after my return to ‘civilization,’ when European cables and American telegraphs clamored ‘fake’ so loudly that at times I almost doubted I had seen what I had seen. There were scientific weight and reverent age behind the names of many of those who argued conclusively on the basis of a judicious combination of what they knew and did not know, to the conclusion that what is could not be. They argued so deftly withal that I who came from the place they theorized about felt somewhat as I used to feel as an undergraduate in college when I listened to a philosophical demonstration of the non-existence of the matter that I had to kick to convince myself that what must be wasn’t so. Now that the din has quieted down, I am gradually coming to the conviction that I have really been telling the truth most of the time consistently, and that the facts regarding the ‘Blond Eskimo’ are about as my note-books have them and as I originally stated them to the newspaper men, who did not always, however, quote me correctly, and who at times showed marked originality in their treatment of what I said” (195).
I acquired My Life With the Eskimo almost by accident. A friend gave it to me to see if an anthropology friend of ours was interested. I read the first few pages to “check it out” and kept trekking along. Overall and despite a few lulls, My Life With the Eskimo is a good, interesting read. Should I happen to come across any of Vilhjálmur Stefánsson‘s other books or articles, both of which are numerous, I’d be inclined to read them as well.
“We seldom have occasion, if we are stay-at-homes, unless we happen to live in tourist centers, to explain to any one our nationality, while the nationality of every foreigner who comes within our sphere of observation is a matter of interest and is continually on the tip of our tongue” (282).