Posted by: Mish | June 17, 2009

Arctic Book Bits

Just “a few notes” taken from Vilhjálmur Stefánsson’s My Life with the Eskimo, an account of his second Arctic expedition from 1908 to 1912.

Eskimo races and tribes:

  • Baillie Islands, Alaska and Coronation Gulf, Victoria Island, Dolphin and Union Straits, etc.
  • Nagyuktogmiut in the east who were believed by western Eskimo to catch intended wives with caribou antlers and kill strangers: “These simple, well-bred, and hospitable people were the savages whom we had come so far to see.”
  • Largest Copper Eskimo village: A more complex social life than in other districts. Barely a semblance of government, but certain individuals appeared “to have a preponderating influence, based apparently on individual prowess and to some extent on their records as travelers” (286).
  • Central north-west Alaska was occupied by “more important tribes and larger than the Nunatagmiut. But for some reason the name ‘Nunatagmiut’ was applied by various distant peoples to all the country” (281). — ” “Ethnologists and others are so prone to call a primitive people by a name to which those people themselves are entirely unwilling to subscribe” (283).

Culture and customs:

  • Upon entering a village for the first time and showing themselves unarmed, they were presented- “I am So-and-so. I am well disposed. I have no knife. Who are you?”
  • A snow house would be built for them.
  • Each party member ate at a different house, so the responsibility of feeding four more didn’t fall on one family. Food from others families’ meals were also brought to whichever homes the members were dining.
  • It’s not their way to ask a lot of questions of strangers.
  • A man being a master of others is inconceivable to them- one tribe used the word for “commander” as a name instead of a rank in regard to John Franklin, who had led an earlier Arctic expedition.
  • Taboos for anything and everything.
  • “The Eskimo individually behaves like a sovereign state. The laws of others do not bind him, and he makes new laws for himself whenever he likes” (271), if one changed his mind then an agreement is dissolved.
  • Dividing up seal meat among all the hunters in visible range, especially if it’s bearded seal.
  • “The last thing that an Eskimo is likely to do to repeat the name of his own tribe. He is much more likely to volunteer unasked the information that such and such a tribe lives next beyond him” or inquire if the stranger has been visiting such and such a tribe (282).

Varying thoughts about taboos among the tribes:

  • Akin to keep kosher, not mixing caribou and seal- not making or mending caribous skin garments on ice; caribou and seal cannot be eaten at the same time or cooked in the same pots. One tribe said cooking one after the other is okay so long as a different string is used to hang the pot. Another tribe may cook and eat them at the same time.

Language (355):

  • “Dialects proved to differ about as much as Norwegian does from Swedish, or Spanish from Portuguese” (174).
  • Nouns modified by suffixes, not adjectives- ie. hill vs hillock, river vs rivulet
  • Six or more suffixes can be added to a single word, modifying the sentence’s basic idea.
  • Over a 160 suffixes in the Mackenzie dialect
  • iglu- dwelling place of any kind; iglupûk- large house; iglorak- wooden house, iglumi- in the house; iglumun- to the house, etc…
  • Nouns used in singular, dual, and plural.
  • Similarly, “in the case of transitive verbs, not only is the subject incorporated but the object also, and either the subject or the object may be in the singular, dual, or plural number. Besides, there are inflections for tenses, and then come the suffixes proper” – tikitpit, tikitpetik, tikitpisi- have you arrived? (singular, dual, plural); tikitga- he arrived, tikiniakpaunggiak- will he probably reach it?
  • “There is no doubt that for an Englishman it would be much easier to acquire Russian, Swedish, French, and Greek than to acquire Eskimo alone.”

The “Blond Eskimo”:

  • A day after arriving in the village, the locals realized he was one of the white men they’ve heard about from other tribes. He asked why they couldn’t tell from his blue eyes and light brown beard. “But we didn’t know,” they answered, “what sort of complexions the kablunat have. Besides, our next neighbors north have eyes and beards like yours.” “That was how they first told us of the people whose discovery has brought up such important biological and historical problems, the people who have since become known to newspaper readers as the ‘Blond Eskimo’ “(176).
  • Visiting 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).
  • Historic details from Eric the Red- page 197.
  • Possibly descended from Greenland’s colonists: “We have seen that the Scandinavians flourished for centuries on the west coast of Greenland. We know that at the time when communications between Europe and Greenland were cut off there were still large numbers of them living in Greenland in proximity to the Eskimo. We know that the habits of the Eskimo are such, as exemplified in their relations with the American Indian and the white man in recent times, that they are inclined to mix with any race with which they come in contact” (201).
  • After inquiring about the blond traits of many members of the Kanghirgyuargmiut, one responds that it is “in the nature of Eskimo to have light hair and blue eyes” (288).

Christian conversion:

  • “When Christianity came to Rome, the temples of the gods became the churches of God, but there was still the atmosphere of the temple about them. The feasts of the heathen became the feasts of the church. Yule became Christmas, and in German countries the gods Thor and Odin became devils, snarers of souls, and the enemies of the Kingdom. Just so among the Eskimo the missionary becomes in the minds of the people a shaman. His prohibitions become taboos; and as miracles could be wrought under the old system by formulae and charms, so the Christian religion  among them becomes not one of ‘works’, but of ritual, and prayers are expected to have their immediate and material effect as the charms did formerly” (407).
  • “The ideas which the Eskimo has of the new religion are dictated by his environment and colored by the habits of thought developed under the old religion; and second, that he looks upon the missionary as the mouth-piece of God, exactly as the shaman was the mouth-piece of the spirits” (410). Missionaries took the place of shamans.
  • Taxation an incomprehensible and foreign idea and the same with abstract religious concepts. Conversion was slow- No converts in the Mackenzie River area in 1907, a year later everyone had been Christianized.
  • Eskimoized Christianity- Christianity comprehensible to the Eskimo.
  • Language/translation problems: Fishing with hooks on Sunday because a missionary said don’t set fish-nets on Sunday instead of don’t work; “Do not follow in the footsteps of the wicked” taken literally so people won’t walk in the snowy footsteps of another thought to be under some taboo.
  • Christianity believed to have started in Alaska’s Kotzebue Sound and then spread northwest and east, some by missionaries but most commandments and prayers orally shared from tribe to tribe.
  • Christ’s ability to revive the dead and walk on water understood because their own shamans do the same.
  • The Eskimo have their old faith “and they believe all the Christian teachings on top of that. They have not ceased to have faith in the heathen things, but they have ceased to practice them because they are wicked and lessen one’s chances of salvation. The familiar spirits have been renounced, but they still exist, and are in general inimical to the new faith and angry with their former patrons who have renounced them” (421).

Myths’ origins and how history becomes mixed with fiction:

  • The Coronation Gulf Eskimo had “the general idea that mountain sheep hunting was dangerous, and being unable to ascribe any danger to the mountains as such, they had transferred the dangerousness of the snow-slides and precipices to the sheep themselves” (255).


  • Trade for western goods: flour, tea, tobacco, rifles, sheet-iron stoves, chewing gum, perfume.
  • Eskimo encouraged to dig coal to heat their houses and sell. “It is the natural tendency of the thoughtless white to assume that his ways are the best ways… It is hard for me personally to get the point of view of a man who thinks that coal mining is a more desirable occupation than seal hunting. It would be a safe bet that he himself has never either hunted seal or dug coal” (299).
  • Frame houses fashionable, but ill suited to the Arctic- requires more heat (like coal or wood) than iglus or tents which are well-heated a little seal oil. What little driftwood is found is needed for sleds and tools.
  • Eskimo don’t really “regard baking powder bread as such excellent food, but it is rather that they know it is expensive and they are human enough to want to have their neighbors know that they can afford to have this and that to eat even if it does cost money, different not so much from the rest of humanity in that matter” (335).
  • “Game upon which the Eskimo formerly lived has been destroyed through the wanton destruction of food animals that followed” (351) and depletion of resources–> needing to depend on trade – > Arctic Alaska declined into “poor country” so whalers and traders headeded east.
  • Even with their claws and teeth, big game “have no more chance against a man with a modern rifle than a fly has against a sledge hammer” (334).
  • “Now 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).
  • “I am so great an admirer of the Eskimo before civilization changed them that it is not easy to get me to say that civilization has improved them in any material way, leaving aside, of course, the question of whether it profiteth a man that he gain the whole earth if he lose his own soul. But although it is not easy to get me to admit the present-day Eskimo are far better men than their forefathers, it is easy to get themselves to admit it” (430). Ilavainirk said roughly that although they still lie and steal, they don’t work on Sunday.

“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 spehere of observation is a matter of interest and is continually on the tip of our tongue” (282).

Nagyuktogmiut: After mentioning Mark Twain’s Connecticut Yankee, he says: “We, without going to sleep at all, had walked out of the twentieth century into the country of the intellectual and cultural contemporaries of a far earlier age than King Arthur’s. These were not such men as Caesar found in Gaul or in Britain; they were more nearly like the still earlier hunting tribes of Britain and of Gaul living contemporaneous to but oblivous to the building of the first pyramid in Egypt. Their existance on the same continent with our populous cities was an anachronism of ten thousand years in intelligence and material development. They gathered their food with the weapons of the men of the Stone Age, they thought their simple, primitive thoughts and lived their insecure and tense lives- lives that were to me the mirrors of the lives of our far ancestors whose bones and crude handiwork we now and then discover in river gravels or in prehistoric caves. Such archeological remains found in various parts of the world of the men who antedated the knowledge of the smelting of metals, tell a fascinating story to him whose scientific imagination can piece it together and fill in the wide gaps; but far better than such dreaming was my present opportunity. I had nothing to imagine; I had merely to look and listen; for here were not remains of the Stone Age, but the Stone Age itself, men and women, very human, entirely friendly, who welcomed us to their homes and bade us stay” (177).

After staying with the Dolphin and Union Strait Eskimo, he says: “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. If we can reason at all from the present to the past, we can feel sure that the hand of evolution had written the Golden Rule in the hearts of the contemporaries of the mammoth millenniums before the Pyramids were built. At least, that is what I think. 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 and got all my ideas at second-hand; but the turning blank of the picturesque part of my vocabulary has been made up to me by a new realization of the fact that human nature is the same not only the world over, but also the ages through.”

“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).

A superior attitude, yet appreciative and respectful:

  • After recounting how after Tannaumirk went hunting, he retraced his 10 mile trail instead of realizing the camp to be less than a mile away, Stefánsson 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).
  • “The mind of the Eskimo is keen with reference to their immediate environment, although of course unable to grasp things that are outside of their experience. This keenness is shown especially in the use which they make of practically everything that can be turned to account in their struggle against Arctic conditions” (256).

In April of 1910, the small entourage is finally able to start east:

“When I had planned the undertaking in New York, I had counted on having good dogs, but the good dogs are now dead. I had counted on Dr. Anderson’s company and coöperation, but necessity (chiefly the lack of ammunition for our rifles for the coming year) had dictated that he should go west for supplies, and that I should depend on Eskimo companions alone. I had counted on having a silk tent and other light equipment for summer use, and the lightest and most powerful rifles and high-power ammunition, but during one of our winter periods of shortage of food I had been compelled to abandon many of these things at a distance from which they could not now be got. Instead of the ten-pound silk tent, I therefore had to take a forty-pound canvas one, old and full of holes; I had only two hundred rounds for my Mannlicher-Schoenauer 6.5 mm. rifle, and had to piece it out with far heavier and less powerful black-powder rifles and ammunitions. In all we had four rifles of three different calibers, and a total of nine hundred and sixty rounds of three kinds of ammunition” (163).

“The reason I had not seen his approach was that it had not occurred to me to look back over my own trail; I was so used to hunting bears that the possibility of one of them assuming my own rôle and hunting me had been left out of consideration. A good hunter, like a good detective, should leave nothing out of consideration” (170).


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