Project Canterbury

Dayspring in the Far West
Sketches of Mission-Work in North-West America

By M. E. Johnson

London: Seeley, Jackson and Halliday, 1875.

Chapter VIII. The Esquimaux of the Mackenzie

Mr. Bompas visits the Esquimaux.--Their appearance, dress, manners, boats, canoes, dwellings.--Hospitality.--Religious ideas.

IN a previous chapter, allusion was made to the itinerating work of Mr. Bompas. We must now ask our readers to accompany us to the mouth of the Mackenzie River, where, in the spring of 1870, Mr. Bompas took up for a time his abode amongst the Esquimaux. While reading the following account, the reader must picture the Missionary squatted on a polar bear-skin, with a deer-skin for a desk, with the Esquimaux seated around him pursuing their various avocations.

"This race of Esquimaux inhabit the coast of the Arctic Sea, at the north of the Great River Mackenzie. In the spring and fall they ascend the river in their skin boats for about 200 miles, and trade fox and bear-skins for tobacco, iron, kettles, &c., at the nearest port of the Hudson's Bay Company, on Peel's River. The men are tall and powerful, some more than six feet, the average stature exceeding, I think, that in England. The women are smaller, probably about the average stature of English women. The complexion and features are not unlike the English. Several of the Esquimaux, both men and women, had I met them at home in European costume, I should hardly have taken for foreigners. Others, again, have a more distinguishing cast of countenance. The men's hair is cut short across the forehead. The face is square, forehead prominent, eyebrows horizontal, nose straight, mouth large. Some have a short beard, but most are without it. They have a circular tonsure on the top of the head, similar to that of Romish priests, and the men wear bones through their cheeks, intended for ornament. A hole is bored through each cheek, near the lower lip, as soon as a youth approaches manhood, and through this is thrust a large button of ivory (walrus tusk), and the ambition of an Esquimaux is to have fixed to this white button half a blue bead of the size of a man's finger end. To possess one of these glass beads, which I suppose could be had in England for a penny, they are willing to give two black fox skins, each of which might sell in England for £50. To drive this advantageous bargain, they are obliged to convey their furs many hundred miles along the coast westward towards Bchring's Straits, where other tribes of Esquimaux are visited by American trading-vessels from the Pacific. This cheek ornament, called "totuke," is of course a great disfigurement. It enlarges the mouth, and causes inconvenience to the wearer, both in speaking and eating. Such, however, are the demands of Esquimaux fashion.

"The women also have a peculiar custom of wearing large-bundles of hair on the top and sides of their head. It perhaps can hardly be properly called false hair, as it once probably had connexion with the head that carries it. But the present want of continuity is manifest, as the large bundles are often laid aside for a time at night. I presume that all the hair which ever grew on the head is carefully preserved and added to the stock, as it seems to increase with the age of the wearer. This is also an inconvenient and disfiguring custom, but probably the Esquimaux women would consider some of our home fashions more absurd.

"The dress of the Esquimaux is handsome. It consists of shirt, coat, and trousers, usually of deer-skin, and fringed with the long hair of the wolf and wolverine. Their favourite headdress is the skin of a wolverine's head, surrounded with blue beads, over which is worn the hood of the coat, with a wide fringe of wolf or wolverine hair. Their boots are of otter and seal-skin. The sheep and musk-rat also occasionally contribute their skins towards the clothing of an Esquimaux.

"The clothes are, of course, made by the women, and, not without considerable taste, ornamented with blue beads, of which they are very fond; and strips of the white hair of the deer being sewn into the brown by way of braiding. The coat is shaped like a shirt. Sometimes the hair is turned inside, towards the skin of the wearer, and this affords greater warmth. The animal's skin, which is thus turned outside, is then dressed so as to be quite white, and when well beaded, makes a showy appearance. The dress of the women is very similar to that of the men, the coat and trousers of the same material, the chief difference being in the shape of the hood, which, in the case of the women, is made larger, to enclose their extra store of hair, and thus better protect their face. The women also wear no boots, but the trousers and shoes are all in one.

"The Esquimaux is seldom seen without a large butcher's knife in his hand, which, in case of a quarrel, he unhappily uses too often to stab his neighbour. His weapon for hunting on land is the bow, as guns have not yet come into much use among them. On the water, fish-spears, of various construction, are his constant companions.

"In making his weapons the Esquimaux shows considerable ingenuity. Out of any old iron which he is able to obtain, such as saws, files, &c., he will forge variously shaped knives, gimlets, and other tools, with which he constructs his boats and canoes, as well as arrows, bows, spears, fishing-hooks, nets, and tackle, sledges, and all other implements for the chase, as well as furniture for his tent.

"The Esquimaux bow is very strong, and its elasticity is increased by being backed with lines of twisted sinew. The arrows are well made and feathered, headed with bone or iron, according to the game intended to be shot. The fish-hooks are generally of bone, and sometimes baited as at home; but for some fish no bait is used at all. The shank of the hool: of white bone is carved into the shape of a small fish, and is thus mistaken for a bait. It is armed with a small iron barb, which secures the prey. The fish spears are pointed with iron, and lie on the outside of their canoes. One spear with three prongs, like a hay-fork, or trident, is used for hunting musk-rats in the river, and is thrown from the canoe, out of a wooden handle or rest. The fishing-lines, and even nets, are often made of whalebone, as also are partridge snares, &c. In fact whalebone is used chiefly for tying and fastening the canoe frames, spear-heads, &c.; the only other kind of line they have, made of twisted sinew, being not well fitted for use in the water. Whalebone seems a strange material to form into fishing-nets; but it is split thin, and cleverly netted to the length of several yards, and about one yard in width. The other lines made of sinew are very neatly plaited to the length of a hundred yards or more, forming a very fine strong cord used for fishing-nets, bow-springs, and various purposes.

"The construction of boats or canoes is part of an Esquimaux's employment in spring. The boat or canoe frame is first made out of a log of drift wood, split up by means of bone wedges into the required lengths. Each is carefully shaped, smoothed, and finished by what are called in this country crooked knives, that is a knife with the blade slightly bent, and used for shaving wood instead of a smoothing plane. The canoe is then covered with otter skin. The shape of an Esquimaux canoe is well known. It is about twelve feet long, and is entirely covered with otter skins, except the small hole in the centre, in which the Esquimaux sits with his double and single paddles, and spears laid carefully in ivory fittings on the outside of every canoe. The boat is from twenty to thirty feet long, and covered with seal-skin, which is very strong, and forms a most serviceable vessel. The wooden framework, on which the skin is stretched, appears slight, but is securely fastened. This boat is propelled by two oars, and when the wind is favourable, by a sail. As the men travel generally in their canoes for the sake of hunting, it is chiefly the women and children who remain in the boat, which conveys the tents, furniture, utensils, &c. As the women row but very leisurely, the progress is rather slow, but the men are employed in hunting, and time is often of much importance to an Esquimaux.

"The dwellings of the Esquimaux consist in winter of snow houses built on the ice, in summer of deer-skin tents, and in the autumn or fall of wooden huts, partly under-ground, and covered with earth. The chief home of the Esquimaux is on the ice. Here he passes at least half the year, and it is to this that his habits are chiefly adapted.

"In building his snow house he shows a wonderful readiness, which I can compare to nothing but the skill of a bee in making its honeycomb. In the Esquimaux country the fallen snow, on the wide river mouths, after being driven by the wind becomes caked or frozen so as to have considerable tenacity, and at the same time it can be readily cut with the knife. The Esquimaux then, with his butcher's knife, cuts out square blocks of this frozen snow, as it lies on the surface of the river, of the size of ordinary blocks of stone masonry, and with these he builds a house perfectly circular, of the shape of a bee-hive. With no tool but the knife, which is used as a trowel, he works with surprising rapidity, and the whole is arched over without any support from beneath, except perhaps a single pole during the construction. Any architect or mason at home would, I suppose, be astonished to witness the work, and might fail in imitating it, for without line, or plummet and square, or measurement, the circular span and arch is exactly preserved, and the whole finished in the space of a single hour. The snowy material is so beautiful that the work proceeds as if by magic, the snow forming stone and mortar both in one; for each block when laid on its neighbour, adheres and freezes to it, so as to form one solid mass, while the least touch of the knife shapes it, and removes any superfluous juttings. The weight of a single building block is just such as a man can readily lift. In building the walls of the house the work is simple, but in arching over the roof, it would seem impossible to proceed without support or framework below. In fact, however, a single staff only is placed under a block, added to the roof just until the next block is placed in juxta-position. The adherence of the two blocks is then sufficient to prevent any danger of falling, the staff is removed, and the same thing repeated with the ensuing block, until the whole is completed by working the tiers of snow spirally.

"An Esquimaux travelling in winter builds a small snow house every night for his lodging, but when encamped for any length of time, he makes one of considerable dimension. One in which I lodged was about twelve or fourteen feet in diameter, and about nine feet high in the centre from the level of the ice. Half the interior is occupied by the bed, which is raised about three feet from the ice or snow, covered with boards, on which are laid ample deer-skin rugs for bedding; over these again are deer-skin blankets for covering. Opposite the bed is the small low entrance, shaped like that into a dog kennel, through which you have to creep on all fours. This at night is covered up with a block of snow. On each side of the entrance (inside) is a shelf of snow, of the same height as the bed, on which is placed a large black wooden dish or trough, forming the lamp. A little moss along the side of this dish forms the lamp wick, fed by grease, which is constantly replenished from small lumps of fat hung over the flame, and which drop grease into the dish. It seems a strange anomaly that the coldest inhabited country should be that in which fires are considered superfluous. The heat given out by the lamps is certainly considerable, but still the camps are cold. The temperature must of course be constantly below freezing-point, or the snow would melt. The Esquimaux, however, do not feel the cold as we do. Their hands and face are of a more plump and fleshy form than ours, and the circulation of their blood is warmer, for their hands feel quite hot to the touch while sitting, without exercise, in their freezing camps. An Esquimaux's chief resource against the cold is the amount of fuel he consumes internally in the form of whale and seal fat used as food; and the provision of these large animals in the Polar Sea for the use of these few scattered savages, is a remarkable proof of God's providential care over the meanest of His creatures.

"The Esquimaux generally cook meat or fish twice a day, once at noon, and again the last thing before sleeping at night. If hungry at other times, he will eat a fish or piece of raw meat that is frozen, and this is not so disgusting as one might suppose, for the effect of freezing meat or fish is sometimes the same as cooking it, that is to harden the fibre, and dry up the superfluous moisture. Even Europeans in this country sometimes eat a piece of frozen fish uncooked, and find it good and wholesome.

"When an Esquimaux visits a neighbour's house, before he-has been sitting long, food is always offered him--general!}' a frozen fish which he eats with much relish. Sometimes it is a small piece of frozen deer's meat, or as a great delicacy, a lump of whale or seal fat. If he happens to come in at the time of cooking, a portion of what is cooked is set before him. This seems to be the rule of Esquimaux hospitality. As soon as the spring thaw sets in about the middle of May, the Esquimaux exchanges his snow house for a deer-skin tent or lodge, with which he soon after removes to the river bank, where he lives by fishing or hunting deer, before proceeding to the sea for the sea-whale fishery. In the fall of the year, the cold sets in early, and the deer-skin tent becomes uncomfortable, before the ice and snow are thick and hard enough for building snow houses. At this time the Esquimaux build or rather excavate huts in the river bank, which they ceil over with logs and earth. They close up at night the small entrance with skins, and rely for light and warmth chiefly on their lamps. A small window of thin skin or parchment is made in the roof; but as the short days of December approach, the sun hardly shows itself, and daylight is but scanty. In the snow house a block of clear ice inserted in the front forms a beautiful window, and as spring approaches, and the daylight is perpetual, a cheerful contrast is presented to the constant gloom and darkness of an Arctic winter.

"This is a country of contrast. In winter the gloom is such that daylight seems a passing stranger. In spring the glare is so great that the eye is sore and inflamed, if not blinded by it. In winter the thermometer will stand about 100° below freezing point, and in summer, in the sun, at least 100° above it.

"An Esquimaux travelling with his family and effects affords quite an exciting display. About a dozen sledges or trucks are harnessed together, and on these are laid a very miscellaneous assortment of property and provision. Boat frames, canoes, tents, tent-poles, and boards, deer-skin bedding, several whole deer carcases, some hundreds of frozen fish pressed into a solid mass, tent furniture, utensils, clothes, fishing-nets, and implements, with many other seemingly needless stores, are all laden promiscuously on the train, which is propelled by men, women, and dogs, all hauling lines along the sides of the sledges, and assisted when the wind is favourable by a sail.

The arrival of a large number of such sledge trains at camp one after another, is like so many railway trains coming in, for the runnels of the sledges are covered first with bone, and this again is carefully coated with ice, so that the sledges run on the frozen snow like trucks on a railway. The sledge train, which I assisted in drawing myself, consisted, I believe, of fourteen trucks, hauled by four men and boys, three women and five dogs. More than a dozen such trains reached the camp at which I was staying. In spring, the sledges are all stowed away on the river bank, and the boat forms the means of conveying the Esquimaux's effects during the summer months.

"Considering the smallness of the number of the Esquimaux band we have been describing, and that no others are to be found within about 100 miles, a wonderful provision has indeed been made by God's good providence for their sustenance. This bounty seems intended on purpose to banish the thought that these distant wanderers, condemned to such severity of climate, are outcasts from the Divine care. In fact, both the power and goodness of God are, in some respect, shown in this country more specially than in others; for which sometimes we are constrained to say, on seeing the vast expanse of snow, and the thickness of the ice, 'Who can stand before His cold?' Yet the greater is the marvel when 'He sendeth forth His word, and melteth them: He causeth His wind to blow, and the waters flow.' The Esquimaux know not how to thank their Heavenly Father, who gives them their daily supply of food, and though they have heard with gladness and thankfulness the short story of Gospel truth, which alone I have been able as yet to communicate to them, yet it requires the same mighty power, which melts their Arctic snows, and thaws their frozen ocean, 'to turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan unto God.'

"With respect to the character and habits of the Esquimaux, it is best to speak reservedly. They are certainly kind and hospitable, civil and obliging, skilful and clever in handicraft. I fear it must be added that they are liable to fits of passion and sulkiness, that they are lazy and sleepy, and addicted to lying, stealing, and even stabbing. Over their other shortcomings it is best to draw a veil.

"They practise heathen dances, songs, and conjuring, and this seems to be the greater part of their religion. They possess, most of them, in a bag, a collection of small miscellaneous articles, which are intended, I suppose, beneficially to influence their hunting, by way of spells and charms. Beyond this I cannot find that they have much religion among them. They know of an evil spirit named Atti, which seems to symbolize cold and death, and which they seek to exorcise or appease by their charms and spells.

"Their only idea of a good spirit is connected with the sun as a source of warmth and life; and considering the severity of their climate, it is not wonderful that their natural religion should symbolize the powers of good and evil by warmth and cold. If they have an idea of heaven, it is of a perpetual spring; and the name they give to the ministers who bring them tidings of the world above, is, 'Children of the sun.' I have not found they have any knowledge of a future life. They say the old Esquimaux used to know these things, but the young ones have forgotten them. They possess, however, a tradition of the Creation,, and of the descent of mankind from a single pair.

"With regard to the evangelization of these Esquimaux, and the introduction of true religion among them, I should think the best hope would be to bring a Christian Esquimaux hither from Labrador. The difficult work of mastering the language and reaching the minds of these bewildered heathen has been all gone through by the Moravian Missionaries in Labrador and Greenland, in the course of many years' labour, and it seems a pity that with the same race, the same work should be begun again, independently, in another part of the country, without any assistance from the toils of those who have gone before. The language, as spoken here, is indeed a different dialect from that of Labrador, but at least half the words seem to be the same, or nearly so. A native of Labrador, brought to this country, would probably be able to converse fluently with the natives in the course of a few months, and might be able in that time to give them a better knowledge of Christianity than a European Missionary could do in as many years. A native of Labrador was once brought here in connexion with the exploring expedition, but returned again. Two others were also sent for by the Fur Trading Company to act as interpreters, but turned back after coming half way. I should be glad if communication were held with the Moravian Society on this subject. The best mode of bringing it about would be for a Christian native of Labrador, to be brought to England in the Moravian Missionary ship, and then to place him in the Hudson's Bay Company's ship to come to York Factory."

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