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 IX. The Esquimaux of the Mackenzie (continued)

The future of the Esquimaux.--Smoking.--Food.--Progress.--Language.--The Country.--The visit of Mr. Bompas.--His kind reception.--Return to Peel's River Fort.

WE continue Mr. Bompas' account of the Esquimaux:--

"I cannot but suppose that before long commerce and civilization will come into closer contact with these natives. It is surely intended that this fine river, one of the largest in the world, should in God's providence be ere long opened for navigation and trade. A project for this purpose is, I believe, entertained by the English for a Company, and also by the Americans.

"The Mackenzie was once ascended from its mouth by the boats of an English exploring ship. The coast is, I believe, free from ice, and open to navigation to the westward from Behring's Straits during the summer months, and American vessels already trade with the Western Esquimaux. In fact I see here tobacco, knives, beads, kettles, obtained from the Americans, which these Esquimaux have traded along the coast from the more western natives. Two men of this band have started along the coast to the west this present winter with a parcel of furs, intending to return next winter with more.

"The opening of this coast to civilized trade would be a matter of congratulation, and must in the end prove in God's good providence a blessing. At the same time, we cannot but foresee evils connected with it. Our own countrymen do not always, alas! set the best example of morality in these distant lands, and the natives are very quick in learning to imitate what they see the white man do, especially what is evil, however slow they may be in receiving the oral instruction of the preacher.

"In the American trade, too, unhappily the first article introduced is generally spirits, and this would, I fear, soon prove the ruin of most of the Esquimaux, and make it dangerous or impossible to reside among them. If the trade were watched by Government, and the importation of spirituous liquors legally prevented, I suppose a fair and profitable traffic might be carried on in seal and otter skins, walrus tusks, furs, whalebone, and oil. The articles which the Esquimaux most desire in exchange for these commodities are tobacco and beads, but more useful wares would be twine for nets and fishing-lines, hooks, coarse cotton or canvas for sails and tents, blankets, guns, ammunition, kettles, axes, adzes, carpenters' tools, knives, scissors, needles, saws, pots, spoons, files, and skewers for arrow and spear heads.

"These natives have unhappily become enslaved to the habit of tobacco smoking, until it has become with them an all-absorbing passion. As their mode of using tobacco is to swallow the smoke, it resembles the use of opium more than the European use of tobacco. A few whiffs of the Esquimaux pipe produce a temporary stupor or intoxication, causing him sometimes to fall to the ground, and generally followed by a severe fit of coughing. Such smoking must certainly be deleterious to the constitution. The Esquimaux's next luxury after smoking is the eating of whale or seal fat. The fat of the whale resembles fat bacon, and I did not find in it any nauseous taste. The food of the Esquimaux besides consists of all the animals killed by him, whether on land or water. Besides this, he finds edible roots in spring, and ground berries in summer, and generally speaking is well supplied with provision. The course of his yearly travels is to ascend the Mackenzie River in spring, that is in June, on the breaking up of the ice, to trade at the European establishment, about 200 miles from the sea. After this, he returns to the river-mouth and hunts seals at two different points. At the last point he lays by a store of seals' meat for the ensuing winter. He then proceeds five days' journey along the sea coast to the eastward, to hunt the whale. The spoils of this hunt he brings back to add to his store, and then spends the autumn or fall of the year in fishing and hunting, some of the tribe again mounting the river to visit the English post. As soon as winter is fairly set in, the tribes retire to their stores or caches of provisions at the river's mouth, where they live in their snow houses till the return of spring. As soon as the weather is mild, and their stores are diminished, they begin to mount the river with sledges, and then spend the time in fishing and snaring partridges until the breaking up of the ice.

"As the water in the river rises in the spring, streams of water appear at each bank before the main body of ice gives way. The Esquimaux commence at this time their travels by boats and canoes, hauling them from time to time over intervening strips of ice. At such times it is pleasant enough to travel with them, and amusing to see the miscellaneous stores which constitute an Esquimaux's effects, and which are transferred from boat to sledge, and from sledge to boat; at one time the boats travelling on the sledges upon the ice, and again the sledges travelling in the boats on the water.

"The condition of this tribe has certainly improved since the English have furnished them with iron. Formerly they had only bone axes, weapons, and tools, and made fire by the friction of wood only. A piece of stick, passed through a hole in a board, was made to revolve so rapidly by means of a piece of string twisted round it, as to ignite charcoal or touchwood through the heat caused by the friction. I have-not, however, seen this instrument; but I have seen a piece of iron ore which was obtained by them from a distance, and prized by them for striking a light when they had no better means of doing so. The number of this tribe seems to be diminishing, and there are but few old men and few children among them. At the same time their health appears good, with the exception of sores, which would probably be removed by the use of soap.

"A Missionary may well visit the tribe on the coast during the summer to instruct them in religion, and he would also have an opportunity of seeing them when they visit the European post in spring and fall; this would probably suffice for the instruction of this small band. A residence with them in winter would be attended with considerable hardship. With regard to other tribes, more difficulty arises. There are other bands of Esquimaux to the east at intervals, for I suppose the whole distance between this and Labrador. Some live on islands in the Arctic Sea, and others again to the west. .The evangelization of these by a European would be attended with great difficulty; but if a native agent could be introduced from Greenland or Labrador, the work would be rendered comparatively easy.

"The Esquimaux language is difficult, the words are long, and the grammar complicated. The structure of the Esquimaux tongue appears somewhat to resemble the Cree.

"They express great willingness to be taught, and they have received the little instruction I have been able to give with great thankfulness. At the same time their ignorance and carelessness are so great, that they seem quite unable to apprehend at present the solemnities of religion. Smoking seems to be the object of their lives.

"If a Mission station could be established among them, they would probably learn much more by what they saw than by mere preaching, and through the power of imitation, might become more assimilated to civilized life. At present, however, there are no means of establishing a Mission station, or introducing supplies for its support.

"There are but few features by which to describe the country. The coast is bare of trees; only small bushes of willow are interspersed among the bare hills. The mouth of the Mackenzie is covered with drift wood; a spur of the rocky mountains extends down to the coast. The estuary of the river is broken into numerous streams, in one or two only of which there is a deep channel. As you recede from the sea, the pines begin to appear, at first stunted in growth, and gradually increasing, until, about fifty miles from the coast, the thick pine woods begin, which stretch uninterruptedly for thousands of miles, even from the Pacific to the Atlantic. The winds from the Arctic Sea, even in spring time, are very sharp and cutting, and in the depth of winter the cold must be very severe.

"The individuals who are most respected among the Esquimaux are the best hunters who make the most meat, for this they share more or less with their neighbours. There arc acknowledged chiefs among them, whose office is hereditary. They have not much authority, except that they manage to get most of the tobacco trade into their own hands by buying up the furs of the other Esquimaux.

"The story of my visit to the Esquimaux is soon told. I left Peel's River on the i8th of April, in company with two Esquimaux, and hauling a sledge with blankets and provisions. We camped at night on the river bank, making a small camp-fire of boughs. After three days' walking in the glare of the spring sun, I was attacked with snow blindness, and walked most of the two following days with my eyes shut, holding the Esquimaux boy by the hand. Both the Esquimaux were very kind and attentive to me, and did all for me that I could wish. We walked about twenty-five miles a-day. Our sixth day from the Fort we reached the first Esquimaux camp, and I slept for the first time in a snow house, enjoying as good a night's rest as I could wish on the deer-skins. The next day, which was Sunday, we spent in this camp. I endeavoured to convey what instruction I could to our host and his family. After remaining quiet all day in the snow house, I was thankful to recover my sight; we started again at night, and the next afternoon reached two more snow houses, where we were again hospitably received and lodged. I was cordially invited to sleep in one of the houses, and, being tired, soon lay down to do so, but was immediately disturbed by yelling and dancing on the very spot where I was lying. This I found was caused by an old woman "making medicine," that is conjuring in order to cure a man who was, or thought himself, sick. The person conjuring throws himself into violent convulsions, and pretends to be under the influence of some evil spirit. This medicine maker is regarded with great awe by the bystanders, and I was entreated not to disturb her. However, I told them that the medicine-making was all a wicked lie, and betook myself at once to the next camp, where I lay down and enjoyed a good night's rest.

"The next day, all I could find wrong with the man who was the object of the conjuring proved to be a sore head, for which I gave him a small piece of soap, and a few grains of alum to rub it with. Next time I saw him, I was told that my conjuring was very strong. The same day we started again, and in two or three hours reached four more Esquimaux camps, or snow houses, in the largest of which I took up my abode, and it proved to be the one in which was most food. I was most amply and hospitably supplied with provision, to which all the Esquimaux contributed a small share. This proved to be the furthest point in my journey. My appearance in each camp excited a deal of observation and curiosity, as the Esquimaux had never had a European residing among them in the same way before. After a few days a large number of Esquimaux arrived from near the sea coast, and built their snow houses close by. For the following two or three weeks I was therefore fully engaged in visiting the different camps, and conveying what instruction I could to the inmates. On the arrival of the Esquimaux chief I was invited to remove to his camp, which I did, and he continued from that time to entertain and feed me with great kindness and cordiality. I was most agreeably surprised to receive such kind attention, and what I must call gentlemanly consideration from those who are in other respects so ignorant and rude.

"I might mention that my visit to the Esquimaux was occasioned by an invitation from some of them; but on my way I received a message from the chief that I had better defer my visit till the summer, as the Esquimaux were starving and quarrelling, and one had just been stabbed and killed in a dispute about some tobacco. This made me the more pleased to be so received among them.

"The point where we were encamped was in the estuary of the Mackenzie, about thirty miles from the Arctic Sea, and when the sun set, in the north there appeared a bright rim of light along the horizon, which was, I suppose, the reflection of the polar ice.

"I saw no anger, nor breach of good-will among the Esquimaux while I was with them, but all seemed to be living in brotherly affection and friendship. After remaining with them about three weeks, the chief with whom I was staying removed with his brother and their camps to the distance of a few miles from the other Esquimaux, in order to hunt partridges. I was still able, however, to visit all the camps.

"On the 7th of May, the first of the spring birds were seen. These were swans. On the I2th we saw the first overflow of water on the banks of the river, and on the 16th of May the thaw set in. On the 21st, after we had remained in our new camp rather more than a week, we left the ice with thankfulness, and took to the boats, proceeding up the river on the narrow strip of water which now appeared between the ice and the shore. Most of the winter sledges were now taken to pieces and left behind on the shore, but three were taken on in each boat for transporting the boats and their contents from water to water, where ice intervened.

"We left the other Esquimaux, who were a few miles lower down the river, still encamped on the ice, as the water had not yet reached them. They were not, I suppose, able to leave for some time, as the weather turned cold again two or three days after we left, and the water on which we had travelled became again frozen, and so continued, more or less, for some days. All the Esquimaux, however, as the thaw began, left their snow houses, which were becoming wet from the melting snow, and pitched their deer skin-tents on the ice.

"After proceeding up the river with boat and canoe for three days, we reached the fishing-ground, where we again encamped, to await the breaking up of the ice on the Mackenzie, as it was not safe to proceed further up the river till this occurred. At once, on reaching the fishery, they set their hooks and nets, and we were immediately well supplied with fresh provisions from the water, proving an agreeable change of food, and affording abundant cause of thankfulness to our Heavenly Father who thus supplied our daily wants. Being now only three camps together, and having therefore more leisure time, I have written this account, which, however imperfect a description it may be of Esquimaux life, has at least the advantage of being a sketch from nature. It is written by the camp-fire under the open sky, with the Esquimaux all sitting round and working at their canoes, nets, fishing-lines, bows and arrows, and with their inquisitive faces thrust over my paper, or against my side, with the constantly repeated question as to what I am writing about.

"As I write, the ducks and geese are flying backwards and forwards by hundreds over head, and the fish are constantly brought in from the river. As it is near this spot that the Esquimaux wish a trading-post to be established for their benefit by the Fur Company, I am glad to visit the spot, and shall be disposed to report favourably of the position, and to second the wish of the Esquimaux that a post should be established for them, as it would facilitate Missionary operations for their instruction. As the Esquimaux tents are small and well filled, I have found it best since the thaw began to camp by myself outside, and the more so as they keep in spring time rather strange hours, mostly going to bed after midnight, and not rising till past noon, and some remaining up all night, and then sleeping the greater part of the following day. It is true that there is now but little difference between day and night, as the sun hardly sets, and as it is generally cloudy, and I thought it most prudent to come without my watch, it is not always easy to know what time of day or night it is. Notwithstanding this, we who have been used to home life seem to wish to observe the distinction between day and night as far as possible, even though it be a distinction without a difference.

"The Esquimaux sleep in their tents between their deerskins all together in a row, extending the whole breadth of the tent, and if there are more than enough for one row, they commence a second at the foot of the bed, with the head turned the other way. For myself, I always took care to commence this second row, keeping to the extremity of the tent, and thus generally rested without inconvenience, except, perhaps, a foot thrust occasionally into my side. At the same time it must be confessed that the Esquimaux are rather noisy, often talking or singing a great part of the night, especially the boys, and if any extra visitors arrive, so that the tent is over full, it is not exactly agreeable.

"I have, however, now stayed with the Esquimaux in all their dwellings, for last fall I spent four nights with them in one of their wooden houses, and this spring I have lived for a month with them, partly in a snow house and partly in a deerskin tent. I am glad to have done this, but should not wish to repeat it unless from necessity.

"In case of visiting them again, I should endeavour to have a camp of my own, and in the summer time I could take my own tent with me, and if I could persuade the Esquimaux to respect its privacy, I might pass a pleasant time with them.

"At present, camping by myself outside their tents, I am passing my time with them without any hardship or inconvenience.

"The main ice on the Mackenzie broke up on the 8th of June, but the channel by which we were ascending still continued blocked with ice till the 14th. After this date we were able to proceed on our voyage without further detention, and arrived safely, by God's help, at Peel's River Fort on the 18th of June, about midnight."

Here we have a vivid picture of the toil gone through by a Missionary Pioneer, penetrating for the first time into unknown regions, and carrying the Gospel message to far-off tribes.

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