Project Canterbury

The Life and Work of E.J. Peck
Among the Eskimos
by the Rev. Arthur Lewis, M.A.

New York: A. C. Armstrong, 1904.

Chapter II. The Eskimos: Their Origin, Government and Religion

"I am debtor both to the Greeks and to the Barbarians." "Come over into Macedonia and help us."

NOW that we have seen the man whom God had prepared for His call and work, let us visit the people for whom he was prepared, and learn something of their needs.

Shall we try to imagine a scene which may have taken place some 300 years ago or thereabouts? The French had begun to colonise Canada. The city of Quebec was about to be founded. One day a French settler had penetrated perhaps further north than usual. He met a strange-looking man. He was broad-faced, flat-featured, smiling, good-tempered, sallow complexioned, rather short, quite unlike the Indians by whom the Frenchman was accompanied, and with whom he had been quite familiar. He asked his companions:

"Who is this?"

With a contemptuous curl of the lip the Indians answered: "Ieschimou," which being interpreted is, "He is a raw-flesh eater."

As the French became more and more familiar with the people from the North, the word in a somewhat altered form passed into their language, and they became known henceforward to all Europeans as Esquimaux, or, as the word is now generally spelt, Eskimos.

It will then be readily seen, if this be the correct derivation of the name, that a term of contempt, such as it is, would not be likely to be in use among the Eskimos. It is a mere nickname bestowed upon them by the outside world. They are quite satisfied about their own superiority over the rest of mankind, as were the Jews and Greeks of old. At least, we should be inclined to say so if we may judge from the name which they apply to themselves. This is Innuet, which may be translated by The People, though the root meaning seems to be owner. We are told in the old Hebrew record of the Creation that God saw everything that He had created, and it was very good. "No," say the Eskimo, "that is not true," if we may credit a tradition that is said to come from the region of the Mackenzie River: "God first made different tribes of Indians and different nations of White men, and He was not at all pleased. At last He made the Eskimos, and then rested from His labours perfectly satisfied." So they are the People.

But after we know the origin of both names--the one by which they are known to the outside world, and that by which they speak of themselves--we wish to know more. Who are the Eskimos? Where do they live? Whence did they come?

It is easy to ask questions, as every parent of a three-year-old child knows. But it is not always easy to give satisfactory answers. And the first and last of the above questions in particular receive by no means one and the same definite answer from different authorities. It is, of course, impossible to deal exhaustively with the origin of the Eskimos here. It is altogether beyond the range of this book.

A few facts, however, may be stated, and a few opinions, worthy of respect, may be quoted, which will, perhaps, be suggestive of a correct view to the mind of the reader who is interested in the subject.

The extent of the surface of the earth which they inhabit is very wide. Professor W. Boyd Dawkins, F.R.S., says: "The Eskimos occupy the coldest parts of the earth in America and Asia, and their civilization is of a rude and primitive type. To the south of the Eskimos in America is a debatable land belonging neither to them nor to the Red Indians, between which races a feud exists." A stretch of about 3,200 miles of continent from East to West is occupied by these people, who claim to be the aristocracy of God's creation. But though their territory is so vast, the number of the occupants--as, perhaps, is natural, seeing that perfection can be attained by few--is very small. Various calculations make the total of all the Eskimos range from 20,000 to 40,000.

Some authorities make five divisions of the Eskimos, according to the distributions of their tribes, extending from Greenland on the East to Alaska on the West, and going as far south as the Eastern and Western shores of Hudson's Bay. But there is not enough certainty about these divisions to make it worth while to discuss them. It is sufficient to say that those to whom the reader will be introduced are almost exclusively those of the central division on the Eastern shores of the Hudson's Bay and Cumberland Sound.

Before the advent of the white man there was more movement of the tribes-men than now for purposes of barter and exchange. The peculiar stone used for making kettles, driftwood, ivory, and kindred articles were all objects of value and caused intercourse for purposes of trade. But now, owing to the establishment of whaling and other stations, the geographical areas of the tribes are more circumscribed and confined, as each station is a centre of trade where most of the necessaries of life can be obtained.

As to their origin, it is extremely doubtful whether they came from Asia or America. There are different authorities of, perhaps, almost equal weight who support each theory.

They are found on the east of the American Continent at an early date. In the eleventh century Eskimos were met with there, according to the Saga of Eric the Red. The Norsemen of those days sailed forth from their Greenland colonies on voyages of discovery. After striking a fresh coast and sailing southwards they arrived, we are told, at the mouth of a large river, which they entered at high tide. There are wonderful tales of their finding self-sown wheat fields and of vines growing on the hillsides. The voyagers remained where they landed for some time and fed on the fat of the land, until one morning a great number of natives paddling skin canoes made their appearance. These new-comers and the Norsemen exchanged signals of peace, which resulted in a friendly intercourse extending over some length of time. The description of these natives corresponds with that of the modern Eskimos. They were evidently the tawny broad-featured Mongolian type of men with whom we have become familiar.

After a time, however, strife succeeded peace, and although the Norsemen defeated the Eskimos, they resolved to evacuate the new country rather than live in continual conflict with the inhabitants. Accordingly they returned to their own land.

At what time the Eskimos made their way to Greenland it is impossible to say. The colonists from Scandinavia do not seem to have come into collision with them for 400 years after they had effected their settlement, and, if an argument may be drawn from silence, they did not even meet any inhabitants. They did, however, find ruined dwellings and stone implements which had belonged to some previous occupants. On them they bestowed the name Skroellings, or Weaklings, for they thought that the people who had such possessions as these must have been but a feeble folk.

It is probable that the Eskimos had their settlements further north, and that these ruined huts represented temporary sojourns only in the more southern districts of Greenland.

Perhaps it may be safe to conclude that the Skroellings were established in the higher latitudes of Greenland by the eighth or ninth century.

It is, however, in the fourteenth and the early part of the fifteenth centuries that they come forcibly into history. The Scandinavian colonies were then annihilated. This annihilation is said to have been due to the attacks of the Skroellings, though there were probably other causes at work as well, such as famine and plague. But whatever happened, Greenland became from that time forward an unknown land until it was opened up once more by the Mission of Hans Egede in the year 1721. The Arctic Wanderers, too, remained in obscurity until they were re-introduced to the larger world under the French name of Esquimaux.

But this, of course, proves nothing as to their place of origin. Those who hold the view that the American continent was the first home of the Eskimos believe that they must have been a tribe of fishing Indians who formerly lived on the banks of the rivers which flow into the Arctic Ocean, and that they were gradually driven northwards by the pressure of the Southern tribes.

It is also said that their language bears some affinity to the Indian languages on the ground that it, like them, is agglutinative in character. But this, as Professor Boyd Dawkins says, is not sufficient proof to establish relationship. And the Rev. E. J. Peck writes: "I have had unusual facilities for comparing the language of the Eskimos with those of various Indian tribes--at least, with those of the Indians living on the shores of Hudson's Bay and Ungava Bay--and there is no possibility of believing that these were originally an Indian tribe, who might have been driven north by war or other causes."

Dr. Rink, who is a high authority, believes that many Eskimo weapons and implements are of American origin, and that this fact can form the foundation of a weighty argument. But we are hardly on firm ground here.

There is one weapon, indeed, which is very remarkable, and if any argument for relationship might be based upon the possession of it, would go to prove the existence of cousinship between the Eskimos and some people who live in parts of the earth very widely separated from them. This is the throwing-stick, which, although most useful and ingenious, seems to be known only in two other countries. It is practically identical with the womera of the aborigines of Australia, and it is also said to be known to some tribes on the banks of the Amazon. It is probably safer, then, to assume that the mere possession of a weapon really proves nothing. This throwing-stick is a device for hurling a dart with far greater force than could be brought into play by the unaided arm. In fact, it practically lengthens a man's arm, and so gives him a vast amount of artificial leverage. It is eighteen or twenty inches in length, fitted with a pivot or loose hinge at one end upon which the detachable dart can work freely. It has a thumb-hole and finger-grooves so that it can be firmly grasped in the right hand. It is used both for harpoons and bird darts.

On the whole, the weight of argument seems to be against an American origin for the Eskimos, and in favour of an Asiatic one. They are closely allied with the inhabitants of the Aleutian Islands, and so perhaps Keith Johnson is right when he believes that they crossed from their own continent to America by the "natural bridge, or rather stepping-stones," which these islands form.

The word "Kayak," which is the skin-covered canoe of the Eskimo, may perhaps point to their origin. Dr. Isaac Taylor derived it from a primitive word common to the Yakut and Seljuk races in Asia. According to him the original meaning would be a birch-covered canoe, but in lands where skin has of necessity to take the place of other material, the name has been retained though the fabric does not exist. There may, to say the least, be some history contained in this very small nutshell.

Again, it seems likely that the perpetual feud existing between the various Indian tribes on the one hand, and the Eskimos on the other, as well as the debatable land which separates them, points to a difference of race. We should also bear in mind the tone of contempt which the former adopt in speaking of the latter--a fact of which use was made in opening this chapter.

Perhaps argument from physical characteristics may not be worth much, for these may be influenced largely by climatic and other conditions. But whether worth much or little, the features of the Eskimos are in marked contrast with those of the Indians, and would seem to speak of Japanese and Chinamen being near of kin.

Dr. Rink believes in an Alaskan origin, but after weighing the pros and cons carefully, Dr. Boas sums up: "I believe that an Alaskan origin of the Eskimo is not very probable. If pure type and culture may be considered as significant, I should say that the Eskimos west and north of Hudson's Bay have retained their ancient characteristics more than any others. If their original home was in Alaska, we must add the hypothesis that their dispersion began before contact with the Indians. If their home was east of the Mackenzie, the gradual dispersion and seeming contact with other tribes would account for all the observed phenomena. A final solution of this interesting question might be obtained by means of archaeological research on the coast of Bering Sea."

And there, as far as these pages are concerned, the problem must be left.

As to government among the Eskimos, there is almost nothing to be said, except that outside the family it is practically non-existent. There are no chiefs over tribes, no rulers and no laws. It is true that sometimes a man will be recognized as a sort of leader, but this is due to his own personal character, his skill as a hunter, or some other almost accidental circumstance rather than to any hereditary right.

Warfare, though perhaps not uncommon in former generations, is now really unknown, and disputes between tribes do not occur. Custom is the only ruler, and is the one unwritten law which is held up to be obeyed. Should a man make himself persistently objectionable by constant violation of what is regarded as right in this way, he is generally punished by a sort of ostracism; but this is rarely resorted to. In extreme cases offenders have been known to be put out of the way by a sort of judicial murder.

The love of peace characterises not only the tribes in their relations with one another, but also the individual members of each community. "I have known," says Mr. Peck, "cases where, rather than quarrel, the offended party has refrained from retaliation in the slightest degree, and, with some simple conciliatory remark, has walked away."

It may be pointed out in passing that if the accounts of the extermination of the Scandinavian colonies on the Greenland coast in the fifteenth century, to which allusion has already been made, be at all accurate, that chapter of history, as well as the records of tribal wars among themselves, would indicate that the temper of the modern Eskimo is vastly different from that of his Skroelling progenitor.

Perhaps the most important inquiry we can make about any people is concerning their religion.

And here a great deal might be said, for many facts are known, but we must content ourselves with a brief summary.

There is no system of worship, and the religious ideas of the Eskimos are connected with the negative position of propitiation rather than with any positive reverence or love for God or gods. The cause of this is perhaps that the world is regarded as governed by supernatural powers, each of which is the owner of some particular object, or animal, or passion. The unseen owner is the innua. We have had this word before as applied to the Eskimos by themselves. Now the innua seems to have a very intimate connection with its object, just as the soul with the body, and, supernatural though it is, it seems very ready to take offence if all its prejudices are not strictly regarded. And so the religion of these people consists chiefly in the observance of a vast number of taboos, wearing of charms, and other superstitious practices in order to avert misfortune.

A very long list of the taboos might be written, but let a few, enumerated by Dr. Boas, suffice;--

"No work on seal-skins must be done during the caribou hunting season. Seal-meat and caribou meat must not be eaten on the same day."

"Hair of caribou-skins must not be cut during the musk-ox hunting season."

"The tusks of walrus caught during the winter must not be taken out of the skulls until the latter part of April."

"A person who has recently lost a relative by death must not pluck ducks, else the birds will keep away from the hunters."

"No work must be done for three days after a bear or a ground seal has been killed. The women must not comb their hair."

"The bedding must not be disturbed until late on the day when a ground seal has been caught," and so on ad infinitum. The origin of these taboos is impossible to find, though in some cases there are stories concerning them. For instance, walrus and caribou must not come in contact any more than seal and caribou, as in the first taboo mentioned above. This is accounted for by the dislike of these animals for each other as indicated in the following tradition: "A woman created both these animals from parts of her clothing. She gave the walrus antlers and the caribou tusks. When man began to hunt them the walrus upset the boats with his antlers and the caribou killed the hunter with his tusks. Therefore the woman called both animals back and took the tusks from the caribou and gave them to the walrus. She kicked the caribou's forehead flat and put the antlers on it. Ever since that time it is said that the walrus and caribou avoid each other, and the people must not bring the meat of these animals into contact."

In further explanation why portions of the dead animals must not be brought into proximity, it is said that the soul or innua of some sea animals stays with the body that has been killed for three days. Then it goes back to the chief goddess from whom it originally proceeded, Sedna. If during these three days any transgression of a taboo has taken place, the transgression becomes attached to the animal's soul and causes it pain. And, moreover, it is compelled to take this transgression back to the abode of Sedna.

There are terrible accounts of starvation following as a punishment upon the violation of these taboos. No seals or whales or caribou or game of any kind can be bagged by the hunter.

In their extremity the people call in the services of the angakok, who is the magician, sorcerer, or medicine man. This man is able to see the souls of people and animals, and he does so through the help of guardian or familiar spirits (tornak). These familiar spirits are themselves ruled by one supreme spirit.

In the case of sickness, which has perhaps resulted from some unconscious transgression, the angakok seats himself in the snow-house or tent with a screen between himself and the people present. The lamp is almost extinguished. He takes off his outer fur coat, and begins to sway his body backwards and forwards in the most violent manner, at the same time making the most unearthly yells. Having worked himself up to a state of great excitement, he announces the arrival of his familiar spirit. The angakok then questions this spirit as to the cause of the present sickness and trouble. In return the spirit gives directions for the wearing of certain charms, abstinence from particular food, and other matters. Of these charms there is a considerable variety, bones and teeth of animals, pieces of deer skin in which are stitched up bits of deer flesh and sundry articles equally efficacious. It is worthy of note that in cases where the wilful transgression of a taboo has taken place, confession on the part of the offender invariably removes the calamity that resulted as a punishment. In the case of a famine, for instance, the guilty person is sought. If he confesses, the seals will allow themselves to be caught. If he obstinately maintains his innocence, his death alone can appease the offended deity.

Mention was made of Sedna as one of the chief deities. She has special dominion over the sea, the weather, and certain sea-animals the creation of which is attributed to her. There are variations in her story in different localities, but the main features are generally the same everywhere.

"Sedna lived with her father in the Eskimo country. She was a beautiful girl, and was wooed by many of the Eskimo youths. But to none of her lovers would she give her heart. At last, a fulmer, a kind of sea-gull, wooed and won her affections. The bird promised her a lovely tent, plenty of food, and everything that would gladden the heart of a fair Eskimo lady. Trusting his promises, Sedna travelled far away with her fulmer lover, and at last came to its home. But she was grievously disappointed, for there was no suitable dwelling provided for her, and the food, which with great difficulty she obtained, was of the very coarsest, poorest kind.

"Sadly she bewailed her lot, and regretted having rejected her many lovers in the far-off land of her birth.

"At last her father, in the following year, and when the weather was fine, went to pay her a visit, and thus became aware of the bitter deception practised upon his daughter by her worthless husband. Filled with rage the father killed the fulmer, and taking Sedna into his boat, he proceeded over the sea to the place from whence he came.

"The other fulmers on returning to their home beheld with sorrow and rage the body of their dead companion, and started in pursuit of Sedna and her father.

"Flying with swift and vengeful wing across the seas they speedily overtook the two fugitives, and intent upon their revenge they caused a mighty storm to blow. Giant waves rose and threatened to engulf Sedna and her father. The father, thinking only of his own safety, cast the unfortunate girl overboard, but she clung desperately to the gunwale of the boat with both hands.

"The inhuman father then took up a hatchet and chopped off the tips of his daughter's fingers up to the first joints. These finger ends dropped into the sea and turned into seals.

"Again the girl gripped the gunwale of the boat, and again her father brought down the hatchet upon her fingers and severed the second joints. These mutilated fragments also dropped into the sea and became bearded seals.

"Once more, in despair, the wretched Sedna seized the boat, and for the third time the unnatural father let his weapon fall and cut through the last joints. The stumps of the fingers in a similar manner were turned into whales.

"The fulmers, supposing that Sedna was now drowned and settled with, caused the wind to cease; and when the storm was thus suddenly stilled the father took his maimed child back into the boat.

"But Sedna's soul was now filled with hate of her father, and she nursed her purpose of revenge for all his diabolic cruelty. After they returned to their own land, she took an opportunity, when her father was asleep, to set a pack of hungry dogs upon him, who devoured the soles of his feet.

"In a fierce wrath the father cursed Sedna, himself, and the dogs, whereupon the earth opened and swallowed up Sedna, her father, and the dogs, and ever since they have lived in the lower parts of the earth."

The Eskimos thus not only attribute to Sedna the creation of the sea animals named, but they also believe that she is the cause of the storms which so often sweep over their icy land and prevent them from successfully pursuing their hunting expeditions.

An annual festival known as the Sedna Ceremony is celebrated in the autumn. The object of this is, as the people say, "to order and command that there shall be no more wind, and that the weather shall be only such as shall go to the making of a successful hunting season."

There seem to be two parts of the festival, one for the maiming or driving away of Sedna, the other consisting of rejoicing in the accomplishment of this object.

In this ceremony the angakoet play an important part.

Proceedings commence in a tent by a line being coiled upon the floor in such a manner that the upper part of the coil forms a small circular hole. Over this hole two angakoet stand, one holding a harpoon, and the other the line which is attached to the harpoon.

Another angakok, seated in another part of the tent, sings an enticing song with the object of alluring Sedna from the under world. Her arrival is known by a blowing noise, and the angakok then drives the harpoon into his victim, who, though grievously wounded, manages to escape, and to descend to her dreary abode in the nether regions. She is, however, supposed for a time to have power to hurt the Eskimos, so they don charms, which they wear upon their heads to counteract her sorceries.

Sedna having been thus placed hors de combat, the event is celebrated next day by the performance of the following ceremonies:--

A circuit is made of the settlement by the people, those who were born in the winter wearing partridge feathers in their head-dresses, and those who were born in the summer the feathers of the eider duck. Imitating the calls of the birds which they severally represent, the people pass round from tent to tent.

The keeper of the tents (a woman in every case) is expected to give them some presents, which she throws among the noisy crew, who scramble for the scattered gifts, and then pass on to the next tent.

The next performance is the "Tug of War." A seal-skin line is used, and those having partridge feathers in their head-dress take one end of the line, and the eider ducks the other.

The hauling and struggling begin, when, if the partridges win the day, fine weather for the winter will be the result.

Next comes the ceremony of water sprinkling, and telling of the name and place of birth. Each person holds his or her drinking cup; the oldest man then steps forward, takes up some water, sprinkles a few drops on the ground, turns his face in the direction of the land where he was born, and speaks his name and the place of his birth. This is next done by a woman, and so on with the sexes alternately, until the whole of the community has performed this extraordinary rite.

After this follows the last part of the ceremony, of which the details are too revolting, by reason of their immorality, to place before the readers of these pages. Suffice it to say that they form an illustration of St. Paul's indictment of the Gentile world in the opening chapters of his epistle to the Romans.

In connection with this story of Sedna and religious doctrine generally, it is worthy of note that the Eskimo's conception of the Spirit of Evil is unlike that of any other nation. The devil is feminine instead of masculine. It may be suggested that possibly this is a distorted idea derived from the Biblical narrative in which Eve is the channel by which sin is introduced into the world.

Notions of heaven and a future state seem to be somewhat hazy. There is a certain conviction that this life, with its limited sphere of action, does not represent the final end of existence. There is probably, in the mind of every Eskimo some conception of a material heaven with abundance of seals and the absence of blizzards, and to this he may some day attain. For the good go to this place, viz., those who have been kind to their neighbours, those who have been drowned, those who have been killed while hunting; also women who have died in child-birth.

On the other hand, murderers, and those who have been angry with, and generally unkind to, their neighbours go to the land which is below. In this region storms rage; the cold is intense, and animal life is scarce.

Stories told by the people themselves illustrate their hopes of a better world more graphically than any words of explanation. An old Eskimo, who in his time had been a mighty hunter, told Mr. Peck one day that many years ago he had seen a very wonderful seal. Its fat was so thick and it made the creature so buoyant that it could not dive when pursued by the hunters. This aged Nimrod explained matters by assuring his visitor that such seals fall down from heaven, and that the bliss of the future state consists in the number of fat seals, reindeer, and other coveted animals that will be found above.

Another day an Eskimo woman narrated with evident sincerity how she had been away inland with a number of people who were hunting reindeer. Suddenly they heard a wonderful noise close at hand, and, looking in the direction of the sound, they saw the carcase of a fat reindeer which, she said, had fallen down from heaven. We use the phrase "it is raining cats and dogs." Is there any connection between this and Eskimo ideas? Possibly some, though probably not many, among us hope to find heaven very thickly populated with our domestic pets.

These fat animals, however, are special foretastes of what is coming. They are samples of the heavenly seals and reindeer. The ordinary sea monsters which the Eskimos hunt day by day have a lower, an earthly or watery origin, as we have already seen.

Another interesting feature in the creed of the Eskimo is a shadow of the doctrine of propitiation by means of sacrifice.

On the north-eastern shores of Hudson's Bay, parts of an animal killed in the chase are cut off, and the Eskimos speak of this slain one's akkinga [i.e. its pay or ransom], and it is considered to be a means of appeasing the creature for the life taken. This has doubtless a reference to the spirit or innua of the animal

Again, in Hudson's Bay, in cases of sickness, the angakok questions the sick man as to his past life and deeds, and, after receiving the confession, he will order one of the sick man's dogs to be slain, in the evident belief that the life of the dog makes an atonement for the man's evil deeds, and that atonement having been made, the sick man will recover.

"I have known," writes Mr. Peck in this connection, "a sick man who was scarce able to crawl, and who had no angakok at hand, managed to load his gun and with great difficulty shoot his dog, hoping to recover by merit of his sacrifice, though the sequel to his act was not a cure, for he died of the malady of which he was suffering."

Again, the Eskimo has a tradition of the flood. According to Dr. Boas, in his work on The Central Eskimos, the following account is given of their tradition of the Deluge:--

"A long time ago the ocean suddenly began to rise until it covered the whole land. When the flood had subsided the ice stranded, and ever since has formed a cap upon the mountain summits. Many shellfish, fish, seals and whales were left high and dry, and their shells and bones may be seen to this day. A great number of Eskimos died during this period, but many others who, when the waters rose, had taken to their kayaks were saved."

There is also a remarkable story of the creation of the first woman, which may be some hazy relic of the Biblical record. Though worthy of insertion, it must be stated that it seems to be a somewhat local tradition, and possibly it is not accepted by all Eskimos.

"The man (no tradition is given of how man was created), feeling very lonely, went out one day when the sun was shining, and when the earth was in some measure thawed. Taking some clay, he made an image like unto himself. He was not, however, satisfied with his workmanship, and blew upon the mass of clay with the object of blowing it down. But as he blew upon the clay image it suddenly became endowed with life and beauty, and he thus obtained a wife and companion."

Enough has been said, perhaps, to give the reader some general idea, at any rate, of the religion of the Eskimos. It is impossible to be exhaustive, for volumes might be written upon this subject. The few incidents, stories, and practices here narrated tell us this much, that there is in the northern and desolate regions of the earth a man of Macedon raising his cry to the great Christian Church, "Come over and help us."

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