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 III. The Eskimos at Home and at Work

"Is not the life more than meat and the body than raiment?"

"Work ... for the meat which abideth unto eternal life?"

"Give ye them to eat."

IF we wish to make friends with people we must know them in the home circle and family life. Now we wish to become the friends of the Eskimos. Then we must enter their homes and live with them. We shall have to go down low on our hands and knees to crawl through the doorway, not much more than a hole, which is the entrance to the Eskimo's iglo or snow-house--his winter dwelling-place.

Frozen snow is easy to work, and therefore very adaptable for building purposes. So this is the Eskimo substitute for bricks and mortar. When a man wishes to build his iglo he describes a rough circle and places his blocks of snow round in order. Then tier upon tier of blocks rises in circle after circle, each layer of smaller diameter than the one below, until at last one block fills up the empty space and the dome is complete. Interstices between the blocks are filled up by the women and children, while the men build the walls. It is amazing how quickly a family will get under cover. A house capable of accommodating a family of six can be finished in two hours, while one to accommodate one or two hunters when travelling, which is needed only for a long night's shelter, will rise, like a mushroom, in an hour.

The sleeping place in such structures is formed by leaving a portion of the snow-drift out of which the blocks for the walls were cut. This original bank serves as a couch. On it is spread a mat made from a kind of willow. Two or three layers of thick reindeer skin are placed on top of the mat, and the blankets, made of softer reindeer skin, are wrapped round the sleeper.

Speaking of snow-houses, Mr. Peck says: "I may say that they are fairly comfortable provided the weather is calm, and when one is well provided with plenty of good reindeer-skin, socks, etc. But in stormy weather one's position in a snow-house is not to be envied. In any case, it stands to reason that, should the temperature within the house rise above freezing-point, the inmate has then the comfort of feeling drops of water cooling his head and face, and in cases of a pronounced thaw outside, I have known the whole roof to collapse. How delightful!"

Such is the chief kind of winter dwelling of the Eskimos on the coasts of Hudson's Bay, Cumberland Sound, and many other parts. Elsewhere different modes of building are met with.

Into one of these houses let us enter and form part of the family circle. The head of the house, like every Eskimo, is a hunter. As the days are short, the hours must be economized. Long before the dim light makes itself evident the hunter is up. His wife puts a fresh supply of blubber into the lamp and trims the wick, and the sledge is made ready. Should the household larder contain any meat, the hunter takes a morning meal; but if, as is often the case, the larder is of the Mother Hub-bard type, then the poor Eskimo has none.

Fastening his dogs to his sledge he then drives over the frozen waste till he arrives at a favourable spot for sealing.

During the time that the hunters are away the women employ themselves in making or repairing the clothing or footgear of their husbands and children. When we remember that every article of wearing apparel is made of the skins of the captured animals, and that before they are fit to be sewn they have to be prepared at a great cost of time and labour by the women, it is easy to understand that, as in civilized England so in the land of snow-houses and skin clothes, "a woman's work is never done."

The women have other duties, however, besides making and mending clothes. There are the lamps to be thought of, and these make no small demand on their time.

In many regions the Eskimo lamp is still made of stone; the wick is generally prepared from moss, and is kept at a proper height by means of a stick, so that the lamp will not smoke. A vast amount of practice is needed before this object can be attained with any degree of certainty.

Blubber supplies the oil that is needed. It is prepared by beating it with a large bone with a heavy end, and when beaten almost to a pulp, it is either placed in the lamp in this form or hung on a cross-piece of wood some little distance above the flame of the lamp. The heat of the flame then melts the blubber and causes it to drip into the lamp below.

It must not be supposed that cooking is considered to be a necessary accompaniment of food. An Eskimo can thoroughly enjoy a good meal of raw seal's flesh and blubber, as we inferred from the meaning of the name mentioned in the last chapter. But nevertheless the food, or a portion of it, is sometimes cooked, and if there is meat in the house, the wife often is engaged in preparing it against her lord's return. Kettles, like the lamp, made of stone, are kept for this purpose. The children spend most of their time in play.

Out of doors they make miniature snow-houses, slide down small inclines upon sledges, or engage in their favourite game of football. This last, however, should more strictly be called hand-ball, for the seal bladder, which takes the place of the ball, is thrown from hand to hand.

If the weather should be bad, and in consequence they should be confined to the hut, they have various games corresponding to our cup and ball, cat's-cradle, and others which will keep them amused for hours. The parents of smaller children make toy sledges, bows and arrows, garments (made of wood) for the dolls, and such like to keep the little ones happy.

But amid all their play, whether it be out of doors or in, the return of their father from the hunt is scented long before he reaches the snow-house, when, if he should have proved successful, a very lively scene ensues. With shrieks of delight the children yell: "Netsukpok, netsukpok!" (He has caught a seal, he has caught a seal!)

The wives turn out and help their husbands unharness the dogs. The harness is coiled up inside the house, while the sledge is often put upon the top. The spoil also is hauled inside out of the way of the dogs.

The seal is then skinned and cut up, quite a number of people sometimes congregating in the successful hunter's house, and partaking with very evident gusto of pieces of the gory meat.

After supper the men generally have a chat about the day's hunting and their successes, and if they do not draw the long bow quite as strongly as the proverbial fishermen who, at the riverside inn, dilate upon their piscatorial successes, they at least prove that, when it conies to sporting talk, the Eskimo sportsman is very near akin to his civilized confrere.

Over these chats the friendly pipe is smoked with evident relish, both women and men indulging in "the immortal weed."

The Eskimos, like sailors, will endure any hardship, forego almost any necessary of life, if only by such means he can secure his much-loved tobacco.

At these smoking concerts the people will sit up quite late, especially if there be plenty of meat in stock.

When the last lingering visitor has taken his departure, a block of snow is fitted into the tiny door in the base of the house. This is done to keep the place warm; a small hole, however, is made in the roof by way of a ventilator.

These preparations for the night having been completed, the people strip off all their garments, then wrap themselves in fur blankets, and sleep as sound all through the night as a twelve-year-old boy at get-up time.

In dealing with the home life it must not be forgotten that the Eskimo is distinguished for hospitality. Most travellers agree that he will suffer almost any personal inconvenience rather than fail in this respect.

Custom allows a man to make free with his neighbour's house. If he enter an iglo and there happens to be seal's meat or blubber at hand, he will take his knife, cut off a huge piece, and eat away with perfect sang froid, and this, too, at times without the introductory remark of, "because I am hungry, therefore shall I eat."

Such are our friends in winter, and most of their year is winter. In summer they live in tents, and their outdoor life necessitates variations from the above descriptions. Searching for shellfish, netting salmon and trout, hunting reindeer, are all familiar occupations in different localities which fill the day.

Let us next enter the outfitting department of the Eskimos and look round. With God's wondrous harmony of Providence, food and clothing singularly allied are found to hand, and of the most, nay, the only, suitable character for the climate. The most closely-woven woollen garments of the thickest and of the very warmest, choicest quality are at times utterly inadequate to keep out the piercing winds of those awful Arctic wastes, and this even if garment should be piled upon garment until the human form be almost mummified in its wrappings.

But clothed in God's special provision, the skins of reindeer, seal, eider duck, an Eskimo can brave the fiercest winds or the most piercing cold.

Two suits of clothing are used, the inside suit being made so that the fur is turned inwards next the skin. The outer garments are made in the opposite manner, viz., with the fur turned outwards. It is necessary for warmth to have these two fur suits; and not only so, no fastenings or openings are made in either the front or back, otherwise the penetrating cold would effect an entrance. The coat is slipped over the head in a sack-like fashion. Fur socks protect the feet, and over these are worn long boots made of sealskin.

The only practical difference between the dress of the women and that of the men consists in a kind of tail, a flap-like appendage to the coats of the former, and in the addition of a large hood, which is fitted to the collar, in which their babies are carried. This is the quaintest of infant perambulators. The little round, flat face, and the beady dark eyes of the baby peep upon the wintry wilds outside from the snug depths of the great fur hood of the mother. The latter shuffles along with a peculiar motion of the shoulders, humming all the time one of those lullabies which only mothers know how to sing and babies to understand. If these efforts are not successful in pacifying the little one, a piece of raw seal's meat or blubber takes the place of the teething ring or the "lollipop" with us. The gory or oily morsel generally produces a magical effect.

Skins of the eider duck, which are also made up into clothing, are reserved almost exclusively for the babies.

The Eskimo displays a great accuracy of eye, as was experienced by Mr. Peck. He was in want of a new fur suit, and accordingly the tailor was called in. He took no measurement; he simply turned Mr. Peck round and studied his figure, went away, and in due time brought the clothes, which proved to be an admirable fit.

No picture of the home life perhaps ought to be regarded as complete without some few remarks concerning that which produces it--marriage. Children are usually betrothed by their relatives at a very early age; but these engagements are sometimes broken off later on. When the children reach maturity the girl learns the duties of a housewife. As soon as the boy is able to provide for a family and the girl can do her necessary work, the couple are allowed to marry. In cases where no betrothal has taken place in childhood, men look out for wives as soon as they arrive at the age of maturity. Sometimes the services of a mediator or matchmaker are secured. After the marriage has taken place the young people generally begin life with the parents of the bride: and if the husband and his wife belong to different tribes the former must join that of the latter. It is not until after the death of his parents-in-law that the man is completely his own master.

The list of things necessary for starting housekeeping is an extremely limited one. The lady needs her sewing materials--a circular knife for cutting out skin garments, a stone kettle, and a lamp. The gentleman's outfit consists of his dogs' sledge and hunting weapons. He joins no building society; purchases no building site; knows no landlord, no tax-gatherer, no rate-collector; leases and agreements are farther removed from him than the myths of the Greeks; he knows only one system of dwelling upon the earth, namely, that of God's freehold, and he builds his snow-house or pitches his tent, according to the season, where he will; and when game is fairly abundant he appears to lead a very happy life.

Polygamy is not common among the Eskimos; it is not, however, regarded as improper. It is probably the difficulty of providing for more than one wife and family which keeps the practice within bounds. Divorce is quite common, and wives are put away at times for the most frivolous causes. It may be readily understood that the sanctity of the marriage bond cannot be held in very high estimation when religion itself or friendship can not only sanction, but demand, a temporary exchange of wives.

Widows are generally cared for by their relatives. Orphans are often adopted by the relatives of the deceased. It is also by no means uncommon to find orphan boys adopted by those who have no male children of their own. The prospect of the boys being able to keep them in their old age is an incentive to this action. The treatment of children is generally very mild. They are not scolded, whipped, or subjected to any corporal punishment. Infanticide has been practised, but probably only female children or children of widows and widowers have been murdered in this way. The reason for it is the difficulty of provision only.

We next turn to the outdoor life of the Eskimo, and examine it in some of its details. Let us look first at his means of locomotion.

The sledge is his carriage; dogs are his motor power.

Speaking of the West Coast of Hudson's Bay, Dr. Boas says that in old time, when wood was scarce, sledges were sometimes made of walrus hide, cut lengthwise, rolled up tightly and then frozen. Now they are frequently made of wood where it can be obtained. They vary in size according to the material available. The authority just quoted tells us that they are about 16 feet long, and the runners are placed from 18 to 22 inches apart. These are sometimes made of steel, which is obtained from traders; sometimes they are of bone.

In extremely cold weather these runners are often cased with clay, and over the clay water is poured. When the watered clay has been carefully smoothed with a knife, a glass-like surface is secured, which makes the travelling peculiarly easy.

The runners are kept upright and in position by cross-bars of wood, which are lashed to them. The fore-part of the runner curves upwards about three feet from the front to prevent its sticking in the hummacks of snow or ice.

It is almost needless to point out that sledging often makes the greatest demand upon one's powers of endurance, but the imperturbable cheeriness of the Eskimo is always equal to it. Through blinding drifts and blasts of cruel cutting wind the traveller has to press on to his goal.

Once a party of Eskimos started over the frozen sea for Little Whale River from an island fifty miles away. A terrific gale arose after their departure, and so blinding was the drift that they could not possibly see the route they should pursue. Knowing, however, the direction of the wind, they steered a rough course landwards.

The first night they built themselves a rough shelter of snow, and made another start next morning. The wind and drift were again against them, but still they pressed on, and finally succeeded in reaching a point some two miles to the north of Little Whale River.

They were disappointed to find that they had just missed the actual entrance to the river. Two miles out, of course, after so perilous and difficult a journey, was a very trifling matter; yet, though very few, even natives would have persisted in facing the drift as they had done, their chagrin at missing the actual mark was great, and they were not spared the mirth of their chaffing countrymen whom they found at the post, and to whom they frankly confessed their blunder.

The dogs are a very important feature in the life and occupation of an Eskimo. They vary in number, according to the wealth of the owner and his ability to keep them from starving. Each dog has a separate harness. This is generally made of sealskin. One part is fitted over the dog's head: two other pieces go over the chest and under the forelegs, and are joined together at the back of the dog. At the point of junction is attached the peto, which is a very strong line or trace, fastened to the sledge. These traces are not all the same length, but they are tied so that the leading dog is well in advance of the one coming after.

"Dog driving," says Mr. Peck, "is certainly enough to try the patience of any man. The long seal lines by which the dogs are attached to the sledge often become a perfect tangle, caused by the habit of the animals of wildly rushing about from one side to the other, especially when they imagine the long whip, which the Eskimo driver uses with such skill, is on its way through the air for their particular benefit. If the hauling lines are not cleared in time, a hopeless muddle ensues. One or more of the tails of the dogs will become entangled in the lines, another will get his foot tied up, and so on, until the howling and yapping becomes something fearful, and the sledge is stopped, the dogs are liberated from their several plights, the lines are cleared once more, and all is fair sailing.

The difficulty a European experiences in driving a sledge and Eskimo team of dogs is well described by Kane in his book on Arctic exploration.

"I have been practising till my arms ache. To drive such an equipage a certain proficiency with the whip is indispensable; which, like all proficiency, must be worked for. In fact, the weapon has an exercise of its own, quite peculiar, and as hard to learn as single-stick or broadsword.

"The whip is six yards long, and the handle but 16 inches--a short lever, of course, to throw out such a length of seal hide. Learn to do it, however, with a masterly sweep, or else make up your mind to forego driving sledge; for the dogs are guided solely by the lash, and you must be able to hit not only one particular dog, one of a team of twelve, but to accompany the feat also with a resounding crack. After this you will find that to get your lash back involves another difficulty; for it is apt to entangle itself among the dogs and lines, or to fasten itself cunningly round bits of ice, so as to drag you head-over-heels into the snow.

"The secret by which this complicated set of requirements is fulfilled consists in properly describing an arc from the shoulder with a stiff elbow, giving the jerk to the whip-handle from the hand and wrist alone. The lash trails behind you as you travel, and when thrown forward is allowed to extend itself without an effort to bring it back. You wait patiently after giving the projectile impulse until it unwinds its slow length, reaches the end of its tether, and cracks to tell you that it is at its journey's end. Such a crack on the ear or forefoot of an unfortunate dog is signified by a howl quite unmistakable in its import."

The average day's journey in the winter time is thirty miles, but in the spring, when the days are longer, and when the ice is in good condition, distances of sixty miles in a day have been travelled.

Eskimo dogs are of a most pugnacious character, and if they think they can take liberties with the driver they will stop and engage in a kind of free fight among themselves--a sort of canine Kilkenny. This is particularly liable to occur should there be any strange dogs in the team.

The dog is also remarkable for sagacity and powers of endurance. When travellers have thought themselves lost in blinding snow-drifts, they have been saved again and again simply by allowing the dogs to have their heads. With unerring scent they bring them safely to some encampment.

And how cunning they are. One day, after he had been living among the people some time, Mr. Peck describes how he was travelling over the frozen waste. One Eskimo companion was with him. They had been spinning along at a capital rate, but then, he says: "As our feet became chilled we both (this was exceedingly unwise, I confess) got off the sledge at the same time. The leading dog, a. knowing old fellow, realizing what the sudden diminishing of weight meant, looked back, and seeing both of us running by the side of the sledge, suddenly set off at a flying pace, and in spite of all our cries to stop the runaway team and the use of all our racing powers, we were soon left far behind.

"Our position was not to be envied. Everything we possessed was on that sledge; we were far, far away from all human habitations or settlements, and the wind cut like a knife. Fortunately the weather was clear, and we could see the track of the sledge across the snow; so, panting and blown, we followed the fugitives, hoping, praying that the sledge would get stuck up somewhere amid the hummocky ice, which, to our joy, as we pressed on, we saw piled up ahead in the immediate track of the runaways. We knew that our deserters could never draw the sledge unaided through that rugged ice mass that loomed in the distance, and sure enough, presently, the sledge got jammed under a boulder.

"The dogs tugged and howled, but at last gave up the job in despair, and when we finally arrived on the scene they looked up at us in the drollest manner, as much as to say, 'You've got us, it's true, but it is not our fault.' "

Then, too, how rapacious is the Eskimo dog. "I have known," writes Mr. Peck, "one of them die from the effects of eating a dishcloth. Another, on a certain occasion, actually made a good meal of a dress belonging to Mrs. Peck's servant, a girl we had at our first station, Fort George. The dress had been hung out to dry."

We now glance at the hunter. He has to search for his chief game, the seal, over the frozen sea. The neighbourhood of his prey is indicated by a hole in the ice. While the ice is still thin the seal makes holes for breathing, and he keeps them open by repeated visits during the winter.

Having discovered a hole (and each seal has several) the hunter builds a wall of snow to shelter himself from the piercing wind, and patiently sits watching, hour after hour, with his harpoon ready for use, until a peculiar, unmistakable blowing sound announces the arrival of the seal.

Silently, stealthily he rises, poises his harpoon over the breathing hole--which in the winter time is not larger than a crown piece--and drives his deadly weapon down through the hole.

If he is fortunate enough to have struck the seal (and they really make comparatively few misses), he clears away the ice round the tiny orifice with his tok (ice chisel) until the hole is large enough to haul the seal through on to the surface of the frozen sea.

If the hunter possesses a sledge and has it with him, he loads his game upon it, and with the Eskimo equivalent for "Now then, away with you!" to his dogs, he is soon tearing homewards with a ten-pound-weigh t-of-seal-meat appetite. If he has no sledge with him, he secures his harpoon line to the game, and with the line over his shoulder he hauls home his catch.

It is not at all an uncommon thing for an Eskimo, sheltered only by his wall of snow, to wait a whole day, and even through the night, at a seal-hole while the temperature is ranging from 30 to 40 degrees below zero.

Cases are not wanting where, sleep having overtaken the hunter, he has become partially or wholly lamed for life from frost-bite in his feet.

After all his watching, should he not succeed in capturing his game he will even then return to his snow-house, bright, cheerful, philosophical, making some common, free-and-easy remark in reference to his non-success, and then proceed to repair or arrange his hunting-gear, or prepare his dog-harness for another journey.

In some localities, on account of the strength of the sea current and the winds, the ice floe does not extend far from the land, and as the seals prefer to blow in open water, the Eskimos repair to the edge of the floe and shoot the seals that may happen to come within range.

Besides hunting seals, the Eskimo lays himself out for the capture of reindeer, Polar bears, wolves, and in fact anything that he can by any means entrap. Bravery and daring characterize him in all his pursuits. If he does not possess a gun, he will lash a knife to the end of a stout staff and attack a bear with this rude weapon of offence. It almost reminds us of the stripling going to fight the giant with the sling and pebble from the brook.

A man named Augeak, a native of Hudson's Bay, was walking along the coast one day in the vicinity of Little Whale River. He carried with him a single-barrelled gun, which fortunately happened to be loaded. Quite suddenly he noticed a large pack of wolves racing down the rock-bound coast direct for him.

Perfectly cool he watched them, and saw that the leader of the pack was a very old beast, with a ragged and far from beautiful coat, and therefore anything but suitable game for purposes of the fur trade. Coolly noting all this, the Eskimo deliberately singled out another wolf with a beautiful coat, and fired. The shot took effect, and the beast fell dead, when fortunately for Nimrod the whole pack of wolves, as though seized with panic, fled by the way they had come.

Whatever our ideas of the ferocity of the wolf and Polar bear may be, the Eskimo evidently shares none of our fear or dread, as is instanced by the way he will sometimes lure wolves, which he sees in the distance, towards him, that he may have a shot at them. Lying down upon his back on the ice he will kick and move his legs about in a peculiar manner, imitating certain movements of the reindeer's antlers when the deer is browsing. The wolves, beguiled by the deception, come warily down, the hunter gets his shot, bags his game, and the scared and discomfited survivors of the pack make off to ruminate upon the extraordinary power possessed by some reindeer.

In summer the kayak is a necessary part of an Eskimo's equipment both for travel and the hunt. It is a roomy canoe, which is made by stretching sealskin over a framework. Before the advent of the white man, this framework used to be made of whalebone. But as the natives learned the value of the bone in trade, a very inferior substitute took its place, and the skeleton was made of wood. The diminishing yearly catch of whales also helped to bring about this result. Long and perilous journeys are often undertaken in these frail craft.

Dr. Nansen, in his book on Eskimo Life, gives a most spirited account of what can be done and is done every day in the use of the kayak in Greenland waters. The hunter attacks successfully from it the monsters and treasures of the deep. Sometimes he will come home in triumph towing as many as four seals behind him--a good bag for a day's sport. Sometimes he will have had a battle with a walrus, or even a grampus. It needs a very cool head and no little daring to hold the weapon ready to seize the favourable moment for hurling it from the hand while a i6-foot ferocious monster, with formidable tusks, is coming upon him apace. All the time, too, there is the knowledge that others may rise up out of the deep at any moment, and the huntsman in his frail canoe may be surrounded by enemies on all sides. His method of catching seals is ingenious and exciting. A long line is attached to his harpoon. To the end of this line, remote from the harpoon, is secured an inflated bladder or sealskin. With this apparatus he paddles cautiously over the water towards the game he has sighted. With a well-directed aim he presently hurls his harpoon at the seal. If struck the animal dives, but the inflated sealskin soon brings the wounded, exhausted thing to the surface, when it is finally despatched with a kind of lance.

Cheap firearms have found their way among the natives in many localities, and then they will often hunt their seals with shot instead of harpoon.

The Eskimo can brave any sea and any weather in his kayak. Should he capsize he can right himself again with a stroke or so of his paddle, or even without his paddle, with his open hand, and sometimes even with his closed fist. Indeed, his dexterity is so great and his confidence so complete, that not infrequently, when he sees a heavy sea coming, he will deliberately capsize so that he may receive the force of the breaking water on the bottom of his vessel, and then right himself when the crisis is past.

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