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First Contact:

gather% / fish % / hunt %
fat % / protein % / carb%

A rough estimate to help us understand how carnivorous and how ketogenic these people were before being exposed to western civilization

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About the Tribe


Importance of Animal Products

Importance of Plants

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Transition to Industrialized Food Products

Jan 2, 1802

The Savage Country - Rum, Women and Rations


"The posts in the forest belt subsisted largely on fish. Often, indeed, the traders in the northern departments had no other food at all. Yet, eating nothing but fish the year around, without vegetables or even salt, they were healthier, Mackenzie avers, than the venison eaters of the west." The best fish was the whitefish.

The food problem, at almost all times an acute one, was dealt with by the Nor'westers under two headings: the provisioning of the posts, and the provisioning of the fur brigades on the march.

The posts in the forest belt subsisted largely on fish. Often, indeed, the traders in the northern departments had no other food at all. Yet, eating nothing but fish the year around, without vegetables or even salt, they were healthier, Mackenzie avers, than the venison eaters of the west. A prodigious amount of food was required to keep an active man going on an all-fish diet. In one house at Chipewyan, five men, a woman, and three children ate between them thirty-five whitefish, weighing between five and ten pound apiece, every day. A large post would consume a thousand or more a week.

Fortunately, the lakes and streams of the Northwest were full of many kinds of fish, which were taken by both net and line in vast quantities. In the autumn, as many as 500 white-fish could be caught in a couple of hours with a scoop net from a canoe. Long mentions a catch of 18,000 pounds of whitefish netted through the ice in two months. Trout weighing up to 70 pounds were taken by the hundreds with both line and seine. Sturgeon of 150 pounds or more, Harmon says, were sometimes driven onto sand bars and shot; "We have no trouble killing any number of them we please."

Among the kinds of fish mentioned by the Nor westers were: whitefish, trout, sturgeon, pike, walleyed pike, carp, herring, sucker, fresh-water drum, smallmouthed bass, and bream. Of all these, the whitefish - fresh, frozen or dried - was considered the variety par excellence. "It is the only fish that sauce spoils," the Baron Lahontan maintained. Nicholas Garry was no less enthusiastic: "All I had heard of its excellent quality and taste fell far short of its real excellence. I should say it is the most delicate tasted fish I have ever eat." But Alexander Henry the Elder paid it perhaps the highest tribute of all: "Those who live on whitefish for months together preserve their relish to the end. This cannot be said of trout." With all this, many a gourmet will agree; still, a steady diet of even whitefish must have sated the heartiest appetite in time. The voyageur was not one to complain much; but one of his rare cries of anguish has come down to us in a trader's journal: "Toujours le poisson!"

Jan 5, 1802

The Savage Country


The full importance of pemmican is understood as a vital survival food that could last "through a winter's scarcity of game and fish. It was his staff of life in a way that bread never was in more civilized parts of the world." Two pounds of pemmican was worth eight pounds of buffalo meat.


The Nor' wester on the march was faced with an entirely different problem of food supply. There was remarkably little game along the Northwest Road, and not much else that could be bought from the Indians en route. Once the plains were gained, hunters were sent out to shoot buffalo; but the brigades that continued on to the northern posts could not live off the land; they had to carry their rations with them in already overloaded canoes. 

The answer to this problem was lyed corn, wild rice and pemmican. The corn, grown by the Ottawa and Saulteur around Sault Ste. Marie, was processed at Detroit by boiling it in lye water, which removed the outer husk. It was then washed and dried, and was ready for use. One quart of lyed corn called hominy by the Americans was boiled for two hours over a moderate fire in a gallon of water. Soon after it came to a boil, two ounces of melted suet were added. This caused the corn to split open and form "a pretty thick pudding." Alexander Mackenzie maintained that, with a little salt, it was a wholesome, palatable, easily digestible dish. A quart of it, he said, would keep a canoeman going for twenty four hours. 

Mackenzie also observed that lyed corn was about the cheapest food the Concern could give its men, a voyageur's daily allowance costing only tenpence. And the elder Henry wryly commented that, since it was fare that nobody but a French-Canadian would put up with, the monopoly of the fur trade was probably in the North West Company's hands forever! 

Indian corn and grease possibly supplemented by a few fish, game birds, eggs, and Indian dogs along the way took the brigades as far as Rainy Lake. Here wild rice replaced the corn as far as Lac Winipic. After that, pemmican sustained the western brigades until they reached the buffalo plains and fresh meat; but the northern canoes had to depend on pemmican all the way to their wintering stations. The provisioning of Alexander Henry's canoes, from Lake Superior to the Saskatchewan, would be typical: 

At 4 P.M. I arrived at Fort Vermilion, having been two months on my voyage from Fort William, with a brigade of I1 canoes, loaded with 28 pieces each, and manned by five men and one woman. Our expenditure of provisions for each canoe during the voyage was: two bags of corn, 1½ bushels each, and 15 pounds of grease, to Lac la Pluie; two bags of wild rice, 1½ bushels each, and 10 pounds of grease to Bas de la Rivière Winipic; four bags of pemmican of go pounds each to serve until we came among the buffalo generally near the Monte, or at farthest the Elbow of the Saskatchewan. 

This, in a few words, was the formula that made possible the long voyages of the fur brigades, which must often be accomplished with hairbreadth precision between the spring thaw and the fall freeze-up. The North West Company's network of hundreds of canoe routes and more than a hundred forts, scattered over half the continent, could never have functioned without corn, rice and pemmican. And of the three, pemmican was perhaps the most important. 

The Nor westers got the idea, as they did so many, from the Indians. Or perhaps it should be said that Peter Pond dit since he, before anyone else, realized the logistical importance of pemmican and made a systematic use of it. Where the elder Henry and the Frobishers had failed in early attempts to reach the rich Athabasca country, Pond succeeded; and the key to his success is found in his own words: "Provisions, not only for the winter season but for the course of the next summer, must be provided, which is dry'd meat, pounded to a powder and mixed with buffaloes greese, which preserves it in warm seasons." In other words, pemmican. 

Almost every trader, from Peter Pond down, described pemmican, and how it was manufactured; but none so well as David Thompson. It was made, he explained, of the lean and fleshy parts of the buffalo, dried, smoked, and pounded fine. In that state, it was called beat meat. To it was added the fat of the buffalo. There were two kinds: that from the inside of the animal, called "hard fat" or grease; and that which lay along the backbone in large flakes and, when melted, resembled butter in softness and sweetness. 

The best pemmican, Thompson tells us, was made from twenty pounds each of soft and hard fat, slowly melted together and well mixed with fifty pounds of beat meat. It was stored in bags made of buffalo hide, with the hair on the outside, called taurenut. When they could be obtained, dried berries, and sometimes maple sugar, were mixed with the pemmican. "On the great Plains," Thompson wrote, "there is a shrub bearing a very sweet berry of dark blue color, much sought after. Great quantities are dried by the Natives; in this state the berries are as sweet as the best currants, and as much as possible mixed to make Pemmican.

Properly made and stored, the ninety-pound bags of pemmican would keep for years. Post masters took great pride in the quality of the product they turned out. But sometimes, through nobody's fault, it went sour, and great quantities had to be thrown to the post dogs. Often, as in the case of dried meat, mold formed; but that, the traders cheerfully agreed, only improved the flavor. 

Pemmican could be hacked off the piece and eaten in its natural state; or it could be boiled up with corn or rice to make a highly nourishing and not unpalatable kind of stew. Whereas a daily allowance of eight pounds of fresh meat was required to sustain a man, two pounds, or even a pound and a half of pemmican would do. A better emergency ration for men in a cold climate has never been developed. So vital was pemmican indeed to the North West Company's system of communications that a highly specialized organization was set up to make and distribute it. On the prairies were built the famous "pemmican posts" Fort Alexandria, Fort George, Fort Vermilion, Fort de la Montée whose principal business was not pelts but provisions, chiefly pemmican, for the canoe brigades and the hungry posts in the forest belt. Archibald Norman McLeod gives us a glimpse of the activities at Alexandria: "I got the last Pounded meat we have made into Pimican, viz. 30 bags of 90 lb., so that we now have 62 bags of that Species of provisions of the above weight. I likewise got nine kegs filled with grease, or Tallow rather, each keg nett 70 lb." 

Looking into his storehouse in January, Duncan McGillivray noted that he had 8000 pounds of pounded meat, with enough fat to make it up into pemmican sufficient, he added, to "answer the expectations of the Gentn. of the Northern Posts, who depend on us for this necessary article* in April, he made his pounded meat and grease into two hundred bags of pemmican. 

For one year, 1807-1808, Alexander Henry listed the returns from his four Lower Red River posts as only 60 packs of furs, but 334 bags of pemmican and 48 kegs of grease; a striking statistical sidelight on the importance of beat meat and grease in the economy of the North West Company.

 Getting the huge production of pemmican from the prairie posts to where it was needed was a major problem in logistics: and the Nor' westers solved it with their usual flair for organization. Besides the posts that specialized in making pemmican, certain others principally Cumberland House and Fort Bas de la Rivière were established at strategic spots to distribute it. To Cumberland House, at the juncture of the Saskatchewan and the waterways leading to Athabasca, the pemmican posts sent hundreds of taureaux in skin canoes and roughly built boats. And there the vast store of shaggy buffalo-hide bags was rationed out to the Great Northern brigades for the posts in the forest Fort Chipewyan, Fort de I'Isle, Fort Resolution, Fort Providence where the supply of pemmican made of deer and bear meat was both scanty and uncertain. The pemmican from the Red River and Assiniboine posts was distributed from Bas de la Rivière. And later on, Fort Esperance on the Qu'Appelle became the North West Company's chief depot for rushing emergency supplies to posts in distress. 

Wherever he was stationed, and however long the march he must make to his wintering grounds, the Nor wester could usually depend on his supply of pemmican to see him to journey's end and, if necessary, through a winter's scarcity of game and fish. It was his staff of life in a way that bread never was in more civilized parts of the world. It was often his last defense against the forces of famine that hung, like wolves on the trail of a wounded caribou, about every trading post. And he never spoke of it with anything but respect.

Jan 1, 1833

Narrative of a Journey to the Shores of the Arctic Ocean


Richard King also finds emerging evidence of cancer in westernized native populations.

Following up Back, let us turn to his colleague Richard King's Narrative of a Journey to the Shores of the Arctic Ocean in 1833-35 ... (2 vols., London, 1836). We fail to learn anything pertinent about cancer on Lake Superior; but the expected Lake Athabaska reference turns up on page 108 of the first volume:

“... I proceeded (from Fort Chipewyan) to the woods with my gun and vasculum in search of specimens of botany and natural history; in which employment, and in administering relief to the sick people at the fort, my time was entirely engaged. Amongst those who daily came for medical advice was a half-breed woman with her upper lip in a highly cancerous state. It was a case wherein a surgical operation was absolutely necessary, to which the poor woman readily submitted. She bore it with much fortitude, fully justifying the character imputed to these people.”

Jun 1, 1833

Narrative of the Arctic Land Expedition


Back's saying that it surprised him “to learn how much disease had spread through this part of the country”

During the early summer of 1833, the future Admiral Sir George Back, after whom Back's River in arctic Canada has since been named, was on his way from Britain to discover it. With his later equally famous surgeon-naturalist companion, Dr. Richard King, Back traversed the St. Lawrence River and followed the north shore of Lake Superior westward before crossing northwest to the Mackenzie system at Fort Chipewyan, both doctor and captain interested in what they could learn about disease. Most pertinent to our study of frontier beliefs related to cancer, is an extract which begins on page 187 of Back's Narrative of the Arctic Land Expedition (London, 1836):

“While at Chipewyan, Mr. King had performed a successful operation on a woman's upper lip, which was in a shocking state from cancer, brought on, as he thought, from the inveterate habit of smoking, so common among the half-breeds. He had met with two or three cases of it before; one, at Fort William, was incurable, and very loathsome. His presence was hailed with delight at every post beyond Jack River, either by the natives or those who resided with them; and it surprised me to learn how much disease has spread through this part of the country.”

Back's saying that it surprised him “to learn how much disease had spread through this part of the country” is, of course, confirmatory of the general belief of the time, that in their native state the Indians of northern Canada were healthy; and that most sicknesses which he found among them were of European introduction.

Jan 1, 1894

Samuel Hearne

A Journey from Prince of Wales's Fort in Hudson's Bay to the Northern Ocean


The editor of Samuel Hearne's book travels over the Northern Canadian wilderness 123 years later after Hearne and finds the population had changed from Chipewyans to Eskimos who were dependent entirely on the caribou for food and clothing.

Being possessed of much more than the average amount of ability and enthusiasm, he was chosen by Moses Norton, the energetic Governor of Fort Prince of Wales, to go out with the Indians into the vast, and as far as that was then known, limitless, territory west of Hudson Bay, in order to find and prospect the place where the native copper had been found which the Indians often brought with them to the fort.

During the year preceding his departure on his first expedition, he had had an excellent opportunity to perfect himself in a knowledge of astronomical and geodetic work, for in the summer of 1768 the annual ship had brought William Wales, F.R.S., and Joseph Dymond from London, commissioned by the Royal Society to remain at Fort Prince of Wales throughout the ensuing year in order to observe the transit of Venus over the sun on the 3rd of June 1769.[2] They remained at the fort until the ship left again for London in August of the following year (1769). Mr. Wales was one of the foremost astronomers, mathematicians, and litterateurs of his age. Shortly after his return to England he was appointed to accompany Captain Cook on his voyage around the world in the Resolution in 1772-74, and again on his last voyage in 1776-79. His presence for more than a year among the little band of white men assembled at this remote fur-trading post on Hudson Bay must have had a helpful influence in preparing Hearne for his great explorations overland to the Arctic Ocean. This book is an account of three journeys which he undertook in rapid succession into the country west of Hudson Bay and north-west of Fort Prince of Wales in search of the fabled bed of copper ore, from which pure copper could be loaded directly into ships at trifling expense. In the first and second journeys he was obliged to turn back before reaching his destination, but in the third journey all difficulties were finally overcome, and he was taken to and shown the "mine" of copper.

It has been my good fortune to travel over parts of the same country through which Hearne had journeyed one hundred and twenty-three years before me, and into which no white man had ventured during the intervening time. The conditions which I found were just such as he describes, except that the inhabitants had changed. The Chipewyan Indians, whom he found occupying advantageous positions everywhere as far as the north end of Dubawnt Lake, had disappeared, and in their places the country had been occupied by scattered bands and families of Eskimos, who had almost forgotten the ocean shores of the north, from which they had come. They were depending entirely, for food and clothing, on the caribou, which they killed on the banks of the inland streams and lakes. Traces of old Indian encampments were seen in a few of the scattered groves that are growing along the banks of Dubawnt and Kazan Rivers, but these camps had evidently not been occupied for many years.[3]

Dec 30, 1907

Vilhjalmur Stefansson

My Life with the Eskimo - Wolf and Fox


The Eskimo frequently eat White Foxes, and consider the meat very good, particularly when it is fat.

Canis occidentalis Richardson . Gray Wolf. A -ma-rok (Alaskan and Mackenzie Eskimo). 

The wolves of the Barren Grounds have been described as a separate form, the Barren Ground Wolf ( Canis occidentalis albus Sabine), on account of the supposedly lighter color of Wolves from that region . My experience has been that Wolves of every shade of color from black to almost white are found together on the Arctic coast from Alaska to Coronation Gulf. Wolves of anything near a pure white color are very rare. 

The typical Arctic wolf is light tawny yellowish in color, with a few black hairs intermingled along the median line of the back. The common Eskimo belief is that the white wolves are old wolves, but we have observed a dark old female wolf with white cubs. A specimen taken on the Hula -hula River, Alaska, was nearly pure black head and face jet-black , tail somewhat fulvous, belly grayish . Other " black " wolves were seen at Langton Bay, Horton River, Great Bear Lake, and Coronation Gulf. An unusual specimen, a decrepit old male, was shot near Dease River — a sort of silvery gray, with white and black hairs mingled, like a “good” Cross Fox or “poor” Silver Fox. The “good wolf” of the particular shade prized by the western Eskimo for trimming clothing must be well- furred, with the hair long, the median portion of each hair whitish , and each hair black -tipped . When cut into strips, it should show : first, a dense layer of " fur” next to the skin, then a band of whitish, and a peripheral band of black or dusky. Such a skin is prized more highly than any other, even more than the most fashionable shade of pale yellow Wolverine fur. Wolves are found in greatest numbers where the Caribou are most abundant, and follow the herds continuously. A compact herd is seldom attacked outright, but stragglers are cut off and run down. The Caribou are swifter for a time, but the Wolf is tireless and seldom loses a Caribou which he has started. Large packs of Wolves are seldom seen in the regions we visited, four or five being about the limit. About fifty miles east of Coppermine I saw a female wolf which had been killed by Eskimo at her den with four cubs, June 30, 1911. The cubs' eyes were still unopened . The old wolf was yellowish colored, the cubs umber brown. One cub was a runt, not much bigger than a Spermophile (C. parryi), the other three were much larger.

Vulpes alascensis Merriam . Alaska Red Fox. Red Fox — Kai yok'tok (Alaskan Eskimo), Auk-pi-lak'tok (Mackenzie Eskimo ). Cross Fox — Kri- a -ntok (Alaskan Eskimo), Ki- a -ser - ő - til -lik (Mackenzie Eskimo) . Silver or Black Fox – Ker-a-nek'tok (Alaskan Eskimo), Magʻrok (Mackenzie Eskimo). 

The Red Fox in its varying phases is only rarely found north of the northern limit of trees. A good many Cross Foxes, a few Silver grays, and occasionally a Black Fox are taken in the Mackenzie delta. Occasionally a Silver Fox comes out on the coast; a good specimen was caught near Cape Bathurst in 1911. Every possible shade of intergradation in color is found from the bright rufous Red Fox, through various shades of dusky cross markings on back, shoulders, and hips; specimens with only traces of fulvous on shoulders; backs with silvery and black intermingled, and very rarely the jet-black. All phases have a prominent white tip to the tail. Very few “colored” foxes are found around the eastern end of Great Bear Lake, and practically none around Coronation Gulf.

Alopex lagopus innuitus Merriam . Continental Arctic Fox. TY ra -ga'ni-ok ( Eskimo from Bering Sea to Coronation Gulf). 

Common almost everywhere along the Arctic coast, but seldom goes far inland in any numbers. The White Foxes are found to a large extent on the salt-water ice in winter, and Polar Bear tracks are very commonly followed by Foxes, which pick up a living from offal of Seals killed by the Bears. A stranded whale's carcass will usually attract large numbers of foxes. An Eskimo man and boy in our employ caught about one hundred and forty during the winter of 1910–1911 around Langton Bay, and another Eskimo at Cape Bathurst caught one hundred and ninety six White Foxes the same winter. The next winter the latter caught only two, nobody caught more than twenty, and few over six. The White Fox is the staple fur of the Arctic coast, and the common medium of exchange everywhere west of Cape Parry. In summer the White Foxes are bluish gray, maltese color on back, head dusky mixed with silvery white, belly dirty yellowish white. Skins rarely become prime, i.e. , pure white with long fur, before December 1st, and the hair usually begins to get loose by the last of March. The Eskimo frequently eat White Foxes, and consider the meat very good, particularly when it is fat. The White Foxes are fairly common at the edge of the Barren Grounds near east end of Great Bear Lake, and an Eskimo of our party caught about thirty during the winter of 1910–1911. An Alaskan Eskimo trapping near the mouth of the Coppermine River the same winter caught nearly one hundred. The Hudson Bay Company's agent informed me that one White Fox skin was taken during the winter of 1907-1908, at Smith's Landing, and one at Fort Chipewyan. Several skins are usually taken at Fond du Lac ( east end of Lake Athabaska) every winter. 

The Arctic Fox is much less suspicious than the Red, Cross, or Silver Foxes, and will enter almost any kind of trap. The common method of trapping is to cut a shallow hole in the snow, just deep enough for the open steel trap to lie below the level of surrounding snow . Then a slab of lightly packed snow, just hard enough to lift without cracking, is cut just large enough to cover the trap. This slab is laid carefully over the trap, and then shaved and smoothed with great care. The snow slab should be just thick enough to support its own weight and brittle enough to be easily broken when an animal steps on it. A few chips of blubber, fish , or meat are shaved off, and scattered loosely and carelessly over and around the vicinity of the trap —just enough to give a scent and cause the fox to hunt around until the trap is sprung. If a fox is caught by both feet, he is usually frozen to death by morning, or even if caught by one foot, if the night is cold. Foxes sometimes gnaw off a trapped foot, but only below the place where caught, and then probably after the foot is frozen and insensible to pain. Sometimes a little box-like snow-house is built over a trap, usually of four blocks of snow , three sides and roof, leaving one side open to the leeward . The bait is placed at the further end of the house so that the fox must step directly over the trap to get it. The White Foxes are said to have seven, eight, nine, or ten young at a birth. I examined one female which had ten embryos April 20th, 1910. The young become very tame if taken at an early age, and are extremely active and playful. 

Blue Fox — Kai- a -ni-rak'tok ( Colville River Eskimo ). Ig -raʼlik (Mackenzie Eskimo). The blue phase of coloration of the White Fox, known as “Blue Fox,” is pretty rare east of western Alaska. During the winter of 1910 four Blue Foxes were taken in midwinter near Cape Parry. Two of the skins were maltese gray with ends of hairs washed with brownish ; the other, considered the “best” skin, was dark brown, almost black , with scanty traces of bluish color. A specimen taken by one of our Eskimo off Cape Parry in February had back light slaty gray, fading posteriorly; tail nearly white above, darker below ; head dark slaty blue ; under parts darker, washed with dull brownish. One taken near Toker Point, April 25th, was a very pale specimen, head and shoulders light brownish, sides slightly bluish, and tail nearly white; in general, much like a midsummer White Fox.

Oct 8, 1928

Helge Ingstad

The Land of Feast and Famine


Ingstad prepares a cache of six thousand fish for dog-food while hanging out with the local Chipewyan Indians.


There would be another month before snowfall, and I thought it would be just as well to put this interim to some good use. "Hudson Bay" was in need of dog-feed to last them over the winter and I undertook to supply them with five thousand or more fish at eight cents apiece. During those years I had had a good bit to do with the Hudson's Bay Company: had felled, floated, and hauled hundreds of logs for the three new trading stores which Dale and I built, had chopped scores of cords of firewood, and had otherwise picked up odd jobs from them during the summer months when there was nothing else to do. Thus I was always able to earn a bit of loose money. But this fishing contract of mine stood in a class by itself. It was an economic triumph, for, as it turned out, there were no end of fish in the Snowdrift River that year. 

Hanging from a cache I had in the neighborhood of six thousand fish, waiting to be called for.

With the bright, sparkling autumn days at hand, it was grand to be a fisherman. Each morning I would paddle up the river to see to my nets, and when, at noon-time, I turned back, I would be sitting to my knees in fish. With ears erect and eyes ablaze with expectancy, the dogs would be standing on the outermost stones in the river to meet me. Sk0ieren would wade right out in the water and peep over the side of the canoe in order to make sure for himself what prospects there were for lunch. 

The Indians did not have many fish left over. They cast out their nets in the simplest manner possible, in the immediate vicinity of their tepees, and never did they make any notable catches. When at first I shifted my nets from place to place in order to discover, by experiment, where the fishing was best, they simply smiled superciliously. But after observing the excellent results I obtained, they began to study my movements. One morning I discovered Indian nets set on both sides and immediately in front of each of my own. I objected strenuously. The Indians took the whole affair as the most normal thing in the world, hauled in their lines right under my nose, sang and joked, boasted of their catch, and enjoyed themselves hugely whenever they peeped into my canoe, where only the very smallest variety of fish glittered in the bottom. 

There was no law to prohibit the Indians from setting out their nets wherever they desired, and it did one no good to fume when met by smiles and a clear conscience. Therefore I chose other tactics, based upon my knowledge that all the fish were swimming downstream and that the Indians were somewhat lazy. I drew out all my nets and set them several miles farther upstream, right at the foot of the first rapid. No one cared to follow me that far, and once more the fishing was excellent. 

This affair caused no rift whatever in our friendly relations. It was a hard and fast custom which took me, each evening, over to my neighbors to pay them a visit. In Antoine's tepee a place was always reserved for me on a huge caribou hide where I could stretch out and make myself at home. The hunters would assemble, and far into the night we would lie there, drawing on our pipes and chatting about hunting and distant lands. These people knew a minimum of English, their vocabulary being confined to such words as " white fox," " lots," " sticks," " far," " sleep," and a number of other words of this kind. I had, in the meantime, begun to acquire some insight into the Chipewyan language. My vocabulary was limited, my gutturals had a singular ring and caused an excusable stir, but I stammered away at it and made steady progress. 

I surely found no lack of clothes for the winter, for I had the young girls of the camp to make them for me. They made me mittens edged with caribou-skin, duffels (socks), and deerskin parkas. But I had to work like a blacksmith in order to avoid getting Indian sizes. The young girls could never stop giggling whenever they made mention of the white man's moccasins which had to be so inconceivably nacha (large).

Dec 30, 1928

Helge Ingstad

The Land of Feast and Famine - To the Upper Thelon


The Caribou-Eaters are out of caribou to eat and drive into the territory of two remote white trappers, one of whom gives a gift of dried back-fat to Ingstad. After three days, they resume their journey and at least meet the thousands of caribou in the Barren Grounds.


Once again we resumed our journey southward. It was extremely difficult going, no less because of the cold, which was so intense that one could not remain still an instant without beginning to grow stiff. We floundered along for quite some time, ever on the look-out for the caribou herd and the white trappers' cabin. About us lay the snow-fields devoid of any sign of life, and we encountered one disappointment after another. We did manage to shoot a pair of lone caribou, but their meat did not go far with our hungry band. At length we were snowed in tight for two days during a blizzard; then it was that our spirits reached their lowest ebb. 

But at last one evening, just as we were on the point of pitching camp, Isep discovered the faint trail of a toboggan in the snow. We did not dare risk the possibility that drift snow might obliterate the trail, so, after a brief halt, we loaded all our stuff back on the sleds and continued on our way throughout a long moonlight night, with frequent rests out of deference to the dogs, which every now and then would drop in the traces. Countless times we lost the trail. Then we would spread in formation out over the plain and would search high and low, now and then creeping about on all fours as we felt in the snow for signs of the trail. Thus we proceeded until sunrise, when we glimpsed the forest's first outposts — rows of dwarf spruce growing in the lee of each elevation. In a snug hollow we built ourselves a mighty fire, poured scalding tea into ourselves, and continued to follow the sled-trail down the length of a long, narrow lake. Just as we were rounding a jut of land, we spied smoke curling up from a clump of spruce, and a log cabin cosily situated in amongst the trees. 

Jonas was the first to pull up in front of the door. Two dumfounded trappers came forward, wondering for all they were worth who in blazes had managed to find his way out into this part of the country. Their amazement hardly diminished when they saw a tattered Indian limp out of the sled with his crutch, lay his hand on his belly and say: "Long time, misu dowte (Long time, no food)." This mixture of English, Cree, and his own Chipewyan language was the very best that Jonas could do in the way of speaking a foreign language. 

Hospitality is the law of the land, but to provide for a starving band like ourselves was a problem in itself. Old McKay and Clark didn't know what they could find to offer us, for they had barely enough to scrape through the rest of the winter themselves. Mac presented me with a large slab of dried back-fat left over from the autumn hunt; this slab was two inches thick. I shall never forget him for that. I was tempted sorely to swallow the whole thing down just as fast as ever I could, but luckily I had common sense enough to refrain from doing that. I cut it up into small bits and stuffed my pockets with these, went about like a living warehouse and nibbled fat for over a week. The dogs also received their share, and it was amazing how this braced them up. To get along on little and to recuperate quickly are second nature to these animals. 

We learned that the caribou had gone on strike in this part of the country as well. After the autumn trek had passed in October, the herds had become sparse and few in number. McKay and Clark had been forced to use all their time hunting food for themselves and their dogs. Trapping had had to go by the board. Thus they had wasted a year, and no combination of toil and saving had amounted to anything. To begin with, there had been their autumn journey through the wilderness from Fitzgerald, following a canoe route of nearly four hundred and fifty miles, with fifty portages; then there had been their daily struggle for food through a long winter of cold and storm in the Barren Lands. After all this they would find themselves poorer than they were the day they had set out through the wilderness and would have to go in debt to " Hudson Bay " in order to buy their next year's equipment. But, even so, Clark and old Mac had nothing but good humor to express. Good luck or bad — why, great Heaven, it is the gamble that makes the life of a trapper such an interesting adventure! One must always take the bitter with the sweet. 

We remained with our hosts for three days, then set out in a northwesterly direction and kept going until we crossed the trail we had made on the way out. Thereafter we made for the camp of the Caribou-Eaters at the rapid pace always chosen by Indian hunters when they are returning home to their wives and children. We drove as often at night as during the day and, in the darkness, took many rash chances as we traveled over steep rough country or over river rapids where the ice gave way beneath us and the water splashed about our carioles. Crossing the larger lakes, we would lie in our sleds and sleep. We did not once pitch our tent; instead, we slept beside an open camp-fire wherever possible and then only long enough to allow the dogs to recover their strength. 

After we had been driving for three days, we encountered the main body of the caribou! Herds numbering thousands came grazing along toward the east. It was indeed ironical to see the plains now literally alive with the very hosts we had talked of and dreamed of so many times on the way out, when the plains had lain cold and lifeless. And bitter was the thought that, had we made our journey but a few weeks later, we should have lived on the fat of the land and, in addition to this, reaped a golden harvest of white-fox pelts on the banks of the Thelon.

May 1, 1929

Helge Ingstad

The Land of Feast and Famine - The Barren Ground Indians


The Indians native to the Canadian Northewst Territories belong to the Dene nation, and are subdivided into the following tribes: the Hares, the Loucheux, the Yellowknives, the Slaves, the Dogribs, and the Chipewyans.


The Indians native to the Canadian Northewst Territories belong to the Dene nation, and are subdivided into the following tribes: the Hares, the Loucheux, the Yellowknives, the Slaves, the Dogribs, and the Chipewyans. Their languages have a common root in the Athabaska languagegroup. 

We know but little of the history of these tribes. By means of a number of dissociated and incomplete sources alone are we able to trace through the general thread of their story. As a rough outline, indicating something of their earlier modes of life, a few facts must be mentioned: First and foremost, these peoples were hunters and nomads, the majority of whom were constantly migrating with the caribou. Their weapons consisted of spears and arrows tipped with flint, and various trapping devices, such as snares and nets of animal hide (the latter also of bast) and primitive deadfalls. Fire they obtained for the most part by striking sparks from pyrites. Their shelter was a tepee of caribou-skins, their means of transport dog-sleds, snowshoes, and birch-bark canoes. These were poor weapons with which to conduct a struggle for existence in a land where the Arctic winter lasts eight months of the year. Considering, then, the constant warfare waged amongst themselves and with strange tribes, as well as those periods when wild game was scarce, it is evident that these people lived a difficult life. 

The advent of the fur-traders opened new possibilities to these natives. A rough choice of the goods of civilization was then accessible to them, and the price for these was pelts. The Indians no longer found it necessary to keep wandering about the country in quest of game in order to remain alive. The doors of the trading stores stood open to anyone who had a beaver, fox, lynx, or marten to offer in exchange. There were not only food and tools to be had, but weapons which were more effective than the old. This introduction of white civilization meant that the Indians, in addition to their ancient form of hunting, could undertake, if they liked, the harvesting of pelts and thus make a livelihood in a more limited field. 

The majority of northern Canada's Indian tribes yielded, to a remarkable degree, to these new conditions. This marked the beginning of a new era. Hunting in the wilderness still constituted the most substantial and the most perfect form of existence, but it was no longer essential to life in the same way it had been in the past. Their society began to take on a different tone when, with a safer mode of existence open to them, they were no longer obliged to pursue their own more exacting struggle for food, wherein all was risked upon one mad dash, good luck, and their own alertness. Necessary adjustments were made, for weal as well as woe, but, in any event, the result for them was a life more insipid than their old. 

One may find branches of the Dene nation, however, which still retain their ancient heritage — the Barren Land Indians. A few of the goods of civilization have filtered through to them, via the channel of fur-trading, but the primitive impulse which guides their daily lives is as firm as ever, and outside influences have altered to but a slight degree their original culture. Their existence follows the lines set by their ancestors, whether it be symbolized by their perpetual expeditions through forest or over barren plain in search of the wandering caribou, by their battle against blizzard and winter's cold, by their feasts and general gormandizing when the country is flooded with deer, or by their dark hours of need and starvation when the country lies empty about them. 

The term " Barren Land Indians " includes the people of several tribes. Their hunting-grounds are the lands which follow the timber-line from Hudson Bay northwest to the Mackenzie delta, where the river empties into the Polar Sea. In its broader outlines, a common culture here exists. My statements apply in particular to the peoples east and northeast of Great Slave Lake, the peoples amongst whom I have lived and whose life and activities I have already mentioned in some detail in earlier chapters. In the following pages I shall attempt to include a number of facts which I have heretofore failed to mention or but loosely touched upon.

Jan 1, 1931

The Land of Feast and Famine


"I did well on this entirely meat diet and never missed bread, potatoes, salt, or sugar. I was never ill during the long winters, and my teeth were perfect."


Sixty-five years ago I sold my thriving lawyer's practice in Norway and made for the Canadian wilderness of the Northwest Territories. For four years (1926—30) I lived as a trapper in the isolated region north-east of Great Slave Lake. I had decided to realize a dream that had always been with me: a primitive life in northern, practically uncharted wilds, in a region where the lives of the natives still largely followed their ancient traditions. 

The wilderness north-east of Great Slave Lake proved to be what' I had been looking for. After a long voyage by canoe, my partner Hjalmar Dale and I lit upon an enormous stretch of land with forests and tundras, extending to the Arctic Ocean in the north. A few groups of Indians, of Chipewyan stock, had their hunting grounds here. They were known as the Caribou-Eaters, a name they had received because their lives were utterly dependent on the caribou. At that time there were still great numbers - probably several hundred thousands — of caribou in the Northwest Territories. But the migrations of the caribou herds are mysterious. The Indians have a saying: "They are like ghosts; they come from nowhere, fill up all the land, then disappear." When thousands of these animals poured over the land, the Indians and the few white trappers there were filled with joy; when the animals disappeared, hunger and famine followed in their wake — at times, people starved to death. 

These were years of many long dog-sled journeys through forests and over the Barrens — they took me to the upper Thelon River and to other uncharted regions. The trappers were convinced that there were more wolves, more white foxes, in the far-off distances on the blue horizon, that it was there that the greatest riches were to be found. 

We lived off the land. Practically all of the caribou was eaten: meat, fat, marrow, brain, liver, kidneys, blood - sometimes we ate the contents of the stomach as well. I did well on this entirely meat diet and never missed bread, potatoes, salt, or sugar. I was never ill during the long winters, and my teeth were perfect. 

For a year I lived with a group of Indians ("CaribouEaters") in the inland forests, and I was the only white man there. I often think of these people with whom I shared everything for so long, and who became my good friends. It felt strange to become part of the world of the Indians, where so much ancient tradition was still alive. I imagine that most of these Indian friends of mine are dead by now, but I shall always remember them. The year I lived with them was not quite an easy year — but even though there were few caribou, we managed quite well, thanks to the Indians' skills and their principle of the hunt: the catch was shared by all. But the fate of three men who spent the year north of us was tragic — they all starved to death. 

Forty years later a Canadian friend visited me at home in Norway. He showed me a Canadian map, and to my great surprise I saw that a small river south-east of the southern part of Artillery Lake had been named after me. I had lived alone with my dogs in these parts by the very edge of the Barrens for a year, hunting and trapping wolves. From my tent I only needed to walk up a hill to see the endless Barrens. This was a good year, with plenty of caribou. And I had music almost every evening — on the hills around the wolves used to howl, and they were soon joined by the howling of my dogs. Quite an orchestra ... 

Today, the foreboding which I describe on the last page of this book has come true: civilization has invaded the Northwest Territories. When I was there, air traffic was only just starting. During all the years I was there, I saw only two small planes — today there are planes everywhere, there are oil wells, there are mines, there is commercial fishing and much else connected with modern life. At Snowdrift, that beautiful place by Great Slave Lake where the Hudson's Bay Company had a small trading post and where we trappers raised our tents together with the Indians, enjoying the light summer after the hardships of a long and cold winter, there are many houses now and alcohol is a danger. The polar dogs are largely being replaced by noisy snowmobiles. I am glad to have been born at a time when silence reigned in the wilderness, when dog teams and canoes were the only means of transport.

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