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Copper Eskimo

Kitikmeot Region, NU, Canada

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

Click this Slide deck Gallery to see high quality images of the tribe, daily life, diet, hunting and gathering or recipes

About the Tribe

By George Wilkins - Canadian Museum of History, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Copper Inuit (or Kitlinermiut[pronunciation?]) are a Canadian Inuit group who live north of the tree line, in what is now Nunavut's Kitikmeot Region and the Northwest Territories's Inuvik Region. Most historically lived in the area around Coronation Gulf, on Victoria Island, and southern Banks Island.

Their western boundary was Wise Point, near Dolphin and Union Strait. Their northwest territory was the southeast coast of Banks Island. Their southern boundary was the eastern shore of Great Bear Lake, Contwoyto Lake and Lake Beechey on the Back River. To the east, the Copper Inuit and the Netsilingmiut were separated by Perry River in Queen Maud Gulf. While Copper Inuit traveled throughout Victoria Island, to the west, they concentrated south of Walker Bay, while to the east, they were concentrated south of Denmark Bay.[2]

As the people have no collective name for themselves, they have adopted the English term, "Copper Inuit".[3] It represents those westernmost Central Inuit who used and relied on native copper gathered along the lower Coppermine River and the Coronation Gulf.[4]

According to Rasmussen (1932), other Inuit referred to Copper Inuit as Kitlinermiut, as Kitlineq was an Inuit language name for Victoria Island.[5]

Early millennia[edit]

Copper Inuit are descendants of Thule culture. Changes in the local environment may have resulted in the transition from prehistoric Thule culture to Copper Inuit culture, a modern people.[2]

For approximately three millennia[6] Copper Inuit were hunter-gatherer nomads. Their settlement and acculturation to some of European-Canadian ways has occurred only since the 1940s, and they have also continued the hunting and gathering lifestyle.[7]

They lived in communal snowhouses during the winter and engaged in breathing-hole (mauliqtoq) seal hunting. In the summer, they spread out in smaller, family groups for inland caribou hunting and fishing.[1]

The people made copper arrows, spear heads, ulu blades, chisels, harpoons, and knives for both personal use and for trade amongst other Inuit. In addition to the copper products, Copper Inuit soapstone products were highly regarded in the Bering Strait trade network.[8] Other trade partners included Inuvialuit from Avvaq and Caribou Inuit to the south.[9] Many Copper Inuit gathered in the Cambridge Bay area in the summertime because of plentiful game.[10]


Importance of Animal Products

Habitat and diet

Historically, Copper Inuit lived amongst tundra, rocky hills, outcrops, with some forested areas towards the southern and southwestern range. Here they hunted Arctic ground squirrel, Arctic hare, caribou (barren ground and Peary's herds), grizzly bear, mink, moose, muskox, muskrat, polar bear, wolf, and wolverine. They fished in the extensive network of ponds, lakes, and rivers, including the Coppermine, Rae, and Richardson Rivers, which sustained large populations of fresh water Arctic char (also found in the ocean), grayling, lake trout, and whitefish. The marine waters supported codfish, bearded seal, and ringed seal.[16] Ducks, geese, guillemots, gulls, hawks, longspurs, loons, plovers, ptarmigans, and snow buntings were also part of the Copper Inuit diet. They liked raw but not boiled eggs.[19] They used and cooked food and products from the sea, but kept them separate from those of the land.[20]

Importance of Plants


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Transition to Industrialized Food Products

Post-Euro-Canadian contact[edit]

According to Robin McGrath there are Inuit stories that show there was a history of conflict between the Inuit and the Dene, as well as others which may have involved Europeans. This conflict seems to have been instigated by both the Dene and the Inuit and possibly was caused by trade disputes but sometimes due to raids for women.[11] One of the better known of these battles was recorded by European explorer, Samuel Hearne. In 1771, Samuel Hearne was the first European to explore the Coppermine River region. It was here that Hearne's Chipewyan Dene companions massacred a Copper Inuit group at Bloody Falls.[1] Further exploration did not take place until the period of 1820–1853, which included the Sir John Franklin expeditions of 1821 and 1825. John Rae encountered Copper Inuit at Rae River in 1847, and at Cape Flinders and Stromness Bay in 1851.[12] During the McClure Arctic Expedition, Irish explorer, Robert McClure abandoned his ship, HMS Investigator, at Mercy Bay on Banks Island in 1853 during his search for Franklin's lost expedition. It provided extensive amounts of wood, copper, and iron which the Copper Inuit used for years. Richard Collinson explored the area in 1850–1855.

20th century[edit]

Believing that the Copper Inuit had migrated to Hudson Bay for trading at various outposts, the Canadian government's 1906 map marked Victoria Island as "uninhabited".[1] It was not until the early years of the 20th century that trading ships returned to Copper Inuit territory. They followed Vilhjalmur Stefansson's discovery and report of the so-called Blond Eskimos amongst Copper Inuit[13] from his Arctic exploration trip of 1908–1912.[14] During the Canadian Arctic Expedition of 1913–1918, Canadian ethnographer Diamond Jenness spent two years living with and documenting the lives of Copper Inuit. He sent thousands of artifacts of their material culture to the Geological Survey of Canada.[15]

Along with trade, European contact brought influenza and typhoid. These newly introduced infectious diseases likely weakened resistance of the natives. Between 1929 and 1931, one in five Copper Inuit died from a tuberculosis epidemic. Around the same time, the whaling industry deteriorated. Alaskan Inupiat and Mackenzie Delta Inuvialuit came into the Coronation Gulf area to co-exist with the Copper Inuit.[9] The first Holman-area (Ulukhaktok) trading post was established in 1923 at Alaervik, on the north shore of Prince Albert Sound, but it closed five years later. The post relocated to Fort Collinson on Walker Bay, north of Minto Inlet. Two other stores opened in Walker Bay but closed by 1939, in the years of the Great Depression.


In 1960, the federal government shipped three housing units to Holman, and another four in 1961. In the years to follow, some families moved to Holman permanently, while others lived there seasonally. Some Copper Inuit moved to the communities of Coppermine (Kugluktuk) or Cambridge Bay. Still others gravitated to outposts along Bathurst Inlet, Contwoyto Lake, Coronation Gulf, and on Victoria Island.[16]

The Copper Inuit have gradually adopted snowmobiles, satellite dish television service, and Christian churches. Many young people now speak English rather than Inuinnaqtun. Together, these introductions have created social change among the Copper Inuit.[1]

Jan 1, 1860

Roger Buliard




Buliard outlines the differences between Catholic and Anglican missionaries in the Arctic and how the Eskimo tends to pick the easier Anglican religion to believe in.


Naturally, the Decalogue makes weary progress against the established Eskimo morality, supported as that is by the shamans and the whole system of tabus and fetishes. Since 1860, when Father Grollier made the first attempt to preach the Gospel in the Arctic, the road of the Christian missionary has been a hard one, strewn with the rocks of prejudice and ignorance. 

In the forefront of Christan missionary work in the North stands the Catholic Church. Among the Copper Eskimos alone we have three missions and. six missionary priests, as against a single Anglican missionary at Coppermine. Unlike the others, we live with the Eskimos, speak their language, and travel constantly from camp to camp. Yet the number of our converts is small, for we are a minority in the country, and the Anglican Church represents those with political power, the majority. We are the minority, and to be a minority among a primitive people puts one at a severe disadvantage, for the primite respects power and influence as he respects nothing else. To be a Catholic here in the Arctic often means to be alone, and nothing is more disturbing to the communally minded Eskimo than the prospect of being alone, being individally responsible. He is a tribe-minded man, and to go angainst the tribe, even when he believes he is right, is not in his nature. 

Also, with the Eskimos, religion is often as superficial as a coat of varnish, as is civilization. Even among Eskimos who have been long in contact with the wihte man's civilization, who have borrowed many of the white man's ways, the true Inuk is just beneath the surface and breaks through the gloss under slight provocation.

Then, too, theirs is a natural tendency to regard Christianity as just another, perhaps more powerful, medicine, a better magic than the shaman offers. Young Jimmy has just been confirmed, and to celebrate the event he rounds up the boys for a little poker game and takes his cronies to the cleaners. "Eh, eh!" the others will say, mindful of the recent sacrament, "Sakuiksingortok!"..."That's it. He has been made strong!"

To create in the Eskimo heart the radical change that religion should produce is not an assembly-line procedure, but a task that wants slow, patient work and the ability to smile in the face of apostasy and failure. Our hopes really rest with the chlidren, though of course we do our best for the souls of the present adult generation.

In some ways the Protestant religion seems to sit more comfortably with the Eskimo character. Luther would have been the Inuk's man, when he said: "Pecca fortiter, crede fortius"..."Sin strongly, but believe more strongly." Faith unaccompanied by works. That is the kind of deal that appeals to the Eskimo imagination, and despite its absurdity the Eskimos, used to the wandering arguments of the shamans, do not find it hard to believe. 

The Eskimo looks at the two religions. Both advertise the same God and promise the same reward in heaven. Which one asks the least? The Eskimo closes his left eye cunningly. Naturally, he is going to select the easier way.

Another stumbling block is the sacrament of confession. To unveil one's secrets, even in the sanctity of the Church, goes again[sic] the Eskimo's grain, for he has learned to guard them carefully. It is part of his code to keep things to himself. And the idea of penance doesn't appeal to him either. To be forgiven, after confession, the thief is told explicitly that he must restore the stolen goods, the bigamist give up his extra wife, the murderer make amednds to his victim's family. "No, no!" decides Inuk. The other religion will be quite sufficient, the one that can be outguessed.

Another advantage Anglicianism offers, from the Eskimo point of view, is the fact that the minister generally does not know the language well, but makes do with the kind of pidgin the British employ with natives in every part of the world. This makes it much easier to fool him, and even to mock him to his face, the kind of thing that kindles the Eskimo temperament. Alos, since the Anglican missionary resides at a faraway station, he visits his people once annually at most, and they figure that if they pray good and hard for a couple of days before he gets there that that will be enough. For the rest of the year they can forget it. 

Mind you, I don't for an istant suggest that the Anglican missionary condones this laxness, or is even aware of it in many cases. Certainly he would not knowingly leave as deputy preoachers in Eskimo camps fellows famous for theivery, blasphemy, and adultery.

Unpleasant though the subject is, one must mention too the sometimes rather uncharitable methods the Protestant missionaries have used in their Christian competition with us. For a long time they showed no inclination to bring the Word or the sacraments, even baptism, to the North. Then, when we began our efforts, they rushed into Burnside and baptized everyone, men, women, and children, right and left, without ten minutes' instruction or preparation. Page Henry Ford and the good old Detroit assembly line!

Sometimes they have unsed prejudice and hatred to strengthen their cause. It is difficult to believe that an archdeacon thought he was advancing the cause of Christ when he addressed the following appeal to one of our converts: 

October 1, 1929: 

To Billlie Kimeksina(Tracher)

I hear news not good. I hear Akorturoat[The Long Robes] steal Billie Tracher. No, I think Billie knows God's word. He savvy Roman Catholic not right. What he give you? Little cross? Little God with string to tie on your neck? Suppose lose him, God lost! Some men no master for himself, other men piga. [In good English, "some men are not their own masters, but somebody else's property, like dogs."] That way all Catholic Indians. Priest want to make Esmiko like that. He want make him. slave. You see make Eskimo like that. He want make him slave. You see Catholic Indiians: poor, igonarrnt, all time afarid. Long time I know priest. All time teach his people lies...

No go to priest prayer. He make trap for you, just like trap for foxes. If you go in his trap, he make you slave, make trap for you wife. LOOK OUT.

It is difficult to respect the sincerity of the author of this statement, is it not? And does it not betray a certain arragance, born of power?

The Anglicans have power in the North, because the first traders certainly retained something of what they had learned at their mothers' knees. They were Protestant, to a man, the early H.B.C. post managers, the Police, and others. The Anglicans have influence with established authority, and of course the Eskimos haven't failed to notice it.

But the faults of a few will never make us forget the virtues of the many. Thoes old-timers, gentlemen all, are dear to us, and they were never men to permit prejudice or bigotry to color their dealings with men. There are many now living, some now dead, and I salute them all. These were men who knew how to share the Arctic comradeship with a smile--men of the North--and meeeting them, any one of them, on some remote northern station, or out on the barren ice, was like catching a glimpse of the sun. 

Like the rising of the new sun, too, are the firm conversions we often see here. To watch an Eskimo pass endless hours struggling to learn the fundamental truths, to observe him trying to make the sign of the Cross, naturally inspires us, especially since we know that often he risks what he dreads--isolation--in order to enter the Church of Christ. 

I remember old Napaok--a good, leathery Eskimo of the old school, hunter and pagan of Minto. During my first visit to Victoria I met him out on the sea ice and introduced myself. 

"I am a missionary," I explained. "The Falla."

His old eyes studied the poetic sea horizon. "I have never seen a missinary until now," he said at last. "But from other Eskimos I have heard about the new God."

"Well, it is from Him I come," said I. "Would you like me to reach you?"

Napayok's answer came quickly, but I think it had been a long time in the making; all of Napaok's life, in fact. "Certainly," he said. "How should I call you? And what do I do?"

During the dark months that winter when the sun was in hiding, I passed hours in the clotted air of the snowhouse with Napayok, trying to teach him the words of God, trying to be as patient with hmi as. Iwould have been with a somewhat backward child in France.

"Our Falla..." he would begin, doggedly repeating the words after me, his ancient face wrinkled with effort, his old sea-paled eyes filled with aspiration. He learned the "Our Father" all right, but he never mastered the "I believe ini God..." It was tjust too long for him, I'm afarid. ANd I know that he went to his death still making the sign of the Cross starting on the right-hand side. It may have been because the Good Thief was crucified to the right ouf Our Lord. At any rate, Napayok could never remember that by tradition the left sohuld be first. There were many things he could not remember, but his heart was pure gold. After a longish lession on the sonwhouse he would sigh deeyl and say, leaning back, "Falla, I cannot learn anything, you see. Perhaps I am too old. Perhaps too stupid, too wooden in the head. But I believe what you believe. Is it not enough? I do not know very much, but I feel it is true. Now, could I smoke?"

When he died I was away on a trip, and I returned to find him sewn in his skins, weaiting for his Falla. I carride him back to the mission on my sled and buride him in the little cemetery there. He died a Christian, filled with faith, even though he stumbed over simply prayers and made the sign of the Cross backward.

Jan 1, 1906

Letters of the present rector of St. Peter's-by-the-Sea, of Sitka, the Reverend Henry H. Chapman.


Eskimo natives had a range of cooking styles and mostly carnivorous diets but did not suffer from cancer until modern foods entered their diet.

In reply to a further query, the rector wrote again from Sitka on September 16, 1958. He confirmed that he had lived at Anvik all but three of the years between his birth in 1895 and his first journey in 1908 when he went out to become a graduate of Middlebury College, Vermont. “I returned to Anvik as a missionary in 1922 and lived there until 1948, except for furloughs and the four years I was in Fairbanks.

“The native people of the Anvik area are Athapaskans. During my youth the main parts of their food were meat (caribou, rabbits, grouse, waterfowl, beaver, porcupine, black bear and lynx) and fish (salmon, whitefish, shellfish, loche and lampreys). The loche has a large liver which is said to be even richer in vitamins than ordinary cod liver. The Indians also ate raw foods such as berries, wild rhubarb, and a root which they called ‘mouseberries’ because it was gathered and hoarded by field mice.

“They obtained fat from caribou, black bear, and beaver tails. The lampreys were rich in oil, which was highly prized. They also bought seal oil from the Eskimos. Even in my boyhood they supplemented their native diet with white man's food, including lard ...

“The usual way of cooking meat was either boiling or frying. As a boy I was once invited by a party of Indians to eat bear meat with them. It was boiled and well done ... I do not know that any flesh foods were eaten raw, except for dried fish ...”

Neither does the published literature on the forest Indians report that any flesh foods were customarily eaten raw by the forest Indians of Alaska or northern Canada. Indeed, the name “Eskimos” is believed by many to have been derived from an Algonquin expression meaning “they eat their meat raw.”

When I went down north along the Mackenzie, in 1906 and 1908, I now and then heard talk of how horrified the Athapaskans had been when they first saw white men of the Northwest Company and Hudson's Bay Company eating the customary British underdone roast meats. In 1910, when we met the Athapaskans northeast of Great Bear Lake — Dogribs, Slaves, and Yellowknives — we found that they were still mildly horrified to see the Hudson's Bay Company Canadian Joseph Hodgson and the Old Country British John Hornby and Cosmo Melvil, who were then living among them, eating rare caribou steaks and roasts.

In a presentation of evidence regarding the views of frontier doctors on the incidence of cancer, it is of consequence to make clear that early testimony regarding the rarity or absence of malignancies is as clear and strong for the forest Indian north as for the grassland Eskimo country. Some of the early medical missionaries — notably Dr. Hutton in Labrador — have inclined to credit a diet of raw flesh with that former absence of cancer in which they believed. To emphasize this point let me quote again Dr. Hutton's book Health Conditions (1925), Page 35:

“Some diseases common in Europe have no t come under my notice ... Of these diseases the most striking is cancer ... In this connection it may be noted that cookery holds a very secondary place in the preparation of food — most of the food is eaten raw ...”

If only Eskimos are considered, in relation to the alleged former absence of cancer, and of these only the Labradorians, then the logical deduction for one who believes nutrition to be fundamental in relation to malignancy, is that actual rawness of food may be the crucially important cancer-inhibiting factor. But the force of this logic diminishes as we go westward from Labrador, among the Eskimos. Without cancer's appearing at all, cooking grows steadily more important as we move west. From Dr. Hutton's and other accounts, the Labradorians, east of Hudson Bay, were the greatest raw-flesh eaters of the whole Eskimo world. West of the Bay the boiling of flesh increases; and inland from the Bay, among the Caribou Eskimos, the roasting of caribou supplements the boiling. At Coronation Gulf, near where Dr. Jenness and I spent the first years during which the Copper Eskimos ever associated closely with Europeans, the years 1910 to 1915, there was considerable summer use of roasting, though the winter cooking, if any, was by boiling. Among the Mackenzie Eskimos, as described from the 1860's by Father Emile Petitot and from the early 1900's by myself, boiling and roasting were both considerable. These methods were even a bit more common in northern Alaska, as described by John Simpson in the 1850's and Murdoch in the 1880's. In southwestern Alaska as described by Dr. Romig in the manuscript he submitted to our Encyclopedia Antarctica, for the last decade of the nineteenth century and the first one of the twentieth, the cooking of flesh foods reached its Eskimo high point.

Yet the mission testimony, starting from Labrador, remains equally clear, from east to west: the medical missionaries all looked for cancer, and they never found it among the “primitive,” though they did find it among the “modernized.”

Thus clarification is important for whoever expects a nutritional key to this Eskimo cancer situation. Among the Athapaska and western Eskimos cooking was hardly ever carried to the point of “well done,” or “boiled to pieces.” Instead the native meats resembled our fashionable roasts, which have a well-done layer on the outside, medium done just under that, and the center pink or red. And so it was with the forest Indians — at least with those Athapaskans from Great Bear Lake to just west of the Mackenzie, with whom I hunted and lived — though they insisted on some cooking, they were in practice as careful as Eskimo cooks to see that the centers of most pieces were pink.

To sum up the raw and cooked-food elements of northern medical missionary theorizing about cancer:

During the time when large numbers of non-Europeanized northern natives were allegedly free of cancer, there was little cooking of flesh foods beyond the degree which we call medium. Among grassland and coastal Eskimos raw flesh eating ranged from a great deal in northern Labrador to a good deal in southwestern Alaska. Only among forest Indians were raw flesh foods avoided, and even among these there was little use of overcooked flesh.

Vegetable foods, where eaten at all, were always raw, among prairie and woodland natives alike. Among Eskimos, vegetable foods were important only in the farthest west — along the west coast of Alaska, among the Aleutians, and along the south coast of Alaska. In the most northerly region from Baffin Island, Canada, to Point Barrow, Alaska, vegetable eating was negligible, except in time of famine. Among woodland Indians, vegetables were negligible with the Athapaskans from the west shore of Hudson Bay to beyond the Mackenzie. In Alaska the eating of raw vegetables by forest Indians increased westward along the northern belt and then increased still more southward, into the country of the Tlingit.

During the time when the medical missionaries reported cancer difficult or impossible to find among large numbers of primitive natives, there was no usual cooking of any vegetables, whether among grassland or forest natives. The cooking of vegetables is part of that Europeanization which is considered by some missionaries to be responsible for the introduction of cancer, or for the change from its being hard to find to its being impossible not to notice.

The European-style application of intense heat to food through frying was new to all northern North American natives.

Jan 1, 1910


The Copper Eskimos taste sugar for the first time in 1910.


Among Eskimos, Europeanization has been longest delayed in the Canadian eastern Arctic, that great region which begins on the mainland about 500 miles east of the Mackenzie at Dolphin and Union Strait and extends to Hudson Bay. There, in Coronation Gulf and Victoria Island, our second expedition, the one of 1908-12, found more than 500 of what are now called Copper Eskimos, most of whom had never seen a white man. A decade later, in the 1920's, the Danish explorer Knud Rasmussen found on the eastern edge of the Copper Eskimo district about twenty who had missed seeing us, and who told him he was the first white man they had ever seen.

The Copper Eskimos, so named because many of their weapons and tools were of native copper, had never dealt with any traders before 1910. They did not even know tea, used no salt, and lived exclusively on flesh foods, eating roots and such only in time of famine. In 1910, they for the first time tasted sugar, given them by the first trader to reach Coronation Gulf, Joseph Bernard. They disliked it. Ten years later they were beginning to use material amounts of European foods, including both sugar and salt. Farther east, in the same section of arctic Canada, are people who first met whites long ago; but, even including them, the Eskimos of this section still are, with respect to food, the least Europeanized of all North Americans.

May 20, 1910

Vilhjalmur Stefansson

My Life with the Eskimo - Chapter 13


All of the caribou were skin-poor and the marrow in their bones was as blood, but we had with us plenty of seal oil from seals killed farther west along the coast, so that the two together made a satisfactory diet.

As we proceeded east along Dolphin and Union Straits from Cape Bexley, we found here and there traces of Eskimo parties who were going in from their winter hunt on the sea ice to cache their clothing, household property, and stores of oil on the beach preparatory to moving inland for their summer caribou hunt. Some of these groups we never saw at all; the trails of others we picked up and followed until we overtook the parties, who were usually camped on the shore of a small lake, where they were fishing with hooks through holes they had made with their ice-picks in the seven-foot-thick ice. The caribou in this district are scarce in spring and difficult to get by the hunting methods of the Eskimo. Fish were not secured in large numbers, either, for these people know nothing of nets. Our archæological investigations have shown us that the knowledge of fishing by nets never extended farther east along the north shore of the mainland than Cape Parry, and the Copper Eskimo have no method of catching fish except that of hooks and spears. The hooks are, like most of their weapons, made of native copper. They are unsuited for setting, for there is no barb, and unless the fish be pulled out of the water as soon as he takes the hook he is sure to get off again. 

West of Cape Bexley we had seen no traces of caribou for a hundred and fifty miles, but as soon as we came to where the straits began to narrow, east of Cape Bexley, we began to find more and more frequently the tracks of the northward migrating bands of cow caribou bound for Victoria Island. At first we did not see on an average more than ten or fifteen animals a day, but later on they increased in number; and with our excellent rifles we found not the slightest difficulty in supplying ourselves with plenty of venison and in having enough to spare to feed also the people at whose villages we visited.

In coming to the coast from the south, caribou take the ice with out hesitation. It cannot be that they see land to the north of the straits, for half of the time, at least, the land is hidden in a haze, even from the human eye, which is far keener than that of the caribou. Neither can it be the sense of smell that guides them, for the northward direction of their march is not interfered with by change of wind. They will sometimes go ten miles out on the ice and lie down there, then wander around in circles for several hours or half a day, and finally proceed north again. Both at Liston and Sutton islands, in Simpson Bay, and farther east at Lambert Island, we saw caribou march right past without paying any attention to the islands, although there was food upon them , and they in some cases passed within a hundred yards or so. The bands would generally be from five to twelve caribou, consisting in the main of females about to drop their fawns, but also of yearlings and two-year-olds of both sexes. All of them were skin-poor and the marrow in their bones was as blood, but we had with us plenty of seal oil from seals killed farther west along the coast, so that the two together made a satisfactory diet. The skins at this season of the year are worth less, partly because the hair is loose, but also because they are full of holes, ranging in size from that of a pea to that of a navy bean, from the grubs of the bot-fly which infest the backs of the animals. When spread out to dry, the skin of the spring-killed caribou looks like a sieve.

Aug 1, 1910

Vilhjalmur Stefansson

My Life with the Eskimo - Chapter 14


Spending the summer with the Copper Eskimo, Stefansson learned they also survived through hunting and eating game and they treated him as one of their own, despite his magic usage of a rifle. They also had no use for white man's food of flour and sugar, but considered it it a great gift to distinguish them from those who had nothing.

The summer spent with the Copper Eskimo between Bear Lake and the Coppermine River had passed pleasantly for me, and profitably. From the first they had accepted me as one of them they had not known that I was a white man until I told them so. My life was exactly as theirs in that I followed the game and hunted for a living. Even my rifle did not differentiate me from them, because they looked upon its performances as my magic, differing in no way essentially from their magic. I spoke the Mackenzie Eskimo dialect and made no attempt to learn theirs, for it was not necessary for convenience' sake, and it would have thoroughly confused me to try to keep two so similar dialects separate in my mind. Sometimes in meeting an utter stranger I found a little difficulty; not that it was difficult for me to understand him, for he spoke very much like all the others that I had dealt with, but he at first would have some difficulty in adjusting himself to the sort of language spoken by myself and my companions. 

By August the caribou skins were suitable for clothing. Up to that time we had killed only for food and had eaten each animal before moving to where the next was killed, so that our baggage had not increased; but now we had to begin saving the skins against the winter, and by the latter part of August we had a bundle of some thing like forty of the soft, short-haired pelts, so that our movements began to be hampered by the bulk and weight of our back-loads. We therefore chose a large dead spruce, the trunk of which was free of bark and limbs, and fifteen feet up it we suspended our bundle of skins. This we did for fear of the wolverines, for the Indians say that the wolverine cannot climb a smooth tree-trunk if the tree be so stout that it is unable to reach half around it with its legs in trying to climb. In this I have not much faith, because I have seen so many caches made which the Indians and Eskimo say are perfectly safe, and later when the cache is found to be rifled, the natives are invariably astounded and assure you that they never heard of such a thing before. We tied our bundle with thongs to the trunk of the tree, and three weeks later when we came back it turned out that the first wolverine had just that day climbed up and eaten some of the thongs. Apparently it was mere accident that protected our clothing materials, and had we come a day later we might have found the skins destroyed. 

The summer had been one of continuous sunshine, but that changed with the month of September, and the mists and fogs were then almost as continuous as the sunshine had been. The rutting season had commenced, and the bull caribou, which were numerous in summer in all the wood fringe northeast of Bear Lake, had moved out in the open country, and the hunting had become more difficult. Finally, by the end of September the caribou had become very few in number. 

The Eskimo had all summer been making sledges, wooden snow shovels, bows and spear handles, and other articles of wood. All these things and a good supply of caribou meat were stored at a spot which we called the “ sled-making place, ” but which the Slaveys of “ Big Stick Island.” This is a clump of large spruce trees on the southeast branch of the Dease River. The Eskimo were now waiting for the first snow of the year so they could hitch their dogs to the sleds they had made, load their provisions upon them, and move north toward the coast where they expected to spend the winter in sealing. But starvation began to threaten, so that finally, on September 25, the last party started toward the coast, carrying their sleds on their backs, for the first snow had not yet fallen. 

I wanted very much to accompany them, to become as familiar with their winter life as I already was with their summer habits, but it did not seem a safe thing to try, for their only source of food in winter is the seal, and these must be hunted, under the peculiar Coronation Gulf conditions, by methods unfamiliar to my companions and myself. Of course, we could have learned their hunting methods readily enough, but they told us that almost every winter, in spite of the most assiduous care in hunting, they are reduced to the verge of starvation. Frequently (and it turned out to be so that winter) they have to eat the caribou sinew they have saved up to use as sewing-thread, the skins they have intended for clothing, and often their clothing, too, while about one year in three some of their dogs die of hunger; a few years ago about half of one of the larger tribes starved to death. It was both fear of actual want and fear that if want came their superstition would blame us for it that kept us from going to the sea-coast with them. We decided, therefore, to winter on the head-waters of the Dease River, where the woodland throws an arm far out into the Barren Ground; to try to lay up there sufficient stores of food for the winter; to pass there the period of the absence of the sun; and to join the Coronation Gulf Eskimo in March, when abundance of hunting -light would make it safer to go into a country poorly stocked with game. 

When we had decided upon this, I left my Eskimo to build a winter hut, while I walked alone down to the mouth of the Dease River, a distance of about thirty miles, to where my friends Melvill and Hornby were going to have their winter camp. I found there also Mr. Joseph Hodgson with his family, consisting of his wife, son, daughter, and nephew. Mr. Hodgson is a retired officer of the Hudson's Bay Company, who, through the many years of his service on the Mackenzie River, had had a longing to get out of the beaten track of the fur-trader. For many years, he told me, it had been his special dream to spend the winter on the Dease River, and he had now come to do it. The mouth of the Dease is a picturesque spot, and although the Indians told Mr. Hodgson that it was “ no good” as a fishing place or as a location for hunting or trapping, he nevertheless stuck to his original intention and built his house there. 

Both Mr. Hodgson and the Englishmen who lived about three miles away from him had a small store of white men's food, such as flour, sugar, tea, salt, and the like. But these were articles we did completely without, and even to the others they were merely luxuries, for they had to get the main part of their food-supply from the caribou of the land and the trout of Bear Lake. In spite of the little they had they offered me a share, a thing that I much appreciated, both because it shows the spirit of the North and because my Eskimo were immeasurably gladdened by a little flour, a thing they had not expected and without which they can get along very well, but the possession of which they feel marks them off definitely from the poor trash who cannot afford such things.

Jan 1, 1912

Vilhjalmur Stefansson

My Life with the Eskimo - Ground Squirrels


The spermophile, or ground squirrel feed principally upon the roots of various species of Polygonum, the “masū” roots of the Eskimo, and are very fat in the fall. The flesh is eaten by the Eskimo.

  • Marmota caligata (Eschscholtz ). Hoary Marmot. Tjik'rik - pŭk, “ big marmot” (Alaskan Eskimo). Common in the Endicott Mountains north to the edge of the foot-hills. A few skins are taken by the inland Eskimo, and sold under the name of “ Badger.” Eskimo east of the Mackenzie say that the animal is not found in their country, but know the species by name, from garments brought in by western Eskimo. 

  • Citellus parryi kennicotti (Ross). Mackenzie Spermophile. Tjik' rik (Alaskan Eskimo). Tsik -tsik (Mackenzie Eskimo). Common all along the northern coast of Alaska, in the Mackenzie delta, and east to Franklin Bay. Less common in the more rocky and stony country east of Franklin Bay. These Spermophiles are particularly abundant in sandy, alluvial river bottoms where the ground thaws earlier and to a greater depth, allowing the animals to dig their favorite roots and excavate their burrows more readily than on the frozen, moss - covered tundra. They feed principally upon the roots of various species of Polygonum, the “masū” roots of the Eskimo, and are very fat in the fall, and for a short time after coming out of winter quarter. The bulk of the Spermophiles go into hibernation in the latter part of September, but a few are occasionally seen until the middle of October. They come out again about the middle of April. The flesh is eaten by the Eskimo, and the skins make very good warm garments. The males fight viciously among themselves, and most of the old males are badly scarred from their numerous battles. 

  • Citellus parryi (Richardson ). Hudson Bay Spermophile. Srik srik (Coronation Gulf Eskimo). Mr. E. A. Preble (N. A. Fauna, No. 27, p. 160) has conventionally placed the line between the habitats of C. parryi and of C. p. kenni cotti as the watershed between the Coppermine River and Great Bear Lake. The appearance and habits of the two varieties are similar, kennicotti being described as paler in color. The Spermophiles are very abundant in the sandy clay hills around the mouth of the Copper mine, and at various places along the south side of Coronation Gulf, and form a large part of the food of the Copper Eskimo in May and June, in the interim after they abandon sealing and leave their snow houses on the ice, and before they go inland for the summer Caribou hunt. We saw no evidence of the presence of Spermophiles on southern Victoria Island, and the Eskimo say that they are not found on the island. Citellus franklini (Sabine). Franklin's Spermophile. This species was not observed farther north than the Edmonton and Athabaska Landing trail. 

  • Citellus tridecemlineatus (Mitchill). Thirteen - lined Spermophile. Number seen on the trail a few miles north of Edmonton, Al berta, but none farther north.

Feb 2, 1912

Vilhjalmur Stefansson

My Life with the Eskimo - Fishes


Anderson describes the fishes of the Arctic which are caught by the Eskimo and how they they have different values based on their fat content. "The very large, fatty liver of the Ling is considered the best portion for food."


Fish play probably a more important part than anything else in the domestic economy of the Eskimo of the western Arctic coast . The list of food fishes is not large, but the number of individuals is so great that a family supplied with a gill-net or two can travel in summer along practically the whole Arctic coast, and be reasonably sure of catching enough fish for themselves and dogs at nearly every camping-place. When all the food required for a family can be obtained by merely putting out a fish -net every night and clearing it every morning, making a living is not a difficult matter. The Mackenzie delta is preëminently a fish country , fish being the staple food throughout the year — fresh in summer, and usually in a tainted or semi-putrid state in winter. Fish taken early in the fall are stored away in large caches, and generally become more or less tainted before they freeze. The tainted fish are always eaten raw and frozen . As usual where game and fish are very easy to obtain in season, the natives generally underestimate their needs for the winter, and have a period of shortage in the early spring. 

West of Franklin Bay the common method of fishing is by gill nets, set along the shore or across the mouths of rivers and creeks, rigged with sinkers and floats, and set from a kayak or shoved out into the water with a very long pole made of driftwood sticks spliced together. In winter the usual method is by “ jigging" through holes in the ice with barbless hooks of bone, ivory , or silver, although sometimes nets are set under the ice. Nets are set under the ice by cutting a series of holes through the ice, a few feet apart, and poking a line under the ice by means of long, curved willow poles, or by putting a long stick float with line attached under the ice and working it along from hole to hole with another forked stick. After a stout line has been passed beneath the ice, connecting the two holes at opposite ends of the line, the net is easily drawn under the ice and taken out and cleared of fish at will by merely chopping open the two end holes, the intervening holes being useless after the line has once been passed under the ice. 

East of Dolphin and Union Straits, the Eskimo do not use fish for food so extensively as do the natives farther west. They have no fish -nets, and catch fish through the ice with crude copper and bone hooks, or spear them while ascending shallows or rapids in the streams during the summer . 

Our collection of fishes is not at all complete, and although most of the important food fishes are represented , a few were unavoidably omitted. The specimens brought were kindly determined by Mr. John Treadwell Nichols, Assistant Curator of Recent Fishes, Department of Ichthyology and Herpetology, American Museum of Natural History , New York City. 

  • Catostomus catostomus ( Forster). Long -nosed Sucker. Mil-lū'i- ak-— name given by Eskimo of northern Alaska and the Mackenzie delta. Mi'luk —milk ; mil- lū'i -ak — he milks, or sucks. Found commonly in parts of the Mackenzie delta ; not valued very highly as a food fish by the Eskimo, and used only for dog food when other fish are obtainable. Specimen taken in Colville River, Alaska, July 4th, 1909, identified by Nichols. 

  • Argyrosomus tullibee ( Richardson ). Tullibee. Toolaby. No specimens of this fish were brought back, but from the general appearance of the fish , it is probably the species known to the Mackenzie Eskimo as pi-kök'tók. This fish is taken commonly in branches of the east side of Mackenzie delta, and we caught large numbers in nets set under the ice of a large lake south of Langton Bay. It resembles some what another fish called the An - ark’hlirk . The An-ark'hlirk is much more highly regarded by the Eskimo than is the pi-kok'tok, because the former species is usually fatter. The pi-kok’tok is usually without much fat, and the flesh is rather coarse and tasteless. Leucichthys lucidus (Richardson) . 

  • Great Bear Lake Herring. Kak'tak (pl. Kak'tat) , the name given by all Eskimo from northern Alaska east to Cape Bathurst. The most common food fish , found almost everywhere along the coast, and for some distance up into the larger rivers. We found the species common as far east as Coronation Gulf. It is generally taken in gill-nets, during the whole summer, but in early spring at the time when the ice-sea opens up into cracks (early in June, and later) , large numbers are caught with hooks through holes or cracks, or from the edge of floating or grounded ice- cakes near shore. This fish is the species commonly spoken of as “ Whitefish ” by white men and English - speaking natives along the Arctic coast. Specimen from Herschel Island, Yukon Territory, identified by Nichols. Clupea pallasiï Cuvier and Valenciennes. California Herring. Great numbers come into the Cape Bathurst sandspit during the latter part of August. Only occasional stragglers appear during the middle of the month. On August 3d, 1911 , we ran one end of a 200 - foot sweep -net out from the beach with a dory, and drew in about thirteen barrels of Herring (about 3000 fish ) at one sweep . A very few Leucichthys lucidus were taken in this haul. Three days later, at the same place, two hauls brought in about a barrel and a half of Herring and about two barrels of “ Whitefish.” The Herring were very fat, one Herring being as satisfying as two much larger “ Whitefish . ” The Baillie Islands Eskimo say that the Herring were never caught here before the white men came (a little over twenty years ago) , and think that the Herring followed the white men in. The explanation seems to be that the Herring schools come in only periodically, and not often close inshore, while the Eskimo did not use long seines, confining their fishing operations to short gill-nets along the beach. 

  • Stenodus mackenzii ( Richardson ). Inconnu . Connie. A -sjhi-ū' rok, commonly called Shi ( shee ) by Mackenzie River Eskimos. Common in the Mackenzie River, Great Slave Lake, and up the Slave River as far as the Grand Rapids at Fort Smith, 60° N. Lat. Found in brackish and salt water as far west of the Mackenzie mouth as Shingle Point, and occasionally as far west as Herschel Island, on the east side of the delta to Toker Point. I have seen specimens taken in the mouth of Anderson River, Liverpool Bay. Did not observe the species west of Herschel Island or east of Cape Bathurst. Large numbers are caught in gill-nets in brackish water at Shingle Point, Mackenzie Bay, in July and August, but the flesh is rather soft and flabby at that season . Eskimo catch many with barbless hooks through the ice on the east mainland side of Richard Island in October, November, and December. The Connies are fat and firm of flesh at that season. Not many are caught in midwinter, but they bite better again after the sun comes back, later in the winter. The average weight here is eight or ten pounds, but I have seen a specimen taken at Fort McPherson, Peel River, weighing nearly fifty pounds. 

  • Salvelinus malma (Walbaum ). Salmon Trout. Ek -kal-lûk pik , name given by Eskimo from northern Alaska to Coronation Gulf. Found in most of the larger streams where the water is clear. Not so common in salt water, but quite frequently taken at Herschel Island, Cape Bathurst, and Langton Bay. Specimens from Herschel Island and Hula - hula River, Alaska, identified by Nichols. While seining some pools in the Hula -hula River, in the foothills of the Endicott Mountains, Alaska, together with the common form we caught a large number of what may be a dark phase of this variable species, or perhaps another species. The common form seen near the coast has back dull grayish green, sides pale silvery green, with numerous round, pale pink spots, and belly silvery white. The others had back very dark olive, almost black , with very faint, small, obscure, pinkish spots, some irregular, some comma- shaped, etc.; sides bright olive-green , with brilliant vermilion spots ; belly bright vermilion, sometimes inclined to crimson, slightly paler along median line, and fading to salmon color on breast and throat; pectoral and ventral fins with anterior border white. Females were duller colored, belly pink or rosy, sometimes with a yellowish tint, and the lower jaws were less strongly hooked ; most of the fish were spawning at that time (September 11th, 1908) , the large yellow eggs being about the size of No. 1 shot. These brilliantly colored Trout were seen only in the Hula -hula River, and no specimens were brought out. 

  • Cristivomer namavcush (Walbaum ). Lake Trout. Kal-ū - ak'pŭk, Mackenzie River Eskimo name for fish brought from the Eskimo Lakes. Also called Siñ-a -yo'ri-ak by Mackenzie River and Baillie Islands people. I -shi-ū'mặt, Coronation Gulf Eskimo name. Found in most large inland lakes from Alaska to Coronation Gulf. At Great Bear Lake the people claim that they are often taken of forty pounds weight, and occasionally run to sixty pounds. They are taken on set -hooks, or by "jigging" through the ice, or in nets. One specimen from northern foothills of Endicott Mountains, Alaska, and three specimens from lake at head of Coal Creek, Horton River, about forty miles south of Langton Bay, were identified by Nichols. 

  • Thymallus signifer (Richardson ). Arctic Grayling. Sū -lûk -pau' rak (Alaskan Eskimo), or Sū - lûk -pau'yak (Mackenzie River Eskimo). Observed the Grayling in the Hula - hula and Chandlar rivers, Alaska, in the Horton River and its tributaries, and in the Dease River. It was not observed in the delta of the Mackenzie River, as the water seems to be too turbid, but caught one and saw several in the Mackenzie at Fort Providence, where the river water is quite clear. The Grayling is commonly called Bluefish on the Mackenzie . 

  • Osmereus dentex Steindachner. Arctic Smelt. Very rarely taken along the Arctic coast . One specimen, taken at Cape Bathurst, was identified by Nichols, who says : “ The smelt is Osmereus dentex, as it agrees pretty well with the type description of that species, and perfectly with specimens from Vladivostock , which is not far from the type locality. It is quite unlike the description of that fish from Alaska, but probably those descriptions are inaccurate. At any rate, it is the Alaskan fish , not our specimen, which may be different." 

  • Esox lucius Linnæus. Pike. Jackfish . Shi-ū'lik, name given by Eskimo from northern Alaska to Cape Bathurst. Found abundantly in the Mackenzie delta and other rivers, also in lakes as far east as Coronation Gulf. Specimens from lake near Horton River, south of Langton Bay, identified by Nichols. 

  • Platichthys stellatus ( Pallas) . Starry Flounder. Small Flounders were occasionally taken in our nets at Langton Bay only, and we did not find them very common. Specimens identified by Nichols. 

  • Microgadus proximus (Girard) . Tomcod . O'gak (pl. Õ'kat), by Eskimo as far east as Coronation Gulf. At Toker Point, on the east side of the mouth of the Mackenzie River, the species is apparently rare. Locally common in Liverpool Bay. Tomcod are very abundant in certain spots near the eastern end of Langton Bay, and are very easily hooked through the ice all winter with almost any kind of hook . In Coronation Gulf they are common in certain localities. The Copper Eskimo catch them with a very large, barbless, gaff- like hook which is " jigged ” up and down. On the shank of the hook, two or three inches above the point, small bangles of white bone are suspended . When the fish come to nibble at these swinging bangles, the hook is jerked sharply up, usually catching the fish in the throat. A species of Rock Cod, growing to eighteen inches in length, is occasionally caught in the Tomcod fishing place at Langton Bay, and is called U - ga'vik. The Rock Cod was not observed elsewhere. 

  • Cottus punctulatus (Gill). Blob. Miller's Thumb. One specimen, taken in the upper portion of the Chandlar River, Endicott Mountains, Alaska, February 23d, 1909, was identified by Nichols. 

  • Oncocottus hexacornis ( Richardson ). Six- horned Bullhead . This Sculpin was described from specimens collected at the mouth of Tree River near the Coppermine. Sculpins or “ Bull heads” are found almost everywhere along the Arctic coast, but are only occasionally eaten by the Eskimo, at times when other fish are scarce. They are quite common as far up the Mackenzie delta as Kittigaryuit, but I did not notice any farther up the river. They are frequently taken on hooks while fishing in salt water for Tomcod and other fish . The common , universally distributed spe cies is dull drab - colored , paler below . In Langton Bay we occa sionally caught another species, averaging a little larger, and lighter colored , mottled with yellowish . Kā -nai'yūk is the Eskimo name for the Sculpin from northern Alaska to Coronation Gulf. 

  • Lota maculosa (Le Sour ). Ling. Loche. Known as Ti-tal' lirk by the Eskimo from northern Alaska to Cape Bathurst. It is probably the favorite food fish of all these Eskimo, and is universally distributed in fresh and brackish waters, but seems nowhere to be taken in very large numbers. The very large, fatty liver is considered the best portion for food. It is caught both in gill-nets and on set-hooks on the bottom . Specimen from Horton River, about thirty - five miles south of Langton Bay, was identified by Nichols.

Jun 23, 1915

The Northern Copper Inuit - A History


Jenness describes the hunting and fishing habits of the Northern Copper Inuit and was impressed by their ability to endure long walks without food in the hunt for caribou. The effect of the white men's economic habits start to make the Eskimos dependent upon civilization for survival, while making famines less likely.


Jenness did not make it to Prince Albert Sound But he had satisfied his curiosity that the Prince Albert people were as to language and culture very similar to The Copper Inuit of Dolphin and Union Strait. Toward the end of the summer Jenness and his adopted family made the slow migration back to the southern coast fishing and hunting caribou along the way. At that time of year food shortages were common and the Inuit would go for days without sighting caribou or catching fish. Jenness was impressed by the endurance and patience of his traveling companions the experience [of starvation] was no novelty in their lives they merely tighten their belts trudge steadily forward a dozen or 15 miles and said smiling smiling lately if we sight no Caribou today we will tomorrow or if not tomorrow certainly the day after (Jenness 1928:219).

After his extended research visit to the land of the copper Inuit, Jenness wrote two definitive books about the people with whom he lived and traveled: The Life of the Copper Eskimo(1922) and The People of the Twilight(1928). Stefannson, working to the north, and Jenness, to the South, documented well the traditional culture of the Copper Inuit. The scholarship was completed just in time, for the isolation of the Copper Inuit was soon shattered permanently by the activities of traitors, missionaries, and other representatives of southern culture. As Jenness wrote years later in his epilogue to The People of the Twilight:

Even as we sailed away traders enter.e their country seeking fox-furs; and for those pelts so useless for real clothing they offered rifles, shot-guns, steel tools, and other Goods that promise to make life easier so the Eskimos abandoned their communal seal hunts and scattered and isolated families along the coast in order to trap white foxes during the winter when the fur of that animal reaches its prime. Their dispersal loosened the old communal ties that had held the families together. The men no longer labored for the entire group, but hunted and trapped each one for his family alone... The commercial world of the white man had caught the Eskimos and its mesh destroying their self-sufficiency and independence, and made them economically its slaves. Only in one respect did it benefit them: it lessened the danger of those unpredictable famines which had overtaken them every 10 or 15 years, bringing suffering and death to young and old without distinction (Jenness 1928:240).

Jan 2, 1922

The Northern Copper Inuit - A history


Jenness is amazed at the Copper Inuit's energy and patience and endurance, perhaps indicating the results of their superb diet, but also the skills needed to thrive in such an inhospitable place.


Early chroniclers of Copper Inuit culture were also impressed with their energy, patience, and endurance. As Jenness (1922:235) wrote:

The Copper Eskimos think nothing of spending 24 hours on a hunt, tramping continually over stony hills without a morsel of food, and with only a few short halts to rest their limbs and look about them. In Spring I've seen them spend whole days fruitlessly digging one hole after another through the thick ice of the lakes and drinking their lines without ever getting a bite. In Winter they sit for hours over there seal holes even in howling blizzard where the temperature is 30 and more below zero Fahrenheit. The patience instilled in them by hunting become so ingrained in their very natures and permeates all their social life, so that tolerance and forbearance are two of the most marked features in Eskimo Society.

Jan 1, 1951

Roger Buliard




"Kakertogot taima"..."We are always hungry now."
Of course they were hungry. The Eskimo is a carnivore. His body craves meat--seal, bear, caribou, fish--and the climate and his hard life aren't satisfied by anything else. Half a grapefruit and a couple of pieces of toast are not the breakfast for the Inuk at all, but for another class of people.


page 213

The Eskimo used to hunt only what he needed--bear, seal, caribou.

The little foxes--Tiriganiak--he despised. In the old days the Copper Eskimo hardly recognized the existence of the fox. If he met one on the trail he might risk an arrow on him, just to try his skill, but never because he wanted the animal. Fox meat makes poor eating, and fox fur is too frail for anything but baby clothes.

But fashionable women in Paris and New York did not share the Inuk's contempt for the fox. They regarded Tiriganiak's silvery fur as a perfect complement to their gleaming shoulders. What women want, men will get, and so the white man came to the Arctic after foxes and dinned into the Eskimo's ear the value of fox pelts.

"Do you want a rifle, eh, Inuk? Ammunition? Then go and get us foxes, plenty of foxes. Plenty of foxes."

The Eskimo wanted the white man's rifle, steel knife, fish net, boat. So he went after foxes. And soon he found he was so busy getting the miserable little animals that he had no time left in which to hunt for real meat--for bear and caribou. Observing the white traders, he saw them eating bread and jam, and tea with sugar. The new food was no good. It had no taste, and certainly didn't stay with one on the trail. But the Inuk wanted to imitate the Krabloonak. He ate the white man's sugar, and soon it became a habit. He found that he could not do without it. 

"Sugar!" he says. "The Eyebrows offered it to us for nothing, just to try, and we threw it away. The taste of that sand was so bad. Now we have got to like it, but they no longer give it to us. They sell it, and dearly. Mamianar! Calamity!"

Systematically, the white traders ensared the Eskimos, making them slaves to commodities of which they had felt no need before the Eyebrows came, unnecessary luxuries such as flour, silk, sugar, even chewing gum. All these things the Inuit paid for--by giving up his healthy, free life in exchange for trivial luxuries. He ceased to be a hunter, in many cases, and became a trapper, a slave to the little foxes he despised. Thus Tiriganiak--the smallest of all--revolutionized the Eskimo's life, at least the lives of those Eskimos close enough to the traders' posts to come under their influence.

Not too long ago, all Eskimos hunted to clothe and feed themselves. Now they go after foxes, with which to buy some jam, or a Micky Mouse watch, or a cheap, tinny-sounding phonograph. They haven't time to hunt fo seal to provide oil for their lamps, so they buy the white man's kerosene. More foxes. There is no caribou meat on hand, so he eats the white man's flour. More foxes. Soon he lives in a vicious circle, like a knifegrinder's dog in his wheel cage.

Thus, in those areas where the traders hold sway, the happy hunter of old has become a kind of clerk. Once fierce and independent, ignoring tomorrow and contemptuous of anyone who mentioned it, now he is always in debt, as badly off as a petty office worker caught in the clutches of the race-track bookmaker. Once his life was diversified--today hunting, tomorrow sealing, the next day fishing--whatever satisifed the whim of the moment. Now he must turn all his energies toward the capture of the fox. And the supreme irony, of which he is aware, is in the fact that he, the Agun, the male, must outstrip himself to satisfy the desires of the scorned Arna--the woman. And the Krabloonak's woman, at that.

Along the coast, noawadays, one often hears from the Eskimos a bitter, disillusioned cry. "Kakertogot taima"..."We are always hungry now."

Of course they were hungry. The Eskimo is a carnivore. His body craves meat--seal, bear, caribou, fish--and the climate and his hard life aren't satisfied by anything else. Half a grapefruit and a couple of pieces of toast are not the breakfast for the Inuk at all, but for another class of people.

Yet the Inuk counts on the little foxes to provide his sustenance all the year round, and sometimes the foxes don't turn up. Then he's in trouble. Then there is famine. And it is usually too late before the Inuit resign themselves to going out on the ice after seals, as they should have done early in the winter. They starve. At Coppermine, in 1948, for example the whole Eskimo colony kept alive only by eating old skins, boots, and other rubbish--and this not fifteen miles from a white man's settlement.

You might blame the traders themselves, and it is true that some are mightily unscrupulous, but it is not the individuals who should be blamed, but the system, and the government that encourages it. I am told that such tragedy is not known among the Eskimos in Greenland, under Danish rule, though it matches the colonial pattern elsewhere--in the sugar islands of the Caribbean, for eample, where the natives were persuaded to forego their food crops in order to plant sugar cane, and where starvation results when the sugar crop is poor or when the market drops and the price breaks. 

The Eskimos have never heard of the seven lean kine. A trapper may bag three hundred foxes in one year and three the next, but it never occurs to him to store provisions against a bad season. Of course, we must blame him for his improvidence. But must we not also blame the white men who profit vilely from the Eskimo's ignorance, who take advantage of a good fox season by importing diamond rings, gold watches, silk dresses, chronometers, and similar goods? Of what use is a diamond ring to a woman who's going to wear it for cutting seal blubber, if she's lucky enough to have a seal to cut up? What good is a chronometer, complete with sweep second hand, to a man who doesn't care a whit for time? Of what use is a silk dress under a greasy caribou parka?

With melancholy one must watch a venal civilization displace the old Eskimo style. The white man is as devious as Sila. He takes much, and gives little. He talks big, and the rewards look inviting, but when the season is over he has the foxes and what has Inuk?

An empty belly. A forlorn view of the future. The precious watch will soon be opened to see what makes it tick and ruined by snow or water. The elegant dress will soon because a greasy snot-stained rag. The diamong ring will not be worn long before it is lost down a seals' hole. Alas!

Jan 1, 1951

Roger Buliard


Inuk - Our Daily Bread - Arctic Style


Ikraluk! The name has a cherished sound to the Eskimos, for this fish is their favorite. Fish, of course, is one of the basic foods of the Inuit. They eat it any old way--raw, frozen, dried, or even cooked. It is fed to the dogs, in certain camps, almost as their only food, meat being reserved for humans.


"Our Daily Bread" -- Arctic Style

It was after the Offertory. The celebrant (your humble servant) was gravely extending his hands toward the lavabo when his altar boy, a wrinkled old Eskimo, late for Mass and quite out of breath, rushed in just in time to catch the cruet. But his mind was obviously not on the ceremony, and while he poured out the water he said, "Falla, tikitoan--ataoserartoame!?..."Father, they have arrived. I got one!"

I was excited myself. For what he meant was that the fish had arrived, the fish of fish, the fish par excellence--Ikraluk, a spotted sea trout with pink flesh, properly called Arctic trout, but here always called salmon. Ikraluk! The name has a cherished sound to the Eskimos, for this fish is their favorite. Fish, of course, is one of the basic foods of the Inuit. They eat it any old way--raw, frozen, dried, or even cooked. It is fed to the dogs, in certain camps, almost as their only food, meat being reserved for humans. 

Naturally, here, as elsewhere, the fishing used to be better. What angler doesn't tell you of the days when the fish in his favorite lake or stream were so plentiful they almost walked out of the water into you arms? 

The Copper Eskimos still talk with dreamy melancholy of the good old days, when the whole camp trekked to the river in the spring, each man, woman, and child carrying his quote of rocks with which to build an artifical shallow in the stream, a little lake easily closed behind the fish, which were swimming upstream. When the trap was filled with salmon, everyone lept into the shallow water, splashing, yelling, striking out with spears and harpoons. It was a real old-fashioned bloody massacre, the kind of thing that would appeal to the Eskimo's temperament. 

Sometimes, instead of building the stone trap, they simply rigged a weir across the river, leaving a few narrow openings through which the fish would be forced to swim. At each opening a man would be waiting, a sharp, three-pronged spear in his hands, and as the salmon, driven by age-old instinct to seek the spawning ground up river, passed through the holes they were slaughtered by the hundreds. And beside the falls--especially at Coppermine, at Bloody Falls--the Eskimos watched the glittering salmon gallantly attempting his final leap. With a catapulting blow of his powerful tail he soared from the spume in a sparkling arc, gaining the swift water above, swimming ecstatically upstream. But not for long. A spear was waiting for him just beyond the falls. 

Here on Victoria Island the Inuit still like to try their skill with the three-pronged harpoon, but when they do it is usually for sport, or in desperation. Habitually, nowadays, the Eskimos use the fish nets of the white man, for nets are more practical and catch more fish faster. 

Right beside the Eskimos, in the streams, along the rapids, and in the sea itself, the missionary spreads his own nets, emulating St. Peter. When the fish are running in true Arctic fashion, each venture to the fishing grounds yields a silver harvest that nearly fills our canoes. On the beach, sharpening their oloos--V-shaped knives much like the old-fashioned curved nut choppers--the women wait. As soon as the catch is ashore they begin, filleting the fish quickly and expertly. Each fish is placed on a wooden board, and a quick slash of the oloo cuts into the flesh at the gills, and in a second, with two flashing movements of the knife, the job is done. All that is left on the broad is the head and entrails of the fish, still attached to the main vertebrae. Blood flows, heads, guts and bones pile up, and long lines of fresh plump fish hang out in the sun to dry. The women bend ot their work, arms and hands streaming with blood, bowels, and offal, pausing only momentarily to lick their fingers or toss into their mouths some choice meat or a handful of fish eggs. During this bloody work the women laugh, loudly and continuously, reminding one of the sanguinary shrews who sat at the food of the guillotine during the French Revolution. 

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