April 15, 1967
Bruemmer explains the importance of the caribou to the Inuit and reminisces about a hunting trip he took with them. "Caribou meat was eaten fresh, or cut into strips and air-dried for future use. Fat fall caribou, often killed far from camp, were cut up and cached, food for the coming winter."
Arctic Memories - The All-Purpose Caribou
THE ALL-PURPOSE CARIBOU
Glorious it is to see
The caribou flocking down from the forests
Their wandering to the north.
Timidly they watch
For the pitfalls of man.
Glorious it is to see
The great herds from the forests
Spreading out over plains of white.
Glorious to see.
- INUIT POEM RECORDED BY KNUD RASMUSSEN IN THE EARLY 1920s
Once they flowed like a living and life-giving tide across the tundra plains of the North. When the caribou came, an old Inuk told Knud Rasmussen in the 1920s, "the whole country is alive, and one can see neither the beginning of them nor the end - the whole earth seems to be moving.
Two animals were vital to human survival in the Arctic: seal and caribou. Seals provided food for humans and their sled dogs, strong, durable skins for boots and tents, and, above all, blubber that could be rendered into oil for the stone lamps of the Inuit, to cook their food, melt snow or ice into drinking water, dry their clothes, and warm their winter homes.
Caribou gave Inuit food and, through bones, hoofs, and antlers, a multitude of tools, toys, and weapons. Above all, from caribou skins Inuit women made the best Arctic clothing ever designed: light, durable, and so warm it made the wearer nearly impervious to any Arctic weather.
To kill caribou, Inuit used bows and arrows, lances, ambushes, traps, and a multitude of ingenious stratagems, many of them based on the hunters' knowledge of animal behavior and the quirks and weaknesses of their prey. Caribou are curious and myopic, and Inuit used these failings to get within shooting range - and that, before guns, was very close. The Inuit bow, made of pieces of driftwood, brittle and fragile, laboriously carved and pegged together, backed with plaited sinew cord to give it spring, and lashed with caribou or seal leather to give it strength, was a marvel of skill and ingenuity, but it was still a very weak weapon compared to bows of other regions where suitable wood was available. The longbow made of yew used by English archers to win the battle of Crécy in 1346 was deadly at 200 yards (180 m) and more. The Inuk bow, said Ekalun of Bathurst Inlet, who used it as a young hunter, killed only at thirty paces and less.
In 1967, I joined two Inuit hunters, Akpaleeapik and his brother Akceagok from Grise Fiord on Ellesmere Island, and their oldest sons on the last of the great polar-bear hunts made by Canadian inuie. We left the village in April and returned in June, five people, two sleds and twenty-nine dogs, and never again in my life have I known such freedom. (The diaries I kept became the basis of my first book, The Long Hunt) The rest of the world just ceased to be; time lost all meaning. We lived only for the here and now; it was a primal life, with primal joys - the endless travel through a pristine land; the great hardships of the trip; the satisfaction of being able to cope, endure, and overcome; and, although I do not hunt and never use a gun, the undeniable thrill of the hunt. And since we and our sled dogs were invariably famished after ten to twenty hours of travel every day, we looked forward with keen anticipation to our daily meal of seal or polar bear.
To hungry people every meal is a feast. A change of menu, however, is always welcome and when we crossed northern Devon Island in June and spotted caribou on a distant plain, Akeeagok / took me along to hunt them. We sledged in a valley to the edge of the plain and then we played an ancient Inuit game of deception. We advanced across the white, open plain, pretending to be a caribou: Akeeagok with arms and gun held high was the antlered torepart; I, bent at right angles, my head in the small of his back, was the rear end of the caribou. The caribou, of course, spotted us. instantly and were both curious and uneasy. Something, they realized, was not quite right. Whenever fear outweighed curiosity and they seemed ready to flee, we turned in profile to them, showing the rough outline of a caribou, and Akecagok grunted exactly like a caribou. Reassured, the caribou continued to stand and stare; once they even trotted toward us. When we were 30 yards (27 m) away, they finally panicked. But it was too late: Akeeagok shot and killed two animals. The others fled; he let them go. Both brothers were old-time hunters; they never killed more than we needed for food.
Another ruse Inuit hunters used also relied on the caribou's curiosity and shortsightedness. Two men walked past a herd. As they passed a boulder, one hid behind it and the other continued, waving, perhaps, a piece of white caribou belly skin to attract the curious animals. They followed him at a safe distance - and were shot by the hidden hunter.
In winter, Inuit cut pitfalls into drifts, covered them with thin sheets of hard Arctic snow, and baited them with urine, which caribou like for its saltiness. In spring and fall, they lay in wait with their kayaks where migrating caribou crossed rivers and lakes, and speared the swimming animals. And they built elaborate alignments of inukshuit, man-shaped cairns, on strategic ridges, which scared caribou herds toward hidden hunters. Women and children, crouched behind ridges and boulders, supplemented the line of stone men and, at a signal, rose and screamed. ("Hoo-hoo- hoo, they yelled, just like wolves," Ekalun recalled.)
Caribou meat was eaten fresh, or cut into strips and air-dried for future use. Fat fall caribou, often killed far from camp, were cut up and cached, food for the coming winter. Skins were made into clothing, bed robes, and tents.
Caribou sinew was the Inuit's thread. Plaited sinew cord was used to back the bow and give it elasticity and spring. It was used as fishing lines, and as guy lines for the tent. Depilated caribou skin was made into containers and packsacks, and covered the kayaks of inland Inuit. Toggles for dog-team harnesses were carved of caribou bone, as were the prongs of leisters (where musk-ox horn was not available), spear blades and arrowheads, and a diabolically ingenious wolf killer. Sharpened splinters of caribou shin bone were set into ice and covered with blood and fat. When a wolf came along and licked the blood, it lacerated its tongue on the frozen-in bone knife and, excited by the taste of fresh blood, licked and bled and licked and bled until it died; its skin was used for clothing.
Caribou antlers were boiled and immersed in hot water and then straightened with a qatersionfik, a big bone or palmate piece of antler into which a large hole had been worked. (Identical implements were made by reindeer hunters of the Aurignacian and Magdalenian periods in Europe, 15,000 to 30,000 years ago. Under the delusion that these were symbols of ancient authority, archaeologists have given them the grandiloquent name batons de commandment.) Straightened antler sections were scarfed, glued (with caribou blood), pegged (with pegs of caribou bone), and lashed (with strips of moist caribou skin), and made into spear shafts, tent poles, leister handles, and sled sections.
All was used, nothing was wasted. What humans did not eat, their sled dogs did. Caribou provided Inuit with food, clothing, shelter, and many tools and weapons. It was essential to life and lived in their legends and myths. The newborn Inuit baby was wiped clean with a piece of caribou fur, and when an Inuk died his shroud was made of caribou skins.
Caribou were in their thoughts and caribou marched through their dreams. In spring at Bathurst Inlet, as we waited for caribou to come to our far-northern coast, Ekalun on the sleeping platform next to me often mumbled in his sleep, and it was "tuktu, always "tuktu," endless herds of caribou, migrating through the sleeping mind of the old hunter.