April 1, 1908
Dr Marsh was stationed in the Arctic and tried to change the Eskimo's minds on how to engage themselves during the whale hunting season, but instead they considered him an immoral Christian and asked for his removal, whereby they lost the only doctor around for hundreds of miles.
My Life with the Eskimo - Chapter 27
One missionary whom I knew set himself seriously to combating the new and strange doctrines which he found springing up among his flock. This was Dr. Marsh, the medical missionary of the Pres byterian Church at Point Barrow. No doubt he knew some of these remarkable phases of Eskimo Christianity before, but certain things which he found astounding were brought to his attention in the winter of 1908–09, after living some time with the Colville Eskimo. In his next Sunday's sermon he took up two or three of the peculiar local beliefs I had called to his attention, and denied explicitly that there was any authority for them. I heard Eskimo discussions of these sermons afterward, and the point of view was this :
In the old days one shaman knew what another shaman did not know, and naturally among the missionaries one of them knew things of which another had never heard. In the old days they had looked upon a shaman who knew a taboo that another did not know as the wiser of the two, and why should they not similarly look upon him as the wiser missionary who knew commands of God of which another missionary had never heard ? Was it not possible, was it not, in fact, altogether likely, that there were wiser missionaries than Dr. Marsh from whom these teachings might have originally come?
As a matter of fact, most of these peculiar beliefs we are discussing were supposed to have originated in Kotzebue Sound, and were credited by the Eskimo to the white missionaries there, who are held in high esteem in all of western Arctic America as authorities on religious matters. Dr. Marsh told me that every summer, after members of his congregation visited the Colville River, they brought with them large numbers of new doctrines which were entirely strange to him. At first I believe he imagined he could disabuse the minds of his congregation of these new beliefs; later he realized that he could not, and the net result of all his efforts was that the Eskimo became thoroughly dissatisfied with him as a religious teacher and asked to have him replaced by another.
The story of how Dr. Marsh eventually left his field of work at Point Barrow is of considerable interest. The way in which I tell it may not give the complete story, but I believe that such facts as I state are to be relied upon; at any rate, I give the version which is believed by the white men and Eskimo alike at Point Barrow.
The chief occupation of the people at Point Barrow and Cape Smythe is bow -head whaling, and the harvest season is in the spring. Throughout the winter the ice has lain thick off the coast, unless there have been violent offshore gales. In the spring a crack, known as a lead, forms a mile or it may be five miles offshore, parallel to the coast, from Point Barrow running down southwest toward Bering Strait. This lead may be from a few yards to several miles in width, according to the direction and violence of the wind that causes it, and this forms a pathway along which the bow-head whales migrate from their winter feeding- grounds in the Pacific to their summer pastures in the Beaufort Sea. About the first of May the whales will begin to come. At that time the Eskimo whale men, and during the last few years the white men also, take their boats and their whaling-gear out to the edge of the land-fast ice (called the floe), which, as we have said, may be from a mile to five miles off shore, and on the edge of the ice along the narrow lane of open water they keep watching day and night for the whales to appear. There is no regularity about the migration; there may be a hundred whales in one day and then none for a whole week, and, according to the point of view of the white men, the day upon which the whales come is as likely as not to be a Sunday.
Dr. Marsh was stationed at Cape Smythe for something like nine years, and then he went away for four or five, after which he returned to Cape Smythe again (in 1908). When he was there before, the Sabbath had not been kept, but upon his return he found that during the whaling season the Eskimo whalemen would, at about noon on Saturday, begin to pull their boats back from the water and get everything ready for leaving them, and toward evening they would go ashore and remain ashore through the entire twenty - four hours of what they considered the duration of Sunday. They would sleep ashore on Sunday night and return to their boats Monday forenoon, with the result that they were seldom ready for whaling until noon on Monday. This was wasting two days out of seven in a whaling season of not over six weeks.
This seemed to Dr. Marsh an unwise policy, and he expostulated with the people, pointing out that not only might the whales pass while they were ashore on Sunday, but it was quite possible that a northeast wind might blow up any time, breaking the ice and carry ing their boats and gear away to sea, which, if it were to happen, would be a crushing calamity to the community as a whole, for the people get from the whales not only the bone that they sell to the traders, but also tons of meat upon which they will live the coming year. “But,” they asked Dr. Marsh, “couldn't you ask God to see to it that the whales come on week days only, and that a northeast wind does not blow on Sunday while we are ashore?”
Dr. Marsh replied by explaining that in his opinion God has established certain laws according to which He governs the universe and with the operation of which He is not likely to interfere even should Dr. Marsh entreat him to do so. We can tell by observation, Dr. Marsh pointed out, approximately what these laws are, and we should not ask God to change them but should arrange our conduct so as to fit in with things as we find He has established them.
Thinking back to their old shamanistic days, the Eskimo remembered that some of the shamans had been powerful and others inefficient; that one shaman could bring on a gale or stop it, while to another the weather was quite beyond control. I have often heard them talk about Dr. Marsh and compare him to an inefficient shaman. Evidently his prayers could not be relied upon to control wind and weather, but that was no reason for supposing that other missionaries were equally powerless. They inquired from Eskimo who came from the Mackenzie district and from others who had been in Kotzebue Sound or at Point Hope, and these Eskimo said ( truthfully or not, I do not know ) that they had missionaries who told them that whatever it was they asked of God He would grant it to them if they asked in the right way. Hearing this, the Point Barrow Eskimo grumbled, saying it was strange that other less important communities should have such able missionaries and they, the biggest and most prosperous of all the Eskimo villages, should have a man whose prayers were of no avail —that they were of no avail there was no doubt, for he himself had confessed it. They accordingly got an Eskimo who had been in school at Carlisle to write a letter to the Presbyterian Board of Home Missions in New York. This letter, no doubt, made various charges the details of which I do not know.
We have already discussed the foundation for the first two of these charges. The foundation for the third is that in extremely cold winter weather the only sensible and comfortable way of dressing, as I know as well as Dr. Marsh, and as every one knows who has tried it, is to wear a fur coat next to the body with no underwear between. This is the way the Eskimo always dressed until recently, and a man who dresses so has naturally to take off his coat as soon as he comes into their overheated dwellings. It was, until two or three years ago, the custom of both men and women to sit in the houses stripped to the waist. There was nothing immodest about it in their eyes. They did not know that the human body is essentially vile and must be hidden from sight, until they learnt that fact from white men recently. It seems it has been certain missionaries chiefly that have warned them against the custom, and they therefore consider “ You shall not take off your coat in the house ” as one of the precepts of the new religion, to be broken only at the peril of one's immortal soul.
Dr. Marsh several times spoke to me of these things, and remarked that when in college he had stripped a good deal more for rowing and for other exercises; that the natural and unstudied taking off of one's coat for comfort in a house could not possibly be considered immodest, while there might be an opening for argument in the matter of the evening dress of our women, where the exact degree of exposure is studied and the whole complicated costume is planned with malice aforethought.
This he explained to the Eskimo also, and tried by his own example to get them to go back to the sensible way which they had practiced until a few years ago. But with them it was not a question of modesty or the reverse; it was merely that they understood that God had commanded them not to take off their coats in the house, and they meant to keep His commandments. If Dr. Marsh did not know that there was any such commandment, that was merely a sign that he was not well informed. On the other hand, if he really knew of the commandment and chose to break it for the sake of bodily comfort, then that might be a risk which he was willing to take, but one which they did not care to run.
These men who had come to me now explained that while they were still of the opinion that Dr. Marsh was not very orthodox and that there were other missionaries better than he, they had only now begun to realize what hard straits they should be in if they or their families became sick. They had been thinking, they said, of how much they had profited in the past by Dr. Marsh's care of their sick, and of how many of the lives of their women he had saved at child birth. In reply to all of this I had to explain to them, of course, that Captain Ballinger had nothing to do with Dr. Marsh's leaving, and that all I could do was to go down to the office of the Presbyterian Mission Board sometime the following winter and have a talk with them about the situation.