Historical Event

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Date:

October 1, 1949

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Short Description:

Everything depends on the caribou. The caribou is always in our thoughts. When we come together they are the main subject of our conversation, and if we are doing one thing or another with outside the tent, we cannot help searching the valleys and hills with our eyes.

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Nunamuit: Among Alaska's Inland Eskimos

Helge Ingstad

Topics: (click to open)

Human Predatory Pattern
Facultative Carnivore
Pre-civilization races
Eskimo
Carnivore Diet

Important Text:

We are sixty-five human beings who have to eat our fill every day, and nearly two hundred dogs. Whether we shall depends on hunting. I brought a quantity of provisions with me, but obviously I, the only white man, cannot sit brooding over my possessions. Some went to the children, some to other people, and in an incredibly short time it was all gone. It was a relief in a way, for now we are all in the same boat.


Everything depends on the caribou. The caribou is always in our thoughts. When we come together they are the main subject of our conversation, and if we are doing one thing or another with outside the tent, we cannot help searching the valleys and hills with our eyes. 


From Raven Lake two long lines of cairns have been set up, one running up the hillside, the other along the valley. The cairns are made of turf, and are about forty yards apart, and serve to lead the caribou down to the lake.


Peace prevails in the settlement. An old woman is sitting in front of the tents peering out with eagles eyes across the flat valley. She has been sitting like this for several hours, almost motionless. Suddenly she jumps up crying, "Tuttu! Tuttu!" (Caribou! Caribou!) And the children immediately take up the same cry.


The camp is transformed. People tumble out of their tents and stand staring, while the hunters drop whatever they have in their hands, seize their guns, and dash off at full speed across the valley. 


There they are, a herd of about fifty caribou. Their grey-brown fur blends almost perfectly with the moss and marsh grass. They are going northeast at a good pace. The animals move forward lightly and gracefully over boulders and tussocks. The leader is a cow, then come several bulls with mightly antlers, and after them the rest. 


Here and there out in the flat valley and up the slopes toward the mountains I catch a glimpse of the Eskimo hunters. They are still running at full speed in different directions. Then they throw themselves to the ground and wait.


Suddenly the caribou herd stops as at a word of command; the animals stand dead still and gaze. The long row of cairns across their path rises out of the landscape as dark threatening objects. The beasts give a frightened start and run nervously now in one direction, now in another. Shots ring out, caribou fall. The herd is seized with panic and dashes off like the wind in the direction from which it came. More shots. Again the animals approach the caribou fence, but swing off sharply and hurry along it; not a single animal dares to pass between the cairns. At last the herd finds its way right out into the valley and continues northward at a high speed. 


It is not uncommon for herds to come so close to the camp; now and then the beasts start to swim across Raven Lake and are an easy prey. But what we shoot in the neighbourhood of the camp is quite insufficient. Sometimes we have to go a long way into the wide pass or in among the mountains. 


The Eskimos are masterly hunters. They train from boyhood and are still young when they bring down their first beast. To their own experience is added all the knowledge accumulated by generations: a comprehensive instinct for animal psychology. There are a multitude of things which are so accustomed to observe and work upon that they know what ought to be done without reasoning further. The hunters know how the caribou will react in given conditions, which route it will choose in accordance with the nature of the ground, where it will graze, and much else. Thus, they are able to place themselves favourably that they often get to close quarters with the herds.


As I wandered into this endless mountain world, I often stumbled upon old signs of caribou hunting--traces of vanished times. Along the slopes of the valley where the caribou have their tracks, I quite often came upon rows of little stone cairns. These were to lead the caribou to the spot where the marksman lay in wait with bow and arrows. At some places the hunters had built themselves stone screens, sometimes in a square like a small house without a roof.


On one beach a mass of caribou bones, half overgrown, lay strewn around. Here the beasts must have been driven into the water and then slaughtered from kayaks, being stabbed with a spear behind the last rib, close to the spine. The Eskimos have many stories of this kind of hunting, which was formely of great importance. Sometimes hundreds of animals were killed, and were usually divided equally between the families which took part in the drive.



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