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October 1, 1908

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Stefansson covers a brief history of the Christianization of the Eskimo and describes how a Christian prayer to hunt caribou developed and then lost power when the hunting was bad.

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My Life with the Eskimo - Chapter 27

Vilhjalmur Stefansson

Topics: (click to open)

Biblical Fundamentalism
Christianization
Religion
Eskimo
Carnivore Diet

Important Text:

Our main purpose here is not to elucidate or to present conclusions, but rather to present facts which happen to be chiefly in the form of anecdotes; but the foregoing has seemed necessary to give the reader a point of view from which the evidence can be interpreted. To see the bearing of the facts clearly we must keep sight of the two things of main importance: namely, first, that the ideas which the Eskimo has of the new religion are dictated by his environment and colored by the habits of thought developed under the old religion; and, second ( and most important), that he looks upon the missionary as the mouth-piece of God, exactly as the shaman was the mouthpiece of the spirits; bearing these things in mind, we shall glance at the history of the spread of Christianity in Alaska. 


Most of the abstract and strange ideas of which the Eskimo of even the civilized north coast of Alaska have knowledge have been presented to them first by missionaries, who generally precede the school-teacher into distant fields, yet we shall draw our first case for consideration from an Alaskan public school. The winter of 1908, and for a year before that and a year after, the government school teacher at Point Barrow was Mr. Charles W. Hawkesworth. Mr. Hawkesworth was a New Englander, a graduate of Bowdoin, a fine type of man of the sort that is rare even in New England and yet typical of New England. He said, and I agreed with him, that he thought the Eskimo boys and girls at Barrow had as much native intelligence as boys and girls of a similar age and the same grade in school in Massachusetts or New Hampshire. But I told him that, admitting all that, I did not believe they were getting from the books which they read and the lectures which he delivered to them the same ideas that pupils in a Massachusetts school would get, for their environment was so essentially different from that described in the books that many a thing which is a plain statement to a boy in Massachusetts must be to the boy, of northern Alaska a riddle without a key. Apparently Mr. Hawkesworth did not fully agree with me in this, but an examination in United States history which he held shortly after gave results which bore out my contention fairly well. He had been lecturing for several weeks on the causes of the war with England, and his pupils had in connection with these lectures read the ordinary assigned reading required of pupils of the eighth and ninth grades. Among other things, they had heard much of the “ Boston Tea Party” and of the events that preceded and followed. One of the questions in the examination was, “ Why did the American colonists go to war with England ? ” and one of the brightest Eskimo boys wrote the following answer : “ It was no wonder that the Americans got angry at the English, for the English were so mean they put tacks in the tea they sold the Americans. ' The point is obvious. Had the lectures and reading been on the Pure Food and Drugs Act, every pupil in the Barrow school would have understood, because the adulteration of food by traders is to them a familiar thing; but taxation, with or without representation, was a foreign idea and essentially incomprehensible. And if taxation is incomprehensible when presented by a schoolmaster, our abstract religious concepts are no less so when expounded by a missionary. 


The Christianity which exists in the minds of the missionaries being as essentially incomprehensible to the Eskimo as our abstract political and scientific ideas and complex social organization, the missionaries at first naturally accomplished little. At the mouth of the Mackenzie River, for instance, when I was there first in the winter of 1906–07, the missionaries of the Church of England had been already for more than a decade without making a convert. The people were still unconverted in September, 1907, when I left the district. When I returned in June, 1908, they had been Christianized to the last man. 


I am not sure where Christianity started in Arctic Alaska, but I believe it to have been in Kotzebue Sound. So soon as the people here were converted, there grew up among them what might be called an Eskimoized Christianity, in other words, Christianity comprehensible to the Eskimo. The real Christianity had had great difficulty in taking root, but this new form spread like the measles. It went northwest along the coast to Point Hope, and northeast across the mountains to the Colville River, so that when I reached the Colville in October, 1908, every man there had become a Christian, although they had had no direct dealings with white missionaries.  


I was considerably astonished ( in October, 1908 ), on entering the first Eskimo house at the mouth of the Itkillik, a branch of the Colville, to have set before me a wash-dish and towel, and to have my host recite a lengthy prayer over the wash-dish, in order, as he said, to make the water suitable for my use. According to my custom, I declined the use of the basin and towel, even after they had been consecrated, telling my host that a boiled towel would have been much more attractive to me than a consecrated one; for here, as everywhere else among the civilized Eskimo, one must be on his guard against the contagious skin and eye diseases of civilization that spread in no way faster than by the use of common towels. 


After my Eskimo companions had washed (from ancestral custom they were inclined to accept every new taboo as a matter of course), another prayer was recited over the basin and towel, and then a lengthy grace was said over the food before we commenced eating, as well as a separate one over the teacups, which were brought in at the end of the meal. Finally, thanks were offered at the close. I asked my host from whence he got these prayers and these new ideas, and he said that they came over the mountains from Kotzebue Sound, brought by a man well versed in the new religion and the possessor of a great many efficient prayers. The best prayer of all which this man had brought, and the most useful, our host told us, was one for caribou. The Colville people had used it the first year with such success that they had killed as many caribou as they had any need for. This was three years ago, and last year the prayer had not worked so well, while this year it had seemed to be of no use at all. The hunting had been very poor indeed. By the gradually decreasing efficiency of this prayer our host had been led to suppose that prayers, like white men's rifles and other things which they bring, had their full efficiency only while new, and no doubt gradually wore out and finally became useless. ( This, by the way, can scarcely be said to be in the terms of the old religion, for it was believed that the older a charm was the greater its power. They had apparently transferred their experience with the white man's shoddy trade goods to the realm of his religion.) Now that this prayer, after three years' use, had lost its power over game, our host inquired anxiously if we did not know a good one from the Mackenzie River missionary, of the general efficiency of whose prayers the Colville people had heard much. I knew no such prayer, and neither did Natkusiak, but Akpek announced he had a fairly good one. When this fact became known, the village lost interest in the two of us in large measure, and concentrated it on Akpek, who was fêted and invited about from house to house, always followed by a crowd of people eager to learn from him the new prayer to have it ready for the caribou hunting in the spring.

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