June 3, 1888
These Mackenzie Delta Inuit took all that a bounteous nature offered, but the beluga large, easily killed, and abundant - was their favorite prey. "Eskimo whale camps will soon be no more," and Nuligak wrote in the 1950s that "the Inuit eat white man's food nowadays."
THE BELUGA HUNTERS IN PREHISTORIC TIMES - A MERE 200 YEARS AGO - THE MACKENZIE River delta and adjacent coasts were the richest, most populous region in what is now the Canadian Arctic. About 30,000 bowhead whales summered in the shallow Beaufort Sea, 50-ton (45-tonne) feasts for hunters skillful and daring enough to kill them. There were Dall's sheep in the mountains, moose in the valleys, musk-oxen on the tundra, and in summer vast herds of caribou on the wind-swept coastal plains.
Seals were common. Great polar bears patrolled the ice, and fat Barren Ground grizzlies patrolled the land. Here were the breeding grounds of much of North America's waterfowl: the myriad tundra lakes were speckled with ducks and geese, loons and swans. Rivers and lakes were rich in fish: char and inconnu, and immense shoals of herring and fat whitefish.
Most important to the Inuit of this region were the milky-white beluga whales that arrived each year in large pods in late June at the edge of the Mackenzie estuary and remained for six to seven weeks in its shallow, sun-warmed bays and inlets, where they were relatively easy to hunt. The people were the Mackenzie Inuit, the "Beluga Hunters," as archaeologist Robert McGhee of the Canadian Museum of Civilization has called them. When he dug trenches through the thick refuse layers at Kittigazuit, the main village of the Mackenzie Inuit, "87 percent [of all bones] were of beluga." These Inuit took all that a bounteous nature offered, but the beluga large, easily killed, and abundant - was their favorite prey.
While in other parts of the Canadian North the average population density was one person to every 250 square miles (648 km2), 2,500 to 4,000 Mackenzie Inuit lived in settlements near the river mouth. Inuit camps, specks of humanity scattered across the vastness of the Arctic, were usually home to a few families, perhaps 50 people. Kittigazuit, the main village of the Beluga Hunters, had a summer population of 800 to 1,000 people.
Among the Inuit at Kittigazuit at the turn of this century was an orphan boy named Nuligak who lived with his crippled grandmother. "Because I was an orphan and a poor one at that, my mind was always alert to the happenings around me. Once my eyes had seen something, it was never forgotten." He became a famous hunter and, in old age, wrote I, Nuligak, the story of his life, wonderfully vivid glimpses of a long-vanished world.
"The Inuit of those days [about 1900, when Nuligak was five years old lived on game and fish only, and fished and hunted on a grand scale." The 200-yard (823-m)-long Kittigazuit beach was hardly large enough for all the kayaks drawn up there," and the moment belugas were spotted "a swarm of kayaks was launched. At the great whale hunts I remember there was such a large number of kayaks that when the first had long disappeared from view, more and more were just setting out... Clever hunters killed five, seven belugas, and after the hunt the shore was covered with whale carcasses... Once I heard elders say that three hundred whales had been taken.
The great driftwood racks and stages were packed with drying meat, sealskin pokes were filled with fat, ample food for "kaivitivik, the time of dancing and rejoicing which began with the departure of the sun and ended with its return," Nuligak recalled. "In those days the Inuit could make marvelous things": puppets and toy animals, activated by baleen strings and springs, that hopped and danced across the floor of their great winter meeting hall, while Nuligak and the other children watched in wonder. "There was such an abundance of meals, games, and things to admire that these sunless weeks sped by as if they had been only a few days.
Until 1888, the Mackenzie Inuit had little contact with the outside world. That year the southern whalers came and the ancient, unchanging world of the Beluga Hunters collapsed in agony, despair, disease, and death. "Aboriginal Mackenzie Eskimo culture could probably be considered to have become extinct between 1900 and 1910," Robert McGhee noted with scientific detachment.
In 1888, whalers reached the Beaufort Sea, last sanctuary of the rapidly declining bowhead whales. Six years later, 2,000 people wintered at Herschel Island, west of the Delta, soon known as the "Sodom of the North." It was the largest "town' in northwestern Canada, inhabited, according to a Nome, Alaska, newspaper report, "by demons of debauchery and cruelty," the scene, according to horrified missionaries, of "bacchanalian orgies."
Nuligak's memories are less lurid. He remembered the whalers more as friends than as fiends. "White men and Inuit played games together, as well as hunting side by side. We played baseball and wrestled. We danced in the Eskimo fashion to the sound of many drums.
Unintentionally, though, the whalers brought death to the long-isolated Inuit. They needed great amounts of fresh meat. Musk-oxen vanished from the land. Few bowhead whales remained. In 1914, the Royal North-West Mounted Police reported that caribou were virtually extinct in the Mackenzie region. By then, the Beluga Hunters, too, were nearing extinction.
As the plague had ravaged medieval Europe, measles and smallpox epidemics wiped out the Beluga Hunters, who lacked immunity to southern diseases. Of 3,000 people, fewer than 100 survived. In 1900, nearly 1,000 Inuit camped at Kittigazuit. In 1906, a single family remained in this village of death and decay.
Into the vacuum created by the demise of the Mackenzie people flowed Inuit from as far west as Alaska's Seward Peninsula, and even Yuit and Chukchi from Siberia. Traders and trappers came from the south. And whalers from all over the world and from every social stratum - the dregs of San Francisco's slums and a Count Bülow, a remote cousin of the chancellor of the German Reich; Spanish- speaking Africans; Chinese coolies; and people from the Polynesian Islands - - settled in the region and "went native." One day in the town of Inuvik an Inuk girl, a sociology student, asked me: "Where are you from originally?" I told her I was Baltic German, born in Riga, Latvia. "Well, for heaven's sake!" she exclaimed. "My grandfather came from Riga.
These people, then, part Inuit, part everyone, became the new Beluga Hunters, following, to some extent, the millennial customs and traditions of the nearly extinct Mackenzie Inuit. The changes wrought through the coming of the whalers were enormous, but some things had not changed: the coming of the belugas, the need for food, the ancient rhythm of camp life through the seasons.
Even the remnants of this ancient whaling culture seemed fated to fade away. Professor Vagn Flyger of the University of Maryland, who studied the Beluga Hunters in 1961 and 1962, predicted confidently that "Eskimo whale camps will soon be no more," and Nuligak wrote in the 1950s that "the Inuit eat white man's food nowadays." In the late 1970s, the oil companies came, their made- in-Japan module headquarters, with gleaming offices and dining rooms, with swimming pools and cinemas, squatting on the tundra, with their spacecraft-like drilling rigs far out in the Beaufort Sea, all backed by multibillion-dollar exploration budgets. Yet, "the old way of life" persisted. When I went to join the Beluga Hunters in the summer of 1985, twenty-five families from the towns of Tuktoyaktuk, Inuvik, and Aklavik had "returned to the land," to ancient camps along the coast where Inuit had lived and hunted belugas for thousands of years. "From time immemorial this has been our life," said Nuligak.