March 10, 1794
David Thompson: While exploring the Kazan river, in 1794, I encountered a tribe of Eskimo who live on its banks and rarely visit the salt water. They subsist chiefly on the meat of the caribou, which they kill with their spears in great numbers.
David Thompson's narrative of his explorations in western America, 1784-1812 / edited by J.B. Tyrrell
The Esquimaux are a people with whom we are very little acquainted, although in a manner surrounding us, they live wholly on the sea coast, which they possess from the gulph of the St. Lawrence, round the shores of Labrador to Hudsons Straits, these Straits and adjacent Islands, to Hudson's Bay, part of it's east shores ; but on the west side of this Bay, only north of Churchill River, thence northward and westward to the Coppermine River ; thence to the McKenzie and westward to Icy Cape, the east side of Behring's Strait. Along this immense line of sea coast they appear to have restricted themselves to the sea shores,* their Canoes give them free access to ascend the Rivers, yet they never do, every part they frequent is wholly destitute of growing Trees, their whole dependence for fuel and other purposes is on drift wood, of which, fortunately there is plenty. The whole is a dreary, monotonous coast of Rock and Moss without Hills or Mountains to the McKenzie River, thence westward the Mountains are near the shore. In the latter end of February and the months of March and April, from the mouth of the River seaward for several miles the Seals are numerous, and have many holes in the ice through which they come up : how these holes are made in the apparent solid ice, I never could divine ; to look into them, they appear like so many wells of a round form, with sides of smooth solid ice and their size seldom large enough to admit two seals to pass together.
The Seals do not come up on the ice before nine or ten in the morning as the weather may be, and go down between two and three in the afternoon ; they are always on the watch, scarce a minute passes without some one lifting his head, to see if any danger is near from the Bear or Man, apparently their only enemies. Three of us several times made an attempt to kill one, or more ; but to no purpose, however wounded they had always life enough to faU into the ice hole and we lost them ; and I have not heard of any Seal being killed on the spot by a Ball. The Esquimaux who live to the northward of us kill these animals for food and clothing in a quiet and sure manner : the Hunter is armed with a Lance headed with Bone or Iron, the latter always preferred : the handle of which, sometimes is the length of twenty yards (measured) made of pieces of drift larch wood, neatly fitted to each other, bound together with sinew, the handle is shortened, or lengthened, as occasion may require. The Esquimaux Hunter in the evening, when the Seals are gone to the sea, examines their holes, the places where they lie, and having selected the hole, best adapted to his purpose, early in the morning before the seals come up, goes to the ice hole he has selected, on the south side of which he places his Lance, the handle directed northward, the point of the Lance close to the hole, for the seals He on the north side of the ice hole, and directing his Lance to the spot [where] the Seals have been lying, having firmly laid the helve of his lance, he retires to the end of it, and there hides himself behind some broken ice, which if he does not find to his purpose, he brings pieces of ice to make the shelter he requires. Lying flat on his beUy he awaits with patience the coming up of the Seals ; the first Seal takes his place at the north edge of the hole, this is also the direction in which the Lance is laid ; the other seals, two, or three more, are close on each side, or behind ; if the Seal is not in the direct line of the Lance, which is sometimes the case, he gently twists the handle of the Lance until it is directly opposite to the heart of the Seal ; still he waits with patience until the Seal appears asleep ; when with all his skill and strength he drives the Lance across the hole (near three feet) into the body of the Seal, which, finding itself wounded, and trying to throw itself into the ice hole, which the handle of the lance prevents, only aids the wound ; the hunter keeps the handle firm, and goes on hands and knees to near the hole, where he quietly waits the death of the seal ; he then drags the seal from the hole, takes out his lance and carefully washes the blood from it. When the hunter shows himself all the seals for some distance around dive into the ice holes, and do not come up for several minutes ; this gives time to the Esquimaux to place his lance at another hole, and await the seals return, and thus he sometimes kills two of them in one day but this is not often, as the weather is frequently stormy and cloudy.
The Esquimaux are of a square, plump make, few of them exceed five feet eight inches in height, the general stature is below this size, and the women are in proportion to the men, their features though broad are not unpleasing, with a tendency to ruddy, they appear cheerful and contented, they are supple active and strong ; from the land, in the open season, they have berries, and a few reindeer, but it is to the sea they look for their subsistence : the sea birds, the seal, morse, beluga, and the whale ; living on these oily foods, they are supposed not to be clean, but the fact is, they are as cleanly as people living as they do, and without soap can be expected [to be], all their cooking utensils are in good order.
In summer part of them dwell in tents made of the dressed skins of the reindeer, these are pitched on the gravel banks, and kept very neat, they make no fire in them to prevent [them] being soiled with smoke, which is made near the tent. The salmon and meat of the reindeer they cure by smoke of drift wood of which they have plenty. They are very industrious and ingenious, being for eight months of the year exposed to the glare of the snow, their eyes become weak ; at the age of forty years almost every man has an impaired sight. The eyesight of the women is less injured at this age. They make neat goggles of wood with a narrow slit, which are placed on the eyes, to lessen the light. They all use Darts, Lances, Bows and Arrows, as weapons of defence, and for hunting ; their Darts and Lances are made of drift Larch wood, headed with bone of the leg of the Rein Deer,^ or a piece of iron, the latter preferred, and the length of the Dart is proportioned to it's intended use — for Birds, the Seal, the Beluga, Whale or the Morse ; * to the Dart or Lance for the three latter, a large bladder made of sealskins, and blown full of air is attached by a strong line of neatly twisted sinew. This not only shews the place of the wounded animal but soon tires him, [so] that he becomes an easy prey, though sometimes with risque to the Hunter and Canoe.
In their conduct to each other they are sociable, friendly, and of a cheerful temper. But we are not sufficiently acquainted with their language to say much more ; in their traffic with us they are honest and friendly. They are not of the race of the north american Indians, but of european descent. Nothing can oblige an Indian to work at anything but stern necessity ; whereas the Esquimaux is naturally industrious, very ingenious, fond of the comforts of life so far as they can attain them, always cheerful, and even gay ; it is true that in the morning, when he is about to embark in his shell of a Canoe, to face the waves of the sea, and the powerful animals he has to contend with, for food and clothing for himself and family, he is for many minutes very serious, because he is a man of reflection, knows the dangers to which he is exposed, but steps into his canoe, and bravely goes through the toil and dangers of the day.
*^ In a general way, this statement that the Eskimo Hve exclusively on the sea coast is correct. Nevertheless, while exploring the Kazan river, which flows into Chesterfield Inlet, in 1894, I encountered a tribe of Eskimo who live on its banks and rarely visit the salt water. They subsist chiefly on the meat of the caribou, which they kill with their spears in great numbers, and from the skins of the caribou they make their clothing and the coverings for their kayaks or small canoes.