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April 18, 1912

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Stefansson explains how the Eskimos learned of Christianity and considered washing as a part of godliness, but they would use re-use towels for everything and in the process spread pathogens such as syphilis.





My Life with the Eskimo - Chapter 25

Vilhjalmur Stefansson


Important Text:

After spending five pleasant days with Mr. Young in his comfortable house we resumed our journeying again, and went on about eighteen miles to another camp of Eskimo whom I had known when I wintered in this district in 1906, and the day after that we reached a village of four or five houses at Tununirk, the south point of Richard Island. It was on Friday that we came there. This was the home of my old friend Ovayuak, who had entertained me so generously at his house for several months six years before on my first visit to the country. I had therefore to stay for several days to talk over old times. There was so much rejoicing in camp over our visit that although the main occupation of the community was rabbit hunting and although there was nothing to eat except the rabbits shot by the men and the ptarmigan snared and the fish hooked by the women, still all these occupations were suspended in honor of our coming, and we feasted so energetically that by Saturday night we had eaten up all the food that was in camp. This did not seem serious to me in the evening, for there were ptarmigan on every hillside and rabbits in every bush, and doubtless a good many fat fish under the ice right in front of our tent door. But on Sunday morning, as I might have known would be the case had I thought of the matter, nobody was willing to do anything toward getting food, for it was now the Sabbath and the Sabbath must not be broken . I felt a bit hungry myself. There were on our sled little provisions beyond a few delicacies which Mr. Young had given us to help along on the journey to Herschel Island, and I was stingy of these, so instead of bringing them out at once I informed the community that I also was well versed in the Scripture and proceeded to tell them the story of how the ears of corn had been gathered on the Sabbath. The consensus of comment was that while to take flour off the bush in the country where it grows might not be wrong, they had had specific instructions that it was wrong to hunt rabbits or to fish on Sunday, and they would therefore prefer to go hungry rather than risk the displeasure of the Deity. 

I thought it would be too much of a task for me alone to go out with the idea of getting rabbits for the whole crowd, so I took out of my sled and shared with them what was not nearly enough food to satisfy our hunger, but it was all we had to do us over Sunday. Monday morning bright and early every one was out hunting and fishing, and long before noon we had plenty to eat. This entire community had been heathen to a man when I lived with them in 1906 . 

It is said sometimes about the people of New England that they consider cleanliness next to godliness. It is true of the Mackenzie River Eskimo today that they look upon washing as a part of godliness. Soaps, towels, and the wash-basins are with them concrete means of grace. Although Christianity had not yet obtained hold among these people as a confession of faith when I first lived with them (in 1906 ), the idea was even then prevalent that washing was a thing of magic value, likely to promote good fortune and turn away evil influences. I tried then and later to counteract this idea as much as possible by seldom washing, but this deterred them in no way , for they knew from my frank avowals that I was not a shaman and knew nothing of the occult forces. 

I found now on Saturday night in Ovayuak's house that things had gone much farther in the matter of washing and towels than they had when I lived with them five years before. Just before bedtime Ovayuak got out a tub filled a quarter full of water and took a bath. Although he had been an apparently healthy man when I first knew him, both he and other members of his family now have sores on various parts of their bodies which I have no doubt are of syphilitic origin. After bathing he wiped with a towel, rubbing it into all these sores . When he was through bathing, his wife took the towel, and after bathing wiped with it also. It was then passed on to the other members of the family, and when everybody had bathed the towel was hung up beside the stove to dry. Next morning when we woke up all the family washed their faces and wiped with the one towel. Several visitors also came in to have breakfast in our house, and, as the custom is among these people now , they all washed their hands and faces in their host's wash -basin and wiped with his towel. I expostulated with Ovayauk, explaining to him by analogies with certain vermin with which they were thoroughly familiar that the germs which inhabit the sores that accompany contagious diseases get on the towel when it is rubbed into the sores , and will later on be transferred by the towel to the eyes and other parts of the bodies of people who wipe with it. Notably would these invisible vermin enter any sores which the person who used the towel might happen to have on his body and would make them sick in turn. By much explaining I was able to make these things thoroughly clear to my Eskimo friends, and it was evident not only that they believed me but also that they were much impressed with the danger they were in. 

When I saw how clear an impression I had made I said : “ Now you must not do these things any more. You must promise me that you won't take any more baths unless you each wipe with your own towel, which you allow no one else to use or unless the towel can be boiled between times.” But they answered regretfully that they could not follow my advice because they had so few towels. God had commanded them that they must wash all over their bodies every Saturday night and must wash their hands and faces before every meal and on waking up in the morning. Their first duty was, they considered, to obey God lest they fail to attain salvation , for they considered that the health of the body was of small consequence beside the welfare of the soul . 

The point is, of course, as we have explained elsewhere, that they look upon the missionary as the spokesman of God, and anything which he tells them they consider he tells them as the direct commandment of the Lord . For that reason, although they were much exercised over the gruesome picture which I had painted of the effects of the promiscuous use of towels, they felt themselves unable to do anything because the commandments of God in the matter had to be obeyed at all costs . They explained to me, as others have done on similar occasions, that when I first knew them and lived among them they had not been Christians, but that they had since learned about heaven and hell and considered that nothing else is of vital importance except the avoiding of eternal punishment ; for after all, they said, a man has to die sometime anyway and it makes comparatively little difference when he dies, but if he observes the commandments of God while he lives, his soul will when he dies go to heaven and dwell there in joy forever.

Topics: (click image to open)

Biblical Fundamentalism
Using the Bible to justify anything.
Christianization is the conversion of individuals to Christianity or the conversion of entire groups at once. Various strategies and techniques were employed in Christianization campaigns from Late Antiquity and throughout the Middle Ages.
The Inuit lived for as long as 10,000 years in the far north of Canada, Alaska, and Greenland and likely come from Mongolian Bering-Strait travelers. They ate an all-meat diet of seal, whale, caribou, musk ox, fish, birds, and eggs. Their nutritional transition to civilized plant foods spelled their health demise.
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