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September 5, 1908

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Stefansson learns about Eskimo beliefs "I learned also why it is that animals allow themselves to be killed by men. The animals are much wiser than men, and know every thing in the world , -including the thoughts of men; but there are certain things which the animals need, and which they can get only from men"





My Life with the Eskimo - Chapter 4

Vilhjalmur Stefansson


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The ethnologist has this advantage over other scientists who go to the polar regions, that he has a good field for investigations wherever he is not alone. The navigator is hampered by the winds and seasons; the secrets that the geologist tries to decipher are covered up in winter by a blanket of snow; but the ethnologist can learn something about human nature wherever he has companions, and strange and unpleasant situations are likely to bring out peculiar and interesting phases of character. For our Eskimo our present situation was not essentially peculiar, however; they are used to being overtaken by winter in places that do not suit them, and they simply put up with it as a matter of course. Their life goes on in the ordinary way, in the search for and the preparation of food, in the making of clothing, and in the exercise of their religious observances. My notebook for this period is therefore not barren. I recorded folk-lore stories which my Eskimo told each other in the evenings when the day's hunting for marmot was over. I noted that Nogasak's milk teeth were pulled out by her mother with a piece of sinew and that they were not thrown away but were put carefully inside of pieces of meat and fed to dogs. It is a matter of wise forethought to do this, for were some evilly disposed man to get hold of one of your teeth, he could practice magic on you by practicing it on the tooth. This is the sympathetic magic known to many primi tive peoples. You freeze a man's tooth, or a paring of his finger nails, or a lock of his hair, and you give him chills ; you put these, or any other parts from his body, near a fire, and he suffers with a fever; you let them drop, and he is likely to have a fall in the mountains and to break some of his bones if not to kill him self. Some Eskimo therefore will burn a tooth, put it into a marmot hole, or throw it into the sea; but the Mackenzie River Eskimo believe the safest way is to feed the tooth to a dog. 

I learned also why it is that animals allow themselves to be killed by men . The animals are much wiser than men, and know every thing in the world , -including the thoughts of men; but there are certain things which the animals need, and which they can get only from men . The seals and whales live in the salt water, and are there fore continually thirsty . They have no means of getting fresh water, except to come to men for it . A seal will therefore allow himself to be killed by the hunter who will give him a drink of water in return ; that is why a dipperful of water is always poured into the mouth of a seal when he is brought ashore. If a hunter neglects to do this, all the other seals know about it, and no other seal will ever allow himself to be killed by that hunter, because he knows he is not going to get a drink . Every man who gives a seal a drink of water, and keeps this implied promise, is known by the other seals as a depend able person, and they will prefer to be killed by him. There are other things which a seal would like to have done for it when it is dead, and some men are so careful to do everything that seals want that the seals tumble over themselves in their eagerness to be killed by that particular man. The polar bear does not suffer from thirst as much as the seal, for he can eat the fresh snow on top of the ice. But polar bears are unable to make for themselves certain tools which they need. What the male bears especially value are crooked knives and bow-drills, and the female bears are especially eager to get women's knives, skin scrapers, and needle cases ; consequently when a polar bear has been killed his soul (tatkok) accompanies the skin into the man's house and stays with the skin for several days (among most tribes, for four days if it is a male bear, and for five days if it is a female) . The skin during this time is hung up at the rear end of the house, and with the skin are hung up the tools which the bear desires, ac cording to the sex of the animal killed . At the end of the fourth or fifth day the soul of the bear is by a magic formula driven out of the house; and when it goes away it takes away with it the souls of the tools which have been suspended with it and uses them thereafter. 

There are certain manners and customs of humanity which are displeasing to polar bears, and for that reason those customs are carefully abjured during the period when the soul of the bear is in the man's house. The bear, in other words, is treated as an honored guest who must not be offended . If the bear's soul has been properly treated during his stay with the man, and if he has received the souls (tatkoit) of implements of good quality, then he will report those things in the land of the polar bears to which he returns, and other bears will be anxious to be killed by so reliable a man. If the wives of certain hunters are careless about treating the souls of the bears properly while they are in their houses, this will offend the bears quite as much as if the man who killed them had done it, and this may cause an excellent hunter to get no polar bears at all. Certain women are known in their communities for this very undesirable quality, and if a woman becomes a widow, her reputation for carelessness in treating the souls of animals may prevent her from getting a good second husband.

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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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