Eskimo

Eskimo

Recent History

June 1, 800

Fred Bruemmer

Arctic Memories

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Superb sea-mammal hunters, Thule-culture Inuit pursued and killed everything, from the small ringed seal to the giant bowhead whale, and, according to archaeologist Robert McGhee of the Canadian Museum of Civilization, they had evolved "a technology more complex than that of any other preindustrial society, which allowed not only an economically efficient but also comfortable way of life throughout arctic North America."

The Inuit's cold-adapted culture did not reach a state of near- perfection until the arrival of the Thule-culture people, who moved eastward from Alaska about A.D. 800, and within less than 200 years spread across most of the North American Arctic, displacing or absorbing the Dorset people. 


Superb sea-mammal hunters, Thule-culture Inuit pursued and killed everything, from the small ringed seal to the giant bowhead whale, and, according to archaeologist Robert McGhee of the Canadian Museum of Civilization, they had evolved "a technology more complex than that of any other preindustrial society, which allowed not only an economically efficient but also comfortable way of life throughout arctic North America."


 The Thule Inuit invented, perfected, and passed on to Inuit of historic times such a plethora of specialized tools and hunting equipment that the late James A. Ford of the American Museum of Natural History described them as "gadget burdened. 


The tool kit, for instance, used by Inuit not long ago to hunt seals at their agloos, the snow-covered breathing holes through the ice, consisted of about forty items, from the thin, slightly curved bone probe to determine the shape of the agloo, to tutereark, the piece of thick caribou winter fur on which the hunter stood so that no sound would warn the seal of his presence. 


The Inuit achieved this broad-ranging yet highly specialized Arctic material culture against what seem insuperable odds. Not only was their land exceedingly cold, hostile, and barren, it was also poor in those raw materials most societies have found essential. Metal was rare: meteoric iron, brittle and hard to work, was found in the Cape York region of northwest Greenland, and native copper in a few areas of the central Canadian Arctic. Driftwood was abundant along Alaska's coast and east past the Mackenzie River delta; it was rare in the eastern Arctic and virtually nonexistent in the central Arctic. That left stone, ice, snow, and sod as the most readily available and most widely used materials that the land and the sea provided. Infinitely more important were the materials they obtained from the animals they killed: bone, horn, baleen, antlers, teeth, ivory, furs, skins, sinews, and intestinal tissues.

March 2, 1577

Fred Bruemmer

A true reporte of the laste voyage into the west and northwest regions, &c. 1577. worthily atchieued by Capteine Frobisher of the sayde voyage the first finder and generall With a description of the people there inhabiting, and other circumstances notable. Written by Dionyse Settle, one of the companie in the sayde voyage, and seruant to the Right Honourable the Earle of Cumberland.

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Settle says about the Inuit "Those beastes, flesh, fishes, and fowles, which they kil, they are meate, drinke, apparel, houses....[they] are contented by their hun∣ting, fishing, and fowling, with rawe flesh and warme bloud, to satisfie their gréedie panches, whiche is their onely glorie."

From Arctic Memories there is this quote:

As Dionyse Settle, the Elizabethan chronicler of explorer Martin Frobisher's second expedition to Baffin Island, so shrewdly observed in 1577: "Those beastes, flesh, fishes, and fowles, which they kil, they are meate, drinke, apparel, houses, bedding, hose, shooes, thred, saile for their boates... and almost all their riches."

I looked up the full text of Settle's work and copied the following, since it was written in 1577, it seems like very broken English but I think it's not worth editing.


They are men of a large corpora∣ture, and good proportion: their colour is not much vnlike the Sunne burnte Countrie man, who laboureth daily in the Sunne for his liuing.

They weare their haire somethinge long, and cut before, either with stone or knife, very disorderly. Their women weare their haire long, and knit vp with two loupes, shewing forth on either side of their faces, and the rest foltred vp on a knot. Also, some of their women race their faces proportionally, as chinne, chéekes, and forehead, and the wristes of their handes, wherevpon they lay a co∣lour, which continueth darke azurine.

They eate their meate all rawe, both fleshe, fishe, and foule, or something per∣boyled with bloud & a little water, whi∣che they drinke. For lacke of water, they wil eate yce, that is hard frosen, as plea∣santly as we will doe Sugar Candie, or other Sugar.

If they, for necessities sake, stand in néede of the premisses, such grasse as the countrie yéeldeth they plucke vppe, and eate, not deintily, or salletwise, to allure their stomaches to appetite: but for ne∣cessities sake, without either salt, oyles, or washing, like brutish beasts deuoure the same. They neither vse table, stoole, or table cloth for comelinesse: but when they are imbrued with bloud, knuckle déepe, and their kniues in like sort, they vse their tongues as apt instruments to licke them cleane: in doeing whereof, they are assured to loose none of their victuals.

They franck or kéep certeine doggs, not much vnlike Wolues, whiche they yoke together, as we do oxen and horses, to a sled or traile: and so carrie their ne∣cessaries ouer the yce and snowe, from place to place: as the captiue, whom we haue, made perfecte signes. And when those Dogges are not apt for the same vse: or when with hunger they are con∣streyned, for lacke of other victuals, they eate them: so that they are as néedefull for them, in respect of their bignesse, as our oxen are for vs.

They apparell themselues in the skinnes of such beastes as they kill, se∣wed together with the sinewes of them. All the fowle which they kill, they skin, and make thereof one kinde of garment or other, to defend them from the cold.

They make their apparell with hoods and tailes, which tailes they giue, when they thinke to gratifie any friendshippe shewed vnto them: a great signe of friendshippe with them. The men haue them not so syde as the women.

The men and women weare their hose close to their legges, from the wast to the knée, without any open before, as well the one kinde as the other. Uppon their legges, they weare hose of lether, with the furre side inward, two or thrée paire on at once, and especially the wo∣men. In those hose, they put their kni∣ues, néedles, and other thinges néedefull to beare about. They put a bone with∣in their hose, whiche reacheth from the foote to the knée, wherevpon they drawe their said hose, and so in place of garters, they are holden from falling downe a∣bout their féete.

They dresse their skinnes very softe and souple with the haire on. In cold weather or Winter, they weare ye furre side inward: and in Summer outward. Other apparell they haue none, but the said skinnes.

Those beastes, flesh, fishes, and fow∣les, which they kil, they are both meate, drinke, apparel, houses, bedding, hose, shooes, thred, saile for their boates, with many other necessaries, whereof they stande in néede, and almost all their ri∣ches.

Their houses are tentes, made of Seale skinns, pitched with foure Firre quarters, foure square, méeting at the toppe, and the skinnes sewed together with sinowes, and layd therevppon: so pitched they are, that the entraunce in∣to them, is alwayes South, or against the Sunne.

They haue other sortes of houses, whiche wée found, not to be inhabited, which are raised with stones and What bones, and a skinne layd ouer them, to withstand the raine, or other weather: the entraunce of them béeing not much vnlike an Quens mouth, whereto, I thincke, they resort for a time, to fishe, hunt, and fowle, and so leaue them for the next time they come thether againe.

Their weapons are Bowes, Ar∣rowes, Dartes, and Slinges. Their Bowes are of a yard long of wood, si∣newed on the back with strong veines, not glued too, but fast girded and tyed on. Their Bowe stringes are likewise sinewes. Their arrowes are thrée pée∣ces, nocked with bone, and ended with bone, with those two ends, and the wood in the middst, they passe not in lengthe halfe a yard or little more. They are f•∣thered with two fethers, the penne end being cutte away, and the fethers layd vppon the arrowe with the broad side to the woode: in somuch that they séeme, when they are tyed on, to haue foure fe∣thers. They haue likewise thrée sortes of heades to those arrowes: one sort of stone or yron, proportioned like to a heart: the second sort of bone, much like vnto a stopte head, with a hooke on the same: the thirde sort of bone likewise, made sharpe at both sides, and sharpe pointed. They are not made very fast, but lightly tyed to, or else set in a nocke, that vppon small occasion, the arrowe leaueth these heades behinde them: and they are of small force, except they be ve∣ry néere, when they shoote.

Their Darts are made of two sorts: the one with many forkes of bone in the fore ende, and likewise in the mid∣dest: their proportions are not muche vnlike our toasting yrons, but longer: these they cast out of an instrument of wood, very readily. The other sorte is greater then the first aforesayde, with a long bone made sharp on both sides, not much vnlike a Rapier, which I take to be their most hurtfull weapon.

They haue two sorts of boates, made of Lether, set out on the inner side with quarters of wood, artificially tyed toge∣ther with thongs of the same: the grea∣ter sort are not much vnlike our Wher∣ries, wherein sixtéene or twentie men may fitte: they haue for a sayle, drest the guttes of such beastes as they kyll, very fine and thinne, which they sewe toge∣ther: the other boate is but for one man to sitte and rowe in, with one oare.

Their order of fishing, hunting, and fowling, are with these sayde weapons: but in what sort, or how they vse them, we haue no perfect knowledge as yet.

I can not suppose their abode or ha∣bitation to be here, for that neither their houses, or apparell, are of no such force to withstand the extremitie of colde, that the countrie séemeth to be infected with all: neyther doe I sée any signe likely to performe the same.

Those houses, or rather dennes, which stand there, haue no signe of foot∣way, or any thing else troden, whiche is one of the chiefest tokens of habitation. And those tents, which they bring with them, when they haue sufficiently hun∣ted and fished, they remoue to other places: and when they haue sufficient∣ly stored them of suche victuals, as the countrie yeldeth, or bringeth foorth, they returne to their Winter stations or ha∣bitations. This coniecture do I make, for the infertilitie, whiche I perceiue to be in that countrie.

They haue some yron, whereof they make arrowe heades, kniues, and other little instrumentes, to woorke their boa∣tes, bowes, arrowes, and dartes withal, whiche are very vnapt to doe any thing withall, but with great labour.

It seemeth, that they haue conuersa∣tion with some other people, of whome, for exchaunge, they should receiue the same. They are greatly delighted with any thinge that is brighte, or giueth a sound.

What knowledge they haue of God, or what Idol they adore, wée haue no perfect intelligence. I thincke them ra∣ther Anthropophagi, or deuourers of mans fleshe, then otherwise: for that there is no flesh or fishe, which they finde dead, (smell it neuer so filthily) but they will eate it, as they finde it, without any other dressing. A loathsome spectacle, ei∣ther to the beholders, or hearers.

There is no maner of créeping beast hurtful, except some Spiders (which, as many affirme, are signes of great store of Golde:) and also certeine stinging Gnattes, which bite so fiercely, that the place where they bite, shortly after swelleth, and itcheth very sore.

They make signes of certeine peo∣ple, that weare bright plates of Gold in their forheads, and other places of their bodies.

The Countries, on both sides the streightes, lye very highe with roughe stonie mounteynes, and great quantitie of snowe thereon. There is very little plaine ground, and no grasse, except a li∣tle, whiche is much like vnto mosse that groweth on soft ground, such as we gett Turfes in. There is no wood at all. To be briefe, there is nothing fitte, or profi∣table for ye vse of man, which that Coun∣trie with roote yéeldeth, or bringeth forth: Howbeit, there is great quantitie of Deere, whose skinnes are like vnto Asses, their heads or hornes doe farre ex∣ceed, as wel in length as also in breadth, any in these oure partes or Countrie: their féete likewise, are as great as oure oxens, whiche we measured to be seuen or eight ynches in breadth. There are also Hares, Wolues, fishing Beares, and Sea foule of sundrie sortes.

As the Countrie is barren and vn∣fertile, so are they rude and of no capa∣citie to culture the same, to any perfec∣tion: but are contented by their hun∣ting, fishing, and fowling, with rawe flesh and warme bloud, to satisfie their gréedie panches, whiche is their onely glorie.

March 2, 1578

Fred Bruemmer

Arctic Memories

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"What is the most important thing in life?" He reflected for a while, then smiled and said: "Seals, for without them we could not live." Seal meat and fat, raw or cooked, was the main food of most Inuit and their sled dogs. The high-calorie blubber gave strength, warmth, and endurance to the people; it heated them from within.

After two hours, I had run out of poetry and patience. After three hours, I felt stiff, cold, and exhausted. The total lack of movement, the absence of any stimuli, grated on my nerves. After six hours, I gave up. I was cold, creaky, cranky, and intensely annoyed with myself, but that was about as much as I could take. Yet the Inuit did this nearly every day for ten to fifteen hours, and sometimes they got a seal and often they did not. Their concentration was total, their patience endless, for to Inuit (and polar bears) the seal was everything. I once asked Inuterssuaq of the Polar Inuit, "What is the most important thing in life?" He reflected for a while, then smiled and said: "Seals, for without them we could not live." 


George Best, captain and chronicler of Martin Frobisher's 1578 expedition to Baffin Island, said of the Inuit: "These people hunte for their dinners... even as the Beare." Inuit and polar bear do, in fact, use similar seal-hunting methods. Both wait with infinite patience at agloos, hoping for seals to surface. 


In late spring and early summer, seals bask upon the ice, and Inuit and polar bears synchronize their patient stalk with the sleep- wake rhythm of the seals. Typically, a seal sleeps for a minute or so, wakes, looks carefully all around to make certain no enemy is near, and then, satisfied that all is safe, falls asleep for another minute or two. The moment the seal slumps in sleep, the bear advances. The instant the seal looks up, the bear freezes into immobility, camouflaged by its yellowish-white fur. At 20 yards (18 m) the bear pounces, a deadly blur across the ice, and grabs and kills the seal. 


In the eastern Arctic, Inuit stalk a seal on the ice hidden behind a portable hunting screen, now of white cloth, formerly of bleached seal or caribou skin. In the central Arctic, Inuit do not use the screen. Instead they employ a method known to Inuit from Siberia to Greenland: they approach the seal by pretending to be a seal. They slither across the snow while the seal sleeps. When it wakes, the hunter stops and makes seal-like movements. To successfully impersonate a seal, a hunter told me, "you have to think like a seal." It is a hunt that requires great skill and endurance. They hunted seals at their agloos, they stalked them with screens on the ice. They waited for them at the floe edge and they harpooned them from kayaks. 


They hunted seals in fall on ice so thin it bent beneath the hunter's weight. They hunted them in the bluish darkness of the winter night, and they invented and perfected an entire arsenal of ingenious weapons and devices to hunt the seal. For, to Inuit, the seal was life, and their greatest goddess was Sedna, mother of seals and whales. 


A few inland groups lived nearly exclusively on caribou. The Mackenzie Delta Inuit are beluga hunters. Many Inuit of the Bering Sea and Bering Strait region live primarily on walrus. In Greenland and Labrador, Inuit hunted harp seals and hooded seals (the Polar Inuit drum Masautsiaq made for me as a farewell present is covered with the throat membrane of a hooded seal). But, for most Inuit, two seal species were of truly vital importance: the large bearded seal that weighs up to 600 pounds (270 kg), and the smaller - up to 180 pounds (81 kg) - but numerous ringed seal. These two seals were the basis of human life in the Arctic. 


I spent the spring of 1975 with the walrus hunters of Little Diomede Island in Bering Strait, between Alaska and Siberia. Among our crew was Tom, Jr., or Junior as everyone called him, the eleven-year-old son of Tom Menadelook, captain of the large walrus-skin-covered umiak, the traditional hunting boat of the Diomeders. On one of our trips into the pack ice, Junior shot his first seal. His father was typically gruff and curt, but we could see that he was pleased and proud. The crew made much of the boy and he glowed in their praise. That night, his mother, Mary Menadelook, cut the seal into many pieces, and following ancient custom, the boy took meat to all the households in the village, including to my shack, thus symbolically feeding us all. He was a man now, a provider, who shared in traditional Inuit fashion. 


Seal meat and fat, raw or cooked, was the main food of most Inuit and their sled dogs. The high-calorie blubber gave strength, warmth, and endurance to the people; it heated them from within. Rendered into seal oil, it burned in their semicircular soapstone lamps, cooked their meals, heated their homes, and, most importantly, melted fresh-water ice or snow into drinking water. Lack of blubber meant hunger, icy, dark homes, and excruciating thirst. Although Inuit were hardy and inured to cold, and dressed in superb fur clothing, their high-calorie, high-protein meat-fat diet also helped them to withstand the rigors of winter, for it raised their basal metabolic rate by 20 to 40 percent. Fortunately for the Inuit, blubber is a beneficial fat. Scientists were fascinated that Inuit who, a recent study says, "traditionally obtained about 40 percent of their calories from fat," had, in the past, no heart disease because their diet "although high in fat, is low in saturated fat.. and that presumably explains their freedom from disease." 


Seal oil, in the past, was stored in sealskin pokes and kept in stone caches, safe from arctic foxes, for spring and summer use. At Bathurst Inlet, Ekalun once showed me a great, solitary stone pillar, too sheer and high for bears or foxes to climb, upon which, in the past, Inuit had stored pokes of oil (they used a sled as a ladder to climb to the top). Even now, after decades of disuse, the distinctive, cloying smell of ancient seal oil clung to the pillar. 


The Inuit of Little Diomede eat seal oil with nearly all their meals. When they have to go to hospital in Nome or Anchorage, they take a bottle of seal oil along, because without it, they say, "food just doesn't taste right." Seal oil is their main preservative: they store in it the thousands of murre eggs they collect in summer, and bags of greens - and both keep reasonably fresh for about a year. They even had a type of chewing gum made of solidified seal oil and willow catkins, and a mixture of whipped blubber and cloudberries is known in Alaska as "Eskimo ice cream."

July 20, 1585

'A People of Tractable Conversation': A Reappraisal of Davis's Contribution to Arctic Scholarship

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English Explorer John Davis sails to Greenland and discovers the Inuit for the first time, noticing they were "very tractable people", however, he didn't record their eating habits.

Yet, on reading their reports, one cannot fail to be struck by the explorers’ relatively unprejudiced tone as they describe the natives’ mutual solicitude or even their fundamental honesty. It is true that Davis sometimes seems to contradict himself: commenting on the Inuit’s apparent passion for iron – which caused them to steal the ship’s anchor – Davis felt bound to denounce their ‘vile nature’. But both Davis and Janes display a genuine interest in the Arctic people they interacted with. Failing to find a new maritime route to China, Davis appears to have turned part of his attention to the Inuit instead. The Inuit often take pride of place and it looks as if the description of their mores had been substituted for the traditional list of profitable ‘commodities’ that can be found in so many travel narratives. This is all the more remarkable as the quest for a Northwest or Northeast maritime route to China partly originated in the English merchants’ desire to remedy their financial woes after the cloth trade with Antwerp and the Low Countries had become less profitable.  What is more, Davis did not content himself with listing their drinking and eating habits, or ‘the many little images’ and diverse cultural artefacts they produced. Our main contention is that Davis also approached their language with linguistic acuity. 


Encountering 'very tractable people': Arctic pre-ethnography 


Davis set sail in June 1585 with a total crew of forty-two. He was the captain of a ship called the Sunshine while the other ship, the Moonshine, was under the command of one William Bruton. John Janes was Davis’s supercargo and a member of the Sunshine’s crew. Davis and his men sighted Greenland for the first time on 20 July. He seems to have been far from favourably impressed if one is to judge by the name he chose to give it: 


The 20. as we sayled along the coast the fogge brake up, and we discovered the land, which was the most deformed rockie and montainous land that ever we saw ... the shoare beset with yce a league off into the sea, making such yrksome noyse as that it seemed to be the true patterne of desolation, and after the same our Captain named it, The Land of Desolation.


 Davis and his men then turned Cape Farewell (Uummannarsuaq) without trying to explore the coast and entered what is now the fjord of Nuuk (Nuup Kangerlua, previously Godthaab Fjord), which Davis named ‘Gilbert Sound’, at latitude 64°11’. It was there that they first encountered a group of Inuit. If the very first contact proved a little baffling and rather disconcerting, Janes tells us that surprise and diffidence rapidly gave way to ‘many signs of friendship’: 


The Captain, the Master and I, being got up to the top of an high rock, the people of the countrey having espied us, made a lamentable noise, as we thought, with great outcries and skreechings: we hearing them, thought it had been the howling of wolves ... Whereupon M. Bruton and the Master of his shippe, with others of their company, made great haste towards us, and brought our Musicians with them from our shippe, purposing either by force to rescue us, if need should so require, or with courtesie to allure the people. When they came unto us, we caused our Musicians to play, ourselves dancing, and making many signs of friendship.


 It is perhaps significant that the first interaction between the two parties should have taken such a musical form as this scene may be said to set the tone for Davis’s subsequent encounters with the different groups of Inuit he met. On the whole, it seems that concord prevailed over disharmony, though it is important not to oversimplify the necessarily complex and ambivalent feelings that both sides mutually experienced towards the other party. It should also be noted that, from the start, the Inuit’s ‘speech’ and their ‘pronunciation’ aroused Janes’s linguistic curiosity: ‘their pronunciation was very hollow thorow the throat, and their speech such as we could not understand’. If Frobisher’s first contact with the natives gave rise to a display of gymnastic virtuosity on the part of the Inuit, in Davis’s case the first encounter between the explorers and the natives concluded with music, dancing and a scene of rejoicing: ‘one of them came on shoare, to whom we threw our cappes, stockings and gloves, and such other things as then we had about us, playing with our musicke, and making signes of joy, and dauncing’.


In the rest of his narrative, Janes often insists on the feelings of ‘trust’ and ‘familiarity’ that gradually developed between the two groups. On the second day, the English gained the trust of the Inuit by mimicking their attitudes and ‘swearing by the sun after their fashion’: ‘so I shook hands with one of them, and he kissed my hand, and we were very familiar with them. We were in so great credit with them upon this single aquaintance, that we could have anything they had.’ Much like Thomas Harriot who also admired the ingenuity of the native Algonkians, Janes marvelled at the skill of the Inuit. In particular, he showed deep interest in their fine – and warm – sealskin buskins, gloves and hoses, for which he willingly exchanged his much less comfortable clothes, ‘all being commonly sowed and well dressed: so that we were fully perswaded they have divers artificers among them.’ In fact, except for their religion – or lack thereof – Janes did not find anything wrong with them, as can be seen from the following description of the first group he came into contact with: ‘they tooke great care one of another ... They are very tractable people, void of craft or double dealing, and easie to be brought to any civility or good order: but we judge them to be idolaters and to worship the Sunne.’

June 1, 1586

The Private Journal of Captain G.F. Lyon, of H.M.S. Hecla

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Navigator John Davies is quoted as saying about the Inuit "The people are of good stature, well proportioned. They did eat all their meat raw."

Page 29-30

In drawing out this long account of one visit, my prolixity may be excused, when I state, that it is merely intended to amuse my own fire-side circle; yet, voluminous as it is, I have withheld any account of the stature, and general appearance of the people; or any description of their boats and instruments, being certain of seeing more of them. In the mean time, however, it may not be uninteresting to quote the brief but accurate description of them as given by that able old navigator John Davies, in the year 1586. 

“The people are of good stature, well proportioned, with small slender hands and feet, broad visages, small eyes, wide mouths, the most part unbearded, great lips and close teethed ; they are much given to bleed, and therefore stop their noses with deer's hair, or that of an elan. They are very simple in their conversation, but marvellously given to thieving, especially of iron; they did eat all their meat raw."

Ancient History

Books

Farthest North: The Epic Adventure of a Visionary Explorer

Published:

June 17, 1896

Farthest North: The Epic Adventure of a Visionary Explorer

A Study of the Diet and Metabolism of Eskimos Undertaken in 1908 on an Expedition to Greenland

Published:

January 1, 1908

A Study of the Diet and Metabolism of Eskimos Undertaken in 1908 on an Expedition to Greenland

My Life with the Eskimo

Published:

January 1, 1913

My Life with the Eskimo

Ada Blackjack: A True Story of Survival in the Arctic

Published:

September 1, 1921

Ada Blackjack: A True Story of Survival in the Arctic

Hunters of the Great North

Published:

January 1, 1922

Hunters of the Great North

The Friendly Arctic: The Story of Five Years in Polar Regions

Published:

January 1, 1922

The Friendly Arctic: The Story of Five Years in Polar Regions

The Land of Feast and Famine

Published:

January 1, 1931

The Land of Feast and Famine

Kabloona: Among the Inuit

Published:

January 2, 1941

Kabloona: Among the Inuit

Not by Bread Alone

Published:

January 1, 1946

Not by Bread Alone

The Fat of the Land

Published:

January 1, 1946

The Fat of the Land