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Much of what we know about the life and culture of the Eskimo people of North America in the early part of the Twentieth Century comes from the Fifth Thule Expedition led by Professor Knud Rasmussen, a Danish anthropologist. The songs and stories given here are extracts from the reports of this expedition, which crossed North America from east of Baffin Land to Alaska. Rasmussen continued across the Bering Straight to Siberia to talk with the Chukchi, who also follow the Eskimo way of life.
Rasmussen wrote that there is scarcely any country on earth that present conditions more severe and inclement for man than the most easterly parts of the Northwest Passage. Yet there the Netsilik Eskimos for generations knew how to wage the struggle for existence, in such a manner that strangers coming among them would involuntarily receive the impression that here was a people who desired no better hunting grounds than these, the very ones where their ancestors developed that special culture which they have faithfully handed down from father to son. But as some of the extracts show, life could be extremely grim.
For these and other Eskimos, a hard, stormy winter took up most of their lives, beginning in September and lasting into spring—the middle of June. In winter they had to contend with temperatures that fluctuated between -30 deg. and -50 deg. In spring it was often so raw and stormy that food was obtained only with great difficulty. A few warm days occurred in May, June, July and August when nature awoke and everything seemed to be growing. Then it feels wonderful to be alive, wrote Rasmussen. But such periods are brief.
In these inclement surroundings, human creativity continued. Most groups of Eskimos had their own songs, composing the words themselves to suit the occasion. In Alaska, Rasmussen found the gift of song particularly among men. With the Netsilik Eskimos he found that song seemed indispensable, being sung at all times of the day. Among the Iglulik he found great winter song festivals, with men women and children all contributing. He also encountered in shamans a shrewd understanding of the condition of the Eskimo.
How many songs I own, I cannot say. I have not kept count of them. I merely know I have many, and that everything in me is song. I sing as I draw breath!
Willow Twig, Alaskan Eskimo
Songs are thoughts, sung out with the breath when people are moved by great forces and ordinary speech no longer suffices. Man is moved just like the ice floe sailing here and there out in the current. His thoughts are driven by a flowing force when he feels joy, when he feels fear, when he feels sorrow. Thoughts can wash over him like a flood, making his breath come in gasps and his heart throb. Something, like an abatement in the weather, will keep him thawed up. And then it will happen that we, who always think we are small, will feel still smaller. And we will fear to use words. But it will happen that the words we need will come of themselves. When the words we want to use shoot up of themselves—we get a new song.
Orpingalik, Netsilik Eskimo
A wonderful occupation
But all too often they
A wonderful fate
Getting wishes fulfilled!
But all too often they
A wonderful occupation
But all too rarely we
Excel at it
So that we stand
Like a bright flame
Over the plain.
Piuvkaq, Netsilik Eskimo
Oft do I return
To my little song.
And patiently I hunt it
Above a fishing hole
In the ice.
This simple little song
I can keep on humming,
I, who else too quickly
Tire when fishing—
Up the stream.
Cold blows the wind
Where I stand on the ice,
I am not long in giving up!
When I get home
With a catch that does not suffice,
I usually say
It was the fish
Up the stream.
And yet, glorious is it
The river’s snow-soft ice
As long as my legs care.
Alas! My life has now glided
Far from the wide views of the peaks
Deep down into the vale of age—
Up the stream
If I go hunting the land beasts,
Or if I try to fish,
Quickly I fall to my knees,
Stricken with faintness.
Never again shall I feel
The wildness of strength,
When on an errand I go in over land
From my house and those I provide for—
Up the stream.
A worn-out man, that’s all,
A fisher, who ever without luck
Makes holes in river or lake ice
Where no trout will bite.
But life itself is still
So full of goading excitement!
I have only my song,
Though it too is slipping from me.
For I am merely
Quite an ordinary hunter,
Who never inherited song
From the twittering birds of the sky.
Ikinilik, Netsilik Eskimo
Your mother’s breasts are full of milk.
Go and be nursed,
Go and drink!
Go up to the mountain!
From the summit of the mountain
You shall seek health,
You shall draw life.
Aua, Iglulik Eskimo
In days gone by, every autumn, we held big feasts for the soul of the whale, feasts which should always be opened with new songs which the men composed. The spirits were to be summoned with fresh words; worn-out songs could never be used when men and women danced and sang in homage to the big quarry. And it was the custom that during the time when the men were finding the words for these hymns, all lamps had to be extinguished. Darkness and stillness were to reign in the festival house. Nothing must disturb them, nothing divert them. In deep silence they sat in the dark, thinking; all the men, both old and young, in fact even the youngest of the boys if only they were old enough to speak. It was this stillness we called qarrtsiluni, which means that one waits for something to burst.
For our forefathers believed that the songs were born in this stillness while all endeavored to think of nothing but beautiful things. Then they take shape in the minds of men and rise up like bubbles from the depths, of the sea, bubbles seeking the air in order to burst. That is how the sacred songs are made!
Majuaq, Alaskan Eskimo
You have seen us happy this summer; we have been happy, not only because we have enjoyed living together with entirely new people in our village, who came to us from far away and yet could speak our tongue. You also came to us with ammunition for our guns and with iron for our ice-hunting harpoons. And this has increased our happiness at being with you. For we Netsilingmiut are like this: even though we don’t go hanging our heads with anxiety over how many snow storms next winter will have in store for us, we feel in fact safer and in better humor when our hunting gear and ammunition are as we like to have them.
I suppose you have seen sufficient of our life up here to understand that there is never too much meat. Of course, there are times when we kill much more than we can eat on the spot, for instance in autumn when the caribou gather in herds to leave our country. The same is the case when the trout are many in the rivers near the time when the ice spreads over the lakes. In times like these we often feel we have so much food that we will not be able to eat it all. But whoever does that forgets the many, many days in winter when we can find no food at all; he forgets that the caribou go away from our country and that even the seals may disappear, or snowstorms prevent us from finding their breathing holes. And so the man that is wise never lolls about idle when the weather is good; he can never know when bad days may eat up his meat caches and drive him and his family into starvation.
Life is so with us that we are never surprised when we hear that someone has starved to death. We are so used to it. It sometimes happens to the best of us. They cannot help it, it is not their fault, it is either sila [the weather] or persaq [blizzard] or to’nraq [evil spirit, i. e. sickness].
Qaqortingneq, Netsilik Eskimo
Oh! You strangers only see us happy and free of care. But if you knew the horrors we often have to live through, you would understand too why we are so fond of laughing, why we love food and song and dancing. There is not one among us but has experienced a winter of bad hunting, when many people starved to death around us and when we ourselves only pulled through by accident. I once saw a wise old man hang himself, because he was starving to death; he had retained his senses and preferred to die in time. . .
Qaqortingneq, Netsilik Eskimo
What would I like? I would like at all times to have the food I require, that is to say animals enough, and then the clothes that can shield me from wind and weather and cold.
I would like to live without sadness and without pain, I mean without suffering of any kind, without sickness.
And as a man I wish to be so close to all kinds of animals that in the hunt and at all kinds of sports I can excel over my countrymen.
All that I desire for myself I desire also for those who through relationship are near to me in this life.
Qaqortingneq, Netsilik Eskimo
For several evenings Knud Rasmussen, Aua, a shaman, and other Eskimos had discussed rules of life and taboo customs of the Iglulik Eskimos. They did not get beyond a long statement of all that was permitted and all that was forbidden, for whenever Rasmussen asked "Why?" they could give no answers.
As if seized by a sudden impulse, Aua took Rasmussen outside with him, where the snow was being lashed about in waves by the wind, and said:
"In order to hunt well and live happily, man must have calm weather. Why this constant succession of blizzards and all this needless hardship for men seeking food for themselves and those they care for? Why? Why?’’ ,
Aua then led him to Kublo’s house. A small blubber lamp burned with but the faintest flame, giving out no heat whatever; a couple of children crouched, shivering, under a skin rug on the bench. Aua asked Rasmussen:
"Why should it be cold and comfortless in here? Kublo has been out hunting all day, and if he had got a seal, as he deserved, his wife would now be sitting laughing beside her lamp, letting it burn full, without fear of having no blubber left for tomorrow. The place would be warm and bright and cheerful, the children would come out from under their rugs and enjoy life. Why should it not be so? Why?"
Rasmussen made no answer, and followed him out of the house, into a little snow hut where Aua’s sister, Natseq, lived all by herself because she was ill. A third time Aua looked at Rasmussen and said:
"Why must people be ill and suffer pain? We are all afraid of illness. Here is this old sister of mine; as far as anyone can see, she has done no evil: she has lived through a long life and given birth to healthy children, and now she must suffer before her days end. Why? Why?" . . .
"You see, you are equally unable to give any reason when we ask you why life is as it is. And so it must be. All our customs come from life and turn towards life; we explain nothing, we believe nothing, but in what I have just shown you lies answer to all you ask.
"We fear the weather spirit of earth, which we must fight against to wrest our food from land and sea. We fear Sila [the weather].
"We fear death and hunger in the cold snow huts.
"We fear Takfinakapsfiluk, the great woman down at the bottom of the sea, that rules over all the beasts of the sea.
"We fear the sickness that we meet with daily all around us; not death, but the suffering. We fear the evil spirits of life, those of the air, of the sea and the earth, that can help wicked shamans to harm their fellow men.
"We fear the souls of dead human beings and of the animals we have killed.
"Therefore it is that our fathers have inherited from their fathers all the old rules of life which are based on the experience and wisdom of generations. We do not know how, we cannot say why, but we keep those rules in order that we may live untroubled. And so ignorant are we in spite of all our shamans, that we fear everything unfamiliar. We fear what we see about us, and we fear all the invisible things that are likewise about us, all that we have heard of in our forefathers’ stories and myths. Therefore we have our customs, which are not the same as those of the white men, the white men who live in another land and have need of other ways."
Aua, Iglulik Eskimo
When the Chukchi first came out to the sea there were no Eskimos there. They saw all kinds of game—seals, whales and walruses, but it was a long time before they learned how to hunt them. They tried building boats to chase them far out, but their hunting weapons were not good and they often went hungry despite the abundance in the sea. They had no idea what to do. There was game enough, but they were ignorant of how to catch it.
At last they set out on long voyages, both along the coast and over the sea, where far out they caught a glimpse of a land. It was Diomede Island. There they fell in with a foreign people whose tongue they could not understand; they called themselves Yut—Eskimos—and like themselves they lived by the sea, but they had good hunting implements and many cunning ways of catching seals, whales and walruses; they had harpoons with line and bladder, and they had large sea-going skin boats and small fast kayaks.
All the same, they were a dangerous people to live with, and quarrels often arose between them. It happened that a whole boat’s crew of Chukchi were attacked and killed. This was too much, and so all the men of many settlements rallied and set off across the sea, and when the Eskimos saw the boats and all the many people, they made haste to prepare for a battle.
The Chukchi, however, had not come to fight; they simply suggested that they should come to a mutual agreement and then live in peace and trade with one another. Then they emptied all their boats of the trade-goods they had brought with them: skins of caribou and beautiful white spotted skins of reindeer, wolf skins and wolverine skins, which they spread over the rocks at the foreign settlement; and the Eskimos looked at all the furs, furs which they needed but were unable to procure themselves, for of course they lived on a little island out in the middle of the ocean.
This was how the Chukchi opened negotiations, the result being that peace was declared—and has never since been broken.
A young man was once hunting caribou, but without killing them. He merely followed them, appearing every time they tried to escape from him; in that way he tired them.
In the end the animals were so exhausted that they no longer avoided him. Thus they became accustomed to his voice, and were no longer afraid of him.
At length the young man married, but still followed the caribou, which accumulated and became more and more numerous. The only time he came back to the house he had had built was when his clothing was worn out. His wife made new clothes for him, after which he went back to the caribou and kept on following them, so that they might become familiar with him. He was wise in his way of handling them, and as he never made them afraid or chased them, they became almost tame.
Summer and autumn passed, and winter came, but still the young man was with his caribou, which were now multiplying, while other herds joined his. Then he moved his tent out to the herd, and thus he became the first caribou herdsman.
Atârnaq, Alaskan Eskimo
I have come out of my house to see a new person, a stranger who is a grown man; I was born before all the others of my tribe, so the new people I otherwise see are always newly born.
My name is Arnagliaq. I am so old that I have nothing to pay with, and yet I am a woman and need both sewing needle and thimble. If you give me these things I can only repay you with a wish. And that is: May you live long! But if I were to add another wish to these words, a wish that comes from the experience that my age gives me, it is this: May you never be as old as I am!
Arnagliaq, Netsilik Eskimo
Published with the permission of the Estate of Knud Rasmussen, which holds the copyright of the above works.
1, 6, 11, 12 The Alaskan Eskimos, by Knud Rasmussen, Edited by H. Ostermann and E. Holtved. Translated by W. E. Calvert. Report of the Fifth Thule Expedition 1921-24, Vol. X, No.3. Gyldendalske Boghandel, Nordisk Forlag, Copenhagen, 1952. (pp. 137, 102, 94, 253)
2, 3, 4, 7, 8, 9, 13 The Netsilik Eskimos—Social Life and Spiritual Culture, by Knud Rasmussen. Report of the Fifth Thule Expedition 1921-24, Vol. VIII, No.1-2. Gyldendalske Boghandel, Nordisk Forlag, Copenhagen, 1931. (pp. 321, 511, 509, 134, 138, 225, 47)
5, 10 Intellectual Culture of the Iglulik Eskimos, by Knud Rasmussen. Report of the Fifth Thule Expedition 1921-24, Vol. VII, No.1. Gyldendalske Boghandel, Nordisk Forlag, Copenhagen, 1929. (pp. 167, 54)