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Ingstad meets Antoine, a Caribou-Eater who offers to take the trapper to his people near Lake Nonacho to hunt and fish. "From the caribou these Indians derive most of the food they require."

September 1, 1928

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The Land of Feast and Famine - Autumn Journey to the Land of the Caribou-Eaters

Helge Ingstad

Man The Fat Hunter
Facultative Carnivore
Pre-civilization races
Carnivore Diet

The factors had just returned to Snowdrift with a new stock of merchandise, and the Indians came paddling in from the islands in order to purchase toboggans and their winter supplies of ammunition, tobacco, and tea. Then they set their course eastward to Fond du Lac, whence they would start out for their hunting-grounds in the interior of the Barren Lands. 


Dale was bound for the land of the Hudson Bay Eskimos. I, too, had made up my mind to leave Indian country behind, was thinking of going up north on my own, and was in the very act of making last-minute preparations, when I met Antoine. 


Antoine was not a member of the Slave Lake tribe of Indians; he was a Caribou-Eater. The hunting-grounds of this tribe lie far off to the east and southeast of the lake. There a mighty arm of the forest extends far into the Barren Lands; it is crossed and recrossed by countless rivers and chains of large lakes. It is richer in fish and game than many another section and in olden times was the scene of many a bitter conflict between the tribes. 


From the caribou these Indians derive most of the food they require. They live a more isolated life than the other tribes and are renowned as an energetic, nomadic hunter-folk, covering vast distances in the course of their travels. There exist many legends concerning their adventurous life, and their bitter struggles against hunger and cold when the caribou fail to appear. To be sure, the Indians who live in the neighborhood of Snowdrift are dependent upon the caribou during the greater part of each year, but the name " Caribou-Eater " has a natural association with the eastern plains, where the ancestors of this present folk chose emphatically to settle. 


Originally there were large numbers of them, but sickness has claimed its toll, and today only a small group of them are left; these live on the banks of Nonacho Lake (the lake "with a string of islands"). It was from this district that Antoine had come. 


I was sitting in front of my tent and struggling to repair a snowshoe when he suddenly appeared in front of me. Without uttering a word he picked up the snowshoe and with swift dexterity laced it with babiche; before I knew it, he smiled and returned the snowshoe to my hand. He then paused to admire my dogs and asked me whither I was bound. I motioned toward the north. Then he said: "Si, nen, Thelon thesi, white fox ihle, nezon (I, you, Thelon River go, many white fox, good)." I asked where we would be able to find fuel so far in the interior of the Barren Lands. He flung his arms out in the direction of the east and answered: " Nacha tue, detchen thle, sentilly (Big lake, lot of trees, all right)." 


This interested me, not so much because of the hunting possibilities, but because it would give me an opportunity to live with the Caribou-Eaters and, together with them, penetrate into the country which had haunted my mind ever since I had come north: the country lying at the source of the Thelon River. The lower reaches of the river had been traced out by Tyrell; it winds its way through endless expanses of treeless plain before, at length, it empties as a mighty stream into Hudson Bay. But its head waters are unknown. They have forever been veiled in mystery. It is known, of course, that the Caribou-Eater Indians annually make long journeys by dog-sled to the upper Thelon, but they jealously guard the secrets surrounding this part of the country. Word had been spread abroad concerning a tract of forest growing about several large lakes in the very heart of the Barren Lands. 


In the last analysis it is probable that this is the same freak of nature which Samuel Hearne heard mentioned when, in 1770-2, together with the Indians, he made his famous journey across the Barrens from Prince of Wales Fort on Hudson Bay to the mouth of the Coppermine River. In his travel notes, he writes: " For more than a generation past one family only, as it may be called . . . have taken up their Winter abode in those woods, which are situated so far on the barren ground as to be quite out of the track of any other Indians. . . . Few of the trading Northern Indians have visited this place; but those who have, give a pleasing description of it, all agreeing that it is situated on the banks of a river which has communication with several fine lakes. . . . The accounts given of this place, and the manner of life of its inhabitants, would, if related at full length, fill a volume. . . ." * 


1  Samuel Hearne: A Journey from Prince of Wales Fort in Hudson's Bay, to the Northern Ocean. Undertaken by Order of the Hudson's Bay Company, for the Discovery of Copper Mines, a North West Passage, &c. In the Years 1769,1770, 1771, & 1772. (London: A. Strahan and T. Cadell; 1795.)


Antoine and I immediately came to an agreement. We decided that we would fish and hunt moose along the Snowdrift River until the caribou should appear from the north.  On our first journey by sled we would follow the herd on their customary migration in a southeasterly direction as far as Otter Lake, where Antoine had arranged a meeting with other members of his tribe. Together with them, we would proceed to the main village of the Caribou-Eaters, on the shores of Nonacho Lake, from there making a rapid journey with a large following of Indians in the direction of the Thelon River. 


Seven miles east, where the Snowdrift River empties into Stark Lake, was a well-known fishing-place. Thither we paddled, Antoine with his wife and children, and there, on the bank of the river, we raised our tents. We soon made the acquaintance of several other families belonging to the Slave Lake tribe. These, too, had planned to wait for good sledding before proceeding on into the Barrens. They were headed in a more northerly direction than we, in order that they might meet the Indians who, during the autumn, would be traveling through the country by canoe.