Historical Events

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A meeting is arranged by Stefansson between the Slavey Indians and the Eskimos

September 13, 1910

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My Life with the Eskimo - Chapter 13

Christianization
Pre-civilization races
Religion
Eskimo

Vilhjalmur Stefansson

On our return journey from Bear Lake I was one morning surprised to see on the sky-line a party who evidently were not Eskimo. We hastened to intercept them, and found them to be Slavey Indians, one of whom spoke fairly good English. They had been to the northward hunting caribou, and with a vague notion that they wanted to go farther than usual on the chance of seeing Eskimo. Two days before we saw them, when they had found traces of Eskimo, they had completely lost their desire to see them. Their courage had suddenly given out, and they were now in full retreat. When they learned, however, that we had been spending several months with the Eskimo and had found them to be very friendly, the English speaking Slavey, who gave his name as Jimmie Soldat, told me that he was in the service of my friend Hornby; that Hornby had told him to keep a lookout for me, and to assist me in every way he could, and that Hornby had further requested that I take Jimmie in hand and bring him in contact with the Eskimo, so that later Jimmie might be able to guide Hornby to the place where the Eskimo are. 


Now I did not desire to bring my unspoiled Coronation Gulf people into contact with civilization, with the ravages of which among the Eskimo of Alaska and the Mackenzie I am too familiar; but it seemed that the thing could not be staved off for more than a year or two, anyway, for the fact of my living with the Eskimo was already well known, and both the traders and missionaries who operate through Fort Norman would be sure to make use of the information. While I regretted the event in general, I was glad to be able to do a service, as I thought, to my friends Melvill and Hornby; so next day I took Jimmie and two of his Slavey companions to within a mile or two of an Eskimo encampment, and left them there in hiding behind a hill while I went to the Eskimo to ask their permission to bring the Indians into camp. 


At first the Eskimo refused flatly. They said that they themselves had never had anything to do with the Indians; that their ancestors had had but rare contact with them, and that this contact had never been friendly; that sometimes Indians had killed some of them and sometimes they had killed some Indians, and that now no doubt these Indians had treacherous intentions in wanting to be introduced into camp. Through our long residence with them, however, Natkusiak and I had their confidence so fully that we finally talked them into allowing the Indians to come, on the condition that they leave their weapons behind them. 


When I returned to Jimmie with this ultimatum, the Indians in their turn said that the intentions of the Eskimo were clear: that they intended to get them unarmed into their clutches and murder them, and Jimmie would have nothing more of the adventure. His backing out at this stage, however, did not suit me, for the Eskimo were sure to take that as a sign of treachery, and it would not have been a day until every Eskimo party in the neighborhood was on its way to the coast in a retreat in which they would have abandoned their sleds, their skins intended for clothing, and through which we would lose prestige by having brought this calamity upon them. Natkusiak and I therefore took the Indians practically by force into camp, threatening them with all sorts of dire results if they backed out. The Eskimo's reception of the Indians was friendly. The Indians were dressed in white men's clothing, and were not at all what the Eskimo had expected Indians to be like; and in fact several of them said to me at once that had they known the Indians were like this they would not have been so frightened of them.


 This was early September, and the nights were dark at midnight. We had brought the Indians to camp about sundown, and an hour later, when supper had been eaten, the Eskimo invited the Indians to come and sleep in their tents; but this the Indians would not do, saying that it was their custom to sit beside the fire. This seemed to the Eskimo a strange thing, but to me it was a self- evident fib. The Indians were simply too frightened to trust themselves in the dwellings of the Eskimo. Natkusiak and I therefore sat up with the Indians for an hour or two until all the Eskimo were sound asleep, and then finally, by lying down one on either side, we got the Indians to go to sleep between us. The next morning after breakfast the Indians invited the Eskimo to accompany them down to their lodges, where they had considerable quantities of smoked caribou meat, caribou fat, and marrow-bones. Seven of the Eskimo went, including two women, and much of the forenoon was spent in the commodious lodges of the Slaveys in feasting and in exchanging opinions, in all of which I had to act as interpreter. 


Finally when the feast was over and the Eskimo were apparently in the best of spirits, Jimmie brought forward a package of pictures of saints and holy men, and made a little speech in which he asked me to tell the Eskimo that he was an ambassador of a bishop of the Roman Catholic Church, and that the bishop said that if they were good men and never killed any more Indians and ab jured their heathenish practices, he would come and build a mission among them and would convert them to the true faith. This speech, which meant so much to the Indian, would of course have meant nothing to the Eskimo, for they had never heard of the good bishop or of the faith he preaches. Jimmie went on to say that he had a picture for each of them, and that if they would take them and wear them over their hearts, the pictures would protect them from all evil and be of the greatest value to them. Without translating any of these things, I took the pictures, which were the ordinary religious chromos, and gave them to the Eskimo. 


It turned out that Jimmie had had no commission from Hornby, and that he had merely, from overhearing Melvill's and Hornby's conversation, found out that I was a friend of theirs, and he had used this knowledge in a confidence game of his own, the object of which was to become the first Indian who had been in friendly contact with the Eskimo, that he might thereafter pride himself on that fact, and might be able to represent himself to the bishop as having been a pioneer in the spread of the faith among the Eskimo. Apparently the results have been what he desired, for I have since heard that the Roman Catholic Church sent in missionaries at once, who arrived among the Eskimo soon after we left them, and whose work in that field will no doubt continue indefinitely. 


Among other things, Jimmie told me that Melvill and Hornby were somewhere on Great Bear Lake. This was good news, and from that time I was continually on the lookout for some signs of them. Finally, on the 13th of September, it happened that the pursuit of a large band of bull caribou had taken me a long distance away from our camp, and when I finally shot three of the animals it was on a slope of a hill facing the southwest. While I was skinning them I happened to look in the direction of Bear Lake, which lay some fifteen miles distant, and there, not more than a mile away, was pitched a tepee. I took this for an Indian camp, but went up to it to make inquiries about my friends, and it turned out to be their camp. They had a day or two before heard from Jimmie about my presence in the country, and were also looking for me. They had been down on the Mackenzie River in the summer, and had some news of the outside world. King Edward was dead, and a heavier than air flying-machine had crossed the English Channel. This news, not half a year old, was fresh news indeed in that country.