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An Eskimo family is stuck starving in the cold and a search party delays through a Sunday to not break the sabbath.

March 10, 1910

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My Life with the Eskimo - Chapter 6

Vilhjalmur Stefansson

Biblical Fundamentalism
Christianization
Religion
Eskimo

Early one Saturday afternoon about Christmas time a man and his wife arrived at Cape Smythe with a few caribou skins to sell. The word that they had skins for sale and sinew passed around quickly, and I heard of it the same day because my Eskimo, Natkusiak, came and asked me whether I wanted to buy any of the skins. The couple reported that they had been spending the autumn on the upper Colville River, that game had become scarce there, and that they had struck across country, a distance of perhaps two hundred miles, toward Cape Smythe. This was the substance of all they told until about midnight of the day of their arrival, when they added the further detail that on the Colville with them had been another Eskimo family, the woman of which was the sister of the man who had arrived at Cape Smythe. The two families with their two dog-sleds had left the Colville together, but the man now at Cape Smythe had had his sled loaded with caribou meat and the other family had none. With great magnanimity the man who had the meat fed his sister and her husband, but would not give their dogs anything to eat, although he fed his own dogs well. The result was that the dogs of the second couple got weak with hunger and finally froze to death. When the dogs were all dead the second family were no longer able to keep up, and so were left behind about forty miles east of Cape Smythe. 


When the Cape Smythe people heard this story they immediately set about organizing a search party and were about to start off when somebody pointed out that it was now already Sunday (for Sunday, according to Cape Smythe opinion, begins at twelve o'clock Saturday night). When those about to start on the search for the abandoned couple realized it was Sunday they saw at once that nothing could be done, for no work must be done on the Sabbath , and especially no journey must be started on the Sabbath day. 


Curiously enough, although all the white men at Cape Smythe had heard at noon on Saturday the story of the arrival of the couple with the skins to sell, none of us happened to hear until late Sunday evening the story of the other couple who had been left to starve thirty or forty miles to the east of us. We found out later that the case had been the subject of continuous conversation among the Eskimo for the last twenty-four hours, but for some strange reason none of us happened to hear of it. Dr. Marsh conducted his Sunday evening service that night in the ordinary way, but when it was over he was surprised to find that the people, instead of going home at once as they commonly did on Sunday nights, all lingered about the church . When he asked them what they were waiting for they told him they were waiting for Sunday to be over, so they could start out to the rescue of a man and his wife who were starving and probably freezing to death. As soon as Dr. Marsh realized the facts he did everything possible to get the search party started, but it was already after midnight and the Sabbath well over when they finally got off. 


In following the trail eastward they found evidences to show that the couple who had arrived at Cape Smythe had been traveling with great speed, taking turns sitting on the sled while the other ran ahead of the dogs. In other words, had they so desired they could very easily have brought home the other couple instead of abandoning them, for both they and their dogs had evidently been in full strength. 


A blizzard came up on Monday morning before the searching party had got far enough east to discover the place where the couple had been abandoned. The Sunday which they had wasted in inactivity had been a day of excellent weather, but that was all changed now, for the snow was drifting so thick that the searchers were unable to find the abandoned couple and returned empty-handed on the second day. But the same morning on which the searchers returned empty-handed to Cape Smythe, Mr. Thomas Gordon, who lives three miles north of the Cape, heard a faint noise outside his man. door. He took it for the noise made by the scratching of a dog, but a few minutes later when the door was accidentally opened by some member of the household they found outside it an unconscious man. When the warmth of the house had restored him it turned out that he was the man of the couple who had been abandoned. He had barely had the strength to drag himself to Mr. Gordon's house and had collapsed two or three times within the last two hundred or three hundred yards before reaching it . Mr. Gordon at once sent out a search party, who followed the man's trail through the snow and found his wife, with her hands and feet slightly frozen, in a fireless camp a few miles to the east. 


During the next few weeks I often saw the abandoned man and his wife, but the couple who abandoned them I now met here in Smith Bay for the first time. When we took our meal together on the first evening I noticed that this man was the one who took it upon himself to say grace, and as the circumstance interested me I inquired carefully of him about his religious views and how long he had been a Christian. He had been a Christian for about ten years, he said, and knew more prayers than any other Eskimo and was very particular not to break any of the commandments of the Lord . For many years he had done no work on Sunday; for many years he had never eaten a meal without saying grace; and in every other way he lived according to the law as he understood it. I asked him whether he had never heard that such things as leaving his sister to starve to death were also against the law of the Lord. He replied that he never had heard anything about a that th.. His Christianity, he told me with evident regret, might not be the best and most up-to-date kind, for he had never himself had the chance to get any first-hand from a missionary . He had learned his Christianity entirely from the converted Eskimo of the Kuvuk River, who, he said , might not be well informed about all the prohibitions neces sary for salvation. 


It may be worth a passing note that the abandoned family were also Christians. During the several weeks that they were being nursed back to health by Mr. and Mrs. Gordon they noticed Mr. Gordon never said grace at meals, and they many times expressed to my Eskimo companion, Natkusiak, their strong abhorrence of their host's irreverent ways. After they finally left his house and began to live with some Eskimo relatives in the Cape Smythe village I questioned them as to what they thought of Mr. Gordon and got some frank criticisms, but no expression of gratitude. The following spring when Mr. Gordon needed some help in whaling he asked this man to work for him, but he preferred to work for some one else at the same salary offered by Mr. Gordon.