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Stefansson stays at Fort Macpherson and preps for living off the land. He also describes a story of deaths caused by eating poised white whale.

July 23, 1909

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My Life with the Eskimo - Chapter 3

Vilhjalmur Stefansson

Religion
Eskimo
Carnivore Diet

During my stay at Fort Macpherson I was the guest of Major Jarvis. The rest of the policemen occupied the barracks on top of the high bluffs that here flank the eastern side of the Peel, but the Major preferred a tent by himself down by the riverside. Soon after our arrival, the Eskimo boats began to come from the North and the Major's tent became the center of a village of their tents. Most of the Eskimo were old friends among whom I had lived on my previous expedition. There was much talking and laughter, and apparently they were very glad to see me, but no more glad, I am sure, than I was to see them, for I had reason to consider some of them among my best friends in the world. Under their communistic system of living the Eskimo have developed the social virtues to a considerably higher degree than we have; they are therefore people easy to live with, and one readily makes friends among them, but, of course, they differ individually as we do. Of all those who came here this summer the finest, in my estimation, was Ovayuak, a man who had been my host for several months during 1906–1907. The Hudson's Bay Company had recognized in him the same qualities which were apparent to me, and had accordingly made him a “Chief,” which merely means that he is the Company's accredited representa tive among his countrymen , and acts, in a sense, as the Company's agent. In talking with Ovayuak I found that many of my acquaintances of a few years before were dead, some of them of consumption, some of unknown diseases, and a group of eight had been poisoned by eating the meat of a freshly killed white whale. It happens every now and then that a whole party of natives is killed by eating white whale meat. This sort of thing is referred to by the whalers ordinarily as ptomaine poisoning; but it can scarcely be that, as I have seen tons of semi- decayed whale meat eaten and have never known a single case of sickness or death connected therewith, while the poisonings always occur at feasts which are held immediately after the killing of a whale, or else from whale meat that has been cut up promptly after the killing and stored so as to largely or entirely prevent its decay. On the lower posts of the Mackenzie River and here at Mac pherson we had gradually been picking up such dogs as were for sale, and now had eleven all together. So as to put in operation as early as possible our principle of living on the country, we began here to set our fish nets to get food for ourselves and the dogs, but there were so many other nets in the water that we got very little, and I had to buy a few hundred pounds of dried fish to eke out.


We reached the open ocean July 23d, but were delayed here somewhat by strong winds, for, like the delta flats of any other river, the Mackenzie mouth is an exceedingly dangerous place in a high wind, when mountainous breakers roll in from the open sea. On the 24th we reached the first Eskimo camp on the coast, at a place called Niakonak, just after the sudden death of a woman and young girl from white whale poisoning. This is another of the cases I have since heard referred to by mounted policemen and whalers as ptomaine poisoning. But the Eskimo explain it by saying that the women died because they made some caribou skin into garments the day after they ate white whale. In other words, they had broken a taboo. Personally, I agree neither with the policemen nor the Eskimo. It seems to me the poisoning could scarcely have been ptomaine, because the meal after which the women sickened took place within three or four hours after the animal was killed; in fact, the pieces of meat were put right into the pot the moment they were cut from the animal.