Historical Events

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"But show him the work of the rifle, which he does not in the least understand, and he is face to face with a miracle; he judges it by the standards of the supernatural instead of by the standards of the natural; he compares it with other miraculous things of which he has heard and which he may even think he has himself seen, and he finds it not at all beyond the average of miracles"

May 14, 1910

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My Life with the Eskimo - Chapter 11

Vilhjalmur Stefansson

Pre-civilization races
Religion
Eskimo

One of the things that interested me was to see some shooting with the strong-looking bows and long copper-tipped arrows that we found in the possession of every man of the tribe. I therefore said that I would like to have them illustrate to me the manner in which they killed caribou, and I would in turn show them the weapons and method used by us. Half a dozen of the men at once sent home for their bows, and a block of snow to serve as a target was set up in front of our house. The range at which a target a foot square could be hit with fair regularity turned out to be about thirty or thirty -five yards, and the extreme range of the bow was a bit over one hundred yards, while the range at which caribou are ordinarily shot was shown to be about seventy - five yards. When the exhibition was over, I set up a stick at about two hundred yards and fired at it. The people men, women, and children -who stood around had no idea as to the character of the thing I was about to do, and when they heard the loud report of my gun all the women and children made a scramble for the houses, while the men ran back about fifteen or twenty yards and stood talking together excitedly behind a snow wall. I at once went to them and asked them to come with me to the stick and see what had happened to it. After some persuasion three of them complied, but unfortunately for me it turned out that I had failed to score. At this they seemed much relieved, but when I told them I would try again they protested earnestly, saying that so loud a noise would scare all the seals away from their hunting grounds, and the people would therefore starve. 


It seemed to me imperative, however, to show them I could keep my word and perforate the stick at two hundred yards, and in spite of their protests I got ready to shoot again, telling them that we used these weapons in the west for seal-hunting, and that the noise was found not to scare seals away. The second shot happened to hit, but on the whole the mark of the bullet on the stick impressed them far less than the noise. In fact, they did not seem to marvel at it at all. When I explained to them that I could kill a polar bear or a caribou at even twice the distance the stick had been from me they exhibited no surprise, but asked me if I could with my rifle kill a caribou on the other side of a mountain. When I said that I could not, they told me a great shaman in a neighboring tribe had a magic arrow by which he could kill caribou on the other side of no matter how big a mountain. In other words, much to my surprise, they considered the performance of my rifle nothing wonderful.


 I understand the point of view better now than I did then. It is simply this: if you were to show an Eskimo a bow that would in the ordinary way shoot fifty yards farther than any bow he ever saw, the man would never cease marveling, and he would tell of that bow as long as he lived; he would understand exactly the principle on which it works, would judge it by the standards of the natural, and would find it to excel marvelously. But show him the work of the rifle, which he does not in the least understand, and he is face to face with a miracle; he judges it by the standards of the supernatural instead of by the standards of the natural; he compares it with other miraculous things of which he has heard and which he may even think he has himself seen, and he finds it not at all beyond the average of miracles; for the wonders of our science and the wildest tales of our own mythologies pale beside the marvels which the Eskimo suppose to be happening all around them every day at the behest of their magicians. 


Perhaps I might here digress from the chronological order of my story to point out that the Eskimo's refusal to be astonished by the killing at a great distance of caribou or a bear by a rifle bullet whose flight was unerring and invisible, was not an isolated case. When I showed them later my binoculars that made far-away things seem near and clear, they were of course interested when I looked to the south or east and saw bands of caribou that were to them invisible, they applauded, and then followed the suggestion: “Now that you have looked for the caribou that are here today and found them, will you not also look for the caribou that are coming tomorrow, so that we can tell where to lie in ambush for them? ” When they heard that my glasses could not see into the future, they were disappointed and naturally the reverse of well impressed with our powers, for they knew that their own medicine-men had charms and magic paraphernalia that enabled them to see things the morrow was to bring forth. 


At another time, in describing to them the skill of our surgeons, I told that they could put a man to sleep and while he slept take out a section of his intestines or one of his kidneys, and the man when he woke up would not even know what had been done to him, except as he was told and as he could see the sewed -up opening through wkích the part had been removed. Our doctors could even transplant the organs of one man into the body of another. These things I had actually never seen done, but that they were done was a matter of common knowledge in my country. It was similar in their country, one of my listeners told me. He himself had a friend who suffered continually from backache until a great medicine -man undertook to treat him. The next night, while the patient slept, the medicine -man removed the entire spinal column, which had become diseased, and replaced it with a complete new set of vertebræ, and what was most wonderful — there was not a scratch on the patient's skin or anything to show that the exchange had been made. This thing the narrator had not seen done, but the truth of it was a matter of common knowledge among his people. Another man had had his diseased heart replaced with a new and sound one. In other words, the Eskimo believed as thoroughly as I in the truth of what he told; ' neither of us had seen the things actually done, but that they were done was a matter of common belief among our respective country men; and the things he told of his medicine-men were more marvelous than the things I could tell of mine. In fact, I had to admit that the transplanting of spinal columns and hearts was beyond the skill of my countrymen; and as they had the good breeding not to openly doubt any of my stories, it would have been ill-mannered of me to question theirs. Besides, questioning them would have done no good; I could not have changed by an iota their rock-founded faith in their medicine-men and spirit -compelling charms. In spite of any arguments I could have put forth, the net result of our exchange of stories would have been just what it was, anyway—that they considered they had learned from my own lips that in point of skill our doctors are not the equals of theirs.