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It is Hiawatha and not the ordinary Indian who deserves the credit for introducing the art of corn-growing; and so it is Christ and not any ordinary human being who deserves the credit for having taught white men how to raise wheat and grind it into flour.

February 2, 1912


My Life with the Eskimo - Chapter 27

Biblical Fundamentalism
Pre-civilization races

Vilhjalmur Stefansson

The foundation of the next story we have to tell is no doubt a discussion by some missionary of a text the substance of which is that everything on earth, and all that men have, is from God. This the Eskimo have understood in a manner to make Christ practically the equivalent of the ancient culture hero. Just as Hiawatha gave mankind the Indian corn and taught us how to cultivate it, so Christ has given the white men everything they have and taught them everything they know. Consequently it is not such a wonderful thing, nor indeed one with which we ought to credit ourselves particularly, that we possess marvelous inventions and much knowledge. It is Hiawatha and not the ordinary Indian who deserves the credit for introducing the art of corn-growing; and so it is Christ and not any ordinary human being who deserves the credit for having taught white men how to raise wheat and grind it into flour. “All our knowledge is from God” they understand to mean that Christ, who represented God on earth, personally instructed us in all arts and crafts. Gunpowder and field -glasses are wonderful in their way, but the Eskimo does not see why he should be considered behind the white man just because Christ taught the white men how to make these things. He did not happen to teach it to the Eskimo, which is the misfortune of the Eskimo and not their fault. 

In the winter of 1911–12 I met with a striking example of this belief among the members of my own party. There is in use among the Mackenzie River Eskimo for writing purposes an alphabet introduced among them by Rev. C. E. Whittaker, the missionary of the Church of England at Fort McPherson. This alphabet being based on English and being introduced by Mr. Whittaker before he had as yet acquired the same command of the language which he now has, is not very phonetic, and for my own use I had devised an alphabet on more strictly phonetic principles, where the ideal is that each letter shall represent but one sound, and that there shall be a separate letter for every sound. My own Eskimo, who knew Mr. Whittaker's system of writing, soon picked up mine and grew to prefer it. They were very enthusiastic about the new system, and commenced teaching it to their neighbors, for one of the most remarkable things about the Eskimo is their passion for such rudiments of learning as they have been able to lay their hands on. 

One day there arose in our house a discussion of the various arts and inventions possessed by the white men, and the Eskimo, in a moralizing way, said that we had to be thankful to Christ not only for the spiritual blessings which He had bestowed upon mankind and the hope of salvation He had given them, but also for teaching them useful things, and especially for teaching them to read and write, for they considered reading and writing to be the foundation of all knowledge and of all the advancement of the white men. With reference to this, I said that they had evidently misunderstood the missionary. The missionary had no intention of telling them that Christ had taught us how to read and write. “Well,” they asked me, “if Christ did not teach you, how did you first learn it?” I had to reply that I did not know how we first learned, but I did know that it occurred longer ago than the date assigned as that on which Christ lived on earth, and explained to them the fact that many books of the Bible much antedated the coming of Christ. That was as it might be, about the antiquity of the books of the Bible, they said in reply, but one thing they did know was that Mr. Whittaker had told them that Christ taught mankind to read and write, and as for them, they believed it. They did not know what I thought of Mr. Whittaker, but they believed that he was a truthful man. I told them that my regard for the veracity of Mr. Whittaker was quite as high as theirs, but I felt sure that they had misunderstood him, and then, in a joking way, I said to them that whoever it might have been who originated the alphabet which Mr. Whittaker gave them, it was I myself who had originated the alphabet which they were now using. No doubt, they replied, I knew whereof I spoke with reference to my alphabet; but so did Mr. Whittaker know with reference to his alphabet; Mr. Whittaker had told them that Christ had made it, and that being so, they were hereafter going to use Christ's alphabet and not mine. From that time on they ceased writing letters to their friends in my alphabet or in any way using it, going back entirely to Mr. Whittaker's alphabet. 

Those who do not know any situation analogous to the one we are describing are likely to say that any such notions as those indicated by these scattered anecdotes can be easily eradicated by a missionary who understands the situation and sets himself to the work, but this is not so. (Fundamentally, the Eskimo consider themselves better men than we are. In the matter of Christianity they concede that we introduced it, but they do not concede that we know more about it than they do; just as many Christians concede that Christianity spread from Rome, but do not concede that Rome is nowadays the highest authority in religious matters. 

A striking way in which this shows itself is in the belief in special revelations which come directly to the Eskimo, and the belief in the rebirth of the Saviour among them. Both in Alaska and in Green land there have been, since the coming of Christianity, many cases of Immaculate Conception and the birth of heralded saviors of the In some cases the thing has been nipped in the bud through the fact that the child born happened to be a female, which was not according to the predictions. A sufficient number of these cases are on record in books, and instead of retelling them I shall therefore merely refer to the interesting accounts of Knud Rasmussen from Greenland, which can be secured in any bookshop or library. 

There are also in every community Eskimo who are in the habit of visiting heaven and conferring there with Christ Himself, with Saint Peter and others, quite in the manner in which they used to visit the moon while still heathen and have discussions with the man in the moon. The man in the moon used to teach the shamans songs and spells, and now St. Peter teaches the deacons of the Eskimo church hymns and chants (which are, curiously enough, generally race in the jargon language which the whalers use in dealing with the Eskimo). 

There are also frequent and weighty revelations in the matter of doctrine. If the missionary should learn of any of these things and should disagree with them (but he is not likely to learn, for the Eskimo have found out that the missionaries do not approve of present-day revelation, and therefore keep it secret as much as possible), they might be respectful and polite about it to his face, as they always are, but among themselves they would say that while they had no doubt that the Lord spoke unto Moses, neither did they doubt that he also spoke unto this and that countryman of theirs; and if what God said to the Hebrews seems to disagree with what He has said more recently, then evidently it is only reasonable to accept the latter version.