Historical Events

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Stefansson explains the game conditions of Northern Alaska and comments on the symbiotic relationship between the natives being given economic incentive to trap for furs and the traders who supplied them with food and tools.

July 1, 1909

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My Life with the Eskimo

Vilhjalmur Stefansson

Christianization
Pre-civilization races
Eskimo

At Fort Norman game conditions have undergone great changes during the last fifty years. The mountain sheep (Ovis dalli) were then, as now, confined to the mountains west of the river, but the moose were also west of the river then, while since that time they have crossed the river and have gradually moved toward Bear Lake and encircled it until, in the summer of 1909, the first moose were seen by the Eskimo on Coronation Gulf near the mouth of the Coppermine River (a fact which, of course , was unknown to the Hudson's Bay traders and which we learned from the Eskimo in the summer of 1910) . The caribou fifty years ago were abundant around Fort Norman and used to pass on their seasonal migrations in vast herds between Fort Norman and Bear Lake; but for the last decade or two practically no caribou have been seen west of the lake, and the hunters have to go to the eastern end of it to get any. The Indians meantime have become not only few through disease, but have also lost their enterprise because of the ease with which they can make their living by sponging on the missions and the traders, and by catching a little fish in the Mackenzie; very few of them, therefore, ever go to the eastern end of the lake for caribou unless some white man goes there too. For years there had been no Indians around the mouth of the Dease River, but now that Melvill, Hornby, and Mackinlay were going in there, a number accompanied them. 


Another animal the migrations of which are of interest is the musk rat. It has been spreading northeast at about the same rate as the moose . We found in 1910 that even the young men among the Eskimo of Coronation Gulf can remember the time when first they saw muskrats on the upper Dease, while today these animals are found much farther north than that, even going close down to the Arctic coast. The beaver, too, are said to be spreading northeast ward, although they are not yet so near the ocean as to be seen by the Eskimo. 


We arrived at Fort Arctic Red River July 5th. This is the most northerly “ fort ” of the Hudson's Bay Company on the Mackenzie River proper. It is, perhaps, a little late in the day to explain what we should have explained in our first reference to the institu tion known as a “ fort” in the North. A Hudson's Bay " fort” is typically a small group of log cabins consisting of the factor's residence, a store in which he trades with the Indians, and possibly a small house in which he keeps dried fish or other provisions. In the early days among the Indians to the south some of the Hudson's Bay trading posts used to have stockades about them , and were, therefore, more deserving of the title of fort ; in the Mackenzie River district there is nothing to suggest special suitability for defending the trading posts against attack. In fact, there has never been any danger of attack, for a simple reason which may be worth pointing out. 


In the fertile lands of the United States and Canada a saying grew up that “the only good Indian is a dead Indian,” because the Indian encumbered the land which the farmer needed for cultivation of crops, and the miner for his digging and delving. The Indian was in the way and had to go, for we could not let questions of mere humanitarianism and justice restrain us from taking possession of the valuable lands that the Indian had inherited from his ancestors. In the South, economic and humanitarian interests were diametrically opposed, and the economic had their way. In the North , economic and humanitarian interests happened to coincide. The northern land was valueless to the farmer, and the country was of value to the trading companies only in so far as it produced fur; and furs could best be secured by perpetuating the Indian and keeping him in possession of the lands, because dead men do not set traps. The only good Indian in the North was the live Indian who brought in fur to sell. No doubt it is largely the result of this economic fact that the Hudson's Bay Company has always treated the Indian so well that it has never been to the Indian's interest to quarrel with the Company, any more than it was to the Company's interest to quarrel with the Indian . And now that civilization , with its diseases, is making in roads into the country, and the Indian seems in danger of disappearing, it is not only human lives but also dollars and cents that the Company sees disappearing before its eyes. When they controlled all the North, they handled its problems a great deal more wisely than the Canadian government has done since, although the Canadians have been both wiser and cleaner-handed than the people of the United States. But the Company no longer own Canada, and they are powerless to check the evii tendencies which they recognize more clearly than any one else.