Historical Events

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Christianized Eskimo blacklist an old couple who wouldn't convert to Christianity. "All arguments had failed to convince her of the truths of Christianity, and she kept saying that she had seen the spirits of her own belief cure disease, avert famine, and bring a change of wind, and she had yet to see that the new religion could do any better."

June 1, 1911

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My Life with the Eskimo - Chapter 27

Biblical Fundamentalism
Christianization
Religion
Eskimo

Vilhjalmur Stefansson

Many of my ideas as to the form which Christianity takes in the minds of the Eskimo I naturally get from the Eskimo with whom we most associated, the civilized Alaskans whom we employed to accompany us on our journeys of exploration. One of them, Ilavinirk, was a native of Kotzebue Sound, and had for over twenty years been fairly continuously in the service of white men, although, like the rest of the natives of Herschel Island, he had not been an avowed Christian more than four years.


 During the summer of 1909, when we were traveling by boat east along the coast from Flaxman Island, there was in our party, but sailing his own boat, an Eskimo by the name of Oniyak. His old and decrepit father was also of the party, and it seemed to me that I had seldom seen an old man so badly treated, for every evening he was compelled to make his own camp separate from that of his son and family, although there was plenty of room for him in his son's tent. He was not allowed to take his meals with the rest of them, but was given a sort of “hand out. ” He was continually short of tobacco and matches, although his son was a trader and had more of both than he needed for his own use. The old man used to beg various things from us, which we of course gave him gladly. I did not understand at the time why he should have been so treated, and thought of it only as an unusual example of unfilial conduct. In general I have seen old people among the Eskimos remarkably well treated. 


It was only one day at Langton Bay, two years later, that Ilavinirk asked me if I knew why it was that Oniyak treated his father in this way, and when I said I did not know why, he explained that it was because the son had just been converted to Christianity, and the missionary had told the converts not to associate with unbelievers. The old man and one old woman in the tribe were the only two who did not accept Christianity. The old man's son, Ilavinirk said, was in a great quandary, because he was fond of his father but did not dare to disobey the missionary's injunctions. He had found a sort of middle course, therefore, by compelling the old man to keep his own house and to eat by himself. 


Continuing on this subject, Ilavinirk said that the old woman who would not accept Christianity was the most perverse old body he ever heard tell of. All arguments had failed to convince her of the truths of Christianity, and she kept saying that she had seen the spirits of her own belief cure disease, avert famine, and bring a change of wind, and she had yet to see that the new religion could do any better. It was of no avail to explain to her that the new religion did not claim to do any better in these things, but differed from the old in promising eternal blessedness to those who lived righteously, and threatened eternal punishment to those who did not. The old woman kept saying she would wait and see. She would not believe in either heaven or hell until she saw them. 


Ilavinirk said that the old woman's son was greatly worried by this attitude of mind of his mother, and whenever he got new arguments and new facts from the missionary or from the converted Eskimo he would always present them to his mother with the hope of getting her to experience a change of heart. One day a missionary had preached to them in this way : If any of you believe that fire will not burn you if you stick your hand into it, then you may believe also that the things I tell you are not true; but if you believe that fire would burn you, then you must believe also that what I say is true. (Naturally, no missionary ever said any such thing. What he really said can only be guessed at. Extreme misunderstandings are, of course, common, due partly to the missionary's imperfect command of Eskimo, and partly to the fact that his ideas are essentially strange to them. ) When her son presented this argument, Ilavinirk said that such was the old woman's perversity that she only laughed and ridiculed it, saying that she did not see anything convincing about that sort of reasoning. Hoping nevertheless to convince her by an actual test, her son waited until she was asleep, when he lit a match and held it under her hand, letting the flame play over her fingers. The old woman awoke screaming with pain. But so perverse was she that even this did not convince her, and so far as Ilavinirk knew she was still a heathen. Some people are that way, Ilavinirk philosophized. He supposed, however, that if the fire of a match was not hot enough to make unbelievers change their minds, perhaps the fires of hell would be more convincing. 


I heard from Ilavinirk a good deal about the religious views of the Baillie Islands Eskimo, but knew little of them otherwise, for it has happened that I have never associated much with that particular group. The summer of 1911 I sent Ilavinirk and Natkusiak to the Baillie Islands with a boat, and they remained there for several weeks. At that time Ilavinirk told me there came from the Mackenzie River the report that God had said that you must not look at the sun. It is difficult to guess what the foundation of this story may have been. It is conceivable it may have been based on the story of how the Israelites fell away from the true religion and worshiped false gods, and how some people have looked upon the sun as a god. Possibly the missionary may have meant to tell his hearers that they must not look upon the sun, powerful and brilliant though it is, as a deity. But what they understood was that they must not glance at it. This commandment struck Ilavinirk as a little unreasonable, and he said that he had argued with the Baillie Islanders to the effect that no doubt God did not mean that they should be prohibited from glancing at the sun, but only that they must refrain from staring intently at it. 


As an introduction to the narrative that follows it is necessary to point out that among the Eskimo, as among many other primitive people, notably in North America, a person who is under some sort of taboo must not follow in the trail made by other people, and if he makes a trail, then others must not follow it. 


Apparently some missionary in Alaska, or it may possibly have been at Mackenzie River, had preached from the text : “ Do not follow in the footsteps of the wicked. ” What some of the Eskimo thought of me, no less than how they understood the text upon which the missionary had preached, can be seen from the fact that one day I noticed that some Eskimo who were traveling behind me were not following in my trail.