Historical Events

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The Eskimo learn Christianity in a unique way, mixing it with their understanding of taboos, making it impossible to change their minds.

December 26, 1908

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My Life with the Eskimo - Chapter 6

Vilhjalmur Stefansson

Biblical Fundamentalism
Christianization
Religion
Eskimo

At the same time that Dr. Marsh and I went southwest to Icy Cape, there also went from Point Barrow something like fifteen or twenty Eskimo sleds to a native dance at Icy Cape. The white men call it a “dance,” but really it is the most northeasterly variant of the British Columbian “potlatch.” Formal invitations had been sent by certain men at Icy Cape to certain men at Point Barrow to visit them . These invitations had included a statement of what sort of present the host expected to receive from his guest on his arrival. The messengers from Icy Cape when they returned home from Point Barrow carried in turn not only the acceptances or re grets of the people who had been invited , but in case of acceptances they carried also an intimation of what sort of present the visitors would expect in return for the presents which their hosts demanded. I did not see the dance at Icy Cape, but have seen a number of similar ones and the procedure is always the same. The visitors camped a few miles before reaching the Icy Cape village and a messenger was sent ahead in the evening to announce their coming. Several young men then came from Icy Cape to the camp of the visitors, and the following morning when everything was ready, these and a few of the young men from among the visitors ran a race back to Icy Cape. Each man who runs a race does it not for himself but as the representative of some prominent man who is going to take part in the ceremonies. Each racer as he arrives in the village goes to the dance-house, where he is met by the wife of his master, or other woman of his household, who brings him a warm drink of water and something to eat. Later on, the main body of visitors arrive and either pitch their own camps or move into the houses of their friends in the village. 


That evening the dance begins. A local man will dance first, singing songs, recounting his own achievements and telling whatever is in his mind to tell. Following this his wife or some one of his household hands him the articles which he intends to present to his guest. When the presentation is over the guest arises, and in some cases dances and sings in the manner of his host, but in others merely makes a brief speech and hands over the articles with which he pays for the present he has received . Sometimes the initial presents, or else the counter presents that pay for them, are not material, but ap parently one of them must be, for I never saw a pledge of super natural assistance paid for in kind. At one of these dances at Point Barrow I have seen a man give two cross fox skins to an old “medicine man” in return for the promise that the shaman would see to lit that he got two whales the following whaling season. Incidentally it may be stated here that the man who gave the two fox skins really did get the two whales which were promised in return for them. This somewhat strengthened at Point Barrow the general opinion that while Christian prayers are very good in ordinary things, the old-fashioned whaling charms are much more effective when it comes to catching whales. 


At such a dance or potlatch as this one at Icy Cape the visitors usually remain for several days, although the ceremony of exchanging presents is commonly accomplished within twenty-four hours after the arrival of the party. There is a good deal of feasting, sing ing, dancing, and story-telling, and every one has a good time. 


On this trip of ours to Wainwright Inlet and Icy Cape we kept getting new sidelights on the forms the new religion is taking in northern Alaska. One of the first things that an Eskimo learns when he becomes Christian is the importance of refraining from work on Sunday. In general the Eskimo's own religion consists mainly in a series of prohibitions or taboos, and the prohibitions of Christianity are therefore, of all the new teachings, the things he most readily understands. Under the old religion it used to be believed that sickness, famine, and death were caused by such trivial things as the breaking of a marrow bone with the wrong kind of hammer, or the sewing of deerskin clothing before enough days had elapsed from the killing of the last whale or walrus. To avoid breaking these taboos meant prosperity and good health, and the gaining of all the rewards (or rather the escape from all the penalties) provided for by that system of religion. Similarly, now that they know about salvation and damnation it seems but logical to them that one may be gained and the other avoided by the mere observance of such simple prohibitions as that against working on Sunday. 


Dr. Marsh , who is a man of university education and of broad views in religious matters, often tried to explain to his congregation at Point Barrow that while the keeping of the Sabbath was in general an estimable thing, there were certain circumstances under which it was not called for, nor even desirable. To try to make clear this idea he preached again and again from the text of how Our Lord gathered the ears of corn on the Sabbath , but failed completely in getting them to see the matter from his point of view. I suggested to Dr. Marsh, therefore, that possibly his own example would do more good than his preaching in showing the Eskimo how Sunday might safely be treated. Accordingly, in order to give the people an example, we traveled on two occasions upon Sunday. But the example availed nothing except further to lose Dr. Marsh his standing in the community. I heard many comments, most of which were to the effect that if Dr. Marsh was willing to endanger his temporal and eternal welfare, they nevertheless were not. They knew of old how dangerous it was to break taboos; they could see now that undoubtedly many of the past misfortunes and accidents of their people were no doubt due to the fact that they had broken the Sabbath taboo before they knew of its existence. Now that they knew it, no man who took thought of his own interests or those of the community would break the taboo. Possibly Dr. Marsh and I had some charm by which we could evade the effect of our transgression , but the punishment would surely fall on some one.