Historical Events

Copy Link

What the people especially wanted, they told us, was a new prayer for caribou. Three years before, they said, they had obtained an excellent prayer for caribou from Kotzebue Sound. It had worked so well for the first two years that they had secured plenty of caribou through the use of it

November 9, 1909


My Life with the Eskimo - Chapter 6

Vilhjalmur Stefansson

Man The Fat Hunter

November 9th we arrived at an Eskimo village of five houses near where the Itkillik River empties into the head of the Colville delta. Most of the people belonged to one or another of the Colville River tribes, but a few of them hailed from across the mountains in the Kuvuk and Noatak valleys and elsewhere. Their houses were of the typical inland Eskimo type - a dome-shaped frame, of stout willows covered with moss and earth to a thickness of six or eight inches, with doors about three feet high in the wall, closed with flaps of bearskin or heavy caribou hides. Most of these people had sheet-iron stoves which they had bought from the Point Barrow Eskimo, about whose trading operations we have already spoken, but some of them had open fires built on the center of the floor, with holes in the roof which served the purposes alternately of a chimney and a window. When the fire was going these openings in the roof were kept uncovered, and when the fire was extinguished they would be covered with transparent membranes made in some cases of the thin skins of summer-killed caribou or of fresh-water codfish, after the manner of the inland dwellers; in other cases the windows had been purchased from the Point Barrow Eskimo and were made of the intestines of bearded seals or walrus according to the custom of the coast. These people had made the summer caribou hunt inland and had killed a large number of caribou but had made no use whatever of the meat. One man , who six weeks before we saw him had killed about one hundred and twenty- five caribou, was now living on fish entirely and had only a few days' provisions ahead, for the caribou had been killed a long way from where he intended to winter and he had taken only the skins as he could not haul the meat home. This camping ground, which a dozen families had selected for their winter home, was at a fairly good fishing place and every one was catching enough to eat for the time being. Still, it was a foregone conclusion that they would starve more or less before spring. 

Although white men do not frequent the Colville district, most of these Eskimo were familiar with the ways of white men and all of those who were full grown had seen white men once or oftener. But many of the children had never seen a white man until they saw me, even those who were thirteen or fourteen years of age. Nevertheless they were all Christians and had been for several years. Christianity had come to them, spreading up the Kuvuk and Noatak rivers from Kotzebue Sound, where it had been started by Moravian missionaries. When we came to the village we were invited, according to Eskimo custom, to come in and have something to eat, but contrary to Eskimo custom a wash dish and towel were placed before us, and after the water had been blessed with a lengthy prayer we were directed to wash our hands and faces. My Eskimo did as they were told, and after the washing was over the water in the bowl was again blessed before it was spilled out. A lengthy grace was then said over the food and a separate grace over the tea which came after. Finally at the end of the meal thanks were returned. All of this was of course in Eskimo. When the ceremonies were over we were asked whence we came; and when it turned out that my Eskimo had been to Herschel Island, where there was known to be a missionary, the local people inquired eagerly whether we had brought any new prayers with us. Natkusiak, who was at that time scarcely a Christian as yet, although since then he has become exceedingly devout, did not know any prayers, but Akpek knew a great many. For that reason Natkusiak was from the beginning treated with little consideration by the community, while Akpek gained their highest respect at once and retained it to the end. During our entire stay he was much sought after and continually invited around to the various houses to eat and to teach the community new prayers. 

What the people especially wanted, they told us, was a new prayer for caribou. Three years before , they said, they had obtained an excellent prayer for caribou from Kotzebue Sound. It had worked so well for the first two years that they had secured plenty of caribou through the use of it, not only during the summer season when the skins are good for clothing, but also (so efficient was the prayer) during the winter, when under ordinary circumstances they would not have been able to get any. But this year the prayer did not seem to be working so well. They supposed that white men's prayers,, like their rifles and other things, no doubt deteriorated with age, and now they were anxious to secure a new and more efficient prayer. Akpek told them that he had a very good one, and he at once proceeded to teach it to them. I refrained from much comment on all these things for I had come to the country to learn rather than to teach , but it was difficult for me to restrain myself from pointing out to our hosts that unless they had better success with this prayer than Akpek himself had had with it during the time he had been in our service, they would probably find it a weak reed to lean upon in time of emergency.