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Stefansson explains the whaling economy of the Point Barrow Eskimo "The employer supplies them with cloth for garments, and such suitable provisions as flour, tea, beans, rice, and even condensed milk, canned meats and fruits."

September 17, 1909


My Life with the Eskimo - Chapter 5

Vilhjalmur Stefansson


On September 17th we considered that the sea ice was probably strong enough for sled travel. The ice of Smith Bay had been strong enough for several days, but we feared and with good reason I am sure that east of Smith Bay the coast would still be open. In the afternoon of the 17th Ilavinirk and I took a small sled-load with the idea of going to Point Pitt at the eastern end of the Bay, to cache it there and to find out if conditions were propitious. We did not get quite that far, for about ten miles southwest of Point Pitt, well within Simpson Bay, we saw an Eskimo camp pitched on ground that rises about twenty feet above the sea at the mouth of a small creek that comes out of a well-known fishing lake lying a few miles inland. 

This camp turned out to be returned traders who had been to the Colville and even to Flaxman Island to exchange ammunition, flour, tea, cloth, and other commodities —which they get cheaply at Point Barrow — for skins of caribou, mountain sheep and foxes. At Point Barrow these men work for the Cape Smythe Whaling & Trading Company, and for other white and Eskimo whalers. Some of the Eskimo at Point Barrow now carry on whaling on a large scale, maintaining as many as five or six boat crews. Irrespective of whether their employers are white or Eskimo, these men get each year as wages about two hundred dollars' worth of supplies. This means that the Point Barrow community leads an easier life than any other community does as a whole in any land where I have ever traveled . The whaling season in the spring is six weeks, and it is six weeks of fairly easy work at that. For all the rest of the year the men have nothing to do, are their own masters, and can go wherever they like, while their employers must not only pay them a year's wage for six weeks' work, but also furnish them houses to live in, usually, and rations for the entire year. Of course the men are expected to get their own fresh meat, which they do by seal and walrus hunting, and by cutting in the whales, —only the bone (balleen) of which goes to their employers. The employer supplies them with cloth for garments, and such suitable provisions as flour, tea, beans, rice, and even condensed milk, canned meats and fruits. Each man each year gets, among other things, a new rifle with loading tools and ammunition. The result is that firearms are probably nowhere in the world cheaper than they are at Point Barrow (or at least were, up to 1908) . When I first came to Point Barrow you could buy a new Winchester rifle of any type, with loading tools, five hundred rounds or so of smokeless powder ammunition, and a considerable quantity of powder, lead, and primers for five dollars in money; had you bought the same articles wholesale at the factory in New Haven, the price would have been in the neighborhood of twenty dollars. There are few Eskimo who will use a rifle more than one year. They will no more think of using a last year's rifle than our well-to-do women will consider wearing a hat of last year's fashion, and you see rifles and shotguns, which our most fastidious sportsmen would consider good as new, lying around on the beach, thrown away by Eskimo who have no realization of their value because of the ease with which they have ways obtained them in the past. The reason for all this is that whaling was, until a few years ago, so fabulously profitable an industry that the whaling companies cared scarcely at all what they paid for services as long as they got the whales. But now that the price of whalebone has suddenly gone down through the invention of a substitute, the Eskimo are facing a new era and the change will be hard on them. 

The pay-day of the Point Barrow Eskimo comes in the spring, and their employer hands them out rifles, ammunition, cloth, provisions, and various things which the people scarcely know what to do with . So they load them into their skin boats and take them east along the coast, to sell them at any point in the Colville or at Flax man Island. To give some idea of the scale of prices it is worth while to say that one of the men whom we met returned with ten deerskins, which was all he had received in the Colville River for a boat-load of supplies consisting of two new rifles, two cases of smoke less powder ammunition for these, twenty -five pounds of powder and a corresponding supply of lead and shot, three bolts of cloth, a case of, carpenter tools, some camp gear, three hundred pounds of flour, sixty pounds of good tea, two boxes of tobacco, and various other articles too numerous to mention. The ten caribou skins were of varying quality. The best of them were worth that year about five dollars apiece, and the total value of the ten skins could not have been more than thirty dollars. In other words, had this same Eskimo stayed at Point Barrow during the summer and been able to board a whaling ship with thirty dollars in his pocket, he could have bought ten deerskins of a corresponding quality, had they been carried by the ship, — although of course the ships carry only fairly good skins, averaging much better than the ten which he had secured in the Colville