Historical Events

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Stefansson describes a party of starving Eskimos who ate caribou skin and heads during a winter of poor hunting.

March 6, 1910

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My Life with the Eskimo - Chapter 9

Vilhjalmur Stefansson

Man The Fat Hunter
Hypocarnivory
Carnivore Diet

By the beginning of March Dr. Anderson and Pikaluk were so completely recovered that they volunteered to make the six days' trip south to Langton Bay for the purpose of depositing there the sled load of ammunition and other necessities. It was our intention then, by the 10th of March to proceed inland from Langton Bay where we had wintered and to strike across country thence to the northeast corner of Bear Lake, with the purpose of thereafter working north in the summer down the Coppermine River until we should meet Eskimo. We know now that this would not have been a good plan to follow; it was made impractical by the arrival, March 6th, of Ilavinirk and others of the inland party. 


Ilavinirk's party told a tale of hardships and starvation rather worse than anything through which we had been previously. It had taken Natkusiak and Palaiyak a long time to reach them with the sled load of blubber. I had explained to Natkusiak when he started from Cape Parry that there was every need for hurry, for Ilavinirk's and Memoranna's parties had had practically nothing to eat when I left them. But Natkusiak could not realize that there was any real danger, and I do not think that there would have been any danger had Natkusiak been in Ilavinirk’s place. As it was, however, instead of hurrying, Natkusiak stopped here and there on the way, in one place to catch fish because he had been so long without fish. and in another place to set traps because the trapping was good. Meantime Ilavinirk's and Memoranna's parties had had hard luck in hunting. There were caribou in the country. but the weather was continually bad and their management was not the best. The little food left on hand when I went away soon disappeared, and then followed the larger zoological specimens which I had preserved for Dr. Anderson in the fall. There were nine skins of caribou of both sexes and all ages, which I had taken off carefully with heads, horns, and leg bones, making also careful record of the measurements. These specimens were of great scientific value, for they represented in all probability a new variety of caribou, or if not that, at least caribou from a district where none had previously been taken for scientific purposes. One of these specimens especially was a rare thing. I have been present at the killing of a thousand caribou, and in all that number I have seen only three that were hornless in a season when they should have had horns. In other words, I have seen only three caribou upon the heads of which horns were destined never to grow. One of these I had carefully skinned for Dr. Anderson. In this period of scarcity the head of this rare muley caribou went for food along with the other scientific skins. The heads of all these animals and the leg bones went first and then the skins themselves, as well as other skins which we had intended for clothing. 


It was a period of scarcity not only among the human beings of that district but also among the wolves, all of which were skin poor and two of which died of starvation near our house at a place where their carcasses were found afterwards and eaten by our Eskimo. Pannigabluk was the only member of our party to whom wolf meat was taboo. The rest of us considered wolf, under ordinary circumstances, to be excellent eating. In summer when they are fat and caribou poor, all of us much preferred wolf meat to caribou. But those who tasted them were unanimous in saying that the wolves that died of starvation were no delicacy. 


When Natkusiak finally arrived at the camp on Horton River, the tide had just been turned by Memoranna's success in caribou hunting. From that time everything had gone well, but the two periods of starvation in one winter, which were the first of his entire life, had proved too much for Ilavinirk and his family, for they now came to me and told me that they felt sure that if we went farther east the coming spring, things would go still worse with them. In fact, they would not go east with me and had made up their minds to quit our service and go back to the Mackenzie River, where there was plenty of fish. where tea and tobacco could be had. and where they could attend church service now and then.