Historical Events

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While his sled is broken, Ingstad is encouraged to hunt caribou by the women of the Caribou-Eaters, but his failure shames him so much that he hunts again and lands 4 caribou leading to a happy banquet and a dance under the drying meat.

April 15, 1929

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The Land of Feast and Famine

Helge Ingstad

Man The Fat Hunter
Hypocarnivory
Facultative Carnivore
Hunter-Gatherer
Pre-civilization races
Carnivore Diet

Then came the day when I was the only male left in camp. One corner of my sled had been partially broken off by striking against a tree, and I had been obliged to repair the damage before setting out with the other hunters. Just as I was standing there in the act of binding it up with babiche, the old squaw came racing down the hillside as fast as her legs would carry her, waving her arms and howling at the top of her lungs: " E-then! E-then! " In a flash, women and children poured out of the tepees and began gaping out over the lake. Far out, there was a band of some twenty caribou. What a disturbance then took place! Before I could utter a word, I was surrounded by a regular crowd of squaws. One tugged at my right arm and begged me for two caribou heads, another grabbed my left arm and put in her reservation for three. Then I felt an iron grip on my shoulder and was jerked sharply about face by the heavyweight, Phresi, demanding tongues and half a caribou carcass, as a mere detail, to go with them. At length even little Kachesy ingratiatingly fingered my jacket and made the whole thing even more difficult. All in all, these women demanded of me more meat than a hunter, under ordinary circumstances, would be able to shoot in the course of a week. I attempted to make a few meek objections, but was silenced at once. And, after all, what reply could I make, surrounded by all these women and children who looked trustingly upon me as the only available man and who were giving expression to such blind faith in my prowess as a hunter? 


Since my sled was laid up, I put on my snowshoes, the entire party of women meanwhile stationing themselves on a hilltop from whence they could view the hunt. Whether it was this gallery of the fair sex that disturbed my mental poise and caused my hand to shake, I cannot say for sure. Suffice it to mention that I took uncertain aim at long range and succeeded in but slightly wounding one buck. Terrified by the shot, it raced off down the lake, mile after mile, pursued, unfortunately for me, by all its fellows. In a short time they all appeared as pin-pricks on the horizon. As they were fleeing, I sent a few pot-shots flying after them, but not a single creature fell. 


My return to camp was anything but triumphant. I had contemplated sneaking up to my tent in silence, but nothing came of this notion. The massed ranks of the women stood in my path. Their scorn was unendurable. One asked me how many animals I had slain, another asked me for the head I had promised her, a third stated that she was already boiling the water for the tongues I said I would bring her, so now I could give them to her, she said. Only Phresi was well-meaning in her way; she took me aside and, in a motherly voice, explained to me the reason why I had failed to bring down any game: it was because I had remained behind while the hunters were off on an expedition. " For it is something which everyone knows, that he who hangs back in camp and shows too much interest in the women loses his luck as a hunter." I accepted this criticism without opening my mouth. 


The cloud of opprobrium which hung over my head was not soon dispelled. To disgrace oneself as a hunter is, in this Indian society, no less serious than scandal affecting lawyer, doctor, or priest in a civilized community. There is no defense of one's failure; there are no extenuating circumstances, absolutely none. That the caribou had been within range and that not one had been slain were two hard, cold facts, which were highly aggravated by a third: the whole affair had taken place just when there was something of a food shortage. Such was the judgment I suffered. Furthermore, it had not been pronounced by a court of law; worse than that, it was made known in the insulting attitude of these Indians toward me and in the painful allusions they made to me. This was their form of justice. In the end there was only one thing for me to do: I would have to make amends. So I harnessed up my dogs and departed into the forest, with the determination that I would keep going until I had felled some kind of game, even were it to take me a week. I would not return until I could do so with my sled loaded down with meat, my name and prestige re-established. 


I knocked about for two days without coming within range of a single wild creature. The few I sighted dashed off in mad flight as soon as they saw my sled. I then adopted a new stratagem, often chosen by the Indians on biting cold days when it is downright impossible to creep up on one's game. I established myself on an island, in the vicinity of a narrow sound through which the caribou would be likely to pass, and prepared to wait them out. 


During the afternoon they arrived — four powerful bucks! Sighting the smoke from my fire, they started a bit, but continued, undaunted, along their chosen course. I brought down three of them. The fourth was wounded, but I followed it on snowshoe in through the woods and at last, after an exciting chase, got home a shot. So far as I could determine, all four of these deer were woodland caribou, which have a more lofty crown of antlers and are considerably larger than the Barren Ground caribou. If so, these were the first of this species I had shot in this region. 


It was pleasant indeed to return home to the camp that evening. Proudly seated on my load, I swung up in front of the tepees, and shouted such an imperious " Whoa! " to the dogs that the occupants of even the remotest tents appeared. With that, I threw the meat out of the sled and arranged it in a large pile, making no great ceremony of the act, and, as casually as I possibly could, I said that there were two or three more carcasses out in the woods and suggested that it would be wise to cart them in before the wolves got at them. 


That evening there was a banquet at the home of Tijon. Two tallow candles were lit, and we all sat about in a wide circle. The choicest morsels were then passed round: first, the marrowbones and the roasted heads of the beasts I had slain, then round patties made of dried meat chopped up and mixed with fresh fat, a large wooden bowl of fried marrow, a pile of selected dried meat, inch-thick slabs of dried fat, and a bark cup full of otter-fat. 


When the meal was over, Isep began to beat on his tomtom. Immediately everyone picked up whatever object he could reach — knife, pipe, or snowshoe — and began to hammer out the rhythm on the stove-pipe, frying-pans, or meat-kettle, whilst they all burst out at the top of their lungs with that wild, monotonous festival song with its refrain of " Hi-hi~he, hi-hi-he-ho, hi-yi," uttered in screeches in every pitch and in every key. A most weirdly intricate orchestra of sound. 


Then followed the dance. I remained in the background, for I could do nothing with this Indian dance. Furthermore, the roof was too low for my head. Great slabs of dried meat hung in rows from the tent-poles and I had to bend almost double every time I wished to cross the floor. But when the Indians crowded around me and insisted, I took my life in my hands and threw myself into the dance. 


The effect was as I had feared. I leaned over so far that my back ached, I ducked my head like a boxer, but no matter which way I turned, I ran afoul of dried meat. Dried meat cuffed at my neck, dried meat came raining down from above, and dried meat lay beneath my tramping feet. At length there were but a few slabs left hanging in their place, while on the floor there must have been the flesh of many a carcass. Then I threw up both hands and quit. But it was a long time before the Indians recovered from their hearty laugh. They simply lay down on their caribou blankets, held their sides, and roared. Oh, the white man!... 


It was late in May, and spring was at hand. The caribou were trekking far off to the east in the direction of the Barren Lands, and in our section of the country there were very few of them left. Were a man to be dependent upon his luck in the field, it would not be long before he would find himself in dire straits. It happened that one hunter was without game for eight full days. On the other hand, some hunters might spasmodically run into a streak of splendid luck. Thanks be to the socialistic basis on which the Indians governed their society, we were able to keep going. We shared all we had and, although we lived no life of luxury, we did not experience any immediate want.