"To illustrate one of the phases of the native religion of the Eskimo, we may consider the question of food taboos"
February 13, 1912
My Life with the Eskimo - Chapter 27
To illustrate one of the phases of the native religion of the Eskimo, we may consider the question of food taboos. In the mountains of Alaska, on the upper Kuvuk and Noatak rivers, and on the head waters of the Colville, the prohibitions which applied to the eating of the flesh of the mountain sheep alone were as extensive as the entire dietary section of the Mosaic law. A young girl, for instance, might eat only certain ribs, and when she was a little older she might eat certain other ribs; but when she was full grown she would for a time have to abstain from eating the ribs which had been allowed to her up to then. After a woman had had her first child, she might eat certain other ribs, after her second child still others, and only after having five children might she eat all the ribs; but even then she must not eat the membranes on the inside of the ribs. If her child was sick, she must not eat certain ribs, and if two of her children were sick, she might not eat certain other ribs. If her brother's child was sick, she might not eat certain portions, and if her brother's wife died, there were still different prohibitions. The taboos applying to the ribs of the sheep had relation to the health of her children and of her relatives. They also depended upon what animals her relatives or herself had killed recently, and on whether those animals were male or female.
When all the compulsory taboos were remembered and complied with, there were still some optional ones. If she wanted her daughter to be a good seamstress, she would observe certain taboos with regard to the mountain sheep, and if her son was to be a good hunter, there was a different set of rules to be followed; when her son had killed his first game, there was still another variation, and so on. When people of different districts met at a meal, some one, perhaps the hostess, would recite all the taboos which she knew which were appropriate to that meal, and then would ask one of her guests whether he knew any in addition. He would then contribute such as his hostess had omitted; then a second guest would be appealed to, and when all the taboos which all those present knew of had been clearly called to mind, the meal would go on. Then the next day, if one of them had a headache, or if the cousin of another broke a leg, they would say to one another, “ What taboo could it have been that we broke? ” Some wise old man's advice would be called upon, and he would be told of all the taboos which were observed, and then he would say, “How did you break your marrow -bone? ” Someone would volunteer, “ I broke mine with a stone.” “ Yes, and which hand did you hold the stone in when you broke it?” “ My right hand.” “ Ah yes, that explains it; you should have held the stone in your left hand. That is why your cousin's leg got broken. You broke the marrow -bone the wrong way.”
It may be a little difficult for the average white man to enter into the frame of mind of those who live under such a complicated taboo system, but it is also difficult for us to sympathize with some of the beliefs held by our immediate ancestors; and if it is a little difficult for us to understand the frame of mind of these people, may it not be a little difficult for them to understand ours? Is it not likely that an elaborate and ingrained system such as this will affect their conception of our rather abstract teachings? A people brought up in the thought habits of a taboo system such as this are likely to continue thinking in the terms of that system after they have been baptized. They will fit the instruction of their teachers, be they schoolmasters or missionaries, into the molds of their ancestral lore. Among the Eskimo the expression, “ a wise man,” being translated, means “a man who knows a large number of taboos." He is an honored member of the community always who knows more than anyone else about the things that ought not to be done. To know these things is very important, for if they are done — if a taboo be broken — no matter how innocently and unknowingly, the inevitable penalty follows in the form of an epidemic or a famine or an accident or illness affecting some relative of the breaker of the taboo. An Eskimo who is a great admirer of the white people (and some Eskimo are not) said to me once that some Eskimo foolishly maintained that white men were less intelligent than Eskimo are. But he said that he had a crushing reply to those who made this statement. He would say to them : “ Our wise men have taboos on food and drink, they have taboos on clothing and methods of travel, on words and thoughts; but until the white man came, did we ever hear of Sunday? Did the wisest of us ever think of the fact that a day might be taboo? ”