Historical Events

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The natural feelings of sympathy that had grown up through a year of association with these people, who in their way were so infinitely superior to their civilized brethren in the west, made me regret that civilization was following so close upon our heels.

April 15, 1911

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My Life with the Eskimo - Chapter 16

Vilhjalmur Stefansson

Biblical Fundamentalism
Christianization
Pre-civilization races
Religion
Eskimo

Another story which we picked up at this time was that of the Imnait. These were vague and mysterious animals living in an unknown land to the west, which is also inhabited by the Kiligavait. This story did not give us nearly so much trouble in identifying it as did that of Kaplavinna, for the name of the monster was a correct reproduction of that used by my own Eskimo in the previous year in telling their adventures in mountain sheep hunting. Mountain sheep, of course, are found nowhere east of the Mackenzie River, and could not, therefore, be directly known to the Coronation Gulf Eskimo. These people were also unfamiliar with the dangers involved in the possible snow-slides and other peculiar conditions of mountain hunting. They had received from Natkusiak the general idea that mountain sheep hunting was dangerous, and being unable to ascribe any danger to the mountains as such, they had transferred the dangerousness of the snow-slides and precipices to the sheep themselves; and the hairbreadth escapes from death in snow-slides which Natkusiak had described became in their version hairbreadth escapes from the teeth and claws of the ferocious mountain sheep. The kiligavait, which they had associated with the mountain sheep in these narratives, were nothing but the mammoth, known to all branches of the Eskimo race by name at least, and known here also, according to what we were told, by the occasional finding of their bones. Of course Natkusiak had told nothing about mammoth hunting, but the mysterious mountain sheep naturally allied themselves in their minds with the also mysterious mammoth, and were therefore to be coupled together in recounting the same adventures. Thus we had a side-light, not only upon the origin of myths among primitive people, but also upon the startling rapidity with which they grow and change their form. 


Along with these stories of Kaplavinna and the mountain sheep we were also told no doubt essentially truthful ones of the trading expeditions of certain men of this district to the lakes above the head of Chesterfield Inlet, as well as in all probability entirely fictitious accounts of how certain men had, during the last few years, made journeys to the moon. One of the local shamans had for a familiar spirit the spirit of a white man, and in séances spoke “ white men's language.” We were present at one of these séances; and when I said that I was unable to understand anything of what the white man's spirit said through the mouth of the woman whom he. possessed, it was considered a very surprising thing, and apparently inclined some of the people to doubt that I was really a white man as represented myself to be. 


Not only does our experience here show how myths may originate, but it also shows how history and fact become mixed with fiction, and how facts are likely quickly to disappear, as in reality they do It is impossible among the Eskimo, in the absence of extraneous evidence, to rely upon anything that is said to have happened farther back than the memory of the narrator himself extends. 


As we have remarked elsewhere, the mind of the Eskimo is keen with reference to their immediate environment, although of course unable to grasp things that are outside of their experience. This keenness is shown especially in the use which they make of practically everything that can be turned to account in their struggle against Arctic conditions. Wood is not especially scarce in Coronation Gulf; still, substitutes for wood have to be found now and then. We saw here a sled which illustrated remarkably the resourcefulness of the Eskimo in this matter. A man named Kaiariok, who is the son of Iglihsirk and of whom Hanbury speaks as being temporarily absent from his father's camp at the time when he visited it on Dismal Lake, found himself in the fall in need of a sled and with no wood out of which to make one. He then took a musk-ox skin, soaked it in water and folded it into the shape of a plank, pressed it flat and straight, and carried it outdoors where it could freeze. It froze as solid as any real plank, and then with his adze he went to work and hewed out of it a sled runner exactly as he would hew one out of a plank. On the upper edge of the runner he made notches for the crosspieces as he would had it been ordinary spruce, drilled holes for the lacings and put in wooden crosspieces, and made a sled which I had seen several times without discovering that it was in any way different from the ordinary wooden sleds. It was only one day when I was thinking of buying a sled that I discovered the difference. There were two sleds for sale, and I was told that one of them was better than the other because when the weather got warm it would still be useful, while the other one would flatten out and become worthless in warm weather and was therefore for sale for half the price of the first one. This cheaper sled turned out to be the musk-ox skin one, for which as an ethnological specimen I would have been willing to pay much more than the other, had there been any possibility of transferring it unchanged to a museum. There was, however, involved the same difficulty that has prevented in such places as Montreal the preservation of ice palaces from year to year. 


Of all things that these Eskimo told us, the one that surprised us most was the undoubtedly true statement that a ship manned by white men and strange Eskimo was wintering in Coronation Gulf. This we felt as the reverse of good news, for the natural feelings of sympathy that had grown up through a year of association with these people, who in their way were so infinitely superior to their civilized brethren in the west, made me regret that civilization was following so close upon our heels. We had come into the country in May, and evidently this ship must have come the following September. She was wintering, they said, in the mouth of a small river about half a day's journey east of the mouth of the Coppermine. Seeing she was there, we would of course pay her a visit. We were not in particular need of assistance from anybody, but still in a far country like this one is always willing either to help or to be helped, and there was no doubt that the meeting was likely to be both pleasant and profitable to all concerned. In other words, now that the ship was there we would make the best of a situation we regretted; we would make what use of her we could and be of as much use to her as possible, although had we had our way we should have wished her on the other side of the earth.