Historical Events

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Stefansson explains how the Eskimos were dependent upon the caribou.

September 27, 1908

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My Life with the Eskimo - Chapter 5

Vilhjalmur Stefansson

Man The Fat Hunter
Human Predatory Pattern
Eskimo
Carnivore Diet

In going eastward, September 27th, we found the ice off the mouth of the Colville still too thin for safe travel, and we had to go along the shore, thus nearly doubling our traveling distance, for the land has many and deep bights. We were able to shoot a few seal, and to get a ptarmigan, gull, or a duck now and then. We were in no danger of shortage of food, for our load consisted of over two hundred pounds of provisions, besides the ammunition and camp gear. The ducks and gulls, we noticed, were all traveling west parallel to the coast. 


Just east of the Colville, at a point known to white men and Eskimo alike as Oliktok, but which on charts is called Beachy Point, we had luck in seeing a band of caribou. There were nine of them, and between Ilavinirk, Kunaluk, and me we got seven. This was the first time in my experience that I had shot at caribou with Eskimo, and it was probably the first time in the experience of these Eskimo that they had ever seen a caribou killed by a white man. Ilavinirk and Kunaluk, accordingly, had some amusing arguments about the matter later on. They had agreed that neither one of them would shoot at a big bull caribou until the others had been killed, because he was sure to be poor and his skin would be less valuable than that of the younger animals; nevertheless the bull was dead now , and Ilavinirk said that I had killed it; but Kunaluk said that could not be, and that one of them must have killed it by a stray shot, although admittedly neither of them had aimed at it. Ilavinirk and Kunaluk had never hunted caribou together before, and we learned later that Kunaluk considered he himself had killed most of these caribou, and that I had certainly killed none and it was doubtful whether Ilavinirk had killed any or not. But it was Eskimo custom and by it he was willing to abide — that when three men shoot at a band of caribou, the booty shall be divided equally among the three. This did not suit me particularly, however, as I had been feeding and taking care of Kunaluk for some time, and I pointed out to him that by white men's custom all the animals belonged to me. I told him, however, that I was willing to concede the point only in the matter of the skins and would keep all of the meat. 


We stopped a day to make a platform cache for the meat, and that day Kunaluk, unaided, killed another caribou, so that we had the meat of eight to leave behind in cache. Three of the animals were skinned as specimens, and are now, with many others, in the American Museum of Natural History in New York. These are the first skins of caribou taken for scientific purposes on the north coast of Alaska east of Point Barrow. 


On October 8th, just west of the mouth of the Kuparuk River, I went inland alone and killed a young bull caribou which even Kunaluk did not dispute had been shot by me. We had seen a band of caribou in another direction in the morning, and Ilavinirk and Kunaluk had gone after them, but with no success. In the afternoon, however, the three of us together killed another bull caribou, so that at the mouth of the Kuparuk also we were able to leave behind a cache of meat. These we expected to be useful some time later in the winter when we should come back over the same trail. 


The low, coastal plain of northern Alaska is triangular in shape, with its apex at Point Barrow, perhaps two hundred miles north from the base, which is formed by the east and west running Alaskan spur of the Rocky Mountains, which comes within a few miles of the coast in eastern Alaska at the international boundary and meets the ocean in western Alaska at Cape Lisburne. This plain is so nearly level that in most places it is not possible , in going inland , to determine offhand whether you are going up hill or down. The rivers are all sluggish, but thirty or forty miles inland most of them run between fairly high banks, which shows that the land does slope up , even though imperceptibly, towards the foothills. Just east of the Colville River at Oliktok, the mountains are probably about eighty miles inland. As you proceed eastward along the coast they be come visible from near the mouth of the Kuparuk. Continuing east ward they get steadily nearer the coast, and apparently higher, until their distance from the sea is not more than six or eight miles at Demarcation Point, while their highest places are probably about ten thousand feet in elevation and lie southward from Flaxman and Barter islands, where they contain a few small glaciers. 


This whole coastal plain was a few years ago an immense caribou pasture and inhabited by hundreds of Eskimo who lived mostly on the meat of the caribou. Of late years the country has been depopulated through the disappearance of the caribou. This fact explains the United States census returns as to the population of northern Alaska. To any one ignorant of the facts, the census figures seem to prove that the population of northern Alaska has remained stationary during the last two or three decades. This is so far from being true that I am certain the population is not over ten per cent now of what it was in 1880. The trouble arises from the fact that the census covered only the coastal strip. The village of Cape Smythe contained probably about four hundred inhabitants in 1880, and contains about that to -day. But only four persons are now living who are considered by the Eskimo themselves to belong to the Cape Smythe tribe, and only twenty or twenty-one others who are descended from the Cape Smythe tribe through one parent. The fact is that the excessive death rate of the last thirty years would have nearly wiped out the village but for the fact that the prosperity of the whaling industry there year by year brought in large numbers of immigrants; so that while thirty years ago it was safe to say that seventy five per cent of the four hundred Eskimo at Cape Smythe must have been of that tribe, no more than seven per cent can now be considered to belong to it . The difference is made up by the immigrants, who, according to their own system of nomenclature, belong to a dozen or more tribes, and hail from districts as far apart as St. Lawrence Island in Bering Sea, and the mouth of the Mackenzie River in Arctic Canada,while the majority come from inland and from the headwaters of the Colville, Noatak, and Kuvuk rivers. It seems that the inland Eskimo, who by their head-form and other physical characteristics show clearly their admixture of Alaskan Indian blood, are more hardy than the coast people, or at least are less susceptible to the half dozen or so particularly deadly diseases which the white men of recent years have introduced. But hereafter the census figures will begin to be more truthful, for now the northern interior of Alaska is all deserted , and no recruits can come down from the mountains to fill in the vacant places left by diseases among the coastal Eskimo. 


It was the vanishing of the caribou from the interior coastal plain that drove down the Eskimo to the coast, and now it seems that the caribou are having a slight chance, for in large districts where for merly they had to face the hunter, their only enemy is now the wolf. Temperamentally, the Eskimo expects to find everything next year as he found it last year; consequently the belief died hard that the foothills were inexhaustibly supplied with caribou. But when starvation had year after year taken off families by groups, the Eskimo finally realized that the caribou in large numbers were a thing of the past ; and they were so firmly impressed with the fact, that now they are assured that no caribou are in the interior, as they once thought they would be there forever. 


One result of this temperamental peculiarity was this, that during the winter of 1908-1909 there were numerous families huddled around Flaxman Island (where, as it turned out, the Rosie H. was wintering) with the idea that it was impossible for them to get caribou for food or for clothing, while we went inland to where every one said there was no game, and were able to live well. Our own small party that winter in northern Alaska killed more caribou than all the rest of the Eskimo of the country put together, because we had the faith to go and look for them where the Eskimo “knew” they no longer existed .