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Stefansson meats the Dolphin and Union Strait Eskimo and enjoys a feast of boiled seal meat and blood soup - showcasing the carnivorous diet of these untouched by modern civilization peoples.

May 12, 1910

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My Life with the Eskimo - Chapter 11

Man The Fat Hunter
Facultative Carnivore
Pre-civilization races
Eskimo
Carnivore Diet

Vilhjalmur Stefansson

Our first day among the Dolphin and Union Straits Eskimo was the day of all my life to which I had looked forward with the most vivid anticipations, and to which I now look back with equally vivid memories, for it introduced me, a student of mankind and of primitive men especially, to a people of a bygone age. Mark Twain's Connecticut Yankee went to sleep in the nineteenth century and woke up in King Arthur's time among knights who rode in clinking mail to the rescue of fair ladies; we, without going to sleep at all, had walked out of the twentieth century into the country of the intellectual and cultural contemporaries of a far earlier age than King Arthur's. These were not such men as Cæsar found in Gaul or in Britain; they were more nearly like the still earlier hunting tribes of Britain and of Gaul living contemporaneous to but oblivious of the building of the first pyramid in Egypt. Their existence on the same continent with our populous cities was an an achronism of ten thousand years in intelligence and material development. They gathered their food with the weapons of the men of the Stone Age, they thought their simple, primitive thoughts and lived their insecure and tense lives — lives that were to me the mirrors of the lives of our far ancestors whose bones and crude handiwork we now and then discover in river gravels or in prehistoric caves. Such archæological remains found in various parts of the world of the men who antedated the knowledge of the smelting of metals, tell a fascinating story to him whose scientific imagination can piece it together and fill in the wide gaps; but far better than such dreaming was my present opportunity. I had nothing to imagine; I had merely to look and listen; for here were not remains of the Stone Age, but the Stone Age itself, men and women, very human, entirely friendly, who welcomed us to their homes and bade us stay. 


The dialect they spoke differed so little from the Mackenzie River speech which I had acquired in three years of living in the houses and traveling camps of the western Eskimo that we could make ourselves understood from the first. It cannot have happened often in the history of the world that the first white man to visit a primitive people was one who spoke their language. My opportunities were therefore unusual. Long before the year was over I was destined to become as one of them, and even from the first hour we were able to converse sympathetically on subjects of common concern. Nothing that I have to tell from the Arctic is of greater intrinsic interest or more likely to be considered a contribution to knowledge than the story of our first day with these people who had not, either they or their ancestors, seen a white man until they saw me. I shall therefore tell that story. 


Like our distant ancestors, no doubt, these people fear most of all things the evil spirits that are likely to appear to them at any time in any guise, and next to that they fear strangers. Our first meeting had been a bit doubtful and dramatic through our being mistaken for spirits, but now they had felt of us and talked with us, and knew we were but common men. Strangers we were, it is true, but we were only three among forty of them, and were therefore not to be feared. Besides, they told us, they knew we could harbor no guile from the freedom and frankness with which we came among them; for, they said, a man who plots treachery never turns his back to those whom he intends to stab from behind. 


Before the house which they immediately built for us was quite ready for our occupancy, children came running from the village to announce that their mothers had dinner ready. The houses were so small that it was not convenient to invite all three of us into the same one to eat; besides, it was not etiquette to do so, as we now know. Each of us was, therefore, taken to a different place. My host was the seal-hunter whom we had first approached on the ice. His house would, he said, be a fitting one in which to offer me my first meal among them, for his wife had been born farther west on the mainland coast than any one else in their village, and it was even said that her ancestors had not belonged originally to their people, but were immigrants from the westward. She would, therefore, like to ask me questions. 


It turned out, however, that his wife was not a talkative person, as, but motherly, kindly, and hospitable, like all her countrywomen. Her first questions were not of the land from which I came, but of my footgear. Weren't my feet just a little damp, and might she not pull my boots off for me and dry them over the lamp? Would I not put on a pair of her husband's dry socks, and was there no little hole in my mittens or coat that she could mend for me? She had boiled some seal-meat for me, but she had not boiled any fat, for she did not know whether I preferred the blubber boiled or raw. They always cut it in small pieces and ate it raw themselves; but the pot still hung over the lamp, and anything she put into it would be cooked in a moment. 


When I told her that my tastes quite coincided with theirs in fact, they did — she was delighted. People were much alike, then, after all, though they came from a great distance. She would, accordingly, treat me exactly as if I were one of their own people come to visit them from afar and, in fact, I was one of their own people, for she had heard that the wicked Indians to the south spoke a language no man could understand, and I spoke with but a slight flavor of strangeness. 


When we had entered the house the boiled pieces of seal-meat had already been taken out of the pot and lay steaming on a sideboard. On being assured that my tastes in food were not likely to differ from theirs, my hostess picked out for me the lower joint of a seal's fore leg, squeezed it firmly between her hands to make sure nothing should later drip from it, and handed it to me, along with her own copper-bladed knife; the next most desirable piece was similarly squeezed and handed to her husband, and others in turn to the rest of the family. When this had been done, one extra piece was set aside in case I should want a second helping, and the rest of the boiled meat was divided into four portions, with the explanation to me that there were four families in the village who had no fresh seal-meat. The little adopted daughter of the house, a girl of seven or eight, had not begun to eat with the rest of us, for it was her task to take a small wooden platter and carry the four pieces of boiled meat to the four families who had none of their own to cook. I thought to myself that the pieces sent out were a good deal smaller than the individual portions we were eating, and that the recipients would not get quite a square meal; but I learned later that night from my two companions that four similar presents had been sent out from each of the houses where they were eating, and I know now that every house in the village in which any cooking was done had likewise sent four portions, so that the aggregate must have been a good deal more than the recipients could eat at one time. During our meal presents of food were also brought us from other houses; each housewife apparently knew exactly what the others had put in their pots, and whoever had anything to offer that was a little bit different would send some of that to the others, so that every minute or two a small girl messenger appeared in our door with a platter of something to contribute to our meal. Some of the gifts were especially designated as for me — mother had said that however they divided the rest of what she was sending, the boiled kidney was for me; or mother had sent this small piece of boiled seal flipper to me, with the message that if I would take breakfast at their house to-morrow I should have a whole flipper, for one of my companions was over at their house now, and had told them that I considered the flipper the best part of a seal. 


As we ate we sat on the front edge of the bed-platform, holding each his piece of meat in the left hand and the knife in the right. This was my first experience with a knife of native copper; I found it more than sharp enough and very serviceable. The piece of copper (float) from which the blade had been hammered out had been found, they told me, on Victoria Island to the north in the territory of another tribe, from whom they had bought it for some good drift wood from the mainland coast. My hostess sat on my right in front of the cooking-lamp, her husband on my left. As the house was only the ordinary oval snow dome, about seven by nine feet in inside dimensions, there was only free room for the three of us on the front edge of the two-foot-high snow platform, over which reindeer, bear, and musk-ox skins had been spread to make the bed. The children, therefore, ate standing up on the small, open floor space to the right of the door as one enters; the lamp and cooking-gear and frames for drying clothing over the lamp took up all the space to the left of the door. In the horseshoe-shaped, three - foot-high doorway stood the three dogs of my host, side by side, waiting for some one to finish the picking of a bone. As each of us in turn finished a bone we would toss it to one of the dogs, who retired with it to the alleyway, and returned to his position in line again as soon as he had finished it. When the meal was over they all went away unbidden, to curl up and sleep in the alleyway or out-of-doors. 


Our meal was of two courses : the first, meat; the second, soup. The soup is made by pouring cold seal blood into the boiling broth immediately after the cooked meat has been taken out of the pot, and stirring briskly until the whole comes nearly (but never quite) to a boil. This makes a soup of a thickness comparable to our English pea-soups, but if the pot be allowed to come to a boil, the blood will coagulate and settle to the bottom. When the pot lacks a few degrees of boiling, the lamp above which it is swung is extinguished and a few handfuls of snow are stirred into the soup to bring it to a temperature at which it can be freely drunk. By means of a small dipper the housewife then fills the large musk-ox-horn drinking-cups and assigns one to each person; if the number of cups is short, two or more persons may share the contents of one cup, or a cup may be refilled when one is through with it and passed to another. After I had eaten my fill of fresh seal-meat and drunk two pint cupfuls of blood soup, my host and I moved farther back on the bed platform, where we could sit comfortably, propped up against bundles of soft caribou-skins, while we talked of various things. He and his wife asked but few questions, and only such as could not be considered intrusive, either according to their standards as I learned them later or according to ours. They understood perfectly, they said, why we had left behind the woman of our party when we came upon their trail, for it is always safest to assume that strangers are going to prove hostile; but now that we knew them to be harmless and friendly, would we not allow them to send a sled in the morning to bring her to the village? They had often heard that their ancestors used to come in contact with people to the west, and now it was their good fortune to have with them some men from the west, and they would like to see a western woman, too. It must be a very long way to the land from which we came; were we not satiated with traveling, and did we not think of spending the summer with them ? Of course, the tribes who lived farther east would also be glad to see us, and would treat us well, unless we went too far to the east and fell in with the Netsilik Eskimo ( King William Island ), who are wicked, treacherous people who strange to say have no chins. Beyond them, they had heard, lived the white men (Kablunat), of whom, no doubt, we had never heard, seeing we came from the west, and the white men are farthest of all people to the east. They are said to have various physical deformities; they had heard that some of them had one eye in the middle of the forehead, but of this they were not sure, because stories that come from afar are always doubtful. The white men were said to be of a strangely eccentric disposition; when they gave anything to an Eskimo they would take no pay for it, and they would not eat good, ordinary food, but subsisted on various things which a normal person could not think of forcing himself to swallow except in case of starvation. And this in spite of the fact that the white men could have better things to eat if they wanted to, for seals, whales, fish, and even caribou abound in their country.