Historical Events

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The stories of Kaplavinna, a whale killer, are told to Stefansson in a remote village, but he soon discovers that they are the retellings of an Eskimo he had brought with him and that myths can spread through simple misunderstandings."When Natkusiak told these stories, as I noticed on many occasions, he never made any allowances for the fact that he was dealing with things entirely strange to the local people."

April 10, 1911

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My Life with the Eskimo - Chapter 16

Vilhjalmur Stefansson

Religion
Eskimo

We had here a striking example of how easy it is to be misled by native information. I had been led to believe in the spring that the Coronation Gulf people never had had any knowledge of the killing of bow-head whales, although they were familiar with the carcasses of those that had drifted up on their beaches. Neither had they apparently ever seen a live one, which is not strange, considering the two facts that bow -head whales are not only no doubt very rare in these waters, but the people themselves are always inland in the summer time and are therefore not in a position to see the whales even if they might come into these waters in July or August. But here at this village and now for the first time, after vain inquiries all summer, we heard various stories of whale killings, most of them , however, centering about a single man whom they called Kaplavinna. They told how this person had on occasion even killed several whales in one day, and how he had a very large boat. This again was new information, for up to that time we had heard nothing about anything but kayaks. In the spring, in fact, the people had seemed to be un familiar with the very name of umiak. 


I listened to several of these stories with great wonder and asked many questions which were readily answered, but which threw no great light on the subject, until it occurred to me to ask one of the narrators, “ Who told you this story ? Did you get it from your father ?” The man said: “ No, I got it from Natjinna. ” Now Natjinna had been a camp follower of ours all summer, and I had asked him specifically in the spring both about bow-head whales and umiaks and he knew nothing about either. It seemed strange to me that Natjinna should have misled me so in the summer, and I made up my mind to take him to task for it when I saw him. Two or three weeks later, when I happened to meet him, I asked how was it that in the spring he had been unwilling to tell me anything about whales or big boats and now he told long stories to others about them. “Oh, but those were the stories that Natkusiak told me,” he answered. 


It turned out on investigation that my own man, Natkusiak, was the fountain-head of all these stories, and that the redoubtable whaler Kaplavinna was none other than Natkusiak's former employer, Captain Leavitt of the steam whaler Narwhal. These were the local versions, changed to fit the circumstances and geography of Corona tion Gulf, and translated into terms comprehensible to the Copper mine Eskimo. I had heard Natkusiak telling these stories a previous spring, but the versions that came to me a year later were so changed that they were not recognizable, and had been so thoroughly localized graphically that the narrators could tell me off just which Coronation Gulf headland the adventures had taken place. 


When Natkusiak told these stories, as I noticed on many occasions, he never made any allowances for the fact that he was dealing with things entirely strange to the local people. He discussed davits, masts, sails, anchors, harpoon guns, dynamite bombs, the price of whalebone and the like, exactly as he would have done in his own home village at Port Clarence where these are all familiar topics and matters of everyday conversation. The very names of these things as well as the concepts behind them were absent from the vocabularies and the minds of the local people, and the ideas which they therefore got from Natkusiak's truthful stories were very far from those which would have been gained from the same narratives by a people whose everyday experiences made them comprehensible. 


From the seeds sown here by Natkusiak there had grown up a local myth about Kaplavinna and his whaling adventures, myth which Natkusiak himself would have had fully as much trouble as I in recognizing, —just exactly as the discussion of the Christian religion by a missionary and of a strange social and political system by a school teacher gives rise to the most astounding ideas in the minds of the Alaskan Eskimo. Very likely it was thus from the preaching of an early missionary among them that some Indian origi nally evolved upon the model of Jehovah the Manitou idea, which people nowadays use to prove that the tribes of the New England wilderness were familiar with the conception of a single superior being.