October 25, 1949
Nunamiut, Among Alaska's Inland Eskimos
A diet of tough caribou meat with practically no fat becomes dismal after a time.
It is October.
An important event is now imminent. Very soon the southward autumn migration of the caribou from the tundra to the mountains will begin. Great herds will go through the Anaktuvuk Pass during a comparatively short time. The Eskimos will then have to shoot sufficient caribou bulls, which until the mating season are very fat, to ensure our main fat requirements for the winter. Later the beasts become skinny, and without sufficient fat, people on a meat diet throughout a long, cold winter are in an awkward position.
But something is. wrong. Day after day we range far over the countryside in every direction but see nothing but one or two small herds of lean bulls. A few animals are brought down, and we keep going more or less, but meals are scanty for both men and dogs.
The shortage of fat is now becoming serious. The only form of fat we have is the marrow in the bones; it is eaten raw and is a dish more delicious in times like these than words can describe. But as a caribou has only four legs and few beasts are shot, not much of this delicacy comes the way of each individual. No, a diet of tough caribou meat with practically no fat becomes dismal after a time. It is a diet which gives one the same empty feeling under the breastbone as when one has nothing to eat at all. We can eat almost unlimited quantities without feeling satisified. One's condition suffers accordingly; one feels the cold more: I have to make an effort to do things which otherwise would have been easy.
"It's rather like eating moss," Paniaq says with a smile as we attack the tough meat. And when we are out hunting together and look out from the heights over a wide area and do not see a living creature on the snow, only cold and nakedness as far as the eye can reach, he sometimes says in his dry manner: "A hungry land."
It is becoming common to borrow meat from one another. Here the Eskimos' sense of duty toward their nearest relations is clearly shown. When the hunter returns to the settlement with game, his wife immediately cuts off a few good portions of meat and gives them to her parents and parents-in-law. This diminishes the uncertainty which attaches to a single hunter's bag. In a way the community functions in hard times like a kind of mutual benevelent society.
Our situation would be more difficult if we had not a quantity of reserve provisions running about high up in the steepest mountains--the wild sheep. They are the bright spots in our existence. Leaving the lean caribou meat for the fat, tender mutton is like changing from bread and water in prison to the choicest dish at the Cafe de Paris. The sheep keep fat longer than the caribou, from the beginning of July to April.
Now and again we go out hunting sheep. But the beasts are rather scattered and in small herds, so even if we bring down some, they do not go far among sixty-five people(and 200 dogs).
But there was a report ahead, and I saw a ram in flight far away. There sat Paniaq, smoking his pipe beside a big ram.
We rolled and pulled the animal down to the foot of the mountain; as usual we ate the glands between the hooves and the dainty neck fat on the spot.