Sacred-Texts Native American Inuit
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p. 6


The sustenance of the Eskimo is entirely derived from the capture of seals and cetaceous animals, which has made them inhabitants of the sea-shore. Both kinds of animals enable them, especially by means of their blubber, and the seals also by their skins, to brave the severity of climate, and, independent of any vegetable resources, to settle and procure the means of life as far north as any explorers have hitherto found human inhabitants. The seals are sufficient, and at the same time indispensable, for this purpose. They are caught partly from kayaks, or shuttle-shaped boats, and partly from the ice and the shore. Among their more or less peculiar hunting contrivances we may mention: (1) Their kayaks, or boats, which consist of a framework of wood, joined together principally by strings, and provided with a cover of skins impenetrable to the water. (2) The adjustment of the kayak itself and the kayak-coverings, with a view to provide an entire shelter for the kayaker, or seal-hunter, with the exception only of the face, to protect him against the water. Only a small number of Eskimo have kayaks fitted for more than a single man;1 and still more exceptionally, in the farthest north some are found who have no kayaks at all, from the sea being almost constantly frozen. (3) The adaptation of a bladder filled with air to the harpoons or javelins, in order, by retarding the animals, to prevent them escaping after being struck, and to prevent the harpoon sinking, should the hunter miss his aim. (4) The very ingenious way in which the point of these weapons, and of the spears with which the animals are finally killed, are fitted into the shaft, so that having penetrated p. 7 {see picture facing page 7} the skin of the animal, the point is bent out of the shaft, which is either entirely loosened, while only the point with the line and the bladder remains attached to the animal, or keeps hanging at the point. Without this precaution, the animal in its struggles would break the shaft or make the barbs slip out of its body again. (5) The sledge with the dogs trained for drawing it. In speaking of these complex contrivances as characteristic of the Eskimo, we do not claim any of them as their exclusive property or invention, or as having been unknown among other nations now or in former ages. It would, however, be perhaps difficult to find anything at all like their kayaks in any other part of the globe.

Their dwellings are always of two kinds—namely, tents for the summer, and houses or huts for winter use. The tents, generally adapted for less than ten and rarely for more than twenty individuals, consist of from ten to fourteen poles, with one end raised high and leaning on the frame which forms the entrance, and the whole covered over with a double layer of skins. The tents seem to be constructed in the same way everywhere, and to differ from those of neighbouring nations in having their highest point at the entrance in front, from which the roof inclines towards the sides, resting all round upon a low wall of stones and turf; while the neighbouring tribes generally construct their tents of a conical form, with the top in the centre. The winter-houses are far more varied in structure. Generally they are built of stones and turf, the roof-spars and the pillars which support the middle of the roof being of wood. Only the Eskimo of the middle regions have vaults of snow for their habitations; whilst the western Eskimo build their houses chiefly of planks, merely covered on the outside with green turf. Some of the very far northern Eskimo are obliged to use bones or stones instead of wood. As to the form of the houses, the passage leading into them is long and very narrow, and p. 8 elevated towards both ends—viz., the outer and the inner entrances; so that on entering the house one has first to descend, and afterwards again to ascend before reaching the interior. This consists of a single apartment, only the ledge or bench for resting and sleeping on is divided into separate portions for the different families. In Greenland the ledge or bench—the "brix," as the Danes call it—only occupies one side of the house, its length being proportioned to the number of the families, whose rooms or stalls are separated by low screens, each of these rooms having its lamp standing on the floor in front of it. The snow-huts, from their circular form, are of course arranged differently; and this is also the case with the plank-houses in western Eskimo-Land, which have a cooking-place in the centre of the floor, with a smoke-hole in the roof, like the houses of the neighbouring Indians. But the house-passage has generally everywhere a small side-room with a cooking-place. The provisions are sometimes kept in rooms connected with the house or house-passage; in other places in separate storehouses, or in caves or holes of the rocks covered with stones. In former times it seems to have been the custom at the more populous places to have a public building for meetings, especially for solemn occasions. Such buildings are still in common use among the western Eskimo: they are also spoken of in Labrador; and in Greenland they are well known by tradition, and were called ĸagsse; while in other districts they are termed kagge, karrigi, and kashim. Though the dwelling-houses are nearly always built for more than one family, the number of these is seldom found to exceed three or four. In south Greenland, however, houses have been met with more than sixty feet in length, and containing stalls for ten families. At Point Barrow, Simpson found nearly fifty houses with two karrigi, for 309 inhabitants.

The dress for men and women is much alike, consisting {see picture facing page 8} p. 9 {see picture facing page 9} of trousers, and a jacket with a hood to be drawn up to cover the head (at least for men), and otherwise fitting tightly round the body, leaving no opening excepting for the face and the hands. The same shape is adopted for the kayak-jacket, the inside border of which is pressed closely round the rim encircling the opening in which the man sits, and the hands are protected by a pair of waterproof leather mittens. The foot-gear consists of different kinds of boots, exceedingly well made, and in preparing the skins for the manufacture of which a considerable degree of care and ingenuity is displayed.

The Eskimo may more properly be classed among the people having fixed dwellings than among the wandering nations, because they generally winter in the same place through even more than one generation, so that love of their birthplace is a rather predominating feature in their character. During the rest of the year, however, they are constantly on the move, carrying their tents and all their furniture with them from one place to another, choosing their route with different objects, generally preferring that of reindeer-hunting, but also having an eye to seal-hunting, fishery, or trade. When travelling in this manner for very distant places, they are sometimes arrested on their route and obliged to take up winter quarters before reaching their proper destination. An Eskimo from the northern shores of Hudson Bay, who accompanied Franklin as interpreter, is said to have reported that people in his house resided during the winter on the borders of the lakes in the interior, and in summer at the sea-shore. If this be true, it would form a remarkable exception to the general rule.

The mode of life of the Eskimo being mainly that of hunters and fishers, they must, in comparison with other nations, be regarded—speaking broadly—as having no regular property. They only possess the most necessary utensils and furniture, with a stock of provisions for less p. 10 than one year; and these belongings never exceed certain limits fixed upon by tradition or custom. On account of these limits, which are of great importance as regards their social order, and the laws which will be discussed hereafter, the properties may be thus classified:—

1. Property owned by an association of generally more than one family—e.g., the winter-house, which, however, is only of any real value as regards the timber employed in raising it, the rest of it being built of such materials as are to be found everywhere, by the work of women's hands.

2. Property the common possession of one, or at most of three families of kindred—viz., a tent and everything belonging to the household, such as lamps, tubs, dishes of wood, soapstone pots; a boat, or umiak, which can carry all these articles along with the tent; one or two sledges with the dogs attached to them; the latter, however, are wanting in South Greenland. To this must be added the stock of winter provisions, representing as much as, used exclusively, will be sufficient for two or three months' consumption; and lastly, a varying but always very small store of articles for barter,

3. As regards personal property—i.e., owned by every individual—cognisance must be taken of clothes, consisting of, at least for the principal members of the family, two suits, but rarely more; the sewing implements of the women; the kayaks of the men, with tools and weapons belonging to these; a few other tools for working in wood; and weapons for the land-chase. Only a very few first-rate seal-hunters own two kayaks, but several of them have two suits of the appertaining implements,—namely, the large harpoon (tukaĸ, the point; and ernangnaĸ, the shaft of it), with its bladder and line; the bladder-arrow or javelin (agdligaĸ), a smaller harpoon with the bladder attached to its shaft; the bird-arrow or bird-spear (nugfit); the lance or spear (anguvigaĸ), the point of which is without barbs; fishing-lines, and various smaller articles.

{see picture facing page 10}

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Excepting the houses of the western Eskimo, which, being composed of timber, are of more value, the conditions of property seem to be nearly alike everywhere. With a few exceptions, the natives carry all their movable goods along with them in the boat on their summer travels, and on arriving at some narrow strip of land which has to be crossed, everything is brought over along with the boat.

Notwithstanding their very limited feeling as to accumulating property, the Eskimos have kept up a kind of trade among themselves, and it is for this purpose that some of their most distant journeys are undertaken. But the mere desire to travel may perhaps have urged them quite as much as the prospect of gain. The objects for barter have been such as were produced or were only to be found in certain localities, and which nevertheless might to a certain degree be considered almost indispensable—such as soapstone, and the lamps and vessels manufactured from it, whalebone, narwal and walrus teeth, certain kinds of skin, sometimes even finished boats and kayaks, but rarely articles of food. The articles looked upon as most precious were, however, any objects made of metal, or other materials more exclusively possessed by foreign nations. In the most remote ages the Eskimo on those trading expeditions appear to have overpassed their present southern limits. This may be gathered partly from pure Eskimo words being found in the language of more southern tribes, partly from the sagas of the old Scandinavians, who seem to have met travelling Eskimo even to the south of Newfoundland. In more modern times, a regular trading communication has been discovered, by means of which certain articles from Asia have reached the Eskimo of the middle territories, perhaps even sometimes the shores of Davis Strait or Hudson Bay; and others, on the other hand, have travelled from there to Behring Strait,—all through internal trading carried on among p. 12 the natives themselves. No communication of this kind seemed to have existed between the tracts last named and Greenland; but the inhabitants of different parts of Greenland, with the exception of the northernmost tribes, have always maintained an intercommunication. The European settlements have, of course, entirely altered or annihilated this intercourse; but even while it existed, the mutual trade among the natives has scarcely given rise to any organisation of labour, or furthered any kind of industry which might have been of some consequence for the development of certain manufactures. Every community of kindred being in possession of a boat and a tent, must be able to provide what is necessary to secure themselves a comfortable life, except the few articles mentioned as among the principal articles of trade.



p. 6

1 Such kayaks, suited for two people—one sitting behind the other—are the "baidars" of the Eskimo of Behring Strait.