Sacred-Texts Native American Inuit
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As a matter of course, what we have now to treat on is closely connected with what has already been said regarding the sustenance and mode of life peculiar to the Eskimo, because the life of a hunting people appears to require or give rise to a certain natural partnership or joint possession of goods confined to wider or smaller circles of the inhabitants, and directed by certain laws or customs. What one individual gains by his own labour being, in p. 23 consequence of this partnership, made accessible to others, this restriction of his right of property must necessarily be counterbalanced by certain obligations on the part of others; or, in other words, the right of property being in a peculiar way restricted with all the hunting nations, the personal rights and duties must have their corresponding peculiarities. In dealing with this part of our subject, we shall first treat of the division of the inhabitants into smaller communities; second, of the mutual rights and obligations of the individuals and of those communities as regards persons as well as property; and lastly, of the larger or smaller public meetings, which at once represent the national rejoicings and the courts of justice, by which the laws were maintained.

The smaller communities or subdivisions which were based upon a certain partnership, we have already alluded to as falling under the three following classes—the family, the inhabitants of a house, and the inhabitants of a wintering place or hamlet. But scarcely any further connection of this kind can be traced between the different wintering places.

Firstly, regarding the family. Scarcely anywhere did more than a very few of the men appear to have more than one wife, but the right of divorce and of taking another wife seems to have been tolerated without any definite restriction. Divorce, however, as well as polygamy and the exchange of wives, which is also mentioned as having existed, was only approved of by public opinion in so far as it aimed at propagation, especially of male descendants. The betrothal was managed in three ways—by mediators, as being fixed on from childhood, and by compulsion. But the wedding itself seems rarely to have taken place without some degree of force having been practised upon the bride—a custom of very universal use among so-called savage races. It also seems that the engagement had first to be settled with the bride's parents and p. 24 brothers, and that their consent in every case was requisite. A girl having many and eligible suitors, but the parents and brothers being unwilling to part with her, is a very common theme in the traditional tales. The wedding was performed without any special ceremony, and without imposing any peculiar obligations. The bride brought along with her her clothes, an "oolo," or semicircular knife, and generally a lamp. The family in a narrower sense comprised foster-children, as well as widows and other helpless persons, who were adopted into it on the ground of relationship, and more or less occupied the place of servants. We are inclined to believe that the so-called slaves or war-prisoners of the western Eskimo live under conditions similar to those held by the latter. The use of slaves as an article for barter is not so contrary to the ideas of social order in general as one would at first incline to believe. We only need to call attention to a tale in which a company of brothers are spoken of as being unwilling to allow their sister to marry till one of them happened to acquire a good friend, whom he persuaded to take her solely with the view of making him his brother-in-law. This story is in no way offensive to the feelings of the Greenlanders. But, on the other hand, their mode of life and of housekeeping hardly seems to allow of these slaves being treated otherwise than as subordinate members of the family. In a wider sense the family comprised married children, where these did not found a separate household by acquiring a separate boat and a tent for summer-travels. The joint ownership and use of these belongings, and the common labour and toil in obtaining the means of support by their aid, seems consequently to define the real community of family or kindred. The right of being adopted into the family may also be claimed by the parents-in-law. The new-married couple used to join the parents of one party, and as soon as the parents of the other were no longer able to p. 25 support themselves, they also took up their abode with the children. Besides these, brothers or sisters without providers, and widows of brothers, were also adopted by the family, as circumstances might require it. Where a mother-in-law was a member of the family, the daughter-in-law or wife of the master of the house was subordinate to her. The husband also had the right of punishing his wife by striking her in the face with just sufficient force to leave visible traces. But the children were never, and still less the servants, subjected to any corporeal punishment. If a man had two wives, the last was always considered as a concubine only, but succeeded the first in case of death. In cases of divorce the son always followed the mother. As a result of these arrangements every family generally had more than one provider. Widows or unmarried women with children rarely set up housekeeping by themselves, and were generally provided for by their housemates or kindred. If there was more than one son, the subsequent ones sometimes, on acquiring a boat and tent, left home and established a separate family or household. The owner of a boat or a tent was thus considered the chief or head of the family, and it was principally he who was called the igtuat of the others. Simpson mentions the chiefs on Point Barrow as Oomeliks, which no doubt must be the Greenlandish umialik, signifying owner of a boat, and thus is in strict accordance with what has just been said. When a man died, the oldest son inherited the boat and tent, along with the duties incumbent on the provider. If no such grown-up son existed, the nearest relative took his place and adopted the children of the deceased as his foster-children. But when these were grown up, and had themselves become providers, their widowed mother was at liberty to establish a separate household with them, without any further obligation to the foster-father. As regards inheritance in general, it must be remembered, that p. 26 among the Greenlanders it represented a question of obligations and burdens rather than of personal gain. Moreover, the only real hereditary goods—viz., the boat and tent—required annual repair and covering with new skins, almost as many as one hunter on an average could procure during the whole year. Lastly, it must be noticed that, even if the family were divided by removing to distant winter-quarters, the ties of relationship were always respected whenever mutual assistance was required.

The next kind of community was that of the housemates, where more than one family agreed to inhabit the same house. This, as a general custom, has perhaps only existed in Greenland, where often three or four, sometimes even more, families housed together. Each of these families, however, in the main maintained their own household; every family in the narrower sense—viz., the married couple with their children—having its own room on the main ledge with its lamp standing in front of it, while the unmarried people and the guests slept on the window and side ledges. As the house was built and repaired by joint labour, it could scarcely be said to have any particular owner; or if there happened to be one, he would only have all the burdens and obligations without any real rights as to possession. But among the heads of the several families one was generally found who was held in greater esteem than the rest by all the housemates, though not in the same degree as the members of a family respected their so-called igtuat.

The third kind of community is what we may call place-fellows—viz., inhabitants of the same hamlet or wintering place. Only in exceptional cases might a single house be found at such a place. When it is considered how widely the population was spread, and how distant the hamlets were from each other, it will be understood as a matter of course that the inhabitants living together on p. 27 such a sequestered spot must continually come into contact with each other in the hamlet itself, as well as in their common hunting-places, which made them form a band or community separated from the rest of the population. But still less than among the housemates was any one belonging to such a place to be considered as chief, or as endowed with any authority to command his place-mates. The folk-lore in many cases shows how men who had succeeded in acquiring such a power were considered as usurpers of undue authority, and vanquishing or killing them ranked as a benefit to the community in general. However, it was a standing rule that nobody from a distance could settle down for good at the place without the general consent of its inhabitants.



Of every seal caught at a winter station during the whole season of their dwelling in the winter-houses, small pieces of flesh, with a proportionate share of the blubber, were distributed among all the inhabitants; or if insufficient for so many, the housemates first got their share. Nobody was omitted on these occasions, and in this way not the very poorest could want food and lamp-oil so long as the usual capture of seals did not fail. Besides this general distribution, every man who had taken a seal used to invite the rest to partake of a meal with him. It must, however, be understood, that where the population of a place exceeded a certain number, or at times when the seals were very plentiful, this sharing of flesh and blubber, either by distribution or by feasting, would probably be limited, in the first case, to perhaps some of the nearest houses or relatives.

Beyond the confines of such places as were already inhabited, every one was at liberty to put up his house p. 28 and go hunting and fishing whenever he chose. Not even where others had first established a fishing-place, by making weirs across a river, would any objection be made to other parties making use of these, or even injuring them.

Any one picking up pieces of driftwood or goods lost at sea or on land was considered rightful owner of them; and to make good his possession, he had only to carry them up above high-water mark and put stones upon them, no matter where his homestead might be.

If a seal was harpooned and got off with the harpoon sticking in it, the first striker lost his right to it as soon as the hunting-bladder became detached. It then became the property of whoever found and finally killed it. This would take place when the animal had been hit with the large harpoon and the hunting-line snapped, while the small harpoon or bladder-arrow has the bladder attached to it. But if the animal ran far away with the bladder-arrow, the first hunter also lost his claim, just as if the bladder had been wanting. The weapons attached to the animal were restored to the proper owner when he announced himself.

Any other kind of goods found were considered the property of the finder.

If two hunters at the same time hit a bird or a seal, it was divided into equal parts with the skin attached. But if this happened with a reindeer, the animal belonged to the one whose arrow had reached nearest the heart, the other only getting part of the flesh.

All kinds of game or animals which happened to be rare, on account of their size or other unusual circumstances, were more than ordinary species considered common property. Of walrus and the smaller cetaceous animals, in localities where they were rarely found, the killer only took the head and tail, the remainder being given up to public use. This was also the case on the first capture of such animals as only appeared at certain seasons, or p. 29 with any animal caught during times of long want and bad luck to the hunters. But if an animal of the largest size, more especially a whale, was captured, it was considered common property, and as indiscriminately belonging to every one who might come and assist in flensing it, whatever place he belonged to, and whether he had any share in capturing the animal or not. The flensing was also managed without any order or control; and if any one happened to wound another on such an occasion, he was not held answerable for it.

In South Greenland, where bears are rarely seen, it is said that, on a bear being killed, it belongs to whoever first discovered it, setting aside altogether the person who killed it.

When no seals or other larger animals were brought home to a house, those families who were best off for provisions generally invited the other housemates, but not the place-fellows, to partake of the principal daily meal with them; or one or two families went joint shares in this, each contributing something.

If a man had borrowed the tools or weapons of another, and lost or injured them, he was not bound to give the owner any compensation for the loss or damage. Moreover, if any one neglected to make use of his fox-traps, and another went and had them set and looked after, the latter became owner of the game captured.

If a man repented of a bargain, he had a right to retract it. Nothing was sold on credit, at least not without being paid for very soon.

Looking at what has been said regarding the rights of property and the division of the people into certain communities, in connection with the division of property into the classes just given, we are led to the conclusion that the right of any individual to hold more than a certain amount of property was, if not regulated by law, at least jealously watched by the rest of the community; and p. 30 that, virtually, the surplus of any individual or community—fixed by the arbitrary rate which tradition or custom had assigned—was made over to those who had less. From this point of view, the first class of goods would be what belonged to a single person—viz., his clothes, weapons, and tools, or whatever was specially used by himself. These things were even regarded as having a kind of supernatural relation to the owner, reminding us of that between the body and the soul. Lending them to others was not customary; but if a person owned more suits than usual, public opinion would doubtless compel him to allow others to make use of them. The custom just mentioned, that a borrowed article which was lost or damaged need not necessarily be returned or compensated to the owner, strikingly shows that if a man had anything to spare or lend, it was considered superfluous to him, and not held with the same right of possession as his more necessary belongings, but to be ranked among those goods which were possessed in common with others. The consequence was, that superfluous garments or implements rarely existed. Only a few first-rate hunters possessed two kayaks, one fitted for the open sea and another for the sheltered inlets; but if he did happen to have three kayaks, he would at times be obliged to lend one of them to some relative or housemate, and sooner or later would lose it. The next class of property was what belonged to the whole family—the boat and tent, the provisions collected during the summer season, and lastly, a small store of skins and other articles intended either for family use or for bartering purposes. The third class consisted of what belonged to the housemates in common—viz., the house itself, the supply of victuals sufficient for certain meals, &c. A fourth class we may make comprise what was shared with the inhabitants of the same hamlet, such as the flesh and blubber derived from all the seals caught during the p. 31 stay in winter-quarters. A fifth and last class might be added, comprising those spoils which, either on account of the size of the captured animal, or sometimes owing to great scarcity and famine, were shared with the inhabitants of the neighbouring hamlets.

Some of the laws or customs above described concerning property—as, for instance, those that relate to things found—which at first sight may appear very strange, will find their explanation on closer inspection, and with due consideration of the peculiar localities, the long distances, and the scanty population, on account of which any article lost could hardly be expected to be recovered in a state still fit for use. But as to the principal peculiarities, it naturally follows that the members of the different communities, in profiting by the gains of so dangerous and toilsome a trade as that of the seal-hunter, could not be exempted from certain mutual obligations. The principal of these obligations were as follows:—

The duty of providing, and the right of being adopted into a family, have already been described in connection with the mutual relationship of its members. In order to become housemates, an agreement between the families in question was of course required. So also, if a new family wished to settle at an inhabited place, the newcomers had to wait the consent of the people already settled there, which was given by means of certain signs of civility or welcome, the strangers having meanwhile put their boat ashore, but not yet begun bringing up their goods. If those signs were not given, they put off again, and went on to look for another place.

It might be considered a law that every man, as far as he was able to do it, should practise the trade of a hunter on the sea, until he was either disabled by old age or had a son to succeed him. This duty neglected, he brought upon himself the reprehensions not only of the other members of his own family, but also of the wider p. 32 community. So also he was in duty bound to bring up his sons to the same business from their early childhood.

From their living together in small habitations, a friendly way of conversing was necessary; and all high words or quarrelling are considered as unlawful. The Greenlandish language is therefore devoid of any real words for scolding. The general mode of uttering annoyance at an offence is by silence; whereas the slightest harshness in speaking, even to younger or subordinate persons, is considered as an offence in so far that it may give rise to violent quarrels and ruptures.

In what has now been said, as in general, we have mainly had in view the Greenlanders under ordinary conditions. We have, however, also noted, that the rules of property were necessarily subjected to several modifications, according to the size of the houses, the hamlets, and other local circumstances. Where among the western Eskimo one place is said to contain 50 houses and 300 inhabitants, the housemates here must have represented the family as well, and the population have been too numerous to allow of any general distribution of flesh and blubber during the winter. In such cases it would be reasonable to suppose that the inmates of a certain number of houses were united, and made a community by themselves, like that of a whole hamlet in Greenland. Nobody being able to acquire and accumulate property beyond certain limits, and the state and conditions of the different households being all alike even there, the principles of social institutions among the western Eskimo can hardly be supposed to have differed much from those of the Greenlanders.

No court of justice was established as a special authority to secure the maintenance of the laws. With exception of the part which the angakoks, or the relatives of an offended person, took in inflicting punishment upon the delinquent, public opinion formed the judgment-seat, p. 33 the general punishment consisting in the offenders being shamed in the eye of the people; and the only regular courts were the public meetings or parties, which at the same time supplied the national sports and entertainments, and greatly contributed to strengthen and maintain the national life.

The first kind of meetings were those which daily occurred when the men returned from their seal-hunt and invited each other to partake of whatever they had brought home. The men alone partook of those meals, the females getting their share afterwards. During these meals the events of the day were told and commented on, several matters of common interest discussed, and the had behaviour, or perhaps vices, of some individuals censured and blamed.

The other kind of meetings consisted of the real festivals, which were most commonly held in the middle of the winter; though they also took place during summer, when, of course, the guests could be more numerous. Besides eating and talking, the principal entertainments on those occasions consisted in (1) different games and matches of strength and agility; (2) singing and drum-playing, with dancing and declamation; (3) satirical songs, or nith-songs, which, properly speaking, represented the court of justice.

Playing at ball was the favourite game, and managed in two different ways,—either by throwing the ball from one person to the other among the same partners while the opposite party was trying to get hold of it; or each of the sides had its mark, at a distance of 300 to 400 paces, which they tried to hit with the ball, kicking it along with the foot from either side. The athletic exercises or matches consisted in wrestling with arms and fingers, different exercises on lines stretched beneath the roof, kayak-races, boxing on level ground, and several other games.

p. 34

The songs and declamations were at times performed in the open air, but generally at the feast, immediately after the meal, and by the men alternately. The singer stood forth on the floor with his drum—a ring 1½ foot in diameter with a skin stretched on it—beating it with a stick in accompaniment to his song, adding gesticulations, and dancing at intervals. The nith-songs just mentioned were of a peculiar kind, used for settling all kinds of quarrels, and punishing any sort of crime, or breach of public order or custom, with the exception of those which could only be expiated by death, in the shape of the blood-revenge. If a person had a complaint against another, he forthwith composed a song about it, and invited his opponent to meet him, announcing the time and place where he would sing against him. Generally, and always in cases of importance, both sides had their assistants, who, having prepared themselves for this task, could act their parts if their principals happened to be exhausted. These songs also were accompanied by drum-playing and dancing. The cheering or dissent of the assembly at once represented the judgment as well as the punishment.

As regards real crimes, those in violation of the rights of property, as a matter of course, can only have been trifling; on the other hand, the passions of the people tending to ambition, domineering, or the mere fancy for making themselves feared, sometimes gave rise to violence and murder. The practice of witchcraft must also, be ranked among this class—those who believed, or even confessed themselves able to practise it, being stimulated by almost the same passions, and punished in the same way if suspected. When the witches, on being threatened with death, did not deny their guilt, the only passion which can have incited them seems to have been a kind of ambition; and this is quite in accordance with the angakoks being their principal adversaries, denouncing p. 35 them, and inflicting punishment upon them. Murder, and under certain circumstances witchcraft, were, as a rule, punished with death, which was carried out in two different ways—either as revenge of blood, or being duly deliberated upon by the inhabitants of one or more stations. To fulfil the blood-revenge was the duty of the nearest relative; and having performed it, he had to denounce himself to the relatives of him whom he had killed. Capital punishment, as the result of deliberation and decree, was inflicted upon witches, and upon such individuals as were obviously dangerous to the whole community, or at least suspected of being so. Lastly, some cases of manslaughter occurred which were considered neither decidedly admissible nor altogether unlawful. These were as follow: The killing of an infant that, from the loss of its mother, would be liable to die from starvation; the killing of insane persons threatening the life of the housemates; and lastly, the continued blood-revenge or this revenge carried out on some kindred or place-fellow of the murderer.