Sacred-Texts Native American Inuit
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p. 70


If we suppose the physical conditions and the climate of the Eskimo regions not to have altered in any remarkable way since they were first inhabited, their inhabitants of course must originally have come from more southern latitudes, and, after their arrival in those regions, have made the inventions and adopted the mode of life which constitute their character as Eskimo. When we consider how uniformly this character now manifests itself, notwithstanding the great separation of the tribes for upwards of a thousand years or more, it seems probable, firstly, that the nation during such a period of development must have lived in closer connection, allowing of concurrence in making the necessary inventions, as well as in bringing about a general adoption of the same mode of life; and secondly, that the development of their culture during that period must have been active and rapid in comparison with the time of separation which followed, during which the tribes have been leading a very stationary existence, almost without any perceptible change. Passing on to the next question—where this development or this change of a migrating tribe from the south into a polar coast people has taken place—it appears evident on many grounds that such a southern tribe has not been a coast people migrating along the sea-shore, and turning into Eskimo on passing beyond a certain latitude, but that they have more probably emerged from some interior country, following the river-banks towards the shores of the polar sea, having reached which they became a coast people, and, moreover, a polar coast people. The Eskimo most evidently representing the polar coast people of North America, the first question which arises seems to be whether their development can be conjectured p. 71 with any probability to have taken place in that part of the world. Other geographical conditions appear greatly to favour such a supposition. It has been stated (principally by Lewis Morgan) that the primitive hunting nations of North America have obtained their principal means of subsistence from the rivers, especially by the salmon-fishery. The north-west angle of America, from California to the Coppermine river, contains several large rivers very rich in fish. The general tendency of all the primitive nations to expand by driving out one another must have almost necessarily compelled those of them who occupied the extreme confines to go onward till they reached the sea-shore. If this happened to be that of the polar seas, the new settlers would at once in its animals find a rich source of sustenance, at the same time as the country which they had passed through and left behind had gradually grown more barren and destitute of the means of supporting human life. This almost sudden change in their whole mode of life is also very likely to have given rise to the general sharp separation of this coast people from the inland tribes, and the position of hostility in which they stood to each other. The North-West Indians might be considered as forming an intermediate link between them. These derive about one-half of their supplies from the sea by whale-fishery. The rivers taking their course to the sea between Alaska and the Coppermine river, seem well adapted to lead such a migrating people onwards to the polar sea. While still resident on the river-banks in the interior, they may be supposed to have had the same language, and to have been able to communicate overland from one river to the other. This intercourse we may assume to have been still maintained while those of the bands most in advance had already settled down on the sea-shore and begun catching seals and whales, covering their boats with skins instead of birch-bark, and making the principal p. 72 inventions with regard to seal-hunting peculiar to the Eskimo; and while the whole nation in this way gradually settled down on the sea-shore, it also maintained the unity necessary for the purpose of defending itself against the hostile inland people. If, in accordance with what will be explained in the following introduction, we likewise suppose the principal part of the folk-lore to have originated about this period, the subjects mentioned in the tales would constitute a means for guiding us in search of the locality where the first settling on the sea-shore is likely to have taken place. For this purpose it will be sufficient to call to mind the tales treating of the following subjects:—

1. An expedition to the inlanders for the purpose of procuring metal knives.

2. A man descended both from the coast people and the inlanders, and his deeds among both.

3. The brothers visiting their sister, who had been married into a tribe of cannibals.

4. An onslaught on the coast people, from which only a couple of children were saved, who went off roaming far and wide, and performed great deeds.

5. A woman living alternately among the coast people and the inlanders, persuading them to wage war against each other.

6. Women who from different causes went and settled down among the inlanders.

7. A man taming wild animals for the purpose of crossing the frozen sea.

8. Different travels to Akilinek.

On comparing these subjects of the tales with the present geographical conditions, we will find that in all respects they suggest America and not Asia. The probable identity of the "inlanders" with the Indians has already been remarked on. When the new coast people began to spread along the Arctic shores, some bands of them may very probably have crossed Behring Strait p. 73 and settled on the opposite shore, which is perhaps identical with the fabulous country of Akilinek. On the other hand, there is very little probability that a people can have moved from interior Asia to settle on its polar sea-shore, at the same time turning Eskimo, and afterwards almost wholly emigrated to America.

On comparing the Eskimo with the neighbouring nations, their physical complexion certainly seems to point at an Asiatic origin; but, as far as we know, the latest investigations have also shown a transitional link to exist between the Eskimo and the other American nations, which would sufficiently indicate the possibility of a common origin from the same continent. As to their mode of life, the Eskimo decidedly resemble their American neighbours; whereas all the northernmost nations of the Old World, with the exception of the Kamtskadales, are pastoral tribes, regarding fishing on their rivers as only a secondary occupation; and when some of them have settled on the river-sides, or even on the sea-shore, given up their reindeer, and made fishing and hunting their main means of subsistence, these have still been families originally belonging to the pastoral tribes, who have changed their mode of life chiefly on account of poverty. In the Old World we nowhere find anything at all like a coast race as opposed to an inland people, with the exception of the Asiatic Eskimo or the Coast-Tschoukschees, who are quite different from, but still live in friendly relations with, the pastoral Tschoukschees. As to religion, the Eskimo are also allied to the Americans, and differ from the Asiatic nations, who have a more perfect system of deities, worship idols, and with whom sacrifices form the principal part of their religious rites. With regard to their language, the Eskimo also appear akin to the American nations in regard to its decidedly polysynthetic structure. Here, however, on the other hand, we meet with some very remarkable similarities between the Eskimo idiom and p. 74 the language of Siberia, belonging to the Altaic or Finnish group: first, as to the rule of joining the affixes to the end and not the beginning of the primitive word; and second, the very characteristic mode of forming the dual by k and the plural by t.

At all events, it must be granted that the origin of the Eskimo people remains very obscure; and that, possibly, early intercourse and subsequent mutual influence may once have existed between the northernmost nations of the two continents, which future researches may yet reveal.

As regards their numbers, the Eskimo must also be supposed to have increased considerably in early periods beyond what has been the case in later times; and the feuds between the single families, or larger bands, must probably have accelerated their being dispersed to the far east of Greenland and Labrador. According to the sagas of the Icelanders, they were already met with on the east coast of Greenland about the year 1000, and almost at the same time on the east coast of the American continent, on the so-called Vinland, probably Massachusetts or Rhode Island. Thorvald, the son of Erik the Red, was killed in a fight which ensued at this meeting; but later travellers in Vinland engaged in barter with the same natives, and brought two young Eskimo back with them, who were subsequently baptised, and stated that their mother's name was Vatheldi, and that of their father Uvœge (probably the Greenlandish uvia, signifying her husband). Between the years 1000 and 1300, they do not seem to have occupied the land south of 65° N.L., on the west coast of Greenland, where the Scandinavian colonies were then situated. But the colonists seem to have been aware of their existence in higher latitudes, and to have lived in fear of an attack by them, since, in the year 1266, an expedition was sent out for the purpose of exploring the abodes of the Skrælings, as they were called by the p. 75 colonists. In 1379, the northernmost settlement was attacked by them, eighteen men being killed and two boys carried off as prisoners. About the year 1450, the last accounts were received from the colonies, and the way to Greenland was entirely forgotten in the mother country. It must be supposed that the colonists, on being thus cut off from the world abroad, retired into the interior of the fiords and creeks; while the Eskimo gradually settled on the islands,—and that the latter defeated and partly destroyed the remains of the former. The features of the natives in the southern part of Greenland indicate a mixed descent from Scandinavians and Eskimo, the former, however, not having left the slightest sign of any influence on the nationality or culture of the present natives. In the year 1585, Greenland was discovered anew by John Davis, and found inhabited exclusively by Eskimo. After a series of exploring and fishing expeditions, during which many acts of violence and cruelty were perpetrated on the natives, the present colonies were founded by Egede in the year 1721; and since then the whole west coast, upwards to 74° N.L., has been brought into complete and regular connection with Denmark. I have spoken of the habits of the Greenlanders chiefly in the past tense, simply for the reason that though their hunting habits, ways of life, and methods of thought are still much as they always were, the influence of the Danish officials, who conduct the trading monopoly, and of the missionaries, has been such that they have within the bounds of the Danish possessions abandoned many of their ancient customs along with their paganism, which change we shall endeavour to explain in the following section.