Sacred-Texts Native American Inuit
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p. 238


[The high esteem in which personal dexterity and strength, combined with courage and hardihood, have been held by the natives, is pointed out to us in this curious story, which especially aims at bringing these qualities to bear against the influence of old age.]

NIVNITAK went away and settled far off to the north, at a certain place favourably situated for all kinds of hunting. He had many grandchildren, who all grew up to be skilled hunters while he was still in the prime of life; but none of them ever came to be a match for him. At last they also married in their turn and begat children before Nivnitak had got one grey hair. It once happened that the winter set in very severely, with hard weather every day. When the sea was getting all covered with ice, the young people gradually left off hunting. Nivnitak, however, was constantly on the move hunting, alternately on land and on the frozen sea. Later on the young men did not even rise from their couches, but remained at rest on the ledge. One evening Nivnitak said, "To-morrow I won't go out hunting, but I intend to climb the highest mountains to have a survey of the sea;" and he departed early on the following day, and returned late in the evening, saying, "I climbed the highest, and saw the frost-smoke at different places far out at sea. No doubt there will be animals to be got there; to-morrow I shall try." When the midnight stars shone brightest he left the house. He gained the outermost islets at dawn of day, and when he had quite lost sight of them on his seaward way the sun rose above the horizon, and then for the first time he observed the haze hanging above the open water, which he had plainly seen from the hills the day p. 239 before. Meanwhile his house-fellows were anxiously expecting him; when all of a sudden a noise was heard, and soon after he entered the house, pushing a seal on before him, and saying, "If we are in want of game, I have found a hole where plenty of seals, large as well as small, are to be had." But at this speech his children and grandchildren only murmured and sulked a little, and then asked for a morsel of blubber. The next morning he was again off at an early hour, and did not return till late at night, when the same noise was heard; and, covered with sweat, he again entered the room with a very large seal. This day the young men had risen, and were sitting on the ledge with their boots on. The following night, when he again brought in a large seal, he found them mending their hunting tools; and on the ensuing morning some of the ablest among them at length accompanied him; but because of their slowness he ordered them not to attack the larger seals. When they had got at the aperture, Nivnitak roamed about by himself a little, and detected the marks of a sledge leading right out to sea. Having examined them closely, he returned to his younger companions, and soon lanced a couple of seals. Dragging them along by the tug-line, he now made for home; but on the way he fancied that his grandchildren, each of them having but one seal, were too slow for him, and prepared to leave them, saying, "Ye know your way, of course, and can go on by yourselves." Upon which he proceeded on alone, and reached home much earlier than they. When they were all sitting together in the evening, he observed, "If the weather stands, it is quite a treat to go out hunting; now ye may stop at home if ye like: I will take care that we do not suffer from want of food." On the morrow he left as usual, but in the evening they expected him back in vain. Nivnitak remembered the track of the sledge he had discovered the preceding day; and having found it, he followed it across the sea. The mountains of his p. 240 own country were lost to his sight, but others appeared ahead of him, and he landed on a foreign coast at the opposite side of the ocean. Here he passed through a valley, and again beheld a sheet of frozen water; and close by he observed a little house, with some poles stuck in the ground beside it. A woman emerged from it, and perceiving a stranger approaching the house by such an unwonted road, she stood hesitating an instant, but then asked him to come inside. On entering the house he saw two young girls sitting close to the wall, and he secretly determined that they should be his future wives. He felt very hungry, and hoped that he should be offered something to eat, but in this he was disappointed. After a while one of the women left the room, but presently returned, saying, "Yonder he is coming!" on which Nivnitak looked out at the window, and saw a man running along the ice at a great rate, tugging two seals after him. Near the beach he disappeared among the loose blocks of ice scattered about there; however, he soon reappeared, bounding along towards the house; but seeing the outer garments of a stranger hung up on the poles he stopped. Nivnitak seated himself, and shortly afterwards the other man entered, seemingly pleased, and smiling at the visitor. Having relieved himself of his clothes, he took a bear-skin from beneath the ledge, and spreading it mid-way on the floor, exclaimed, "When two men meet for the first time they always try to outdo each other; let us have a try." Nivnitak did not hesitate a moment, but having undressed himself sat down on the skin opposite to him, hooked his hand into his adversary's arms, and pulled away with all might, and almost succeeded in mastering him. They then stopped, and the host seated himself on the main bench [ledge] and inquired if the visitor had got anything to eat. He answered "No." "Why, then, make haste and treat him to your best;" on which the women set forth several dishes. Nivnitak now fell p. 241 eagerly to, and when the host was going to begin the dish was already empty. He now looked at the two girls, who were flensing the seal down on the floor, one cleaning the entrails, and the other blowing them up. In this way they soon finished the task; and before the seal-flesh was boiled, the entrails had been dried, and the girls were busy making a jacket of them for their father. The host now got more talkative, and said, "I am in want of a companion on my hunting excursions; we have plenty of good hunting hereabout. Away on the ice is a place where the thong-seals have their breathing-holes." When they were about to retire for the night he added, "If thou wantest a wife, thou art welcome to take one of my daughters." And thus Nivnitak became his son-in-law. Next day the father put on the jacket of seal-entrails from yesterday's hunt; and they wandered a great distance on the ice together till they reached the apertures made by the seals. The father-in-law then said to Nivnitak, "As thou hast not got my alacrity thou hadst better not catch more than one at a time; it is as much as I can manage to drag along two of them." Meanwhile he soon caught a couple of them. Nivnitak thought, I should like to do the same. When he had caught the first, and the father-in-law had turned a little aside, he hastened to pull up another, and thus he had two. They now prepared to return, hauling their seals along with them, the host continually observing the sun, and guiding himself by it. After a while he said, "I suppose thou knowest thy way by this time; I think I will leave thee to follow in my wake." When the father entered the main room he said, "We cannot expect him before late, but still ye must keep a look-out for him." The daughters kept waiting and waiting for him, but he did not come home till late in the night. The father-in-law never spoke to him, but the daughters were delighted to see him, and at once cut up the animals; but when they were preparing p. 242 to make the dress, the entrails had shrunk, and got too small; and this was the reason why the father made such haste in returning, that the entrails might not get cold on the way, lest they should shrink and be unfit for use. He was now displeased at having got a son-in-law, who was not as clever as he wished him to be. They went out together all the same next day, with a similar result, and on the way home the father again told him, that as he could not keep up with him, he would go on beforehand. This time, however, Nivnitak was saying to himself, "To-day I should just like to run a race with him." However, he soon lost sight of him, and lost his way besides; but at the same time felt that his burden was getting lighter. He continued running still faster, and turning round he saw that his two seals were swinging round in the air after him. He passed by his host in a great circuit, and was home in good time long before him. His wife instantly prepared the meal; and seeing the blown-up entrails clean and shining, Nivnitak did not doubt that they would make him a nice jacket. He let the meat be kept ready dressed for his father-in-law, and the women had the jacket finished even before his arrival. He put it on at once, and was standing outside mending his tools when the host made his appearance. At first sight he thought that some visitor had arrived during his absence, and not till he had passed the iceberg did he recognise Nivnitak; but on finding it to be him he was very well pleased, and again spoke familiarly to him, saying, "That's right, we will always succeed in the end;" but Nivnitak did not quite understand this speech. Having seated themselves at the meal prepared, he said, "Why, it has been getting quite cold and dry;" and he did not quite like it so; nevertheless he was as gay and talkative as could be. They now went on having the same good luck, and Nivnitak totally forgot his home and his grandchildren, and would not leave his young wives. One day his father-in-law accosted him, p. 243 saying, "The moon is now in the crescent, and our neighbours will be coming to pay us a visit and practice ball-playing; to-morrow I shall stay at home and make tools for the games, and we must all be smart and trim in new dresses." Next day Nivnitak likewise stayed at home, and his father-in-law brought in six large shoulder-blades of walrus. While preparing them he said, "When the play has begun, and the ball has been thrown, we must follow its course, and always be ready to strike it; if any one throws it wrong we shan't win; so thou must mind what thou art about. With this spoon-like instrument we hit the ball; I shall throw it to my wife, and she to her daughter, and they will send it on to thee; take care that thou dost not make any mistake, or miss catching it, lest we should be mocked and scorned." They also remained at home the next day, and kept looking out at the windows as well as at the entrance of the house for the expected guests. At last a great many people appeared passing round the southern point, and Nivnitak along with his new relations quickly put on his new clothes and ran out to meet them on the ice, shouting to them, "Here we are with our new relative Nivnitak! Let the play begin at once!" The strangers answered with a loud yell. The ball, consisting of a large seal-skin stuffed with sand and clay, and fashioned like a real seal, was now brought out; and the master of the house determined that Nivnitak, being the most dexterous, should stand next to the adversaries. He then began the play by throwing the ball to his wife; and she running along beneath it, thrust it to her younger daughter, she in her turn to her elder sister, and she to her husband. But when Nivnitak was about to strike it, he thought to himself, "I only wish I may do well." That instant the ball hit him with its whole force and knocked him down, so that he was unable to rise. On this the enemies shouted and yelled in great triumph, and took up the p. 244 ball, carrying it towards their dwelling-place. Their opponents, however, pursued them, but without any result; and on turning round the host saw a multitude of people, and not observing Nivnitak among them, he suspected some evil. Hurrying on to his assistance he found him almost dying. Some were filling his clothes with snow, and others were actually trampling on him. He drew him from out the heap; but the enemies left him with great glee and loud halloos. Nivnitak's clothes had been quite spoiled with the snow and the mud, and in this state they got home—the father-in-law sullen and cross. Soon afterwards he said, "It will soon be time for us to pay our neighbours a return visit; get everything ready;" and on departing, Nivnitak looked very nice in his new suit; but the father-in-law once more admonished him, saying, "We must do our utmost to vanquish them, and if thou doest wrong this time, we will have nothing more to do with thee." Nivnitak, however, did not deign to answer him. Having approached the abode of the neighbours, a tumultuous roar was raised to welcome them, as was the custom, and the ball was soon brought down on the ice. They posted themselves in the same way as last time, and began the play according to the former rules. When it was Nivnitak's turn to strike, he gave the ball such a blow that it turned round in the air, and then flew straight forward. It was now the father-in-law's turn to run for it; but Nivnitak had already reached it, and hit it a second time. The adversaries now advanced to give it a stroke; Nivnitak, however, always forestalled them in getting up with it, and sending it higher and higher aloft. Nobody could cope with him, and thus he went on, pursuing the ball until he at length reached home. Their rivals had at last to give in, and retired to their house very much dejected, and Nivnitak's host cried out to them, "To-day ye lost the game, better luck next time!" On the way home he kept p. 245 constantly repeating, "That's right, we will always succeed in the end." It was only now that Nivnitak understood what the other had meant by saying so before. Some time after, Nivnitak began to think of his old relatives whom he had left in poverty and want; and one day returning from his hunt he said to his wives, "Make me a suit of tight clothes, jacket, breeches, and boots." They at once set to work, and when the clothes were ready he tried them on. They fitted him as if they had been glued on to his body; and where they were a little too wide he at once had them altered. He then made the suit into a bundle, and went to hide it beneath the boat; and from this time secretly planned to return to his own country. One night, when the others were sound asleep, he tried to leap down on the floor; but on touching the edge of the bench, one of his wives awoke, and he again went back, and quietly lay down beside them. For several nights afterwards he repeated his attempts, but was always obliged to turn in again.

One night he succeeded in getting down without anybody awaking. In order, however, to make quite sure that they were all fast asleep, he again stepped up on the ledge. On finding that the noise had awakened nobody, p. 246 he jumped down on the floor above the entrance of the room, and gliding out noiselessly, he went and dressed himself in his tight clothes, which had been hidden beneath the boat. Having also put on his outer coat, which was hanging on the poles outside the house, he took hold of his spear, and climbed the low roof of the house, and sallied forth in the opposite direction he wanted to take, making circular tracks in the snow as he went along. After a while he jumped and crossed the little promontory, and got down on the ice, which stretched away as far as his own country. There he again made large round tracks, always leaping from one side to the other, so that his family should not be able to be guided by his footmarks. Proceeding on his way, he at length reached a coast with a steep ascent and high slope, covered with heath. Having once more formed plenty of round circles on the ice, he jumped ashore and climbed an edge of the rock, where he stuffed his outer coat well with moss, and again leaped down. On the ice he built a snow-hut, and placed the stuffed coat inside it, spear in hand, with the back turned outwards, that it might resemble a living man. After this he again went back, and climbed the steep rock, awaiting the arrival of the pursuers. At sunrise several people who had come out in search of him were to be seen on the ice, sometimes single, sometimes making joint efforts to find the track. At last, halting at the snow-house, they approached it cautiously; but no sooner had the foremost detected the figure in the doorway than he thrust his spear straight at it, and Nivnitak heard them call out, "Well, well, we ought to have kept a better watch upon him while he was with us, showing well enough that he was not a real man; but anyhow we have done with him now;" and then they returned, satisfied that they had killed him. When they had quite disappeared, Nivnitak again leapt down the rocks. p. 247 The sun was then high in the heavens; but before it had quite set, he reached the shore of his own country, and found his grandchildren, who had totally given him up, prospering and doing well. In the spring-time, when the ice had vanished, he got a fancy to go and see his native place; but having arrived there, he determined

to spend the rest of his days in this place, and did not travel any more. He lived to see his grandchildren's grandchildren, but at length the flesh of his body became all shrivelled and shrunk; and finally, at a very old age, he died.