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The Esquimaux

The Esquimaux are so totally different in physiognomy and person, in language, manners, and customs, from all the other natives of America, that there can be no doubt that they belong to a different branch of the human race. The conformation of their features, their stature, form, and complexion, approximate so closely to those of the northern inhabitants of Europe, as to indicate, with some degree of certainty, their identity of origin. In the accounts I have read of the maritime Laplanders, I find many characteristics common to both tribes: the Laplander is of a swarthy complexion, so is the Esquimaux; the Laplander is distinguished by high cheek-bones, hollow cheeks, pointed chin, and large mouth, so is the Esquimaux; the Laplander wears a thick beard, so does the Esquimaux; the Laplander's hair is long and black, so is that of the Esquimaux; the Laplanders are, for the most part, short of stature, so are the Esquimaux; and the dress, food, and lodging of both peoples are nearly the same. The last coincidence may possibly arise from similarity of location and climate; and, taken by itself, would afford no certain proof of identity of origin; but taken in connation with the aforementioned characteristics, I think the conclusion is irresistible that the Laplanders and Esquimaux are of the same race.

That the Esquimaux and the natives of Greenland are also of a kindred race, is a fact ascertained beyond a doubt, from the reports of the Moravian Missionaries, who have settlements among both.

The way in which they must have passed from the one continent to the other, must now be left to conjecture. There is nothing improbable in the supposition that some of them might have been drifted out to sea by stress of weather, and wafted to the shores of Greenland; whence some might, in course of time, remove to the opposite coast of America. From the southern extremity of Labrador to Behring's Straits, the Esquimaux language is the same, differing only in the pronunciation of a few words. We had a native of Hudson's Bay with us, who had accompanied Captain Franklin to the McKenzie and Coppermine Rivers, and who assured us that he understood the Esquimaux of that quarter, and those of Ungava, although some thousands of miles apart, as well as his own tribe.

In manners, customs, and dress, there is a like similarity. The Esquimaux have ever remained a distinct people; the other natives of America seeming to consider them more as brutes than human beings, and never approaching them unless for the purpose of knocking them on the head. Every one's hand is against them. I have seen Esquimaux scalps, even among the timid têtes des boules of Temiscamingue; yet no people seem more disposed to live at peace with their neighbors, if only they were allowed. Circumstanced as they are, however, they are likely to suffer hostile aggression for a long time. Even a coward, with a musket in his hand, is generally an overmatch for a brave man with only a bow or a sling; but once possessed of firearms, they will teach their enemies to respect them, for they will undoubtedly have the advantage of superior courage and resolution.

The Esquimaux is not easily excited to anger; but his wrath once roused, he becomes furious: he foams like a wild boar, rolls his eyes, gnashes his teeth, and rushes on his antagonist with the fury of a beast of prey. In the winter of 1840, a quarrel arose between two individuals about the sex, which led to a fight; the struggle was continued for a time with tooth and nail; when one of the parties at length got hold of his knife, and stabbed his adversary in the belly. The bowels protruded, yet the wounded man never desisted, until loss of blood and repeated stabs compelled him to yield the contest and his life. Gallantry seems to be the main cause of quarrels among them. Strange! that this passion should exercise such an influence in a climate, and, as one would be led to suppose, on constitutions so cold; yet nothing is more certain than that the enamored Esquimaux will risk life and limb in the pursuit of his object.

With unmarried women there is no risk, as they are entirely free from control; not so with the married, who are under strict surveillance; but the husband's consent asked and obtained—which not seldom happens—saves the gallant's head, and the lady's reputation.

Their courtships are conducted in much the same manner as among the inland Indians, the choice of partners being entirely left to the parents. Some are affianced in childhood, and become man and wife in early youth: I have seen a boy of fourteen living with his wife who was two years younger. There are no marriage festivals, and no ceremonies of any kind are observed at their nuptials. Polygamy is allowed, ad libitum; and the husband exercises his authority as husband, judge, or executioner; no one having any right to interfere. Should, however, the woman consider herself ill treated, she flees to her parents, with whom she remains till an explanation takes place. If it lead to a reconciliation, the parties are reunited; if not, the woman may form a new connexion whenever she pleases.

I know not whether the Esquimaux can be said to have any idea of religion, as the term is generally understood. The earth, say they, was in the beginning covered with water, which having subsided, man appeared—a spontaneous creation. Aglooktook is the name of the man who first created fish and animals: chopping a tree which overhung the sea, the chips that fell into that element became fish; those that fell on the land, animals. Their paradise is beneath the great deep; those who have lived a good life, proceed to a part of the sea abounding with whales and seals, where, free from care and toil, they fare sumptuously on raw flesh and blubber, in secula seculorum. The wicked, on the contrary, are condemned to take up their abode in a "sea of troubles," where none of the delicacies enjoyed by the blessed are to be found; and even the commonest necessaries are procured with endless toil, and pain, and disappointment. Although the "tomakhs," or dead men, become the inhabitants of the sea, they indulge in the pleasures of the chase on their old element, whenever they please; and are often heard calling to each other while in pursuit of the deer.

The Esquimaux have their "men of medicine," in whose preternatural powers they place the most implicit confidence; by working on the superstitious fears of the people, these impostors obtain much authority. They are allowed to take the lead in every affair of importance; and, in short, all their movements are, in a great measure, regulated by these harlequins, who appear to be the only chiefs among them.

They dispose of their dead by placing them on the rocks, and covering them over with ice or stones; these tombs prove but feeble barriers against the wolves and other beasts of prey, who soon carry off the bodies. The property belonging to the deceased is placed by the side of his grave;—his caiak, or skin canoe, his bows, arrows, and spears. Thus equipped, the emigrant spirit cannot find itself at a loss on arriving at a better country!

It is said by some that the Esquimaux abandon their aged parents: from inquiry, as well as observation, I am led to believe there is no foundation for the charge. It is not reasonable to expect that the more refined feelings of humanity should be found in the breast of a savage, or that he should honor his father and mother in the same degree as he whose principles are molded by the precepts of Christianity; yet I must do them the justice to say, that they appeared to me to treat their parents with as much kindness, at least, as any other savage nation I have met with. They do not deny, however, that old people no longer able to provide for themselves, and without any relative to care for them, are sometimes left to perish.

No people suffer more from hunger than the Esquimaux who inhabit the shores of Ungava Bay; seals being extremely scarce in the winter season, and no fish to be found; so that the poor creatures are often reduced to the most revolting expedients to preserve life. An Esquimaux, who had been about the post for two years, proceeded, in the winter of 1839, to join some of his relatives along the coast. When he returned in the ensuing spring, I observed that his mother and one of his children were missing. On inquiring what had become of them, he replied, that they had been starved to death, and that he and the rest of his family would have shared their fate, had it not been for the sustenance the bodies afforded.

The Esquimaux always pass the winter near the element that yields them their principal subsistence; and as they are unacquainted with the use of snowshoes, they cannot follow the deer any distance from the coast. As soon as the rivers are free from ice in summer, they proceed inland and find abundance of food. Their manner of preserving their meat is quite characteristic. When an animal is killed the bowels are extracted, then the fore and hind quarters are cut off, and being placed inside the carcass, are secured by skewers of wood run through the flesh. The whole is then deposited under the nearest cleft of rock, and stones are built round so as to secure it from the depredations of wild animals until the hunters return to the coast; when the meat is in high flavor, and considered fit for the palate of an Esquimaux epicure.

The Esquimaux do not share their provisions as the Nascopies do, although they relieve each other's wants when their means can afford it: each individual engaged in the chase retains his own game, his claim being ascertained by distinctive marks on the arrows. When a whale is killed a rigid fast is observed for twenty-four hours, not in gratitude to Providence, but in honor of the whale, which is highly displeased when this is neglected, studiously avoiding the harpoon afterwards, and even visiting the offender with sickness and other misfortunes.

Should the summer and fall hunt prove successful, the Esquimaux is one of the happiest animals in the creation. He passes his dreary winter without one careful or anxious thought; he eats his fill and lies down to sleep, and then rises to eat again. In this manner they pass the greater part of their time; night and day are the same, eating and sleeping their chief enjoyments. When, however, they do rouse their dormant faculties to exertion, they seem to engage with great goodwill in the few amusements they have, the principal of which is playing ball, men and women joining in the game. Two parties are opposed, the one driving the ball with sticks towards the goal, the other driving it in the opposite direction; in short, a game of shinty. They have dancing too, ye gods! such dancing! Two rows of men and women, sometimes only of one sex, stand opposite to each other, exhibiting no other motion in their dancing than raising their shoulders with a peculiar jerk, bending their knees so as to give their whole bodies, from the knee upwards, the same motion, and grinning horribly at each other, while not a foot stirs.

As to the music to which this dance is performed, I know not well how to describe it. By inflating and depressing the lungs so as to create a convulsive heaving of the breast, a sound is produced, somewhat similar to the groans of a person suffering from suffocation; and it is to this sound they grin, and jerk their shoulders. The whole performance is quite in keeping; the music worthy of the dancing, the dancing worthy of the music. They have boxing too, but do not practice the art after the fashion of the Cribs and Coopers; they disdain to parry off the blow; each strikes in turn with clenched fist; the blow is given behind the ear, and, as soon as one of the parties acknowledges himself defeated, the combat ceases. They are also adepts at wrestling; I have witnessed frequent contests between them and the inland Indians, when the latter were invariably floored.

No one enjoys a joke better than an Esquimaux, and when his risibility is excited he laughs with right good will, evincing in this, as in every other respect, the difference of disposition between them and the Indians, whose rigid features seldom betray their feelings. Much the same diversity of character and disposition is to be observed among the Esquimaux as among other barbarous tribes. Some instances of disinterested kindness and generosity fell under my notice while residing among them, that would have done honor to civilized man.

An Esquimaux who had attached himself to the establishment from the time of our first arrival at Ungava, kept a poor widow and her three orphans with him for several years, and seemed to make no difference between them and the members of his own family. It must be acknowledged, however, that the unhappy widows seldom fall into so good hands; their fate is the most wretched that can be imagined, unless they have children that can provide for them. In years of scarcity they are rejected from the community, and hover about the encampments like starving wolves, picking up whatever chance may throw in their way, until hunger and cold terminate their wretched existence.

Whatever may be said of the awkwardness of the Esquimaux dress, it must be allowed to be the best adapted to the climate that could be used: a pair of boots so skillfully sewed as to exclude the water, and lined with down, or the fine hair of the rein-deer, protects the feet from wet and cold; two pairs of trousers, the inner having the hair next the skin; and two coats or tunics of deer or seal skin, the outer having a large hood that is drawn over the head in stormy weather, and a pair of large mits, complete the dress. The women also "wear the breeks," their dress being similar to that of the men in every respect, with this difference, that the female has a long flap attached to the hind part of her coat, and falling down to her heels; a most extraordinary ornament, giving her the appearance of an enormous tadpole. This tail, however, has its use; when she has occasion to sit down on the cold rocks she folds it up and makes a seat of it.

In the winter season the Esquimaux live in huts built of snow; and we may imagine what must have been the necessity and distress that could first have suggested to a human being the idea of using such a material as a means of protecting himself from cold. Be that as it may, the snow igloe affords not only security from the inclemency of the weather, but more comfort than either stone or wooden building without fire. The operation requires considerable tact and experience, and is always performed by the men, two being required for it, one outside and the other inside.

Blocks of snow are first cut out with some sharp instrument from the spot that is intended to form the floor of the dwelling, and raised on edge, inclining a little inward around the cavity. These blocks are generally about two feet in length, two feet in breadth, and eight inches thick, and are joined close together. In this manner the edifice is erected, contracting at each successive tier, until there only remains a small aperture at the top, which is filled by a slab of clear ice, that serves both as a keystone to the arch, and a window to light the dwelling. An embankment of snow is raised around the wall, and covered with skins, which answers the double purpose of beds and seats. The inside of the hut presents the figure of an arch or dome; the usual dimensions are ten or twelve feet in diameter, and about eight feet in height at the centre. Sometimes two or three families congregate under the same roof, having separate apartments communicating with the main building, that are used as bedrooms. The entrance to the igloe is effected through a winding covered passage, which stands open by day, but is closed up at night by placing slabs of ice at the angle of each bend, and thus the inmates are perfectly secured against the severest cold.

The Esquimaux use no fuel in winter; their stone lamps afford sufficient heat to dry their boots and clothes, or warm their blubber and raw meat when they are so inclined. They are inured to cold by early habit; the children are carried about in the hoods of their mothers' jackets until three years of age; during this period they remain without a stitch of clothing, and the little things may be sometimes seen standing up in their nests, exposing themselves in the coldest weather, without appearing to suffer any inconvenience from it. The Esquimaux never sleep with their clothes on, not even when without any other shelter than the cleft of a rock.

It is well known that they eat their food, whether fish or flesh, generally in a raw state; hence their appellation, "Ashkimai," in the Cree and Sauteux, means, eater of raw meat, and is doubtless the origin of the name Esquimaux first applied by the earlier French discoverers, and since then passed into general use. They sometimes, indeed, warm their food in a stone kettle over a stone lamp, but they seem to relish it equally well when cut warm from the carcass of an animal recently killed, which they may be seen devouring while yet quivering with life.

In winter they prefer raw meat, especially fish, which is considered a great delicacy in a frozen state; the Esquimaux stomach, in fact, rejects nothing, raw or boiled, that affords sustenance. Like the inland Indians, they can bear hunger for an amazing length of time, and afterwards gorge themselves with more than brutal voracity without suffering inconvenience by it.

The Esquimaux breed of dogs are wolves in a domesticated state, the same in every characteristic, save such differences as may be expected to result from their relative conditions; the dog howls, never barks. These animals are of the most essential service to their masters, and are maintained at no expense. How they manage to subsist appears inexplicable to me; not a morsel of food is ever offered to them at the camp, and when employed hauling sledges on a journey, a small piece of blubber given them in the evening enables them to perform the laborious work of the ensuing day.

From ten to fifteen dogs are employed on a long journey. They are harnessed separately by a collar and a single trace passing over their back, and fastened to the fore part of the sledge. The traces are so arranged that the dogs generally follow in a line, conducted by a leader, who is trained to obey the word of command in an instant; the least hesitation on his part brings the merciless whip about his ears. The lash is about fifteen feet in length, the handle eighteen inches; continual practice enables the Esquimaux to wield this instrument of torture with great dexterity. The sledges are about five feet in length and two in breadth; the runners generally shod with whalebone or ivory, and coated over with a plaster of earth and water, which becomes very smooth, and is renewed as often as it is worn out.

The Esquimaux caiak, or canoe, is about twelve feet in length, and two feet in breadth, and tapers off from the centre to the bow and stern, almost to a mere point. The frame is of wood covered with seal-skin, having an aperture in the centre which barely admits of the stowage of the nether man. These canoes are calculated for the accommodation of one person only; yet it is possible for a passenger to embark upon them, if he can submit to the inconvenience—and risk—of lying at full length on his belly, without ever stirring hand or foot, as the least motion would upset the canoe. Instances, however, have been known of persons conveyed hundreds of miles in this manner. These canoes are used solely for hunting; and, by means of the double paddle, are propelled through the water with the velocity of the dolphin; no land animal can possibly escape when seen in the water; the least exertion is sufficient to keep up with the rein-deer when swimming at its utmost speed. When the animal is overtaken, it is driven towards the spot where the huntsman wishes to land, and there dispatched by a thrust of the spear.

The Esquimaux of this quarter have not the art of recovering their position, when they upset. An accident of this kind is, therefore, sure to prove fatal, unless aid be at hand. It is seldom, however, that aid is wanting, for these accidents never happen except in the excitement of the sport, especially harpooning whales, when there are always a number present. The ouimiack, or skin-boat, is a clumsy looking contrivance, but not to be despised on that account; from the buoyancy of the materials of which it is built, the ouimiack stands a much heavier sea than our best sea boat. This kind of craft is rowed by women, and used for the purpose of conveying families along the coast.

The few implements these people use for hunting or fishing, display much taste and ingenuity. Their caiaks are proportioned with mathematical exactness, the paddles often tastefully inlaid with ivory; their spears are neatly carved, and their bows are far superior to any I have seen among the interior tribes, combining strength and elasticity in an eminent degree.

Their mode of capturing the white whale is extremely ingenious. A large dan, or seal-skin inflated with wind, is attached to the harpoon by a thong some twenty feet in length. The moment the fish is struck the dan is thrown overboard, and being dragged through the water, offers so great a resistance to the movement of the fish that it soon becomes exhausted by the exertion, and when it emerges lies exposed on the water, to take rest ere it dive again. The Esquimaux then approaches from behind, and often secures his game with one thrust of the spear. The Esquimaux also uses a javelin with considerable skill, and some are so dexterous in the use of the sling as to bring down wild fowl on the wing.

The complexion of the Esquimaux is swarthy; I have seen some of their children, however, as fair as the children of the fairest people in Europe, yet these become as dark as their parents when advanced in years. This circumstance cannot be accounted for by filthiness or exposure to the weather; for I have observed, on the coast of Labrador, the descendants of an Esquimaux mother and a European father of the third generation as dark as the pure Esquimaux; and these, too, enjoyed the comforts of civilized life, were cleanly in their persons, and not more exposed to the weather than others.

The Esquimaux are low of stature, but I do not think the epithet "dwarfish" applies to them with propriety. With the view of ascertaining this point, I once took five men promiscuously from a party of twenty, and found their average height to be 5 feet 5 inches. Some individuals of the remainder measured 5 feet 7 or 8 inches, and one exceeded 6 feet. The fact is, the Esquimaux are generally thicker than Europeans; their peculiar dress also adds greatly to their bulk, so that they appear shorter than they really are. They are so bound up in their seal-skin garments that their movements are necessarily much impeded by them, we can, therefore, form no idea of their agility; but I do not hesitate to say that their strength exceeds that of any other nation on the continent.

The Esquimaux features are far from being disagreeable; some females I observed among them whose expression of countenance was extremely prepossessing, and who would pass for "bonnie lasses" even among the whites, if divested of their filth and uncouth dress, and rigged out in European habiliments. The women fasten their hair in a knot on the crown of the head, and anoint it with rancid oil in lieu of pomatum; they also tattoo their faces, with the view, no doubt, of enhancing their charms in the estimation of their blubber-eating lovers. Their teeth are remarkably white and regular; the eyes are black, and partake more of the circular than the oval form; the cheek-bones are prominent, forehead low, mouth large, and chin pointed.

The Esquimaux generally enjoy good health, and no epidemic diseases, as far as I could learn, are known among them.

Notes of a Twenty-Five Years Service in the Hudson's Bay Territory, 1849


Notes on Hudson Bay Territory


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