General Articles

Eskimos Don’t Worry

They never bother with tomorrow, but live a day at a time. Maybe that’s why their grins look real

SAM DODDS October 1 1947
General Articles

Eskimos Don’t Worry

They never bother with tomorrow, but live a day at a time. Maybe that’s why their grins look real

SAM DODDS October 1 1947

Eskimos Don’t Worry

They never bother with tomorrow, but live a day at a time. Maybe that’s why their grins look real


THE LAST OF the timber had vanished south of us in a few minutes’ flying and there passed below only the naked rock of the east coast of Hudson Bay. Here was the bald pate of the universe. Two hundred miles farther north on it lay Port Harrison, where I was to live almost two years Adrian, the plane’s mechanic, looked eastward over a limitless waste of mustard like tundra; he looked down at the long, cold rollers crawling in from the bayand then at me.

“Are you going to like it?” he asked in a voice charged with gleeful sadism.

I didn’t know.

Now after 22 months at the Dominion Meteorological station at Port Harrison,

the answer is “yes.” When Adrian asked the question he was thinking of the barren land below our wings, but the answer came from the Eskimos— the “Eenueet,” as they call themselves. I like this country because I like them.

I first saw an Eskimo at Great Whale where we stopped for a hurried refueling. He stood on the bank and smiled. I still remember that. Having come so recently from the land of the civilized smile, the useful, lithographed flash that sells or covers up things, i found it shocking—almost indecent. The Eskimo looked as if he really felt like smiling.

Their Fight For Life Is Fun

OUR work at the far north weather station is to preview the weather the rest of Canada is likely to get. As part of our forecasting procedure we send up five-foot balloons, twice a day, bearing instruments to record pressure, temperature and humidity 12 to 14 miles up. The airborne instruments transmit radio signals which are picked up by our radiosonde equipment and in that way we find what the weather is up there. Our findings are transmitted to Churchill, then relayed to Winnipeg twice daily together with other information.

At Harrison I had an opportunity to know the Eskimos better. They were finishing the construction of our radiosonde building when I arrived, sawing and hammering in a good-natured way. When the bottom fell out of the water boy’s bucket he joined in the laughter and plugged through the empty pail.

There was something puckish about them at all times, partly because of the gnomish sealapaks, light windproof parkas, they wore.

Later I went out on the ice with them to hunt seals. They turned this grim fight for food and existence into something as full of fun as a picnic.

As they worked on our building they gossiped in breezy, guttural tones, and held numerous conferences. Every board sawed and fitted was the fruit of an amicable discussion on ways and means. When a bag of cement was found to be partly spoiled the mixing gang went into a huddle and reckoned proportionate reductions in the amounts of sand and gravel. Though unschooled in the use of vulgar fractions they had the right answer.

Without appearing to be in desperate haste they accomplished as much as any other group of day laborers on a government job, probably more. It took us a long time to learn that their finest work was done when no one was standing over them. They wanted a clear idea of what was wanted and to be left alone.

Adami was an excellent experienced carpenter. •Josi, Davidi (note the Biblical names, altered to taste) showed skill and initiative in any work not requiring technical knowledge. However, a routine task like digging a drain did not appeal to them, particularly if it didn’t seem necessary to them. On this kind of job they held their longest conferences, endeavoring, in the absence of the white man, to decide on the most efficient approach. When the white man reappeared they picked up their shovels without panic.

Even when the kabloona (white man) was alongside them, there were ways and means. I think now of Fatty, whose heart was not in the gravel we were shoveling. A cigarette, rolled with elaborate care, was good for 12 minutes, but the soul cannot live on cigarettes alone. In that dark hour came a gentle snowfall, literally from heaven. It was Fatty’s cue for the revival of our language studies.

“Apotik,” he said, pointing to the snowflakes on his sleeve.

"Apotik,” 1 repeated. But the accent must have been bad for he smiled and pronounced the word again slowly, leaning patiently on his shovel until I had it just right.

When a canoe and outboard passed upriver he seized the occasion for a quick review of the word (X)miak (boat) and then introduced kyvook (cornel,

setting down his handbarrow the better to demonstrate the finer inflections of the verb. When the outboard coughed and died in midstream he momentarily raised the curtain on his own English vocabulary: “Bum engineer,” he said.

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Eskimos Don't Worry

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The next day brought greater hardships: heavy kegs of caustic to be lugged uphill. It was then I almost learned to count to seven; in his enthusiasm over numerals, Fatty dropped his keg and counted the others for me as they were carried past: “Ataosuk, mukoo, pingasoot, seetamut, tedlimut, pingasoorooktoo . . .” Alas the seventh keg was Fatty’s and we signified that we were counting cn him to get it into the shed before the next rainstorm.

Some of the Eskimos knew simple English, but almost never used it, preferring, instead, to enjoy our assault on their language. We plunged recklessly, filling in the gaps with gestures and pantomime. Those who haven’t worked with Eskimos will never know how tired we were after a hard day’s gesticulating.

“They Looked At Us”

At first we learned little of their language, but as time went on we gained some insight into the character of the Eskimos, enough to observe that they all had a sort of dignity, not worn like a garment, not destroyed by their touch of clownishness.

Airplanes and radios interested them, but the owners of these inspired no awe.

They looked at us.

If their friendly glances betrayed no sympathy for our way of life, neither did they show envy. The smile on the face of that first Eskimo 1 saw at Great Whale could now be explained in the simplest of terms: it belonged to a man who didn’t pretend to be, didn’t want to be, anything but what he was.

Our buildings were finished and most of the natives returned to their winter camps, leaving about 35 at Harrison. We began sending up our big balloons and the day’s work no longer brought us in contact with the Eskimos. But the Eskimos remedied this by visiting often. Sometimes little Eliasi would bring fish, ptarmigan, or a seal liver, to trade for tea or biscuits.

They Love Cowboy Music

Sometimes a group of them would be drawn to the radio, especially if cowboy music was on. At other times we might overhear them singing “Redwing” at “You Are My Sunshine” fitted with Eskimo words. A lively bit from Figaro got enthusiastic comments. Dance bands seldom evoked interest. Crooners of maudlin love songs were listened to at first with sympathy, followed by whispered discussion and laughter.

One of our visitors was Peter Naura, a solemn, roly-poly old chap. We seated him in the office and served tea and biscuits. We carried on a stilted but good-humored conversation, learning new words and forgetting them a moment afterward. He said the lea was “peyoongmetook” which we knew meant “bad” (probably too strong).

Old Peter was not as tactful as some natives, but like all of them he had no false politeness. He was just being natural. At the conclusion of the visit he took the remainder of the biscuits from the plate, wrapped them in a scrap of paper and put them in his pocket.

Josephi,our water boy, built himself

an igloo in December, after the winddriven, fine particles of snow had packed into firm but easily sliced building material. He and his wife, Marta, and his daughter, Lydya, live in a style which has not changed much in 200 years.

They sleep on willow mats and blankets spread on the raised snow platform which occupies two thirds of the main igloo. To left and right of the low wooden door are smaller platforms on which a tub of ice, some pots, bowls and cups are scattered. There is a soapstone lamp, half-moon shaped, holding a shallow pool of seal oil. A piece of sacking with upturned edge serves for a wick. In robust competition with this lamp’s tenuous flame are two kerosene lanterns and a primus stove. One dog pelt, on a stretcher, dries slowly above the lamp.

A block of ice built into the dome of the igloo lets daylight in; a small vent at the apex lets out some, hut by no means all, of the riotously stinky atmosphere.

The temperature varies from 25 to 40 deg., but there is no draught. Marta wears two or three dresses and her knee-length duffel socks, all her outside clothing, in fact, except mitts and parka.

On a packing case are fragments of flour bannock. This is made like a baking powder biscuit, without milk, and kneaded into ropes. These are coiled and fried in seal oil or other fat, and eaten whenever hunger dictates.

They are fond of tea, drinking large quantities of it day and night. The old leaves are left in the kettle, new tea is added to the water, which is not always boiling, and they use more tea in one week than we use in five.

Seals Mean Life

Seal meat, when available, supplies a wider range of nutrition than bannock, and is much preferred. The seal also provides oil, footgear, mitts and the peculiar odor which characterizes all the Eskimo homes on the coast. The trade value of its pelt is small. The luxuriant fur seal is not native to these parts.

In the winter most of the seals are to he found in open water near the edge of the floe. A succession of inshore winds often brings the pack ice hard against the coast, so that open water is 50 to 100 miles out. Then the Eskimos devote more time to their traps inland, and wait patiently for a change in the wind.

When the wind changes and blows from the north or east until a patch of water sky on the horizon shows where a lead has opened far out on the floe, the Eskimos look to their seal hunting gear. On every favorable day they visit the open water, sledging 10 or 15 miles and back. This is their living, and what they live for—their work and recreation. Even Tommy Palliser, Eskimo interpreter and helper at the Hudson’s Bay post, gets a day off when he can to go sealing.

I accompanied Tommy on two of these excursions, the first of which might be recorded as a typical day in the life of an Eskimo hunter. At six in the morning the Palliser family was astir, gathering guns and spears, rawhide lines, sealskins to cover the two sleds, a couple of tea kettles, two packing cases, a primus stove, tea, bannock and ammunition. Under an overcast sky the dogs circled about excitedly, howling, colliding, snarling.

Tommy’s wife, the older girls and even the little toddlers assisted him and the two older boys in their preparations. Little Betsy put her fingers in the scruff of a dog almost as tall as herself, marched him in masterful fashion to his place.

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At 10 minutes to seven, after a few false starts and much shouting, we were off. The dogs moved over the hard snow covering the bay ice at the speed of a man trotting. Six miles ahead of us a chain of black rock islands broke the white field of snow. We rounded one of them an hour later and came abruptly to the end of our smooth travelling. Before us, as far as the eye could see, was a chaos of uptilted ice cakes, gleaming in white and turquoise.

Tommy unlimbered a small telescope and we climbed up on the island rook. From this viewpoint the confusion resolved itself into a pattern with definite form and meaning. A sweeping line of rafted and upended ice pans marked where the unbroken shore ice met the ice pack, which had at one time been a part of it.

Winds, blowing offshore in the past few days, had opened a channel which could be seen about two miles away. Tommy studied the ice and water intently before folding his telescope and returning to the sleds.

We threaded our way over the ice pans. Our dogs ran like some kind of fluid, over and among the hummocks and pressure ridges. The sled slid and teetered and jammed, while the passengers jumped off and on again like flies on the flank of a horse.

We reached the open water, and the dogs dropped panting in their tracks. Tommy and his boys exchanged greetings with old Nineook and a young lad named Cornelius (pronounced “Corna loosi”) who had arrived ahead of us and were preparing to go farther along the edge of the channel. While they smoked and chatted their eyes never left the water for more than a few seconds at a time.

Suddenly the talk ceased. The hunters crouched, then moved forward, drawing guns from canvas sheaths. A seal had appeared and dived again. When the grey, triangular snout came questing once more above the choppy water, it was greeted by a salvo of 25-20 rifle bullets. Missed. Too far away.

Blood in the Snow

Tommy went: alone on foot along the edge of the floe. The boys and I, with the dog teams, made a wide circuit over cracks and around open lanes of water, to rejoin Tommy at some point farther on. We reached the end of the first channel, or lead, at 10 o’clock. Several other hunting parties were there. The boys set their primus stove in a box, melted some snow and made tea. To t heir lunch of tea and bannock I added a can labelled meat balls, which they ate with great relish.

Lunch was interrupted by several shots from the hunters at the water’s edge. A seal had been hit, and was slowly drifting with wind and current toward them. It was a jar seal or netchuk, the commonest variety, fatly streamlined and about two and a half feet long. Its small flippers had sharp claws. Two paddlolike flukes were all that remained of its hind limbs after ages of marine life. The fur on its hack was coarse and silver-grey, mottled and shadowed with darker tones. There was something pathetic about the small puppylike face, fringed with whiskers.

None of the ease with which it could speed and loop under water was suggested by the now limp and ungainly skinful of fat. If it hadn’t been fat it would have sunk, and been lost. If the wind and current had been unfavorable the seal would have been carried beyond reach.

With young Tom I took up a stand at the ice edge and waited for an hour without seeing anything to shoot at. Once, during this wait, I heard shots around the bend and ran hack to find two more seals lying beside the sleds. Two trails of clotted crimson ran hack on the white snow to the water, where they wound about over loose floating mounds of ice. Retrieving the two seals had been a ticklish job.

Soon after I had resumed my watch Tommy appeared in the distance, picking his way over mounds of rafted ice that were wheeling slowly in the current. As he made his way from these shifting islands to solid ice and hack again, he probed with the ironpointed end of his spear, testing every step of the way. The other end of this spear had a finer point, on which a barbed spearhead, with a long lino attached, could he fitted. While not in use this line is coiled and slung over one shoulder.

Dogs Get Flippers

Over the other shoulder Tommy carried his rifle, stock uppermost. He had shot two seals during the forenoon, retrieved and dragged them to a place beside the trail.

At the end of the day 20 seals were on the sleds. This had been a record hunt. Often enough a whole day’s effort brings two or three seals, or none at all.

When we returned women and children were waiting outside to unharness the dogs and help unload. No country fair could he more festive than this dividing of the seals among the igloos. Some of the liver, the only part, without its characteristic taste, was set aside for barter with the white people. The white people were in an expectant mood, too, after a long scarcity of anything hut tinned meat.

Skin and fat were removed, the meat was partly boiled. Every Eskimo in the settlement ate to capacity. Sleeping, visiting and feasting would he repeated as long as the meat lasted. The dogs got the flippers and entrails and enough besides to keep body and howl together. The supply of walrus and rotten fish, the dogs’ usual food, had been exhausted for some time.

You may have read of the Eskimo waiting, spear poised, for endless hours by a seal’s breathing hole. He still does occasionally, when there is no open water within safe travel distance. The breathing hole, invisible at any distance, is located by the dogs, who will detect the faintest odor of seal.

In the spring the seal hole may prove to be a concealed chamber, complete with a shelf on which the female rests with her young. The Eskimo races ahead of his dogs and breaks through the thin crust, of the chamber, securing the “whitecoat” or baby seal, and perhaps the mother before she can dive.

Once in a long while the seal hunters see a white whale, a small whale as whales go hut a whale of a lot of food. If he comes near enough they shoot him, then tow the floating carcass to the edge of the floe.

After the ice has gone seals are hunted by boat unt il the next freeze-up in November. Some of the natives own canoes and outboard motors. Kayaks are used for sealing, tending fish r.ets and even walrus hunting. They often travel long distances, rigged together in pairs for greater seaworthiness.

Arctic char and whitefish are common hut not abundant in this regie.n. In winter the Eskimo women fish through the ice of nearby lakes, ard the men, with their dog teams, sometimes visit lakes farther inland. After breakup they set nets in the river and bay. The quantity of fish taken in any season is not enough to feed the people and their dogs.

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Other food sources can be briefly listed: ptarmigan are scarcer than in past years, and the Arctic hare extinct, in this region; the large herds of caribou that roamed the Ungava district years ago have shrunk to a few scattered bands. With the advent of rifles they were all but wiped out in a few decades by the Eskimos, who do not know the meaning of conservation.

Northern Shopping Spree

Second only to the seal in the Eskimos’ economy, and of prime importance to the fur traders, is the fox. The Arctic fox, in color phases of white, red and cross fox, is usually taken in traps, though an opportunity to stalk and shoot one occurs sometimes and is seldom mussed. The Eskimos trade fox pelts and sealskins for ammunition, flour, tea, cloth and whatever else they need—or don’t need. Their way of trading is the most comical, pathetic and seemingly contradictory chapter in the history of the settlement.

They never steal.

They seldom lie. Yet most of them go year in and year out through a familiar routine of evasion. Eliasi, who has an unpaid bill at the company store, traps a fox. The law does not allow the fox to be seized for debt, but rather than have the post manager asking him to pay some of the bill with some of his fox, Eliasi takes it to the opposition store and has the pleasure of spending it all. His brother, meanwhile, is circumventing the opposition, on his way to the company.

This little device tends to run down when he has debts at both stores but there are yet ways and means. With his next fox he pays off a dollar or two on one of the bills and buys whatever nonessential goods take his fancy with the rest of the sale price.

The next week Eliasi is back again

without a fox, asking for flour and ammunition on credit. Since he really must have them to go on eating and hunting the store can hardly refuse. When questioned he frankly reveals his recent dealings on both sides. Whether this chicanery is the native’s reaction to individual sharp dealing in the past, or whether he is the victim of his own improvidence would be difficult to decide. The ability to live one day at a time, which is the most valuable mental gift of the Eskimo, is an economic liability. It results in a hand-to-mouth existence.

He must spend all his fox money when he gets it, leave nothing so intangible as a credit balance. In a good trapping season one Eskimo bought a dozen suits of underwear, throwing dirty ones away instead of washing them.

Perhaps he is merely acquisitive. Is he wildly greedy, filled with the desire to have as many of the goods on those shelves as he can buy? Or is his erratic buying a fumble in the direction of a higher living standard which he knows exists?

All the foxes he can trap cannot pay for a higher standard of living. The trading company is not a philanthropic institution. Even if it were and gave the Eskimos all they asked for, they would not be satisfied, or any happier. Under the law able-bodied hunters must be given flour and lard when seals and all other resources fail. Since the hunters have no credit left by that time the rations must go to them as a handout.

Even if the Eskimos were made selfsufficient they would slip back into the old way of life unless they were strictly supervised and made to conserve their resources and trade wisely. Any program of education along these lines would have to be started at childhood and continued through several generations.

And the people who would benefit are out of sight—a long way over the horizon. Perhaps that is why no large program has ever been attempted, it