Eskimo Life/Chapter 1

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Eskimo Life  (1893) 
Fridtjof Nansen, illustrations by Otto Sinding, translated by William Archer
GREENLAND AND THE ESKIMO
London: Longmans, Green, and Co. pages 1-17

ESKIMO LIFE

CHAPTER I
GREENLAND AND THE ESKIMO

Greenland is in a peculiar manner associated with Norway and with the Norwegians. Our forefathers were the first Europeans who found their way to its shores. In their open vessels the old Vikings made their daring voyages, through tempests and drift-ice, to this distant land of snows, settled there throughout several centuries, and added it to the domain of the Norwegian crown.

After the memory of its existence had practically passed away, it was again one of our countrymen[1] who, on behalf of a Norwegian company, founded the second European settlement of the Country.

It is poor, this land of the Eskimo, which we have taken from him; it has neither timber nor gold to offer us—it is naked, lonely, like no other land inhabited of man. But in all its naked poverty, how beautiful it is! If Norway is glorious, Greenland is in truth no less so. When one has once seen it, how dear to him is its recollection! I do not know if others feel as I do, but for me it is touched with all the dream-like beauty of the fairyland of my childish imagination. It seems as though I there found our own Norwegian scenery repeated in still nobler, purer forms.

It is strong and wild, this Nature, like a saga of antiquity carven in ice and stone, yet with moods of lyric delicacy and refinement. It is like cold steel with the shimmering colours of a sunlit cloud playing through it.

When I see glaciers and ice-mountains, my thoughts fly to Greenland where the glaciers are vaster than anywhere else, where the ice-mountains jut into a sea covered with icebergs and drift-ice. When I hear loud encomiums on the progress of our society, its great men and their great deeds, my thoughts revert to the boundless snow-fields stretching white and serene in an unbroken sweep from sea to sea, high over what have once been fruitful valleys and mountains. Some day, perhaps, a similar snow-field will cover us all.

Everything in Greenland is simple and

great—white snow, blue ice, naked, black rocks and peaks,

Eskimålif, sid 25.jpg

'THE SOUNDLESS SNOW-FIELDS STRETCHING CALM AND WHITE FROM SEA TO SEA'

and dark stormy sea. When I see the sun sink

glowing into the waves, it recalls to me the Greenland sunsets, with the islets and rocks floating, as it were, on the burnished surface of the smooth, softly-heaving sea, while inland the peaks rise row on row, flushing in the evening light. And sometimes when I see the sæter-life[2] at home and watch the sæter-girls and the grazing cows, I think of the tent-life and the reindeer-herds on the Greenland fiords and uplands; I think of the screaming ptarmigan, the moors and willow-copses, the lakes and valleys in among the mountains where the Eskimo lives through his brief summer.

But like nothing else is the Greenland winter-night with its flaming northern lights; it is Nature's own mystic spirit-dance.

Strange is the power which this land exercises over the mind; but the race that inhabits it is not less remarkable than the land itself.

The Eskimo, more than anyone else, belongs to the coast and the sea. He dwells by the sea, upon it he seeks his subsistence, it gives him all the necessaries of his life, over it he makes all his journeys, whether in his skin-canoes in summer, or in his dog-sledges when it is ice-bound in winter. The sea is thus the strongest influence in the life of the Eskimo; what wonder, then, if his soul reflects its moods? His mind changes with the sea—grave in the storm; in sunshine and calm full of unfettered glee. He is a child of the sea, thoughtlessly gay like the playful wavelet, but sometimes dark as the foaming tempest. One feeling chases another from his childlike mind as rapidly as, when the storm has died down, the billows sink to rest, and the very memory of it has passed away.

The good things of life are very unequally divided in this world. To some existence is so easy that they need only plant a bread-fruit tree in their youth, and their whole life is provided for. Others, again, seem to be denied everything except the strength to battle for life; they must laboriously wring from hostile Nature every mouthful of their sustenance. They are sent forth to the outposts, these people; they form the wings of the great army of humanity in its constant struggle for the subjugation of nature.

Such a people are the Eskimos, and among the most remarkable in existence. They are a living proof of the rare faculty of the human being for adapting himself to circumstances and spreading over the face of the earth.

The Eskimo forms the extreme outpost towards the infinite stillness of the regions of ice, and as far, almost, as we have forced our way to the northward, we find traces left behind them by this hardy race.

The tracts which all others despise he has made his own. By dint of constant struggle and slow development, he learnt some things that none have learnt better. Where for others the conditions which make life possible came to an end, there life began for him. He has come to love these regions; they are to him a world in which he himself embodies the whole of the human race.[3] Outside their limits he could not exist.

It is to this people that the following pages are devoted.

The mutual resemblance of the different tribes of Eskimos is no less striking than their difference from all other races in features, figure, implements and weapons, and general manner of life.

A pure-bred Eskimo from Bering Straits is so like a Greenlander that one cannot for a moment doubt that they belong to the same race. Their language, too, is so far alike that an Alaska Eskimo and a Greenlander would probably, after some little time, be able to converse without much difficulty. Captain Adrian Jacobsen, who has travelled both in Greenland and in Alaska, told me that in Alaska he could manage to get along with the few words of Eskimo he had learnt in Greenland. These two peoples are divided by a distance of about 3,000 miles—something like the distance between London and Afghanistan. Such unity of speech among races so widely separated is probably unique in the history of mankind.

The likeness between all the different tribes of Eskimos, as well as their secluded position with respect to other peoples, and the perfection of their implements, might be taken to indicate that they are of a very old race, in which everything has stiffened into definite forms, which can now be but slowly altered. Other indications, however, seem to conflict with such a hypothesis, and render it more probable that the race was originally a small one, which did not until a comparatively late period develop to the point at which we now find it, and spread over the countries which it at present inhabits.

If it should seem difficult to understand, at first sight, how they could have spread in a comparatively short time over these wide tracts of country without moving in great masses, as in the case of larger migrations, we need only reflect that their present inhospitable abiding-places can scarcely have been inhabited, at any rate permanently, before they took possession of them, and that therefore they had nothing to contend with except nature itself.

The region now inhabited by the Eskimos stretches from the west coast of Bering Straits over Alaska, the north coast of North America, the North American groups of Arctic Islands, the west coast, and, finally, the east coast, of Greenland.

By reason of his absolutely secluded position, the Eskimo has given the anthropologists much trouble, and the most contradictory opinions have been advanced with reference to his origin.

Dr. H. Rink, who has made Greenland and its people the study of his life, and is beyond comparison the greatest authority on the subject, holds that the Eskimo implements and weapons—at any rate, for the greater part—may be traced to America. He regards it as probable that the Eskimos were once a race dwelling in the interior of Alaska, where there are still a considerable number of inland Eskimos, and that they have migrated thence to the coasts of the ice-sea. He further maintains that their speech is most closely connected with the primitive dialects of America, and that their legends and customs recall those of the Indians.

One point among others, however, in which the Eskimos differ from the Indians is the use of dog- sledges. With the exception of the Incas of Peru, who used the llama as a beast of burden, no American aborigines employed animals either for drawing or for carrying. In this, then, the Eskimos more resemble the races of the Asiatic polar regions.

But it would lead us too far afield if we were to follow up this difficult scientific question, on which the evidence is as yet by no means thoroughly sifted. So much alone can we declare with any assurance, that the Eskimos dwelt in comparatively recent times on the coasts around Bering Straits and Bering Sea—probably on the American side—and have thence, stage by stage, spread eastward over Arctic America to Greenland.

It is in my judgment impossible to determine at what time they reached Greenland and permanently settled there. Erom what has already been said it appears probable that the period was comparatively late, but it does not seem to me established, as has been asserted in several quarters, that we can conclude from the Icelandic sagas that they first made their appearance on the west coast of Greenland in the fourteenth century. It certainly appears as though the Norwegian colonies of Österbygd and Vesterbygd (i.e. Easter- and Wester-district or settlement) were not until that period exposed to serious attacks on the part of the 'Skrellings' or Eskimos, coming in bands from the north; but this does not preclude the supposition that they had occupied certain tracts of the west coast of Greenland long before that time and long before the Norwegians discovered the country. They do not seem to have been settled upon the southern part of the coast during the first four hundred years of the Norwegian occupation, since they are not mentioned in the sagas; but it is expressly stated that the first Norwegians (Erik the Red and others) who came to the country, found both in the Easter- and the Wester-districts ruins of human habitations, fragments of boats, and stone implements, which in their opinion must have belonged to a feeble folk, whom they therefore called 'Skrellings' (or 'weaklings'). We must accordingly conclude that the 'Skrellings' had been there previously; and as such remains were found in both districts, it seems that they could scarcely have paid mere passing visits to them. It is not impossible that the Eskimos might simply have taken to their heels when the Norwegian viking-ships appeared in the offing; we, too, found them do so upon the east coast; but it does not seem at all probable that they could vanish so rapidly as to let the Norwegians catch no glimpse of them. The probability is, on the whole, that at that time the permanent settle- ments of the Eskimos were further north on the coast, above the 68th degree of north latitude, where seals and whales abound, and where they would first arrive on their course from the northward[4] (see p. 13). From these permanent settlements they probably, in Eskimo fashion, made frequent excursions of more or less duration to the more southerly part of the west coast, and there left behind them the traces which were first found. When the Norwegian settlers began to range northwards they at last came in contact with the Eskimos. Professor G. Storm[5] is of opinion that this must first have happened in the twelfth century.[6] We read in the 'Historia Norvegiæ' that the hunters in the unsettled districts of north Greenland came upon an undersized people whom they called 'Skrellings,' and who used stone knives and arrow-points of whalebone. As their more northern settlements became over-populated, the Eskimos no doubt began to migrate southwards in earnest; and as the Norwegians often dealt hardly with them when they met, they may eventually have taken revenge in the fourteenth century by first (after 1341) attacking and devastating (?) the Wester-district, and later (1379) making an expedition against the Easter-district, which seems in the following century to have been entirely destroyed.[7] It was about this time, accordingly, that the Eskimos probably effected their first permanent settlements in the southern parts of the country.

There is evidence in the Eskimo legends as well of the battles between them and the old Norsemen. But from the same legends we also learn that there was sometimes friendly intercourse between them; indeed the Norsemen are several times mentioned with esteem. This appears to show that there was no rooted hatred between the two races; and the theory that the Eskimos carried on an actual war of extermination against the settlers seems, moreover, in total conflict with their character as we now know it. Thus it can scarcely have been such a war alone that caused the downfall of the colony. We may, perhaps, attribute it partly to natural decline due to seclusion from the world, partly to absorption of the race, brought about by the crossing of the two stocks; for the Europeans of that age were probably no more inaccessible than those of to-day to the seductions of Eskimo loveliness.

As to the route by which the Eskimos made their way to the west coast of Greenland there has been a good deal of difference of opinion. Dr. Rink maintains that after passing Smith's Sound the Eskimos did not proceed southwards along the west coast, which would seem their most natural course, but turned northwards, rounded the northernmost point of the country, and came down along the east coast. In this way they must ultimately have approached the west coast from the southward, after making their way round the southern extremity of Greenland. This opinion is mainly founded upon the belief that Thorgils Orrabeinsfostre fell in with Eskimos upon the east coast, and that this was the Norsemen's first encounter with them. I have already, in a note on the preceding page, remarked on the untrustworthiness of this evidence; and such a theory as to the route of the Eskimo immigration stands, as we know, in direct conflict with the accounts given in the sagas, from which it appears (as above) that the Eskimos came from the north and not from the south, the Wester-district having been destroyed before the Easter-district. It appears, moreover, that we can draw the same conclusion from an Eskimo tradition in which their first encounter with the old Norsemen is described. In former days, we are told, when the coast was still very thinly populated, a boatful of explorers came into Godthaab-fiord and saw there a large house whose inhabitants were strange to them, not being Kaladlit—that is, Eskimo. They had suddenly come upon the old Norsemen. These, on their side, saw the Kaladlit for the first time, and treated them in the most friendly fashion. This happened, it will be observed, in Godthaab-fiord, which was in the ancient Wester-district—that is to say, the more northern colony. There is another circumstance which, to my thinking, renders improbable the route conjectured by Dr. Rink, and that is that if they made their way around the northern extremity of the country, they must, while in these high latitudes, have lived as the so-called Arctic Highlanders—that is, the Eskimos of Cape York and northwards—now do; in other words, they must have subsisted chiefly by hunting upon the ice, must have travelled in dog-sledges, and, while in the far north, must have used neither kaiaks nor woman-boats, since the sea, being usually ice-bound, offers little or no opportunity for kaiak-hunting or boating of any sort. It may not be in itself impossible that, when they came further south and reached more ice-free waters again, they may have recovered the art of building woman-boats and kaiaks, of which some tradition would in any case survive; but it seems improbable, not to say impossible, that after having lost the habit of kaiak hunting they should be able to master it afresh, and to develop it, and all the appliances belonging to it, to a higher point of perfection than had elsewhere been attained.

The most natural account of the matter, in my opinion, is that the Eskimos, after crossing Smith's Sound (so far there can be no doubt about their route), made their way southwards along the coast, and subsequently passed from the west coast, around the southern extremity of the country, up the east coast. It is impossible to determine whether they had reached the east coast and settled there before the Norsemen came to Greenland. On their southward journey from Smith's Sound they must, indeed, have met with a great obstacle in the Melville glacier (at about 77° north latitude), which stands right out into the sea at a point at which the coast is for a long distance unprotected by islands. But, in the first place, they may have been able to make their way onward in the lee of the drift-ice; and, in the second place, this difficulty is at worst not so great as those they must have encountered in passing round the northern extremity of Greenland. Moreover, the passage in an open boat from Smith's Sound southward along the west coast of Greenland to the Danish colonies has been several times accomplished in recent years without any particular difficulty. In opposition to this theory it may, no doubt, be alleged that the East Greenlanders possess dog-sledges, which are not used on the southern part of the west coast, where there is not enough ice for them. But if we remember with what rapidity, comparatively speaking, the Eskimos travel in their women-boats, and how fond they were in former times of roaming up and down along the coast—and when we take into account the fact that from time immemorial dogs have been kept along the whole of the west coast—this objection seems to lose its weight.

The Eskimos are at present spread over the whole west coast of Greenland, right from Smith's Sound to Cape Farewell. On the Danish part of the west coast they number very nearly 10,000. On the east coast, as we learn from the account of the Danish woman-boat expedition of 1884-85, under Captain Holm, there are Eskimos as far north as the Angmagsalik district (66° north latitude), their numbers in the autumn of 1884 being in all 548. Further north, as the Eskimos told Captain Holm, there were no permanent settlements so far as they knew. They often, however, made excursions to the northward,possibly as far as to the 68th or 69th degree of latitude; and a year or two before two woman-boats had sailed in that direction, and had never been heard of again. It is uncertain whether there may not be Eskimos upon the east coast further north than the 70th degree of latitude. Clavering is known to have found one or two families of them in 1823 at about 74° north latitude; but since that time none have been seen; and the German expedition which explored that coast in 1869-70, and wintered there, found houses and other remains, but no people, and therefore assumed that they must have died out. The Danish expedition of 1890 to Scoresby Sound, under Lieutenant Ryder, reports the same experience. It therefore seems probable that they have either died out or have abandoned this part of Greenland. This does not seem to me absolutely certain, however. There may be small and confined Eskimo colonies in these northern districts, or there may be a few nomadic families whom no one has as yet come across. This portion of the east coast must, in my opinion, be quite specially adapted for Eskimo habitation, as it is very rich in game. It therefore seems to me strange that when once the Eskimos had arrived there they should have gone away again; nor does it seem probable that they would die out in so excellent a hunting-ground. If there are Eskimos upon this north-east coast, their secluded position, debarring them from all intercourse, direct or indirect, with the outer world, must render them, from an ethnological point of view, among the most interesting people in existence.

  1. Hans Egede. Trans.
  2. Sæter = mountain châlet. Trans.
  3. The Eskimos call themselves inuit—that is to say, 'human beings'; all other men they conceive as belonging to a different genus of animals.
  4. North of the 68th degree they could kill seals and whales in plenty from the ice all the winter through; and this is a method of hunting which they must have learnt further north, where it would be the most important of all for them.
  5. Gustav Storm: Studies on the Vineland Voyages, Extracts from Mémoires de la Société Royale des Antiquaires du Nord, 1888, p. 53.
  6. The Eskimos themselves have several legends as to their encounters with the old Norsemen. See Rink: Tales and Traditions of the Eskimo, pp. 308-321.
  7. Some writers have concluded from the mention of 'troll-women' in the 'Flóamannasaga' that so early as the year 1000, or thereabouts, Thorgils Orrabeinsfostre must have encountered Eskimos on the south-east coast of Greenland. But, as Professor Storm has pointed out, the romantic character of this saga forbids us to base any such inference upon it. It must also be remembered that the extant manuscript dates from no earlier than about 1400, long after the time when the Norsemen had come in contact with the Eskimos on the west coast. Even if the Eskimos are meant in the passage about the troll-women, which is extremely doubtful, it may very well be a late interpolation.