Eskimo Life/Chapter 5

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Eskimo Life  (1893) 
Fridtjof Nansen, illustrations by Otto Sinding, translated by William Archer
WINTER-HOUSES, TENTS, WOMAN-BOATS, AND EXCURSIONS
London: Longmans, Green, and Co. pages 78-88

CHAPTER V

WINTER-HOUSES, TENTS, WOMAN-BOATS, AND

EXCURSIONS.


In winter the Greenlanders live in houses built of stones and turf. They rise only from four to six feet (one and a half to two metres) above the level of the ground, and the floor is sunk somewhat beneath it. The roof is flat or slightly arched. From outside, the whole structure generally looks like an insignificant mound of earth.

There is only one room in these houses, and in it several families generally live together—men and women, young and old. The roof is so low that a man of any stature can scarcely stand upright. The room forms an oblong quadrangle. Along the whole of the longer wall, opposite the door, runs the chief sleeping-bench, about six feet six inches in width, upon which sleep the married people, with grown-up unmarried daughters and young boys and girls. Here they lie in a row, side by side, with their feet towards the wall and their heads out into the room.

Hans Egede Saabye says, in his before-mentioned Journal, that they make their marriage-bed under the sleeping-bench. I saw nothing to indicate that any such practice now exists anywhere in the Godthaab district.

Unmarried men generally lie upon smaller benches under the windows, which are in the opposite long wall, and of which there are one, two, or three, according to the size of the house. The windows were formerly filled with gut-skin, or some similar material; but nowadays, on the west coast, glass is commonly used. Against the side walls, too—the shorter walls—there are generally benches. These, or the window-benches, are, as a rule, assigned to strangers as their sleeping-places.

When several families, as is generally the case, dwell in one house, the chief sleeping-bench is divided into stalls—one for each family. The stalls are marked off by wooden posts, placed against the outer edge of the bench, and reaching to the roof, from which low partitions extend to the back wall. It is incredible how little room they are content with. Captain Holm describes a house on the east coast which measured about twenty-seven feet by fourteen and a half, and in which dwelt eight families, consisting in all of thirty-eight persons. In one stall, four feet broad, dwelt a man with two wives and seven children. This does not give much space to each. They use sealskins or reindeer-skins to lie upon, and also, in former days, as bedclothes, going to bed entirely naked, with the exception of the before mentioned indoor dress. Nowadays, on the west coast, down quilts are commonly used as bedclothes.

Internally, the walls of the house were in former times always lined with skins. The floor was formed by the naked earth, partly paved with flags. Nowadays, since the introduction of so much European luxury, they have begun, on the west coast, to line the walls with boards and to lay wooden floors. They have even, to a certain extent, adopted the habit of washing the floors—so much as several times a year.

The house is entered through a long and narrow passage, partly dug out beneath the level of the ground, and, like the houses, walled with stones and turf. You descend into it from the level of the ground through a hole. It is, as a rule, so low and narrow that one has to crouch one's way through it, and a large man finds it difficult enough to effect an entrance. I was told at Sardlok of a fat storekeeper from Godthaab who stuck fast at a difficult point in the passage leading to Terkel's house There he stuck, struggling and roaring, but could not advance, and still less retreat. In the end, he had to get four small boys to help him, two shoving behind and two, from within the house, dragging him in front by the arms. They laboured and toiled in the sweat of their brows, but the man was jammed as fast as a wad in a gun-barrel, and there was some thought of pulling down the walls of the passage in order to liberate him, before he at last managed to squeeze through. If I remember rightly, a window had to be torn down in order to let him out of the house again.

From the passage, you enter the house through a little square opening, usually in the front long wall, which is closed by a door or trap-door.

The purpose of this passage is to prevent the cold air from coming in and the warm light air from escaping. It is to this end that it is made to lie lower than the house; by which means, too, a little ventilation is obtained, since the heavy bad air can, to some extent, sink down into it and escape.

In Greenland houses of the old style there are no fireplaces; they are warmed, as well as lighted, by train-oil lamps, which burn day and night. They are left burning all night through, not merely for the sake of warmth, but also because the Eskimos are exceedingly superstitious, and therefore afraid of even sleeping in darkness. You may hear them relate, as a proof of extreme poverty, that this family or that, poor things, have to sleep at night with no lamp burning.

The lamps are large, flat open saucers of soapstone. They are of semi-circular form, and along the straight side lies the wick, which is formed of dry moss, or, nowadays, of cotton. These lamps rest on a wooden stand, and are placed on a little table or raised place in front of the sleeping-bench. There is generally one of these lamp-tables to each family. If several families dwell in one house, there are many lamps, for each family has at least one burning, and, as a rule, more.

In former days, food used to be cooked over these lamps in soapstone pots, which hung from the roof. The preparation of food, like every other business of life, of course went on in the common room.

So it is to this day on the east coast. On the west coast, modern civilisation has effected a change, in so far that food is now generally cooked in a special room with a fireplace, built on to the side of the passage leading into the house. Peat is used as fuel in these fireplaces, and also lumps of dried sea gulls' dung. Iron saucepans, too, bought at the stores in the colonies, are now used instead of soapstone pots.

Many West Greenlanders have, moreover, become so highly sophisticated as to have bought stoves, which they use instead of the train-oil lamps for heating their houses. The fuel used is the same as that mentioned above. At the same time, however, the indispensable lamps are kept burning, for the sake of light, if for no other reason.

In former days the houses were generally large, and several families lived in each. By this means they were able to economise in fuel, and they lived warmly and comfortably, while in many other ways the habitation in common was found advantageous. In this point the influence of the Europeans has been unfortunate. They have encouraged the distribution of the families into separate small houses, and have even offered prizes for house-building; it was thought to be such a grand thing that each family should have its own home for itself. The result was that the houses became poorer and colder, more material in proportion was needed for warming and lighting—material which was not always forthcoming—and the advantages of the old system of partial communism were sacrificed; so that the separation tended to the greater discomfort of the greater number.

In winter, when everything is frozen hard, these houses are all well enough; but in summer, when the moisture exudes from the thawing walls and the roof leaks and sometimes falls in, they are anything but wholesome dwelling-places. As soon as spring arrives, therefore, with the month of April, the Greenlanders used always in former days to quit their houses, often unroofing them themselves, in order that they might be thoroughly ventilated and washed out by the autumn rains—an exceedingly simple method of house-cleaning.

The whole summer through, and a good way into the autumn (until September or October), the Greenlanders dwelt in tents, each family, as a rule, having its own. These tents are of a peculiar semi-circular form, with the entrance-door in the high flat side. Internally, they are arranged very like the houses, with the sleeping-bench running along the curved back wall opposite to the door, which is closed with a curtain of semi-transparent gut-skin. The walls of the tent consist of an outer layer of water-tight skin with the hair taken off (old boat-skins being used as a rule), and an inner layer of reindeer- or seal-skin with the fur turned inwards. These tents are tolerably warm, and in them, as in their houses, they go without clothes.

The woman-boat is inseparably connected with this summer tent-life. These boats, which are from 30 to 40 feet long (10 to 12 metres), have received their name from the Europeans, because, unlike the kaiaks, they are rowed by women.

They are entirely open boats, consisting of a

wooden framework covered with sealskin, and are

Eskimålif, sid 209.jpg

AN ESKIMO CAMP
narrow in proportion to their length, and flat-bottomed. They are easy to row, but their shape renders them defective and inconvenient sea-boats, so that as soon as there is any wind the Greenlanders make for the land with them. They have generally a small sail which can be set in the bow, for running before a fair wind; but it will be readily understood that they are not good sailing-boats. Sailing is, on the whole, a pursuit of which the Eskimo understands little, and for which he has no great liking.

In these boats there is room for all a family's worldly goods—tents, household implements, dogs, children, women, &c. They are rowed by as many as half a score of oarswomen, and when they are so well 'manned,' they attain a good speed. A run of fifty English miles a day is not at all uncommon. They are generally steered by the paterfamilias, while the other males of the family follow in their kaiaks.

In their woman-boats, the Greenlanders used to move from one hunting-ground to another all through the summer. For one or two months they always went far up the fiords in search of reindeer, and there they lived on the fat of the land.

In those days they often undertook long journeys up and down the west coast, as they do to this day on the east coast. To show how long these journeys sometimes are, I may mention that on the east coast families travel from the Angmagsalik district, in 6512° north latitude, the whole way to thetrading-settlements west of Cape Farewell, and back again—a distance of about 500 miles. They do not generally travel quickly; one of two woman-boats which we met on the east coast at Cape Bille in 1888, on their way southwards, did not reach Pamiagdluk, west of Cape Farewell, until two years later, in 1890—and this is only a distance of some 180 miles, which we with our boats could no doubt have covered in a week or two. But as soon as the Eskimos come to a place where there are plenty of seals, they go ashore, pitch their camp, take to hunting, and live at their ease. When the autumn and winter approach, they choose a good site and build a winter-house, continuing their journey in the spring or summer as soon as the ice permits. The woman-boat in question had in this manner spent three years on the passage from Umivik, and would no doubt take pretty nearly as long to return. The other woman-boat that was passing southwards from Cape Bille got as far as Nanusek, about 65 miles from the trading-settlements west of Cape Farewell, and there went into winter quarters; but then the father of the family died, and they faced round and set about the long journey back to Angmagsalik, without ever

Eskimålif, sid 227.jpg

A SUMMER JOURNEY
having reached their goal, the trading-settlements, or accomplished their errand.

Journeys along the west coast were of course easier and more rapid, as the drift ice did not there present impediments.

By means of this habit of wandering they escaped the evil effects of too great seclusion in separate villages; they met together and kept up intercourse with other people, so that there was all through the summer a certain life and traffic from which they reaped many benefits. Their minds were enlivened, interest in hunting was stimulated, and skill was developed in many different ways, to say nothing of the fact that the frequent changing of hunting-grounds brought much more game within their reach.

This summer life in the comparatively clean, airy tents, besides being exceedingly pleasant, was,as we may easily understand, very much healthier than confinement in the close, evil-smelling earth cabins. No wonder, then, that the Greenlanders' fairest dreams of happiness were associated with the woman-boat and the tent.

Here again, alas! we Europeans have brought about melancholy changes. Hans Egede, indeed, complained bitterly of the difficulty of getting the Greenlanders to leave off their perpetual wanderings and settle down peaceably in one place, so that he could preach Christianity to them at his ease; he even proposed that they should be forcibly bound down to a less migratory life. If this pious man, who thought of nothing but the advancement of the Kingdom of God, had been living now, he might in so far have been happy; for the Christian Greenlanders of to-day scarcely travel at all. By reason of the great impoverishment which we have brought upon them, there are every day fewer and fewer hunters who can procure enough skins to make a woman-boat and a tent, both of which are of course necessary for travelling. They are more and more forced to pass the whole year round in the unwholesome winter houses, which are, of course, mere hot-beds for bacteria and all sorts of contagious diseases, while the men are thus unable to change their hunting-grounds, and must keep to the same spots year out year in. By this means the 'take' is of course greatly diminished, food is consequently much less plentiful, and the indispensable sealskins become fewer and fewer. As soon as the whole Greenland community has sunk to the level of Egede's ideal and has entirely abandoned its migratory habits, it will be almost, if not quite, beyond salvation. The decline in this direction has of late years been very alarming.