Eskimo Life/Chapter 7

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Eskimo Life  (1893) 
Fridtjof Nansen, illustrations by Otto Sinding, translated by William Archer
London: Longmans, Green, and Co. pages 100-120


When I see all the wrangling and all the coarse abuse of opponents which form the staple of the different party newspapers at home, I now and then wonder what these worthy politicians would say if they knew anything of the Eskimo community, and whether they would not blush before the people whom that man of God, Hans Egede, characterises as follows:—'These ignorant, cold-blooded creatures, living without order or discipline, with no knowledge of any sort of worship, in brutish stupidity,' With what good right would these 'savages' look down upon us, if they knew that here, even in the public press, we apply to each other the lowest terms of contumely, as for example 'liar,' 'traitor,' 'perjurer,' 'lout,' 'rowdy,' &c., while they never utter a syllable of abuse, their very language being unprovided with words of this class, in which ours is so rich.

This contrast typifies a radical difference of character. The Greenlander is of all God's creatures gifted with the best disposition. Good-humour, peaceableness, and evenness of temper are the most prominent features in his character. He is eager to stand on as good a footing as possible with his fellow-men, and therefore refrains from offending them and much more from using coarse terms of abuse. He is very loth to contradict another even should he be saying what he knows to be false; if he does so, he takes care to word his remonstrance in the mildest possible form, and it would be very hard indeed for him to say right out that the other was lying. He is chary of telling other people truths which he thinks will be unpleasant to them; in such cases he chooses the vaguest expressions, even with reference to such indifferent things as, for example, wind and weather. His peaceableness even goes so far that when anything is stolen from him, which seldom happens, he does not as a rule reclaim it even if he knows who has taken it. 'Give to every man that asketh of thee; and of him that taketh away thy goods ask them not again' (Luke vi. 30).

The result is that there is seldom or never any quarrelling among them. The Greenlanders cannot afford to waste time in wrangling amongst themselves; the struggle to wring from nature the necessities of life, that great problem of humanity, is there harder than anywhere else, and therefore this little people has agreed to carry it on without needless dissensions.

On the whole, the Greenlander is a happy being, his soul being light and cheerful as a child's. If sorrow overtakes him, he may perhaps suffer bitterly for the moment; but it is soon forgotten, and he is once more as radiantly contented with existence as he used to be.

This happy levity of his saves him from brooding much upon the future. If he has enough to eat for the moment, he eats it and is happy, even if he has afterwards to suffer want—which is now, unfortunately, often the case, and becomes so oftener year by year.

His carelessness has frequently been made a subject of bitter reproach to him. The missionaries declare, no doubt rightly, that it makes him inaccessible to civilisation, and have tried to exhort him to greater providence and frugality. They quite overlook the fact that it is written, 'Take ye no thought for the morrow.... Behold the fowls of the air: for they sow not, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feedeth them.'

This levity of mind has also its bright side; it is even, in a way, the Eskimo's chief strength.

Poverty and want have, with us, two conse- quences. The most immediate is, of course, the physical suffering; but together with it and after it comes mental suffering, 'the cares of bread,' the unceasing anxiety which pursues one night and day, even in sleep, and embitters every hour of life. In the majority of cases, this is probably what tells most upon our poor people; but for this, the bodily sufferings, which, after all, are generally transitory, would be easily supported. But it is precisely from this phase of suffering that the Eskimo's elastic spirit saves him. Even a long period of starvation and endurance is at once forgotten so soon as he is fed; and the memory of bygone sufferings can no more destroy his enjoyment and happiness, than can the fear of those which to-morrow or the next day may bring. The only thing that really makes him unhappy is to see others in want, and therefore he shares with them whenever he has anything to share.

What chiefly cuts the Eskimos to the heart is to see their children starving; 'and therefore,' says Dalager, 'they give food to their children even if they themselves are ready to die of hunger; for they live every day in the hope of a happy change of fortune—a hope which really sustains life in many of them.'

In order to obtain a clearer conception of the radical difference between the Eskimo character and ours, we ought to study the Eskimos in their social relations.

It is not unusual to hear people express the opinion that the Eskimo community is devoid of law and order. This is a mistake.

Originally, on the contrary, it was singularly well ordered. It had its customs and its fixed rules for every possible circumstance, and these customs and rules were handed down from generation to generation, and were almost always observed; for the people are really incredibly well-disposed, as even Egede himself, who has, as we have seen, written so harshly of them, cannot help admitting in such a passage as, for example, the following: 'It is wonderful in what peace and unity they live with each other; for quarrelling and strife, hatred and covetousness, are seldom heard of among them.[1] And even if one of them happens to bear an ill-will to another, he does not let it be seen, nor, on account of their great tenderness for each other, does he take upon himself to attack him openly with violence or abuse, their language being indeed devoid of the necessary words.' Observe that this is said by a missionary of heathens, who, therefore, could not have developed this peaceful temper through the influence of Christianity.

Then came the Europeans. Without knowing or understanding the people or its requirements, they started from the assumption that it stood in need of improvement in every possible way, and consequently set to work to disturb and overturn the whole social order. They tried to force upon the Eskimos a totally new character, gave them, all in a moment, a new religion, and broke down their respect for their old customs and traditions, of course without being able to give them new ones in their place. The missionaries thought that they could make this wild, free people of hunters into a civilised Christian nation, without for a moment suspecting that at heart these people were in many respects more Christian than themselves, and, among other things, like so many primitive people, had put into practice the Christian doctrine of love (charity) very much more fully than any Christian nation. The Europeans, in short, conducted themselves in Greenland exactly as they are in the habit of doing wherever they come forward in the name of the Christian religion to 'make the poor heathen partakers in the blessings of eternal truth.'

Very characteristic of this view is the following utterance of Egede's, of which I have already spoken: 'The inborn stupidity and dulness of the Greenlanders, their slothful and brutish up-bringing, their wandering and unstable way of life, certainly offer great hindrances to their conversion, and ought as much as possible to be obviated and remedied.' What a lack of comprehension! Only think, to want to obviate and remedy the nomadic life of a tribe of hunters! What would remain to them? I may add that he at another time proposes to attain this end by means of 'chastisement and discipline.'

The Eskimos at first listened in astonishment to the strangers. They had hitherto been very well content with themselves and their whole way of living; they did not know that man and his life on earth were so miserable as the missionaries again and again assured them they were. They had not, as Egede says, 'any just realisation of their own profound corruption,' and had great difficulty in understanding a religion so cruel as to condemn people to everlasting fire. They could quite well recognise 'original sin' as a common characteristic of the kavdlunaks (Europeans), for it was clear enough that many of them were bad; but the kaladlit (Eskimos) were good people, and ought without any trouble to get into heaven.

When in 1728 a number of Danish men and women came to Godthaab to colonise the country, many of them gave great offence to the heathens by their evil ways, so that they 'often asked how it was that so many of our people were so bad. Women (that is, Greenland women), they said, are naturally quiet and modest; but these (the Europeans) were boisterous, brazen, and lacking in all womanly propriety. Yet they surely all knew God's will.' And the Greenlanders looked down upon and laughed at the stupid, self-satisfied Europeans who preached so finely but practised so little what they preached, and who, besides, knew nothing about hunting or about all the things which the Eskimos regarded as the most important in life.

The power which comes of a higher development gradually gave the Europeans the upper hand, so that in the course of time they have brought about a complete disturbance of the primitive social order, and replaced it by an indeterminate mixture of Eskimo and modern European habits and civilisation; while they have also effected a deplorable mixture of breeds, and produced, without the help of the clergy, an exceedingly mongrel population.

But, as the Eskimos are a very conservative people, we can still find many important traces of their primitive condition.

The Greenlanders, like all nations of hunters, have a very restricted sense of property; but it is a mistake to suppose it entirely non-existent.

As regards the great majority of things, a certain communism prevails; but this is always limited to wider or narrower circles according to the nature of the thing in question. Ascending from the individual, we find in the family the narrowest social circle; then come housemates and the nearest kinsfolk, and then all the families of the village. Private property is most fully recognised in the kaiak, the kaiak-dress and the hunting-weapons, which belong to the hunter alone, and which no one must touch. With them he supports himself and his family, and he must therefore always be sure of finding them where he last laid them; it is seldom that they are even lent to others. In former times, good hunters would often own two kaiaks, but that is seldom the case now. Snow-shoes may almost be regarded as belonging to implements of the chase; but as they were introduced by the Europeans, they are not considered matters of private property in the same degree; so that while an Eskimo seldom or never touches another's weapons he will scarcely think twice about using anothers snow-shoes without asking leave.

Next to clothes and hunting implements come the tools which are used in the houses, such as knives, axes, saws, skin-cutters, &c. Many of these, and especially the women's sewing materials, are regarded as altogether private property.

Other household implements are the common property of the family or even of all the occupants of the house. The woman-boat and the tent belong to the father of the family or to the family as a whole. The house belongs to the family, and if several families live together they own it in common.

The Eskimo knows nothing of private property in land; yet there seems to be a recognised rule that no one shall pitch a tent or build a house at a place where people are already settled without obtaining their consent.

As an example of their consideration for each other in this respect I may cite a custom which was thus described by Lars Dalager more than a hundred years ago: 'In the summer, when they take their tents and baggage with them, and think of settling down at a place where other Greenlanders are living, they row very slowly towards the shore, and when they come to within a gunshot of it they stop and lie upon their oars without saying a word. If those on shore are equally silent and give no sign, the newcomers think they are not wanted and therefore row away as fast as possible to some unoccupied place. But if those on shore, as generally happens, meet them with compliments, such as: "Look here! here are good places for your tents, a good beach for your woman-boats — come and rest after the labours of the day!" they, after a little consideration, lay in to the shore where the others stand ready to receive them and to help with the landing of the baggage. But when they are starting again, the people of the place confine themselves to helping in the launch of the woman-boat, and let the strangers themselves see to the rest, unless they happen to be very good friends or near relations, in which case they are despatched with the same marks of honour with which they were received, and with some such phrases as this: "Your visit will be a pleasant memory to us."'[2]

We may perhaps find the rudiments of the conception of private property in land in the fact that where dams have been built in a salmon river to gather the fish together, it is not regarded as the right thing if strangers come and interfere with the dams or fish with nets in the dammed-up waters, as Europeans were often in the habit of doing in earlier times. This too is mentioned by Dalager.

Driftwood belongs to whoever first finds it floating in the sea, wherever it may happen to be. In order to sustain his right to it, the finder is bound to tow it ashore and place it above the high-water line, if possible marking it in one way or another. For this form of property the Eskimo has the greatest respect, and one who has left a piece of driftwood on the shore may be sure of finding it again even several years after, unless Europeans have come along in the meantime. Any one taking it would be regarded as a scoundrel.

As to their customs in lending and trading, I may again quote Dalager: 'If one man lends another anything, for example a boat, a harpoon, a fishing line, or other sea-implement, and it comes to harm—if, for instance, the seal gets away with the harpoon, or the fish breaks the line, or the fish or seal does injury to the boat—the owner must bear the loss, the borrower making no reparation. But if anyone borrows darts or implements without the knowledge of the owner, and they come to harm, the borrower is bound to make good the damage. This happens very seldom; for a Greenlander must be hard pushed before he will trouble his neighbour to lend him anything, for fear of any harm occurring to it.

'When one makes a purchase from another, and the wares do not suit him, he can return them even after a considerable time has elapsed.

'If one buys of another such costly things as a boat or a gun, and the buyer is not in a position to satisfy the seller in ready money, he is allowed credit until he can pay up. But if the debtor dies in the meantime, the creditor never makes any claim. This,' adds Dalager, 'is an inconvenient habit for the merchants of the colony, who are always bound to give credit; whereof I have had several experiences, especially this year, many of my debtors having departed this life, and thus brought me into considerable perplexity.'

On his complaining to 'some influential and reasonable Greenlanders,' they advised him 'to register his claim at once, but to let the man's lice die in the grave (as they expressed it) before he proceeded to execution.'

Beyond the articles above enumerated,[3] the Greenlander, according to his primitive customs, can possess but little. Even if he had a faculty for laying up riches, which he very seldom has, his needier fellows would have the right to enforce a claim upon such of his possessions as were not necessary for himself. Thus we find in Greenland this unfortunate state of things: that the European immigrants, who are in reality supported by the natives, often become rich and live in abundance (at any rate, according to the Eskimo ideas), while the natives themselves are in want.

The Greenlander has not even unrestricted rights over the game he himself secures. There have been fixed rules from time immemorial according to which it is divided, and there are only a few sorts of animals which he can keep pretty well to himself and to his family. To these belong the atak or Greenland seal; but even in its case he must give a portion of blubber to each of the kaiak-men who are present when he takes it, and in the same way the children of the village, when he comes home, receive a little scrap of blubber apiece. There are fixed rules for other sorts of game, in accordance with which the whole animal is divided among those who were present when it was killed or even among all the houses of the village. This is especially the case with regard to the walrus and several sorts of whales, as, for example, the white whale; of this the hunter receives only a comparatively small portion, even when he has killed it without help from others. When a whale of any size is brought to shore, it is said to be quite a horrible sight to see all the inhabitants of the village, armed with knives, flinging themselves upon it to secure each his share, while it is still in the water.

The scene is so sanguinary that Dalager declares that he has 'never seen or heard of a whale being cut up without someone or other being mutilated, or at least badly wounded, so great is the careless eagerness with which several hundred people will rush upon the fish, each one doing his best for himself, and, therefore, paying very little heed as to where he slashes with his knife.' It is characteristic of their amiability, however, that 'when one of them has thus come to harm, he does not bear any grudge against the man who injured him, but regards it as an accident.'

It is not only with respect to the larger animals that such rules hold good; they also apply in the case of certain fishes. Thus if a halibut is caught, the fisher is bound to give the other kaiak-men upon the hunting-ground a piece of the skin for division among themselves; and in addition to this, when he comes home, he generally gives some of the animal to his housemates and neighbours.[4]

Eskimålif, sid 87.jpg

Even when a Greenlander has fulfilled all the

aforesaid laws, he cannot always keep to himself his own share of his booty. For instance, if he makes a catch at a time when there is scarcity or famine in the village, it is regarded as his duty either to give a feast or to divide his prey among other families, who may perhaps have had to go for long without fresh meat.

After a good haul, they make a feast, and eat as long as they can. If everything is not eaten up, and there is plenty in the other houses as well, what remains is stored against the winter; but in times of scarcity it is regarded as the duty of those who have anything to help those who have nothing, even to the last remnant of food. After that, they starve in company, and sometimes starve to death. That some people should live in profusion while others suffer need, as we see it occurring daily in European communities, is an unheard of thing in Greenland; except that the European settlers, with the habitual providence of our race, have often stores of food while the Greenlanders are starving.

It will be understood from what has been said that the tendency of the law is, as much as possible, to let the whole village benefit by the captured prey, so that no family shall be entirely dependent upon the daily 'take' of those who provide for it. These are laws which have developed through the experience of long ages, and have become established by the habit of many generations.

The Greenlander is, on the whole, like a sympathetic child with respect to the needs of others; his first social law is to help his neighbour. Upon it, and upon their habit of clinging together through good and ill, depends the existence of the little Greenland community. A hard life has taught the Eskimo that however capable he may be, and able as a rule to look after himself, there may come times when without the help of his fellow men he would have to go to the wall; therefore, it is best to help others. 'Therefore, all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them'—this commandment, one of the first and most important of Christianity, Nature itself has instilled into the Greenlander, and he always acts up to it, which can scarcely be affirmed of Christian nations. It is unfortunate that, as he advances in civilisation, this commandment seems to lose its power over him.

Hospitality to strangers is a no less binding law among the Eskimos than helpfulness to neighbours. The traveller enters the first hut he comes to, and remains there as long as convenient. He is kindly received and entertained with what the house can offer, even if he be an enemy. When he proceeds on his way, he often takes a store of food along with him; I have seen kaiak-men leave houses where they had remained weatherbound for several days, loaded with halibut flesh, which had been presented to them on their departure. No payment is ever made for the entertainment. A European, too, is everywhere hospitably received, although the Greenlanders would not think of making similar claims upon his hospitality. Europeans, however, often make some sort of recompense by treating their entertainers to coffee and such oiher delicacies as they may have with them.

That hospitality is considered a very binding duty upon the east coast of Greenland appears from several remarkable instances related by Captain Holm. I may refer the reader to what he tells of the murderer Maratuk, who had killed his stepfather. He was a bad man, and no one liked him; yet when he presented himself at the house of the murdered man's nearest relatives, he was received and entertained for a long time—but they spoke ill of him when he had gone.

Hospitality is of course forced upon them by their natural surroundings; for it often happens that they are overtaken by storms when far from home, so that they are compelled to take refuge in the nearest dwelling-place.

It seems, unhappily, as though hospitality had declined of late years on the west coast. Doubtless it is once more the Europeans who have given the example. And the fact that the people are by no means so well-to-do as in earlier times, and are therefore less able to entertain strangers, has no doubt tended in the same direction.

Many of my readers are probably of opinion that I am unjust to us Europeans; but that is far from my intention. If the Europeans have not had the best influence, the fact cannot always be directly laid to their charge; circumstances have rendered it inevitable, in spite of excellent intentions on their part. For example, they have conscientiously laboured to foster the sense of property among the Greenlanders, encouraging them to save up portions of their booty, instead of lavishing it abroad in their usual free-handed way, and so forth; the principle being that a more highly-developed sense of property is the first condition of civilisation. Whether this is a benefit may seem doubtful to many; for my part I have no doubt about the matter. I must admit, of course, that civilisation presupposes a much greater faculty for the acquisition of worldly goods than the Eskimo is possessed of; but what I cannot understand is what these poor people have to do with civilisation. It assuredly makes them no happier, it ruins what is fine and admirable in their character, makes them weaker in the struggle for existence, and inevitably leads them to poverty and misery. But more of this at a later opportunity.

The laws upon which the heathen community in Greenland rests are, as we have seen, as nearly as possible socialism carried into practice. In this respect, accordingly, they are more Christian than those of any Christian community. The social reformers of to-day might learn much in these high latitudes.

Spencer has in one of his books pointed out that mankind has two religions. The first and most natural is the instinct of self-preservation, which impels the individual to protect himself against all outward opposition or hostile interference. This he calls the religion of enmity. The other is the instinct of association, which impels men to join fellowship with their neighbours; and to it we trace the Christian doctrine that you should love your neighbour as yourself, and should even love your enemies. This he calls the religion of friendship. The former is the religion of the past, the latter that of the future.

Precisely this religion of the future the Eskimo seems to have made his own to a peculiar degree.

The men of some tribes or races are driven to combine with each other by the pressureof human enemies, others by inhospitable natural surroundings. The latter has been the case with the Eskimos. Where the instinct of association and mutual help has been most strongly developed, there has the community's power of maintaining itself been greatest, and it has increased in numbers and in well-being; while other small communities, with less of this instinct, have declined or even succumbed altogether.

In so far as we believe with Spencer that the religion of friendship is that of the future, that self-sacrifice for the benefit of the community is the point towards which development is tending, we must assign to the Eskimo a high place in the scale of nations.

It is a question, however, whether our forefathers also, in long bygone ages, did not act upon a similar principle. It may be that social development proceeds in a spiral with ever wider and wider convolutions.

  1. 'When they have seen our dissolute sailors quarrelling and fighting, they regard such behaviour as inhuman, and say: "They do not treat each other as human beings." In the same way, if one of the ofhcers strikes a subordinate, they at once exclaim: "He behaves to his fellow-men as if they were dogs."'
  2. Dalager, Grönlandske Relationer, Copenhagen, 1752, pp. 15-16.
  3. Dogs, however, must be added to the list, and, in the case of the North and East Greenlanders, dog-sledges.
  4. When several are hunting in company, there are fixed rules to determine to whom the game belongs. If two or more shoot at a reindeer, the animal belongs to him who first hit it, even if he only wounded it slightly. As to the rules for seal-hunting, Dalager says: 'If a Greenlander strikes a seal or other marine animal with his light dart, and it is not killed, but gets away with the dart, and if another then comes and kills it with his darts, it nevertheless belongs to the first; but if he has used the ordinary harpoon, and the line breaks, and another comes and kills the animal, the first has lost his right to it. If, however, they both throw at the same time and both harpoons strike, the animal is cut lengthwise in two, and divided between them, skin and all.' 'If two throw at a bird simultaneously, it is divided between them.' 'If a dead seal is found with a harpoon fixed in it, if the owner of the harpoon is known in the neighbourhood, he gets his weapon back, but the finder keeps the seal.' Similar rules seem also to be in force upon the east coast.