Eskimo Life/Chapter 8

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Eskimo Life  (1893) 
Fridtjof Nansen, illustrations by Otto Sinding, translated by William Archer
THE POSITION AND WORK OF WOMEN
London: Longmans, Green, and Co. pages 121-137

CHAPTER VIII
THE POSITION AND WORK OF WOMEN

Many leading thinkers have remarked that the social position occupied by its women affords the best criterion of a people's place in the scale of civilisation. I am not entirely convinced that this is always the case; but if it is, I think we have here another indication that the Eskimo must be allowed to have reached a pretty high level of development. For the Eskimo woman plays no insignificant part in the life of the community.

It is true that, according to the primitive Eskimo conception, she is practically regarded as the property of her husband, who has either carried her off, or sometimes bought her, from her father. He can therefore send her away when he pleases, or lend her, or exchange her for another; and, when he can afford it, he can have more wives than one. But as a rule she is well treated, and we find this conception of her as the husband's chattel more clearly marked among many other races; there is even a good deal of it in our own society, only under a somewhat different disguise.

There are some who maintain that our women have plenty to do, but that the great mistake is that their employments are not exactly the same as those of the men. These people will be no better contented with the state of affairs in Greenland, for there, too, the employments of the two sexes are entirely distinct.

It is true that both sexes wear trousers, and have done so from time immemorial; but nevertheless they have not yet attained to the conception that there is little or no difference between men and women.

They hold that there are, among other things, certain essential physical differences, and imagine that women are not as a rule so strong, active, and courageous as men, and that they therefore are not so well fitted for hunting, and fishing. On the other hand, they do not think that men are best fitted to have the care of children, to give them suck, and so forth.

This is no doubt the reason for the very clear line of demarcation between the employments proper to the two sexes in Greenland.

To the man's share falls the laborious life at sea, as hunter and food-provider; but when he reaches the shore with his booty, he has fulfilled the most important part of his social function. He is received by his womenfolk, who help him ashore; and while he has nothing to do but to look after his kaiak and his weapons, it is the part of the women to drag the booty up to the house. In earlier times, at any rate, it was beneath the dignity of any hunter to lend a hand in this work, and so it still is with the majority.

The women flay the seal and cut it up according to fixed rules, and the mother of the family presides at the division of it. Further, it is the women's duty to cook the food, to prepare the skins, to cover the kaiaks and woman-boats, to make clothes, and to attend to all other domestic tasks. In addition to this they build the houses, pitch the tents, and row the woman-boats.

To row in a woman-boat was formerly, at any rate, quite beneath a hunters dignity, but it was the part of the father of the family to steer it. Now we often see men sitting and rowing, especially if they are hired by travelling Europeans. When you have become thoroughly accustomed to their way of life, this makes an unpleasant impression; the kaiak is and must be the indispensable condition of their existence, and one feels that they ought to neglect no opportunity for exercising themselves in its use. Even now no hunter of the first rank will condescend to enter a woman-boat, except as steersman.

When the family is out reindeer-hunting, it is of course the men who shoot the reindeer, while it often falls to the share of the women to drag the game to the tent; and this is a laborious business, calling for a great deal of endurance.

The only sort of fishery with which the women as a rule concern themselves is caplin-fishing. The season for this is the early summer, when the caplin appear on the coast in such dense shoals that they can be drawn up in bucketsful into the woman-boats. The fishing continues until a sufficient store is laid up against the winter; when once that is done they care no more about them, however abundant they may be. The fish are dried by being spread out on the rocks and stones; it is the women's business to look after them, and, when they are dried, to pack them together.

Sometimes they take part in seal-fishing, when a sort of battue is made, the seals being hunted into narrow sounds and fiords and driven ashore.

Only a few cases are on record in which women have tried their hand at kaiak-fishing.

Captain Holm mentions two girls at Imarsivik on the east coast who had taken to the kaiak. The proportion between men and women in the village was unfortunate, there being only five men out of a population of twenty-one. We are unhappily not informed whether these women had attained as great skill in hunting as their male comrades.

They had entirely adopted the masculine manner of living, dressed like men and wore their hair like men. When they were allowed to select what they wanted from among Holm's articles of barter, they did not choose needles or other feminine implements, but preferred spear-heads for their weapons. It must have been difficult to distinguish them from men; I must doubtless have seen them when I was on the east coast in 1888, without suspecting their sex. Holm mentions that one or two other girls in the same place were also destined to be trained as hunters, but they were as yet too young.

While the men pass most of their time on the sea, the women remain at home in their houses; and there you will generally find them busily occupied with one task or another, in contrast to those fair ones on our side of the ocean who do nothing but eat, lounge about, gossip, and sleep. When they go beyond the circle of their ordinary domestic employments, it is generally to busy themselves with the weapons of the men, ornamenting them with bone-carvings, &c.; these are their chief pride.

The men generally sit at the outer edge of the sleeping-bench with their feet on the floor; but the women always sit well back on the bench, with their legs crossed, like a tailor on his table. Here they sew, embroider, cut up skins with their peculiar crooked knives, chew bird-skins, and in short attend to many of their most important occupations, while their tongues are in ceaseless activity; for they are very lively and seldom lack matter for conversation. I cannot, unhappily, quite acquit them of the proverbial feminine loquacity; and, if we may believe Dalager, they are not altogether free from graver defects. He says: 'Lying and backbiting are chiefly to be found among the women. The men, on the other hand, are much more honest, and shrink from relating anything which they are unable to substantiate.'

Oh woman, woman, are you everywhere the same!

The very first thought to which Lokë gave birth,
It was a lie, and he bade it descend
In a woman's shape to the men of earth.

The preparation of skins is a very important part of the women's work, and as the methods are extremely peculiar, I shall give a short description of them, as I learnt them from the Eskimos of the Godthaab district. The processes vary according to the different sorts of skins and the purposes for which they are destined.

Kaiak-skins are dressed either black or white.[1]

The black skin (erisâk) is obtained by scraping the blubber from the under side of the skin while it is fresh, and then steeping it for a day or two in stale urine, until the hairs can be plucked out with a knife. These being removed, the skin is rinsed in sea water, and in summer it is then dried, but not in the sun. In winter, it is not dried, but if possible preserved by being buried in snow. Whether in summer or winter, however, it is best if, immediately after being washed, it can be stretched on the kaiak so as to dry upon the framework. These skins are dark because the grain or outer membrane of the skin of the seal is either black or dark brown.

White kaiak-skins (únek) are prepared in this way: While they are quite fresh, and after the blubber has been roughly removed, they are rolled up and laid in a tolerably warm place either out of doors or in. There they lie until the hairs and the outer membrane can easily be scraped away with a mussel-shell. For this purpose, however, the Greenland beauties generally prefer to use their teeth, since they can thus suck out a certain amount of blubber, which they consider delicious. Then, in summer, the skins are hung up to dry—not in the sun—upon a wooden rail, and are often turned in order that they may dry evenly all over. In winter they are preserved, like the black skins, in the snow. The dark membrane being scraped away, these skins are quite light-coloured or white when they are finished.

It must be noted that neither of these sorts of skins is stretched while drying.

Both sorts are used for woman-boats as well as for kaiaks.

For the kaiak, the white skins, which ought always to be kept well greased with seal-blubber, are considered best in summer; the black, on the other hand, which are never greased, are preferred in winter. A well-appointed hunter, therefore, ought to re-cover his kaiak twice a year: nowadays, however, he can generally do so only once, and sometimes only once in two years.

If the sealskins are to be used for kamiks (shoes), the blubber and the inner layer of the skin itself is scraped away with a crooked knife (ulo) upon a board made for the purpose out of a whale's shoulderblade. When the skin has been scraped thin it is steeped for a day or so in stale urine until the hairs can be plucked off with a knife. This done, the skin is stretched, by means of small bone pegs, upon the earth or the snow, and dried. Then it is rubbed until it is soft, and the process is complete. As this sort of skin has its outer membrane intact, it is of a dark colour.

White kamik-skins are prepared up to a certain point like the foregoing, but when the hairs have been removed they are dipped in warm water (not too warm) until the black membrane is loosened, and then steeped in sea water, as cold as possible. If all the membrane is not removed, the skin is again dipped alternately in warm water and sea water until it comes away. Then the skin is pegged out and dried like the black skin.

The white skins, not being as strong and water-tight as the black, are used almost entirely by women, who either keep them white or dye them in different ways.

Sole leather for the kamiks is prepared in the same way as the black kaiak-skin, but is pegged out while drying.

Skins for kaiak-gloves are prepared at first like the black kamik skins, but after the hairs have been removed they are dressed with blood, and then rolled together and put away. This is repeated two or three times until they become entirely black. Then they are stretched for drying—in summer out of doors, but in winter in the houses. This skin is wonderfully water-tight. If the sealskin. is to be prepared with its hairs on, as for example, for the inner sock of the kamiks or for jackets, it is scraped on the blubber side with a crooked knife, just like the ordinary kamik skin. Then it is steeped in water, and washed with soft soap; whereupon it is rinsed out in clean water, stretched, and dried as above described. It is then made soft and pliant by rubbing, and is ready for use.

Reindeer skin is simply dried and rubbed, no water being applied to it.

In preparing bird-skins, the first step is carefully to dry the feathers; then the skins are turned inside out, and the layer of fat is scraped away as thoroughly as possible with a mussel shell or a spoon, and is eaten—it is held a great delicacy. Then the skins are hung up under the roof to dry. After a few days, the last remnants of fat are removed from them by means of chewing, then they are dried again, then washed in warm water with soda and soap three times over, then rinsed out in very cold water, pressed, and hung up for the final drying. If the feathers are to be removed so that only the down is left, as, for example, in the case of the eider duck, they are plucked out when the skin is half dry. Then it is thoroughly dried and cut up, and so is ready for use.

The chewing above mentioned is a remarkable process. The operator takes the dry skin, almost dripping with fat, and chews away at one spot until all the fat is sucked out and the skin is soft and white; then the chewing area is slowly widened, the skin gradually retreating further and further into the mouth, until it often disappears entirely, to be spat out again at last with every particle of fat chewed away. This industry is for the most part carried on by the women and children, and is very highly relished by reason of the quantity of fat it enables them to absorb. In times of scarcity, the men are often glad enough to be allowed to do their share. It is a strange scene that is presented when one enters a house and finds the whole of its population thus engaged in chewing, each with his skin in his mouth. The excellence of the Greenland bird-skins is due to this process. How few of those who have admired the exquisite eider-down rugs which adorn so many a luxurious European home, have any idea of the stages through which they have gone! And how many a European beauty, resplendent in costly skins, would shudder if she could see in a vision all the more or less inviting mouths through which her finery has passed, up there in the far North, before it came to deck her swan-like form!

On the whole, the Greenland women make great use of their teeth, now to stretch the skins, now to hold them while they are being scraped, and again for the actual scraping. It is rather startling to us Europeans to see them take up a skin out of the tub of fetid liquor in which it has been steeping, and straightway fix their teeth in it and begin to dress it. The mouth, in fact, is a third hand to them; and therefore the front teeth of old Eskimo women are often worn away to the merest stumps.

The sinews of seals, whales, and reindeer are used as thread in making garments out of skins. The sinews are simply dried. For sewing kaiak-jackets, kaiak-gioves, and sometimes for kamiks, the gullet of the saddleback seal, the ringed seal, the bladder-nose seal, the small mottled seal, and the cormorant is also used. The outer membranes of the gullet are cut away while it is quite fresh, and then it is drawn over a round stick prepared for the purpose, and greased with blubber. Sometimes the gullet is also scraped with mussel-shells. When it has dried upon the stick and has been cut lengthwise into narrow strips, it is ready for use. The thread thus obtained has this advantage over the sinew-thread that it does not soften in water.

The Greenland women are very capable at their work, and are especially skilful with their needle. One has only to examine the seams of a kaiak-skin, a kaiak-jacket, or a gut-skin shirt to convince oneself of this. But their skill is still more conspicuous in the admirable embroideries with which they ornament their trousers, kamiks, and other garments. On the west coast, where they have learned the use of dyes from the Europeans, they now execute these embroideries with small patches of hide of different colours, which they sew together into a sort of mosaic. They work entirely in freehand, without any pattern to go by, and display great neatness and precision, to say nothing of their sense of colour and of form.

In living with. the Eskimos in their homes, one does not at all receive the impression that the women are particularly oppressed or slighted. It seemed to me, on the contrary, that the housewives of Godthaab and the surrounding district often played a very important part in the domestic economy, in some cases even ruling the roost. Judging from my own experience, then, I should say that there is a good deal of exaggeration in what Dalager says of the women, that 'even what ought to be the best hours of their life, from the time they come to maturity, are nothing but a long chain of trouble, contempt, and sorrow.'

It cannot be denied that in social life one observes a certain difference of status between men and women. Thus at meal-times or at coffee-parties, the hunters and the men of most importance are first helped, then the less important males, and finally the women and children. Dalager, in last century, makes a similar remark in his description of a banquet. The men, he says, take the leading place, and tell each other their adventures, while 'the women too have in the meantime formed a little party by themselves in another corner, where, no doubt, nothing but empty chatter is to be heard.' But, if it comes to that, such a description would apply in several other parts of the world besides Greenland.

I must admit, however, that the Eskimo men sometimes show themselves sadly deficient in politeness towards the ladies. For example, 'when the women are hard at work, building houses, drawing water, or carrying heavy burdens of one sort or another, the men stand by with their hands thrust into the breast of their jackets, and laugh at them, without offering the slightest help.' But is this so very much worse than what we often see in Norway, when a Bergen peasant, returning from market, lights his pipe, stretches himself in the stern of the boat, and lets his women row him home?

That women are not held in such high esteem as men is also unhappily evident from the fact that when a man-child is born, the father is jubilant, and the mother beams with pride, while if it be a girl, they both weep, or are at any rate very ill content.

But is this so very much to be wondered at? With all his goodness of heart, the Eskimo is, after all, no more than a man. The boy is, of course, regarded as the kaiak-man and hunter of the future, the support of the family in the old age of his parents, in short as a direct addition to the working capital; while they no doubt think that there will always be plenty of girls in the world.

The same difference is observable in the bringing up of the children, the boys being always regarded as the food-providers of the future, who must in every way be well cared for; and if a boy's parents die, his position is never a whit the worse, for all the neighbours are quite willing to receive him into their houses and do all they can to make a man of him. With the girls it is different; if they lose their parents and have no relations, they can always, indeed, have plenty of food, but they have often to put up with the most miserable clothing, so that it is pitiful to see them. When they come to the marriageable age, however, they stand on pretty much the same level as girls who have been more fortunately situated; for no such thing as a dowry is known, and their chances simply depend upon 'beauty and solidity, which shall secure them favour in the eyes of the young men—lacking these they are despised, and will never be married, since there are always plenty to choose from.' Of this, however, they cannot complain, for the men themselves are no better off. If they are not strong enough to make good hunters, as sometimes happens, they have poor enough chances of ever finding a mate, and are looked down upon by every one.

That boys are regarded very much in the light of capital appears from the fact that although widows are not in demand in the marriage-market, it some times happens that they find a husband, 'especially if they have a family of boys; in that case they are pretty sure one day to make a match with a respectable widower.'

Even in death, women seem to be placed at a disadvantage, as we may conclude from the following remark of Dalagers: 'It sometimes happens that a woman of no great importance, when mortal sickness falls upon her, is buried alive. A horrible case of this sort occurred a short time ago at this very place. Several people declared that they had heard the woman, a long time after her burial, calling out from her grave and begging for something to drink. If you remonstrate with them upon such inhuman cruelty, they answer that when the patient cannot recover, it is better that she should be put away in her last resting-place,than that the survivors should go through the agony of death in observing her misery. But this reasoning will not hold good; for if any male person were thus barbarously dealt with, it would be regarded as the most brutal murder.' Yes, this was ill done; but fortunately such events are very exceptional. Their real reason, moreover, is probably to be found in the Eskimos' intense dread of touching dead bodies, which makes them clothe the dying, whether men or women, in their grave-clothes, often long before death occurs, preparing everything for the carrying out of the corpse and its burial, while the patient himself lies and looks on. For the same reason, they shrink from assisting one who has met with an accident at sea, if he seems to be already in the pinch of death, fearing lest they should happen to lay hands upon him after life has departed.

  1. The skins used, as before mentioned (p. 45) are usually those of the saddleback seal or hood seal; but the skin of the bearded seal is also used, and occasionally that of the ringed seal or even of the mottled or common seal (Phoca vitulina).