Eskimo Life/Chapter 2

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As I now sit down to describe these people, at such a distance from them and from the scenery amid which we lived together, how vividly my first meeting with them, upon the east coast of Greenland, stands before my mind's eye! I see two brown laughing countenances, surrounded by long, coal-black hair, beaming, even amid the ice, with bright contentment both with themselves and the world, and full of the friendliest good-humour, mingled with unaffected astonishment at the appearance of the marvellous strangers.

The pure-bred Eskimo would at first glance seem to most of us Europeans anything but beautiful.

He has a round, broad face, with large, coarse features; small, dark, sometimes rather oblique eyes; a flat nose, narrow between the eyes and broad at the base; round cheeks, bursting with fat; a broad mouth; heavy, broad jaws; which, together with the round cheeks, give the lower part of the face a great preponderance in the physiognomy. When the mouth is drawn up in an oleaginous smile, two rows of strong white teeth reveal themselves. One receives the impression, upon the whole, of an admirable chewing apparatus, conveying pleasant suggestions of much and good eating. But, at the same time, one traces in these features, especially in those of the women, a certain touch of ingratiating petted softness.

To our way of thinking, such a face could scarcely be described as beautiful; but how much prejudice there is in our ideas of beauty! I soon came to find these brown faces, gleaming with health and fat, really pleasing. They reflected the free life of nature, and suggested to my mind pictures of blue sea, white glaciers, and glittering sunshine.

It was, however, chiefly the young that produced this impression; and they soon grow old. The shrunken, blear-eyed, hairless old women, reminding one of frost-bitten apples, were certainly not beautiful; and yet there was a certain style in them, too. Toil had left its traces upon their wrinkled countenances, but also a life of rude plenty and a habit of good-humoured, hopeless resignation. There was nothing of that vitreous hardness or desiccated dignity which the school of life so often imprints upon aged countenances in other parts of the world.

The half-caste race which has arisen upon the west coast, of mingled European and Eskimo blood, is apt to be, according to our ideas, handsomer than the pure-bred Eskimos. They have, as a rule, a somewhat southern appearance, with their dark hair, dark eyebrows and eyes, and brown complexion. A remarkably Jewish cast of countenance sometimes appears among them. Types of real beauty are by no means rare—male as well as female. Yet there is apt to be something feeble about these half-breeds. The pure-bred Eskimos undoubtedly seem more genuine and healthy.

It is a common error among us in Europe to think of the Eskimos as a diminutive race. Though no doubt smaller than the Scandinavian peoples, they must be reckoned among the middle-sized races, and I even found among those of purest breeding men of nearly six feet in height. Their frame produces, on the whole, an impression of strength, especially the upper part of the body. The men have broad shoulders, strong, muscular arms, and a good chest; but, on the other hand, one notices that their thighs are comparatively narrow, and their legs not particularly strong. When they get up in years, therefore, they are apt to have an uncertain gait, with knees slightly bent. This defective development of the lower extremities must be ascribed, for the most part, to the daily confinement in the cramped kaiak.

A noticeable physical characteristic of the women appeared to me to be their comparatively narrow hips, which we are apt to regard as inconsistent with the type of feminine beauty. They certainly seemed to me considerably narrower than those of European women; but it is hard to say how much of this effect is to be ascribed to difference of dress. The Eskimo women, however, are remarkable for their very small and well-formed hands and feet. Their physique, as a whole, strikes one as sympathetic and pleasing.

The complexion of the pure-bred Greenlander is of a brownish or greyish yellow, and even among the half-breeds a certain tinge of brownish yellow is unmistakable. This natural darkness of the skin, however, is generally much intensified, especially in the case of men and old women, by a total lack of cleanliness. As an indication of their habits in this particular, it will be sufficient if I quote the concise description given by our very reverend countryman, Hans Egede, of the method of washing practised by the men in particular: 'They scrape the sweat off their faces with a knife.'

The skin of new-born children is fair, and that not merely because they have not yet had time to grow dirty. Hans Egede Saabye noted long ago in his Journal[1] that children have on the small of their back a bluish-black patch, about the size of a six-penny piece, from which the dark colour of the skin seems to spread as they grow older. Holm makes a note to the same effect in his account of the east coast.[2] I cannot speak on the subject from personal observation. It is perhaps worth noting that something similar is related of Japanese children.

Most of my readers have probably formed some idea of the Eskimo costume from pictures (see Frontispiece). They are probably aware that its most noteworthy peculiarity lies in the fact that the women dress almost like the men. Their costume is certainly very much prettier and more sensible than our ugly and awkward female fashions.

In South Greenland the men wear upon their body what is called a timiak. It is made of bird-skins, with the feathers or down turned inwards, is shaped very much like our woollen jerseys, and, like them, is drawn over the head. The timiak is provided with a hood, used as a head-covering in the open air; at other times it is thrown back, and forms, with its upstanding selvage of black dog-skin, a sort of collar round the neck. At the wrists, too, the timiak is edged with black dog-skin, like a showy fur overcoat among us. Above the timiak, an outer vest (anorak) is worn, now for the most part made of cotton. Trousers of sealskin, or of European cloth, are worn upon the legs; on the feet a peculiar sort of shoes, kamiks, made of sealskin. These consist of two layers, an interior sock of skin with the fur turned inwards, and an exterior shoe of hairless, water-tight hide. In the sole, between the sock and the outer shoe, is placed a layer of straw or of bladder-sedge.[3] Into these kamiks the naked foot is thrust.

The costume of the women closely resembles that of the men. In South Greenland a bird-skin jacket is worn upon the body, which has, however, no hood to cover the head, but instead of it a high upstanding collar edged with black dog-skin, which is made to glisten as much as possible; and outside this collar a broad necklace of glass beads is often worn, radiant with all the colours of the rainbow. The wrists, too, are edged with black dog-skin. The cotton vest above this garment is of course as brightly coloured as possible, red, blue, green, yellow, and round its lower edge there generally runs a broad variegated band of cotton, or, if possible, of silk. Trousers are worn on the legs, generally of mottled sealskin, but sometimes of reindeer-skin. They are considerably shorter than the men's trousers, coming only to a little way above the knee, but are richly decorated in front with bright-coloured embroideries in leather, and white stripes of reindeer-skin or dog-skin. The kamiks are longer than those of the men, and come up to above the knees; they are generally painted red, but sometimes blue, violet, or white. Down the front of them is sewn a band of many-coloured embroidery.

Besides the garments above mentioned, there is another, used by women who are nursing children. It is called an amaut, and resembles an ordinary anorak, except that at the back there is a great enlargement or pouch, in which they carry the child all day long, whatever work they may be about. As the amaut is lined both inside and out with reindeer or seal-skin, this pouch makes a nice warm nest for the child.

As no fashion-paper is published in Greenland, fashions are not so variable among the Eskimos as they are with us. Even in this respect, however, they are no mere barbarians, as the following example will show:

In former times, the women's anoraks and jackets were as long as the men's; but after the Europeans had imported the extravagant luxury of wearing white linen, they felt that such a wonderful tissue was far too beautiful and effective to be concealed. Instead, however, of cutting away their bodices from above, like our beauties at home, they began below, and made their anoraks so short that between them and the trouser-band, which was allowed to slip right down on the hips, there appeared a gap of a hand's breadth or more, in which the fabric in question became visible. A somewhat original style of 'low dress,' this.

The Eskimos of the east coast wear costumes practically similar to those here described, only that they almost always use seal-skins instead of bird-skins for their jackets. In North Greenland, too, seal-skin and reindeer-skin are greatly used for these garments, and the same was the case in earlier times all along the west coast.

On the east coast, a surprising habit prevails; to wit, that in their houses and tents, men, women, and children go about entirely naked—or so, at least, it seemed to me. Balto, however, no doubt after closer examination, assured me that the grown men and women had all a narrow band around their loins, a detail which my bashfulness had prevented me from discovering. This remarkable observation of our friend Balto is corroborated by the majority of travellers who have undertaken researches on the subject, so I am bound to believe them. This band, which the travellers are pleased to designate under-drawers—how far it deserves such a name I will leave to the reader to judge from the accompanying illustration—is, I am told, called nâtit by the Greenlanders.

In former days this simple indoor garb was worn all over Greenland, right up to the northernmost settlements on Smith's Sound, where, indeed, it is still in use.

Eskimo Life indoor dress male.png Eskimo Life indoor dress female.png
(1) Male costume. (2) Female costume.

This light raiment is, of course, very wholesome; for the many layers of skins in the outdoor dress greatly impede transpiration, and it is therefore a natural impulse which leads the Eskimo to throw them off in the warm rooms, where they would be particularly insanitary. When the Europeans came to the country, however, this free-and-easy custom offended their sense of propriety, and the missionaries preached against it. Thus it happens that the national indoor dress has been abolished on the west coast. Whether this has led to an improvement in morality, I cannot say—I have my doubts. That it has not been conducive to sanitation, I can unhesitatingly declare.

The Eskimos, however, are still very unsophisticated with respect to the exposure of their person. Many women, it is true, make some attempt to conceal their nudities when a European enters their houses; but I greatly fear that this is rather an affectation which they think will please us, than a result of real modesty; and when they discover that we are not greatly impressed by their attempts, they very soon give them up. In regard to their own countrymen they show very little sense of modesty.

The hair of the Eskimos is coal-black, coarse and straight, like horsehair, and is allowed by the men to grow wild. On the east coast they usually do not cut it at all, even regarding it as dangerous to lose any of it; they keep it back from the face by means of a band or thong. Sometimes they take it into their heads to cut the hair of children, and the children so treated must continue all through their lives to cut their hair, and must also observe certain fixed formalities in the matter; for instance, they must cut the ears and tails of their dogs while they are puppies. Iron must on no account come in contact with the hair, which is, therefore, sawn off with the jawbone of a Greenland shark.

The women knot their hair in a tuft upon the crown of the head. This they do by gathering it tightly together from all sides and tying it up, on the east coast with a thong, on the west coast with ribbons of various colours. Unmarried women wear a red ribbon, which they exchange for green if they have had a child. Married women wear a blue, and widows a black ribbon. If a widow wants to marry again she will probably mingle a little red with the black; elderly widows, who have given up all thought of marriage, often wear a white ribbon. If a widow gives birth to a child, she too must assume the green ribbon.

Her top-knot is the pride of the Greenland woman, and it must stand as stiff and straight up in the air as possible. This is, of course, held especially important by the young marriageable women, and as they are scarcely less vain than their European sisters, they draw the hair, so tightly together that it is gradually torn away from the forehead, the temples and the neck, whence they often become more or less bald while still comparatively young. This does not add greatly to their attractiveness, but is, nevertheless, a speaking proof of the vanity of human nature.

In order to get the hair thoroughly well knotted together, and at the same time to give it the glistening appearance which is prized as a beauty, they have furthermore the habit of steeping it in urine before doing it up, thus making it moist and easier to tighten.

Mothers lick their children instead of washing them, or at least did so in former days; and as to the insects they come across in the process, their principle is, 'They bite, therefore they must be bitten.'

If any should be offended by these peculiarities in the manners and customs of the Greenlanders, they ought to reflect that their own forefathers, not so many generations ago, conducted themselves not so very differently. Let them read the accounts of the domestic life of the Teutonic peoples some centuries ago, and they will learn many things that will surprise them.

  1. Saabye: Greenland; being extracts from a Journal kept in that country in the years 1770 to 1778. London: 1818.
  2. Meddelelser om Grönland. Pt. 10, p. 58. Copenhagen: 1889.
  3. Norwegian, sennegræs. Trans.