One hundred years ago, the expansion of the white world into the Arctic was disrupting the traditional culture of the Eskimo people. Into the far north came guns, traders, missionaries, educators, gold miners, and industrial hunting and fishing. Also, the diseases of civilization slammed the wild people who had no resistance to them. Eskimos seemed to be getting close to extinction.
Knud Rasmussen organized a scientific expedition to learn more about the Eskimos before they disappeared forever. From 1921 to 1924, they traveled by dogsled from Greenland to Siberia, covering about 20,000 miles (32,000 km). Rasmussen was born in Greenland, and Kalaallisut was the first language he learned. He was surprised to discover that the Eskimos of Alaska spoke a similar dialect, and told similar stories, despite many centuries with no contact.
Rasmussen was not an arrogant bigot. He respected the natives, while also imagining that modern science, religion, and technology was better. At every opportunity, he sought out the elders, won their trust, and learned their stories, songs, and beliefs. Rasmussen published ten volumes of notes, and then summarized his grand adventure in Across Arctic America.
I’ve read several books about the Eskimos of Greenland, learning of the endless challenges of Arctic survival. But the Greenlanders had it easy, compared to the Eskimos of northern Canada who had no access to the sea, and a less dependable food supply. These inland people had neither blubber nor wood to use for fuel. They spent the long, terrifically cold winters in unheated huts, dining on frozen meat. They lived primarily on caribou and salmon.
In the old days, their settlements were located along the caribou migration routes. Men hunted with bows and arrows, which required extreme patience, waiting for an animal to (maybe) wander within range. Later, they got guns, which could kill from a greater distance, making it much easier to fill the freezer. In response, the caribou abandoned their old routes, and went elsewhere. The hunters starved, and their settlements became Arctic ruins. While one group starved, another group several miles away might be feasting on abundant meat.
In Eskimo society, when daughters grew up, they married, and joined their husband’s family. Sons, on the other hand, had obligations to their parents. Sons were the hunters and fishers, and more sons meant more security. “It is a general custom that old folk no longer able to provide for themselves commit suicide by hanging.” Nobody wanted to be a burden on others.
Male infants were usually kept, and most females were killed, except for those who were spoken for. With the gift of a harpoon or pot, a marriage could be arranged for an infant daughter. One family had 20 children — ten girls were killed, four sons died of disease, one son drowned, leaving four sons and a daughter. The mother was happy to have four sons, which would not have been the case if the daughters had been kept. She had no regrets. This was normal in their culture.
Unfortunately, when the sons grew up, they discovered a grievous shortage of potential brides. Polyandry was common (marriages with multiple husbands), but these often generated friction, resulting in an unlucky husband dying violently. No matter what a group did, overpopulation was impossible, because the supply of food was finite. Starvation was very common, and there was no shame in cannibalism.
The carrying capacity of the Arctic ecosystem was small, and it varied from month to month. Each group needed a huge territory. Warfare was common in some places, even massacres. Sometimes the expedition came across piles of human bones. Eskimos fought both Indians and other Eskimos. It seems to me that the root cause of violence is crowding; humans do not tend to be violent when they have adequate space and food.
Modern consumers, who forage in vast climate controlled shopping centers, might perceive the Eskimo way of life as being unpleasant and undesirable. But, according to Rasmussen, “they were not only cheerful, but healthy, knowing nothing of any disease beyond the colds that come as a regular epidemic in spring and autumn.” “A notable feature was their lively good humor and careless, high-spirited manner.” The women worked very hard, but “they were always happy and contended, with a ready laugh in return for any jest or kindly word.” Eskimos perceived whites to be uptight and coldly impersonal.
Rasmussen’s book contains many photographs of the wild people he met along the way. I was spellbound by some of the faces, which were gentle, radiant, and relaxed. Reading, writing, and arithmetic were unknown to them. They had no roads, clocks, or understanding of the outside world. I imagine that the knowledge they possessed was mostly real, practical, and sane — like a deep, clear stream. My mind feels more like an enormous landfill.
As the expedition got into its homestretch, they passed through gold mining communities, bubbles of prosperity for the lucky ones. Eskimos were drawn into the cash economy, where they sold handicrafts and acquired sewing machines, kerosene lamps, and cameras. Hunters were paid high prices for skins, and they hunted “without any consideration for the future or their old age.” Civilization makes people crazy.
Rasmussen and his two Eskimo companions sailed to Seattle, and then travelled to the skyscraper world of New York City. The book concludes with an exclamation by Anarulunguaq, his girlfriend for the journey: “Nature is great; but man is greater still.” Would she have a different opinion today, as man’s great imbalances are destabilizing the Arctic ecosystems, and the rest of the planet, too?
Before sailing from Alaska, Rasmussen spent a few hours with an angakoq (shaman) named Najagneq. He spoke about the great spirit called Sila. When Sila is happy, life is good. But when men abuse life, and feel no reverence for their daily food, Sila communicates to man “by storm and snow and rain and the fury of the sea; all the forces of nature that men fear.”
Rasmussen, Knud, Across Arctic America — Narrative of the Fifth Thule Expedition, University of Alaska Press, Fairbanks, 1999. [Originally 1927]