I HAVE a friend who has three wives. This sounds perfectly immoral, but it is a fact. And not only has he three wives, but he lives with all three together in perfect peace and happiness, which is quite a feat in itself, as anyone, I think, will concede.
My friend is really a Canadian. Should any very religious person, reading these lines, feel the urgent need to go to him so as to show him how wrong are his ways, and incidentally try to save his soul, he will have to travel quite a bit. For my friend lives close to the Arctic Circle — without a permanent address, and far away from the sea, which makes it all the more difficult and complicated to reach him at any season of the year.
His name is Kakoot, and with a little luck, or if sundry arrangements have been made a year or so beforehand, one may find him between Ennadai Lake and Yathkyed Lake, somewhere on the Kazan River, which, as anybody might or might not know, is between the sixtysecond and the sixty-third degree, in the Northwest Territories.
I might add also that my friend Kakoot is a full-blooded Eskimo. I have known him for several years, and not later than last summer I had the privilege of touring his own bit of the country, in his company, for a matter of several weeks.
Kakoot, I should judge, is about forty-five years old. I never could get his right age from him, for the very simple reason that he has absolutely no idea when he was born. He knows the exact spot of his birth, which, by the way, is a hollow between two rocky hills on the shores of Angikuni Lake. He also remembers his father and mother and two of his grandparents, and can show you where they are buried, but these are about all the indications he can give you as to his approximate age.
In appearance he is about five feet six and nearly as broad as he is high, especially when he has his winter clothes on. He wears his hair long, not in a braided pigtail such as some of the old Indians still used to wear a few years ago, but loose all around the head, evenly trimmed at the base of the neck and clipped short above the eyebrows. His face is dark and sunburned, with tremendous cheek bones, very hollow cheeks, and a few straggling black hairs at each corner of the mouth, giving him a little moustache ‘à la Chinese.’ His eyes are dark brown and hardly ever still, although they look directly at you when he speaks. His nose is slightly curved, his jaws exceedingly square, and his teeth, although very even, seem to have been filed down to the very edge of the gums. That comes from cracking too many reindeer bones in search of the marrow. He smokes incessantly a short black pipe.
Kakoot is by far the most intelligent and the most prosperous Eskimo among the thirty-odd families which form the entire population of that part of the Barren Lands.
While the other natives never go to the sea, and live entirely on the caribou between the edge of the trees on Nueltin Lake and Baker Lake farther north, he has traveled extensively. He knows three hundred miles of the western shores of Hudson Bay, has been as far as Bothnia to the north and the Great Slave Lake to the west, and has picked up a lot of knowledge and experience through dealing with other tribes and meeting, occasionally, white men.
He relies, of course, on his own hunt, meat and fur, to obtain all the necessities of life. Nevertheless he is a born trader and does not hesitate to journey south to the trees so as to get a small outfit of goods which enables him to collect part of the other Eskimos’ white foxes.
From all accounts he is a shrewd dealer, drives a hard bargain, and, I’m sorry to say, is not over-scrupulous as regards prices and quantities. All that, added to his untiring energy, has made him what he is, and his igloo and topek contain priceless treasures in the eyes of the other natives.
Last summer, for instance, he was the proud possessor of a good-sized wooden trunk, all brass-bound, a phonograph of old vintage but still in good working order, a shotgun, a Mauser pistol with two hundred rounds, a new 303 British rifle with a fair amount of ammunition, a fishing net, a secondhand canoe, a few carpenter’s tools with nails and screws, a three months’ provision of tea and plug tobacco, and, last but not least, white men’s clothes for summer wear, including a pair of rubber boots.
And then, of course, there are his three wives. It takes a lot of things to keep three wives, even within a short distance of the Arctic Circle. Kakoot manages that as well as he seems to manage everything else, as far as he is concerned.
His wife number one is about his age. He married her when he was a very young man. She has had several children who are now grown up and have families of their own. In summer she discards her native garb of winter hides and wears, outwardly at all events, civilized clothes, consisting of a dress and shirt of thick stroud and a shawl round her head. She wears no ornaments and her hair is arranged at the back in a loose knot. Her appearance is very slovenly, reminding one of a middleaged gypsy. But she rules the household with a rod of iron and superintends the storing of the food, the drying of the meat, the tanning of the caribou skins, the manufacturing of garments and boots, and the everlasting search for dry willow twigs for the fire. When the family moves from one place to another she sees that the loads are evenly distributed. Finally, she attends to the dogs.
Wife number two is about thirty or thirty-five years of age. Her children still play about the camp, but can look out for themselves. She wears native clothes all year round, unadorned, and her sole duty is to accompany Kakoot wherever he goes, either hunting or traveling. Then she tends his camp, repairs his clothes, looks after the dogs, prepares the food, and sets an occasional fox trap. Outside of that, she seems to do nothing but sit on the ground, smoke her own or somebody else’s pipe, and spit thoughtfully into the fire.
Wife number three is barely twenty. Her sole duty is to bear Kakoot children. She also wears native clothes, caribou fur in winter, caribou hide in summer. But she must always look beautiful. So she is covered with ornaments of all kinds. For instance, when I saw her a few months ago she was wearing a brand-new two-piece suit of reindeer hide, scraped and tanned until it was nearly white. Her trousers were tucked in high deerskin boots, the laces below the knee being strips of red flannel. The swallowtail of her coat nearly reached the ground, the edges being trimmed with wolverine fur and a row of empty cartridge shells. She wore on her chest, from neck to waist, a wide ‘stomacher’ of multicolored beadwork; in the centre hung a large bright ornament which I recognized as one of my spoon baits, given to Kakoot the summer before, from which the hook had been neatly filed off. Her head was uncovered, but her hair, parted from back to front, was divided in two braids which, tightly wrapped in beadwork, hung down beside her cheeks like two fat sausages. Her wrists were one mass of copper and bead bracelets, while each finger of her hands sported several broad copper rings, the middle finger of each hand having as many as five. She was smoking a little soapstone pipe. The bowl was dark green in color, somewhat like jade, while from the willow stem, two feet long, hung little streamers of beads.
Yes, she looked beautiful, and knew it, too. I had no difficulty in having her pose for a few photographs, but each time she insisted on raising both her hands, palms forward, to each side of her face. She did not want her rings to be out of the picture!
Kakoot, of course, is tremendously proud of her, but it seems that it would be a breach of etiquette, on his part, to take any notice of her in public. And when you try to say something about her he immediately endeavors to attract your attention in another direction.
Little does he know, I suppose, that I was told by other natives how much he paid for that young wife of his.
‘Ten white foxes, a secondhand canoe, a new rifle, and ten boxes of ammunition.’ A tremendous price, which her father snapped up greedily. But the poor old man did not have time to enjoy his wealth long. For that was in the summer, two years ago, when the caribou, migrating south, changed their usual route and all the Eskimos missed the herds completely. Kakoot, being wise and having a net, pitched off at once to the nearest lake and started fishing for dear life before freeze-up. Thus he was able to ‘stack up’ enough trout and white fish to last him until spring, when the reindeer migrated north again and he was able to secure all the fresh meat he needed. But the old man was obstinate, and he went on and on, searching for the herds, until his food gave out and his dogs lay down, dying one by one. Finally he gave up the fight himself and starved slowly to death. Kakoot found him the next spring — that is, what remained of him — under the torn skins of his topek, which, crushed under the weight of the snow of the whole winter, had fallen down, covering his body like a shroud.
When I reached Kakoot’s camp last June I found everyone expecting me. Had I not made special arrangements with him, a year before, to meet him on that very same spot and explore, with him, the lower regions of the Kazan River? For a whole year he had prepared for that trip in my canoe. For twelve months he had told all the other Eskimos about the event. For weeks ahead he had all the children of the camp perched on every hilltop, looking south, so that he should be advised in time of my arrival. And when I did appear with my two Indians a small volley of rifle shots heralded my approach.
As soon as I stepped on the shore I noticed that the Kakoots had finished their yearly spring cleaning. This, of course, is an important matter, but it is really quite simple. It consists in removing one’s self and all one’s belongings a few hundred yards upstream or downstream, as the case may be.
When twenty-odd people with at least as many dogs have wintered on the same spot for about six or seven months, eating, roughly speaking, five hundred reindeer and goodness knows how many fish, throwing the discard each day around the igloos in the deep snow — when that snow melts in the spring, the sooner one leaves that place, the better it is for all concerned!
Everyone was on the bank to shake hands — the three wives, the children, and a few orphans and destitute grownups, for Kakoot has a kind heart. I might add also that he dearly loves a large retinue. But Kakoot himself was not there. As chief of his clan, as my equal and as my host, he was waiting for me in one of the topeks — his own, the largest one of all. He was trying to look unconcerned, smoking his pipe and sitting on his brass-bound trunk. But he showed his excitement by streams of perspiration which ran down his face and disappeared down his neck.
When I entered the topek, bending low under the reindeer-skin flap, he rose to meet me and we solemnly shook hands in dead silence. Then I pulled out my tobacco pouch to have a smoke. With a grunt of joy Kakoot stretched out his hand and took it. While he stuffed my precious tobacco with thumb and first finger in the bowl of his pipe, which was still burning, I could see him store a lot more, with the remaining fingers, in the inside of his palm.
Having had my property restored with a polite and loud ‘Matnaf,’I proceeded to fill my own pipe. Then I sat beside him on the brassbound trunk; and under the admiring eyes of all the other Eskimos, young and old, who by then had crept in, one by one, my friend Kakoot and I smoked in silence the pipe of peace and contentment.
Such was the way we met a few months ago. The next, day we proceeded on our way north, Kakoot sitting beside me and acting as pilot.
While my two Indians and myself, having traveled steadily for seven weeks to reach that spot, were beginning to show rather a little wear and tear in our clothing, Kakoot was splendidly rigged up. Everything he wore was new. He had on his rubber boots, a pair of blue overalls over a suit of thick woolen underwear, two shirts, — one black, one gray, — two mackinaw shirts, — one in black and green, the other in black and red checks, — a huge pair of caribou-skin gloves, and a wolverine fur cap with a long peak and ear flaps. His sleeping robe was in a neat waterproof bag, which also contained, outside of several pairs of moccasins, a large package of raw reindeer tongues. Of these he would eat one or two occasionally, between meals, peeling them carefully with a clasp knife until, held at one end, they looked exactly like large pink bananas.
The difference of manner with which Kakoot, during the entire trip, addressed the two Indians and myself was very marked. He plainly considered my two men his inferiors. He was quite amiable to them, however — oblivious, of course, of the fact that my two Crees, true to their race, thought him only one degree removed from a wild savage; but he never lost a certain patronizing attitude which was very apparent. As far as I was concerned, he treated me as an equal. He knew me as some sort of white chief hailing from the south. Did n’t I know him as Kakoot, the mightiest hunter and cleverest trader of all these barren lands?
During all the time we traveled together he did cheerfully his share of the work, even more than his share at times, especially when, for instance, we had to look for firewood over a few acres of ground. Then he was by far our superior. He seemed to guess with one look at the bleak landscape where there was a patch of dead willows, and in an incredibly short time he would be back, staggering under a load of fagots.
But all the time his manner to me was that of a host showing to his guest his own house and lands. Every mile or so he would point out a rock, a caribou trail or river crossing, a hill, a faraway lake, an old camp site. He would call it by name, making me repeat it several times, and then try to tell me all about it. Here he would draw my attention to a coulee between the rocks, where he had once a cache raided by a wolverine. There he would show me, on a high ledge of hill, a mound of rocks, a grave, sometimes of a relation, always of someone he had known. Now and then we would land and examine the spot. Kakoot, of course, would be there first to look things over.
I recall one enormous grave. The dead man’s name was Ky-yo. I remember it because it means ’wood.’ He had been laid upon his back on a flat slab of stone. Around him and above him the Eskimos had built a regular vault of rocks. It happened that the base had been made out of such huge boulders that the latter projected over the body, thus enabling the men to build up a round roof of lesser boulders which held together and did not fall down on the dead. The body was therefore ensconced in a little niche, just like a coffin, but there were a few cracks between the stones through which the sun filtered. And Kakoot was delighted when he found a large one through which we could plainly see the bottom of the tomb and, in the middle of it, the white skeleton, rigid, gleaming in the semidarkness.
When there was nothing of special interest to show, Kakoot would describe in gestures the country ahead of us, the lakes, the winding of the river, the rapids, and the portages. He had discovered that I had a notebook and a pencil. At regular intervals he would borrow them and draw for me maps of the surroundings over and over again. First he would draw one starting from where we were at the time and going northward. Then, another time, he would draw the same one starting from where we were going to, for instance, backward to where we were at the time. The maps, made perhaps half a day apart, would always coincide exactly.
He would always add information about the country by little crude drawings on the side — reindeer, musk ox, willows if there was a certain quantity, fish, topeks with people around them. At first it was somewhat confusing, but in a very short time one could understand them perfectly. The only thing he could not do was to decrease the scale of his map. He was used to a certain scale, and when he had to draw two hundred miles he needed sheets and sheets of paper, which was very expensive.
Although Kakoot shared our meals and ate enormously, he really enjoyed only the tea, sugar, while it lasted, and jam. Pork and beans he scorned. Bannock he could not understand, and fresh caribou meat he thought we spoiled by overcooking it. Like all inland Eskimos, he was accustomed to raw frozen meat in winter and what we called ‘lukewarm meat’ in summer. He also missed his sundried pemmican and fish. Nevertheless he always took a special pride in showing us where and how to get the best meat and fish throughout the trip.
When we needed meat and sighted a herd of caribou, he would whip out of his pocket a small telescope and select the buck most easily stalked and appearing the fattest. Then he would take great pains in pointing it out to me, crawling behind me and looking down my rifle barrel before I shot, so as to make sure that I had understood which one to kill. When we could not find meat and needed fish, he would never let us camp until we had reached a likely place for our net.
As far as duck eggs were concerned, he knew every island where the birds laid in large quantities, and took great delight in helping us to collect what wo needed. He liked eggs, for that matter, just as much as we did, and he could eat three times more than any one of us. The dividing of the spoils was made easy by the fact that we wanted only the fresh ones, while he preferred the other kind. When we had found a certain quantity we always put them in a kettle full of water. The ones that remained flat at the bottom we kept. The others, which floated on the surface, Kakoot took for his share.
While we ate ours boiled three minutes, he would invariably eat his raw. Of course, at first when I saw him break the shell, fish out the contents with the point of his knife, and swallow them as we would an oyster, I should have preferred to be elsewhere. Happily one gets accustomed to small details such as these when one travels north of 63.
The most remarkable achievement of Kakoot was the way he carried on a running conversation with me, considering that I can remember only about twelve words of Eskimo, while he does not know more than thirty words of English, picked up here and there, and invariably pronounced with a Husky ending. For instance, his way of saying George was ‘Joss’; willow, ‘willok’; rifle, ‘reeflek’; but one caught on after a certain time.
His idea of time was always in ’sleeps’ for days, while for hours he pointed to where the sun should be. He used the word ‘hello’ all the time, just to fill in or to mean ‘Then I saw’ or ‘Then we shall reach such and such a spot.’ The only words which he pronounced perfectly and always in their proper place were ‘Never mind.’ He always spoke of his children, some grown up to manhood, as ‘me baby,’ and of his father, dead by now, as ‘me old buck.’
But his real way of talking was by gestures. With one or two words in English and Eskimo to put you on the right track, he could pantomime anything, and we understood him perfectly. I remember especially one story concerning the father of one of the orphans in his camp. The man was killed by a lame timber wolf, while one of the other Eskimos, a mile or so away, saw the whole tragedy through his telescope from the top of the hill. When we had left Kakoot and reached the trees that August, we met a white trapper and trader who speaks Eskimo well and who knows all the natives. We asked him about the story and he told it to us exactly as Kakoot had made us understand it through pantomime.
‘It was a few years ago. The Eskimo had shot a lone reindeer, a straggler from the big herd that had migrated south. He cut up the carcass and cached it under a huge mass of rocks. He had used his four remaining cartridges to kill the caribou and his rifle was empty. His boots were covered with blood and he left a red track on the snow as he plodded back to his igloo. There was a lame wolf in the neighborhood. He had been caught in a fox trap in the early fall, had broken the chain, and had been seen several times limping on three legs, with the trap still fixed on one of his hind legs. The brute, unable to follow the reindeer, was starving.
‘Wolves in the Far North have the habit of feeding on the remains of the slain deer, and rifle shots do not frighten them, for the country is wide open and treeless and they can see for miles from the tops of rocks and hills.
‘When the Eskimo killed the caribou, it happened that the lame wolf was within hearing. From a distance he watched the man caching the carcass, then limped lip as soon as the hunter went on his way. But he soon found out that there was nothing left for him to eat, and that the weight of the rocks defied his frantic efforts to dig out some of the meat. Maddened by hunger, the wolf took up the man’s trail, which was all the more enticing from the fact that each footstep had left a mark of fresh blood in the snow.
‘ While the Eskimo plodded on without thinking of looking behind him, the other man, having also heard the shots from the camp, had climbed up a hill close by and was watching the approaching hunter with his telescope. In a few minutes the wolf had closed the gap between them, for even a lame wolf on three legs can travel faster than a man on two.
‘Forgetting the cringing caution of his race, the wolf never stopped at the sight of the hunter. When the latter, hearing a noise, turned around, it was already too late. Before he could raise his rifle as a club the wolf had darted in at close quarters, snapping at the nearest leg, as he would do when trying to hamstring a caribou. The man was tripped up and fell backward; the wolf instantly flew at his throat and remained there. There was an awful struggle, the brute staying uppermost and keeping his hold. The other Eskimo ran down the hill for his rifle, then hastened to the rescue, but when he got within long-distance range the man was dead, his neck and face already gone.
‘The lame wolf, hearing the bullets whistling by, limped away, untouched, and all the man could do was to shoulder his dead comrade and carry him back to camp for burial.’
This was the story that the white trapper told us and it fitted exactly with what we had understood from Kakoot’s gestures and pantomime. The only thing we missed was the parentage between the slain man and t he boy in Kakoot’s camp. He repeated over and over again the child’s name, but as we did not know it we failed to grasp his meaning, although we knew he was speaking of someone in his topek.
As far as I remember, the only words in Kakoot’s story that we understood were ‘taitba’ (meaning ‘over there’); ‘look’ (meaning ‘looked and saw’); ‘tokto’ (meaning ‘reindeer’); ‘Ennuit’ (meaning ‘ Eskimo ’); and ‘ Him old buck’ (meaning ‘He was the father of’).
The first and only stumblingblock was at the beginning, and it was the word ‘wolf’ in Eskimo. Kakoot did not know it in English, and when he repeated it in his own language we did not understand. When he saw that, he proceeded to imitate a wolf. He showed the height of the animal with his hand, then got on four paws and howled. In the meantime he was describing with one hand the shape of the head, the pointed muzzle, the stuck-up ears. We nodded approvingly. Still he was not satisfied. He may have thought that we were thinking he meant a dog. So, still on four paws, he described the tail by placing his arm, curving downward, exactly where the tail should start from. That he knew we should grasp, for when one describes a Malemute’s tail one always pictures it curled up on one side or other of the rump.
The rest of the story went on swimmingly. The killing of the reindeer with four cartridges, the cutting up of the carcass, the piling of the rocks, the other Eskimo watching from the hill with his telescope — all that we followed as fast as he made the proper gestures. The limping of the wolf was easy, but it took some time for him to explain the fox trap. He finally drew its exact size in the sand, and then we knew.
But the climax of the story was the pantomime of the struggle between man and beast. Kakoot worked himself up into a frenzy and, rolling and struggling on the ground, first took the part of the wolf, then of the man, uttering the most savage growls or the most heart-rending cries, as the case would be.
Finally, when he described the man carrying away painfully the body of his dead friend, I think that the exhaustion he appeared to be suffering from was real. He was quite pale under his tan, and bathed in perspiration.
When our trip was over and we had returned to Kakoot’s camp on our way south, we took leave of one another on the river bank, under the eyes of the whole family. Poor old Kakoot! He was munching one of his raw caribou tongues — which, by the way, was the first thing he asked for of wife number one as he stepped out of the canoe. He was plainly moved at the idea of saying farewell, and for once his excited laugh was gone and his busy hands were still.
When we had paddled a little way upstream I turned round for a last look. There he was, standing bareheaded on the bank, beside one of his meat caches. His three wives were at his side, the rest of the clan grouped a few yards behind. In the background rose the huge topek of reindeer skins which was his home.
I waved at him for the last time, and he answered by one small gesture with his right hand. Then, before dipping my paddle in the swift gray waters of the Kazan River, I shouted to him in English, ‘Good luck to you, my friend Kakoot.’ He remained silent, but I am certain that he understood my meaning.