King William Land
THE Eskimo, preëminently a nomad and a sea hunter, is driven from point to point round an irregular circle by the need to feed his family, and it is the revolution of the seasons that directs his march. When the run of Arctic salmon in the river is over, he goes down to the lakes to jig through the ice. Meanwhile, he has begun also to trap the white fox. As the winter advances, as the ice thickens too deep for jigging and the big fish lie on the lake bottom refusing to be lured up, the Eskimo is forced to move on, for his family and his dogs consume about fifty pounds of food a day, an average terribly hard to maintain. The next curve on his circle is sealing and polar-bear hunting on the frozen sea. Then, with the spring, the caribou pass through on their way north; the great season of visiting opens; and in the autumn the river fish return. Thus the Eskimo is constantly on the march, driven by hunger through a cycle of peregrination whose signal characteristic is hardship and whose highest reward is not possession, nor leisure, but a full belly.
The Eskimos do not look upon their country as a harsh land, and among the variety of reasons for this I should put first the fact that it is their own, their unchallenged kingdom. Not only are they the undisputed owners of this land, but they are alone in it. All the caribou of the plains arc theirs; theirs all the fish in the lakes, all the seal in the sea. No man disputes their prizes with them. No marauders burst in to steal their poor possessions and enslave their children, as among certain peoples of Africa. No armies, as in Europe, invade them to deprive them of their dominion over the snows. Because theft is unknown in this quasi-communist community, because their poverty is unenvied and they have no neighbors to hate them, they are able to do as they did when we left the lake one morning to go out on the sea: store in their igloos what will not be needed for sealing, plant their fishing tackle upright on the round boss of the snowhouses as landmarks, and start down the trail without so much as turning their heads to sec if all is safe — the front door, as it were, locked, the windows all shut, the gate pulled to.
Looking at them as they loaded their sleds, seeing how each was helped by the rest, how all labored in common with no hint of selfishness as they ran from igloo to igloo, from sled to sled, with what smiles and laughter they chatted and drank their final mugs of tea before the great whips whistled in the air that a moment before had been coiled like lassos on the snow, it came to me that here was indeed the communal life, the Biblical clan which hitherto I had imagined only against a background of sand and date palm.
Once away, there was a ceaseless bustling. Men and women ran alongside, the long whip flashed out at one or another of the dogs; here was a crone who complained and was given a word of comfort, there an old pot swinging loose that had to be retied; and of a sudden a sled would sway, guided so that the runners would not meet the fresh dog droppings whose momentary warmth would melt the carefully spread coat of ice.
And with all this we seemed hardly to advance through the wide and monotonous expanse. Our first stop was near a fish camp, where each man had his cache, and provisions were to be taken on. The stones were removed, the cache opened, a great chunk of frozen fish hacked off with an axe; and this was to be their food pending the catching of the first seal. Whenever we stopped, the driver would stand off to right or left of the dogs, and with a long slow flick of the whip caress each husky that remained standing. At that gentle stroke, the dog would lie down; but indeed most were so trained and habituated to this that as soon as they stopped they lay down in their tracks. Then there were a hundred things to do: unload the old woman, for her muscles ached; give suck to the baby; disentangle the crossed harness of the dogs; drink tea; after which the men would stand apart with their pipes and talk shop.
The Eskimo is never at a loss for reasons to linger by the way. Because his life is hard, his leisure is precious; and, except among peasants and common laborers, there is no such pleasure taken from an hour’s idleness in our civilized world. I was learning, besides, that the Eskimo always does what he wants to do the moment the notion comes to him of doing it. This day was the first on which I began to see in the Eskimo something attractive, and in his existence something a civilized man might envy.
Stopping in a blizzard meant nothing to these people if they decided suddenly that they wanted a cup of tea. One might be within two hours of camp, the stop might mean another night in a hastily built igloo — it made no difference. The sled would glide to a halt, an empty box would be turned on its side, a Primus stove set within, and tea would be brewed. The wind was cutting you to ribbons, but what of that? It did not prevent Unarnak and her mother-in-law from enjoying a tranquil chat together, nor Utak from amusing himself peacefully by pulling his son round and round on a t iny sled while the child squealed with joy. On shipboard in a heavy sea you watch the porpoises at play and wonder that they can take it so easily: the Eskimos are like those porpoises.
That night our igloo was built in total darkness, and while Utak laid block on block I stumbled round outside with a native shovel, tamping the snow down into fine powder and tossing it against the sides of the igloo, after which I smoothed it down to fill the chinks between the blocks.
I had learned by now what my share of the work of installation was: bring in blocks of snow for water; unpack the boxes; start the Primus stove going; set up the drying rack over the stove; lay out mugs, biscuits, and the tobacco tin on the iglerk; replenish the water bucket with snow; see that the candle stays upright; keep the Primus from clogging and going out. You stop the sled at six in the evening, say, and it is not far from eleven o’clock before everything needed has been done and you are finally able to lie back on your skins and enjoy the bliss of a cigarette. And the next morning it has all to be undone again.
Next day it was Utak who was the first to sight the camp, and out of his belly rumbled the word ‘ Igloo! ‘ — that word so magical that its very sound in these spaces suffices to efface all fretting and weariness. After a camp is sighted, the intervening time falls into two periods. You see it in the distance and are half an hour away from it. You leap on to the sled and sit humming because you are in sight of port. Five minutes before you make port, this beatific peace drops away, a tremor of excitation runs through dogs and men, and the sled begins to fly as if burdenless over the ice until with a flourish you pull up and the dogs stop dead in their tracks.
The seal camp was built in the shelter of a sort of bluff that fell sheer into the sea. What was now the ridge of this bluff had once been the seashore, but with the passage of time the land here had risen to a considerable height. Since wo were traveling on the sea, we had come upon the camp round a small peninsula, seeing it first from the right, and only the dark spots made by the dogs, and the harpoons standing like pen strokes in the air, had been visible as we advanced. The drift here was so heavy that the blocks of the igloos were buried beneath it, and what we knew to be men coming towards us looked at first like so many shapeless dark forms.
Strange faces, these were, for wherever the snow had fallen upon them it had instantly frozen, and behind those white patches of frost it was hard to discern the human visage. Ice hung from the eyebrows of these men as from crossbars on an iron fence, hiding three quarters of the eye. It turned their moustaches into Venetian glass and came down from their fur collars over their chests to lend them the beards of Jewish prophets. Who, I said to myself, is this Eskimo Santa Claus coming towards me ? It was Tutiak.
‘ Pollak-pak-tu-tin? ‘ he said with a grin. (‘Have you come to visit?’)
Ohudlerk came in from the sea to greet me, and I stepped towards him. My hand was still in my glove, but he drew off his mitt ceremoniously, for Eskimos do not shake gloved hands. When you arrive at a camp you must shake the hand of everyone, without exception. It may be that one of the women, her child slung in the deep hood hanging at her back, will, out of shyness, not offer her hand. You must approach her and take her hand. Her eyes will flash with pleasure and she will lower one shoulder, jerk herself slightly; half out from the hood will tumble the child; and this bewildered little figure will hold forth its hand. If it does not, the mother will take it and place it in yours.
The Eskimos learned the handshake from the white men, but they have, if I may say so, transformed it into something Asiatic. It is no longer a handshake but a slow ceremonious elevation of the hand to the height of the face, and, once arrived there, it is accompanied by a charming grin. I have never seen it without thinking of two mandarins greeting one another at the entrance to a pagoda.
Remembering that I had not a great deal of grub left, I considered that I should be safer if I had my own igloo. All the men lent a hand in building it, and it was scarcely finished before it was invaded by the whole camp. The number was not great, — a seal camp never embraces more than four or five igloos, and here there were only three, — but they were all present, standing, seated, waiting, stretching forth their hands to the tobacco tin. Half my provisions went in two hours, and, while I was desperate, they were enchanted. They could not have been gayer had they been pirates dividing the loot of a newly captured prize. Utak was the happiest of them all. He had put himself in charge of the pillage, and everything he could lay hands on was being distributed — his own grub, I must own, as much as mine, for the important thing was hospitality, ownership was nothing. One fellow turned up my tin of butter, and, as the butter was frozen, they would cut into it with a spoon, dip the spoon for a moment in their tea, and lick the spoon clean at one gulp.
I am not a very methodical man, but I had had some notion of rationing my grub according to the number of days I should be out. This was not a procedure compatible with Eskimo life. I could never make these people understand the principle of rationing. In the same way, when they saw me make a note of what, in the course of bartering for primitive objects, I had paid for a seal-oil vessel or a native knife, they would roar with laughter.
I must describe Ohudlerk’s igloo. It might be called ‘Stench and Family Life.’ You crawled through the usual porch — the tor-sho, or neck, of the igloo — and when you put your head inside the body of the snowhouse you were assailed by a warm stink that all but strangled you. This noble aroma came from a niche to the right of the entrance which Rembrandt might have been delighted to paint. It was heaped with the carcasses of skinned and frozen foxes, with quarters of polar bear and seal, all stiff and smeared with frozen blood. This niche has a name: Ne-ke angi-y-uk, it is called — or, in the parlance of the North, ‘The Big Feed.’ When anyone at all is hungry — whether a member of the family or another — he has only to bend down from the iglerk beside which the treasure is piled, put out his hand, and, having filled his mouth with what he can cram into it, fling back the rest.
Odor, but warmth, too — the gentle warmth of the seal-oil lamp kept trimmed by Ohudlerk’s wife; odor, and, above all, collective life visible in its variety and simultaneity. Ohudlerk would be sitting in the middle of the iglerk, staring straight ahead with a concentrated gaze while he spun out long sentences, explanations in which he became entangled and lost, concerning his day’s hunting. Nobody would listen to him, yet everybody formed his audience.
In a niche on the left sat Kakokto and his young wife: he with a broad Roman face, good features, but a little bovine with his low forehead and his hair, cut in bangs, forming a sort of skullcap on his head; she gentle, obviously in love with him, although he gave no sign of response to her feeling. Neither of them spoke. She sat sewing hides, plying the strong triangular needle, while he, his hands on his knees, stared into the void.
At the deep end of the igloo the children were at play, naked on the caribou skins and, like all children, inhabiting a world of their own. The Eskimo young have prodigious vitality, never display the slightest fatigue, and, like slum children in our cities, go to bed only when their elders do. In Ohudlerk’s igloo they would knock against their grandmother, roll over and over, and when the old woman grumbled they stopped playing, stared at her a moment, and resumed as if she were not there.
From time to time the lamp spluttered. The old woman leant forward and with her misshapen hands fished round in the blubber for the bits of cotton used as wick, brought them up to the edge, shaped them in her fingers, and then in the silence went on scraping her skins.
I was unlucky at this camp, for the sealing was poor, and when Utak proposed to go north for polar bear I jumped at the chance of activity. Tutiak and Kakokto had gone earlier in the day, and we expected to catch up with them. By mid-afternoon we saw two black dots far ahead, forced our dogs, and came up with our friends. As evening fell, they ahead and we following, we reached what seemed to be the end of the world. Before us rose a high bluff sloping down to the surface of the sea at either side; behind this small and hilly island lay the gigantic world of pack ice that is driven down here by the wind from McClintoek Channel to pile up, miles wide, on this promontory of King William Land.
We camped, built a single igloo for the four of us, and disposed ourselves in it. I had got into my sleeping bag when Tutiak came through the porch into the opening of the igloo, on all fours, pushing before him an enormous basin filled to the rim with great hunks of seal.
We made the usual tea, and then . . . I do not know what the hour was, but I, who had dozed off, woke up. Under my eye were the three Eskimos, three silhouettes lit up from behind by the uncertain glow of a candle that threw on the walls of the igloo a mural of fantastically magnified shadows. All three men were down on the floor in the same posture — on their knees, torsos bent forward with bottoms in air and faces near the ground, motionless except for their greedy hands and their greedier chaps. They were eating, and whether it was that the smell of the seal had been irresistible, or that the idea of the hunt had stimulated their appetites, they had embarked upon a feast. Each had a huge chunk of meat in his hands and mouth; and by the soundless flitting of their arms, immeasurably long in the shadows on the wall, I could see that even before one piece had been wholly gobbled their hands were fumbling in the basin for the next quarter. The smell in the igloo was of seal and of savages hot and gulping; their hair covering their foreheads, their moustaches hanging low over their mouths, — at least Tutiak’s moustache, — their enormous jaws, they inspired in me so ineradicable a notion of the Stone Age that I think always of this scene when I read or hear of prehistoric man.
There were three men, and there must have been fifty pounds of meat. They ground their teeth, and their jaws cracked as they ate, and they belched — Tutiak most wonderfully of all — with long cavernous fatty belchings as of brutes drowned in contentment. They had long since stopped cutting the meat with their circular knives: their teeth sufficed, and the very bones of the seal crackled and splintered in their faces. What those teeth could do, I already knew. When the cover of a gasoline drum could not be pried off with the fingers, an Eskimo would take it between his teeth and it would come easily away. When a strap made of sealskin freezes hard — and I know nothing tougher than sealskin — an Eskimo will put it in his mouth and chew it soft again. And those teeth are hardly to be called teeth. Worn down to the gums, they arc sunken and unbreakable stumps of bone. If I wore to fight with an Eskimo, my greatest fear would be lest he crack my skull with his teeth.
But on this evening their hands were even more fantastic than their teeth. I can still see Tutiak, in a moment of respite, licking the palms of his hands, then sucking each of his fingers, and finally scraping between the fingers with his snow-knife, slowly, with that concentrated air of a thoughtful animal — and then beginning over again to eat of the seal. . . .
The pack over which we were hunting the polar bear was like nothing I had even seen in a picture. There was no majesty here, no huge impressive ice floes, no icebergs resting like high men-o’war on the water and clearly outlined against a blue sky. Here there was no water, there was nothing but pack ice — a jumble pale blue and green at the base, built up by a distant and crazy giant and filling all space with its grotesque shapes. This was the surface of the moon, a limitless chaos through which we moved, tiny figures with our toy sleds lighted by but half a sun — for already the season had come when only half the sun appeared over the horizon. The light was fast dying out of this source of earthly life. Repeatedly we would have to cut out a breach in the pack, a passage as through a jungle. The harness of the dogs would catch on the jagged points, the beasts would howl with fear as they were almost impaled, and again and again a sled would hang suspended, like a motorcar over the edge of a bridge, while we dragged and bumped our way through this broken and craggy landscape. We were pygmies attempting the labor of giants and coming to nothing but grief. Twice I had slipped with my knee wedged so tightly between blocks of ice that I thought the bones must crack, and I went limping on.
And still no bear! Tracks, yes, as wide as my two hands; but that was all. I was not made for this sort of chase. I was completely fagged out. Weariness and absence of physical control and equilibrium induced in me a surge of foul temper, and as I stumbled and limped on I thought of the absurdity of continuing to look for bear in this stupid, petrified, and undoubtedly endless and fantastical chaos.
But my Eskimos would not give up. They would pile up blocks of ice against an iceberg, dig their way to the top with the help of their knives, and there, pulling out telescopes bartered at the Hudson’s Bay Post, would stare long and carefully in every direction. ‘Baboons with telescopes,’ I said scornfully to myself; and in a way I was not too unjust, for the seriousness with which they gazed had something exceedingly comic. But the comedy was not rich enough to amuse me (what comedy would have been?). I was concerned for my knee, my fingers were still frostbitten, and I was drowning with weariness. My brain had shrunk to the dimensions of a dried raisin. Stubbornly, painfully, almost maliciously, it clung to a single thought, made room for no other image: ‘I am cold!’ I was not cold as people Outside are cold. I was not shivering. I was in the cold, dipped into a trough where the temperature was thirty degrees below zero and where I turned and rolled over and over in search of a nonexistent issue. And from time to time I would shake with anger: ‘If it is written that I shall see a fire again, I shall warm myself, I shall warm myself I’ The four words filled my mind;
I whispered and muttered them again and again, like an oath of vengeance. ‘It’s no good arguing with me,’ I mumbled. ‘I won’t listen to anyone: I shall warm myself, warm myself with anger. I shall pul my legs into the flames, and if they sizzle I shall not draw them out. That will teach them!’
How long this went on I cannot say. Time had fled, and for me there was no difference between a minute and an æon. I went out of my head, probably. Then of a sudden, without transition, even I could see the lights of the camp a hundred yards away. Like a ghost, I stepped into reality.
Twenty-five men, women, and children made up the entire population of King William Land, a territory ten thousand miles in extent. A Texan or an Australian would not think it at all remarkable, perhaps, but for a European the notion of this sparsity was hard to get used to.
I had now seen more than half the inhabitants of the island, and here at the Post I should see them all before my frostbitten fingers were sound again and I could once more take the trail. Not only they, but Eskimos from the mainland and from other islands, too, would come through the Post in time, for this rude and none too spacious shack, with its little stove, its washbasin standing on the corner of a table, its box of tools rusting in the porch; this Post cut off from all the world, with no sending wireless, no boat, no sled or dogs of its own, where twelve pencils formed part of the annual restocking and there was not even a flint for my pocket lighter; this outpost set down in the remotest corner of desolation, represented to the Eskimos of the whole Central Arctic the sum of the white man’s civilization —a storehouse of wealth, a seat of luxury, the capital not only of their world but of his.
All of these Eskimos came to the Post at least once a year, and some came a good deal oftener, though it cost them a month on the trail to come and go again. Mostly, they came to trade; but there were many who arrived only in order to visit. Probably because of their isolation, perhaps because the difficulty of life in this harsh land lends especial price to conviviality, the Spirit of Visiting is a goddess more highly esteemed among the Eskimos than among any other people I know. They need no reason to start out: in a moment they have lashed their sled, they are off in a blizzard; they travel ten days, fishing and hunting on the way to keep themselves alive; and on the evening of the tenth day they pull in with a great barking of dogs and swishing of whips. Snorting and puffing in the darkness, they shuffle into the Post and sit down in the outer room reserved for them.
The Post Manager, torn from his musings or his magazine, goes out to speak to them.
‘Have you brought many foxes?’ he asks the head of t he family.
‘No fox,’ the Eskimo answers.
‘And what have you come for?’
' Pollak-pak-tunga,' says the Eskimo with a wide grin. (‘I am visiting.’)
Of course they will have said to t hemselves that there will be other Eskimos round the Post; and the prospect of a feast in another man’s igloo will have been enough to persuade them to drop what they were doing — fishing or trapping — and be off instantly in obedience to this strongest impulse in their existence — visiting. Let the fox be as plentiful as it may, let the fish run as never river has seen fish run; once the idea of visiting has entered the Eskimo consciousness, nothing can displace it. And great as the adventure is for those who visit, it is no less an event for the visited. In summer the newcomer plants his tent , in winter he builds his igloo; and in the morning, when the Post Manager looks out, the lonely shack has become a camp, the sole igloo has been surrounded by three more of these white mushrooms; and the trotting between tent and tent, between igloo and igloo, the feasting here or there, are one of the very deep sources of Eskimo joy.
Trading at a Hudson’s Bay Post is a struggle in which two mentalities, the white and the Eskimo, meet and lock. In the end, each is persuaded that he has won the match — the white man because in this barter he has got his ‘price,’ and the Eskimo because he is convinced of having got something for nothing.
Your Eskimos turn up with sacks of foxes and signify that they want to trade. The trading is done at the Store, which stands some forty yards off from the Post proper. You lead them out, and as they troop over the snow there is a good deal of strangled laughter. What a great farce this is! Once again they are going to do the white man, and once again the white man is not going to know what has happened to him. All those wonderful things that fill the Store are to be theirs for a few foxes. What can the white man want with foxes? In the igloo, a foxskin will do as a clout; but, even to wipe things with, the ptarmigan makes a better rag. It isn’t possible that the white man should have so many things that need wiping!
One by one, like Arabs into a mosque, they file into the Store, wives and children at their heels. And though they have been inside before, each time that they see these treasures they stand stockstill, silent, stunned. The Manager’s house, the igloo-pak, is wonderful enough; but it is nothing beside the Store. To people for whom a rusted file is a treasure — Amundsen speaks of Eskimos traveling six hundred miles to get a few nails — this is the holy of holies. Here are whole boxes of nails, whole rows of iron files. They raise their heads and see fifty teakettles hanging from the ceiling almost within reach. Dazed, excited, they look at one another. The notion that, thanks to a few tufts of frozen fur, they are going to possess these treasures is too much for them. It sends them off into brief gusts of nervous laughter.
And what an amazing being this white man is! Not only does he have all these pots and kettles that you see, but every year a new lot arrives. He must have, buried in his distant country, immense caches of pots and kettles. And the calico! And the tins of tobacco standing in rows on the shelves like divinities, motionless and magnificent!
Meanwhile the white man has gone round behind the counter and is examining his books. Virtually all of these Eskimos are in debt to him, and he smiles from his side of the counter as if he expected that old debts were now about to be paid off and new ones contracted.
The first Eskimo, the most important among them, comes forward. He is impressed. He had forgotten the magnificence of the Store, and although it had been discussed again and again in the igloo, the reality is much more dazzling than all that had been remembered or imagined. He sets down a sack upon the floor, and as he unties the knot the room is filled with murmured commentaries. He opens the sack, hauls out something vaguely white and shapeless, and sets it on the counter, where it knocks hollowly with the sound of wood. This is a fox.
I do not believe that most women in Paris or New York would give very much for a fox as it looks when it is put down on the counter of an Arctic store — grimy, yellowy white, covered with frozen blood.
The white man stands smiling while the Eskimo hunts round in his mind. Finally, in a firm voice the Eskimo announces: —
‘ Ot-chor-lo! ‘ (‘Coal oil.’)
‘Ta-mar-mik?' the white man asks. (‘A whole fox worth?’)
‘Eh-eh!’ says the Eskimo, signifying ‘yes.’
The white man disappears for a moment and returns with one or two tins of fuel, which he passes over the counter. He disposes of the first fox, and the Eskimo brings forth another. All this has been carefully planned in advance. The poorest foxes are presented first; for if the white man should take it into his head to insist upon the payment of an old debt, it will not be the best skins that will be lost. But the white man seems not to be thinking of the debt and is still smiling across the counter.
‘ Ti-pa-ko,’ says the Eskimo this time. (‘Tobacco.’)
‘ Ta-mar-mik?’ the white man repeats.
This repetition of the ‘whole fox worth’ bothers the Eskimo. He is seized by a vague fear, dares no longer affirm himself, and says finally in a meek voice: —
‘Napi-dlu-go. ‘ (‘Cut in two.’)
Here is a problem he had not foreseen. What is he going to take for the other half of the fox? He looks at the ceiling and murmurs: —
‘Na-una.' (‘I don’t know.’)
Suddenly an object on a shelf brings something to mind, and he points.
‘ Tam-na-lo!’ (‘That thing there.’)
The trading goes on, and each time that the white man shoves a fox under the counter the Eskimo learns that that fox has been exhausted. So long as it remains on the counter, it continues to possess purchasing power.
The first three or four foxes are easily bartered. There are the things the Eskimo cannot do without — coal oil, tea, tobacco, rice, flour. But by the time they have reached the fifth fox, the Eskimo is lost. Not for want of rehearsal, heaven knows. He and his wife have talked over this trading twenty times in their igloo, have exhausted every inch of every fox; but he cannot remember. He has forgotten, and you feel the void in his mind.
Fortunately his wife is there, the toes of her boots at his heels, murmuring to him and nudging him. Awkward and undecided, he turns towards her, and she, her eyes shrewd and provocative in a face framed by the furry wolfskin hood, prompts him.
‘Calico!’ she says. ‘A cooking pot!’ Her eyes gleam as only the eyes of primitive women can gleam.
Ah, yes, he had forgotten. The pot. Two plates. A mug for the child. Three packages of needles. How could he have forgotten! And with this, ideas come to him. ‘This! And this! And that!’ He points everywhere at once, fearful lest these new ideas suddenly escape him.
In the end he has gone too far, and when he leaves the Store, dragging behind him a wooden box filled with treasures, he senses vaguely that many of these shining objects are of no use to him. Oftener, however, it is simply that he no longer wants those things which, a moment ago, he was unable to resist. And then a second stage of trading begins — that between the natives themselves. And since in their eyes nothing possesses intrinsic value, but the value of an object is great or small according as they desire or disdain it, a handsome dog collar may be swapped for a clay pipe, or a half sack of flour for a red pencil. A needle thus becomes worth a whole fox, a worn strip of leather has the value of a lamp. And what is most curious is that no Eskimo will ever say to you that he has been had in a trade. It is not that his vanity forbids such a confession, but that this can never occur to him. He wanted what he got in the trade; soon after, perhaps, he ceased to want it; but between the two his primitive intellect will not allow him to establish any relationship.
Many people imagine that the sun is necessary to human happiness and that the South Sea Islanders must be the gayest, most leisurely, and most contented folk on earth. No notion could be more falsely romantic, for happiness has nothing to do with climate: these Eskimos afforded me decisive proof that happiness is a disposition of the spirit. Here were a people living in the most rigorous climate in the world, in the most depressing surroundings imaginable, haunted by famine in a gray and sombre landscape sullen with the absence of life; shivering in their tents in the autumn, fighting the recurrent blizzard in the winter, toiling and moiling fifteen hours a day merely in order to get food and stay alive. Huddling and motionless in their igloos through this interminable night, they ought to have been melancholy men, men despondent and suicidal; instead, they were a cheerful people, always laughing, never weary of laughter.
A man is happy, in sum, when he is leading the life that suits him; and neither warmth nor comfort has anything to do with it. I watched these Eskimos at the Post. This house, you would say, ought to mean to them the zenith of well-being and relaxation: they had warmth, they had biscuits, they had tea, and no one asked them to work or pay for these blessings. But look at them! They are dull, sullen, miserable. Physically, they seem shrunken, their personalities diminished and extinguished. Instead of laughing, they brood; and you see them come in, take their seats on the bench, and remain like sleepwalkers, expressionless and spiritless, waking just barely enough, when you pass, to give you a polite smile and then relapse into blankness. But open wide the door, fling them into the blizzard, and they come to. They wake up suddenly; they whistle; their women scurry about, their children crack the triumphant whip, their dogs bark like mad: an impression of joy, of life, fills the environs of the Post. In no time at all they have disappeared; the tempest — their cherished tempest of the Arctic — has blown them over the ridge like so many leaves.
It had seemed to me for some days that Kakokto’s wife had been looking sulky. I mentioned it to Paddy at supper one evening, and a moment later I said to him: —
‘That fellow from Adelaide Peninsula, Kukshun: what’s he hanging round here so long for?’
Paddy smiled. ‘You know,’ he said, ‘you’ve hit on something. She’s upset because of him. Kakokto and Kukshun have been exchanging wives, and as usual the wives were not consulted. Lady Kakokto does not find Kukshun to her taste; a little briny, shall we say? It’s put her out of sorts. She’s one of t he few women round here who are in love with their husbands. Kakokto doesn’t care specially about her, and he’ll lend her to anybody who asks for her. For one thing, it’s a tradition that has to be observed; for another, friendship has its obligations.’
He went on to explain that the exchange of wives was common among the Eskimos. It is not, as with certain other primitive peoples, a token of hospitality. I myself had been received in the South Seas by chiefs who, in the way of welcome, had offered me a daughter or had begged me to choose a companion among the women of the village. This was different, was a simple matter of sociability, a courtesy not to be refused between friends or visitors. Among hunting partners — the Eskimos often hunt in pairs — it was automatic, a relief from the monotony of existence.
Between husbands, meanwhile, there was never any question of compensation. On the other hand, a ‘well-bred’ bachelor whose friend accorded him this courtesy would expect to make his friend a little gift as a token of appreciation. The lady, the object of the courtesy, was as little compensated as consulted. Among other articles of the code there was one that was absolutely rigorous: the privilege of disposing of the lady belonged exclusively to the husband. The man who made his request directly of the wife committed a grave infraction of the code and serious trouble would certainly ensue.
To ask an Eskimo to lend you his wife is a thing so natural that no one will hesitate to put the question in a crowded igloo within hearing of half a dozen others. It does not so much as break the thread of conversation, and the husband will say yes or no, according to his momentary mood, with entire casual ness.
It might seem from this that the native woman lives altogether in a state of abject inferiority to the male Eskimo, but this is not the case. What she loses in authority, as compared with the white woman, she makes up, by superior cunning, in many other ways. Native women are very shrewd, and they almost never fail to get what they want. Take Utak’s wife, for example. It was because of her that we always got away late on the trail. It was because of her that, instead of going off sealing with the others, Utah came down to build his igloo near the Post where she might cajole us who were white men into making her little presents. When Utah went to the Store to trade, Unarnak was always at his heels, and it was comical to see that crab-like pigeon-toed shuffle of hers as she stood never at his side but only behind him, turning as he turned, backing up as he backed up, coming forward as he came forward, hidden behind her man until the moment when she put her head round and murmured to him those calculated suggestions which in the end always made her share of the barter greater than he had intended.
Women were behind everything in this Eskimo world. If one native abandoned a given group in order to go off and live with another, you could be sure it was done at the instigation of his wife. If a couple suddenly grew into a triangular household, you were virtually certain that it was the wife and not the husband who had dictated the choice of the permanent friend. And if, one day, that triangle was reduced to a couple again as the result of a murder, there was never any doubt that it was the wife who had plotted the murder.