Noatak kaiaks


There is little, besides some analogies in language, to connect the uncouth race which forms the subject of this chapter with the inhabitants of the more genial climates of North America. The Esquimaux (Eskimos) are spread over a vast region at the north, dwelling principally upon the seacoast, and upon the numberless inlets and sounds with which the country is intersected. There is a striking similarity in the language, habits and appearance of all the tribes of the extreme north, from Greenland to Bhering’s Straits.

The Manners and Personal Appearance of Eskimos

Eskimo Family
Inuit family, 1928. Edward S. Curtis, 1930.

Charlevoix gives a very uninviting description of their personal aspect. He tells us that there are none of the American races who approach so nearly to the idea usually entertained in Europe of “savages” as do the Esquimaux. In striking contrast to the thin beard (for the most part artificially eradicated) of other American aborigines, these people have that excrescence “si cpaisse jusq’aux yeux, qu’on a peine à decouvrir quelques traits de leur visage.” It covers their faces nearly to the eyes; so that one can scarcely distinguish some features of their countenance. They have, moreover, he says, something hideous in their general aspect and demeanor small, wild-looking eyes, large and very foul teeth, the hair generally black, but sometimes fair, and always in extreme disorder, and their whole exterior rough and brutish. Their manners and character do not falsify this unprepossessing physiognomy. They are savage, rude, suspicious, unquiet, and always evil-disposed towards strangers. Pie considers their fair hair and skin, with the slight general resemblance they bear towards, and the limited intercourse they carry on with, the neighboring natives, as indisputable evidence of a separate origin.

Prichard says, that “the description given by Crantz of the Greenlanders, may well apply to the whole race. They are, for the most part, under five feet in stature. They have well-shaped and proportioned limbs. Their face is commonly broad and flat, with high cheek-bones, but round and plump cheeks; their eyes are little and black, but devoid of sparkling fire; their nose is not flat, but small, and projecting but little; their mouth is little and round, and the under lip somewhat thicker than the other. They have universally coal-black, straight, strong and long hair on their heads, but no beards, because they root it out.” These last particulars will be seen to be variant from the description given above by Charlevoix, of the race in general. Crantz proceeds: “Their hands and feet are little and soft, but their head and the rest of their limbs are large. They have high breasts and broad shoulders; their whole body is fat.”

Accounts of Early Voyagers

The descriptions handed down by the most ancient voyagers to Greenland of the Skraellings or natives whom they encountered, corresponds very nearly with the general outline above given. They speak of them as a dwarfish people seldom more than four feet four inches in height; suspicious and hostile towards strangers; subsisting upon the products of the sea; clothed in the same style, and using the same weapons, boats and implements, as those still in habiting the country. The inhospitable nature of their climate, their slender resources, and the deterioration of the race consequent upon such a mode of life as theirs, seem to preclude the probability of much improvement ever taking place in their condition.

The Esquimaux received little better treatment, at the hands of the early European discoverers, than did their brethren farther south. It is strange to read of the cool ness with which those adventurers speak of the enormities committed not unfrequently against the unoffending and ignorant natives. The meeting with several “wild men,” and the killing one of them ” to make the rest tractable,” is mentioned as a passing and ordinary event.

In Frobisher’s expedition, after a skirmish in which many of the Indians were killed, two prisoners were taken. One of them, an old woman, was so disgustingly hideous in her whole appearance that suspicions were entertained lest she should be the devil himself; and the captors proceeded to pluck off her buskins, in order to satisfy them selves as to whether the cloven hoof was not concealed by them. The other captive, a young woman, with a wounded child in her arms, was retained, but the old hag was dismissed as being too revolting an object to be endured. When attempts were made to apply remedies to the wound of the child, the mother “licked off with her tongue the dressings and salves, and cured it in her own way.”

John Davis was disposed to treat them more kindly than most of his predecessors, but his indignation was finally excited by their “practicing their devilish nature,” and he allowed his men to retaliate upon them in some measure.

Notwithstanding the bad character given of this people, it appears that, after their first suspicions are allayed, they prove gentle and tractable associates; and are by no means wanting in urbanity and kindliness. How readily their suspicions are allayed, will appear from the account of Captain Back s first meeting with a small party of Esquimaux. They were seen at a short distance, gathering in excited groups, or running about at their wits-end with astonishment at the appearance of these “Kabloonds” or Europeans, being the first they had ever seen. When the English began to advance towards them, they were at first repelled by wild outcries, and gesticulations, and by hostile demonstrations with the spears, which formed the weapons of the Indians. The uncouth group stood in a semi-circle, “yelling out some unintelligible word,” as the captain boldly and composedly walked up to them, and made signs of peace, throwing up his hands, as he observed them to do, and calling out “Tima ” (peace). “In an instant their spears were flung to the ground; and, putting their hands on their breasts, they also called out Tima, with much more, doubtless greatly to the purpose.”

Any attempt to give a connected history of the Esquimaux, from the time of their first intercourse with Europeans would necessarily resolve itself into a narrative of the various polar expeditions. The progress of the Christian missions upon the coast, could we afford space to enter upon it, might throw some light upon the natural endowments of the race; but we must content ourselves with a few general descriptions, cited indiscriminately from different authors.

Eskimos Habitations, Food, Etc

The dwellings of the Esquimaux consist either of movable tents, constructed of poles and skins, in the style of an ordinary Indian wigwam, or of regularly arched domes of snow and ice. The precision, rapidity, and geometrical accuracy, which they display in shaping the blocks of which these snow huts are composed, excite the admiration of the beholder. An art which the architects of the ancient nations of Europe never acquired the formation of the arch has from time immemorial been in use among this untutored race. The snow houses prove as tight, warm, and comfortable as could be desired; but the habits of the occupants render them insufferably offensive to the whites. Crowded with dogs, defiled with oil, blubber, and offal; and blackened by smoke and filth, they are said to nauseate even those whose lives are passed amid the impurities of a whale-ship. A person entering one of these huts is obliged to creep through a low arched passage into the principal apartment, which, like those leading from it, presents the-appearance of a perfectly formed dome, lighted by a window of transparent ice let into the roof.

The tents, used upon the migratory expeditions in search of game, consist of skins, supported by a circle of poles bent together at the top, and in severe weather, thickly lined within with reindeer skins. During the long dark night of winter, when food is exceedingly scarce, shut up in these dismal abodes, and enduring extremes of cold and privation elsewhere unknown, the condition of the Esquimaux seems most deplorable to one who has lived in the enjoyment of the comforts of civilization. Ear, however, from complaining of their lot, they exhibit a singular cheerfulness and equanimity, even when in the greatest straits. Parry speaks, in the following words, of the miserable condition of a few Esquimaux who inhabited a hut in a deserted village, after the rest of the tribe had moved westward at the approach of spring. “The remaining tenants of each hut had combined to occupy one of the apartments; a great part of the bed-places were still bare, and the wind and drift blowing in through the holes which they had not yet taken the trouble to stop up. The old man Hikkeiera and his wife occupied a hut by themselves, without any lamp, or a single ounce of meat belonging to them; while three small skins, on which the former was lying, were all that they possessed in the way of blankets. Upon the whole, I never beheld a more miserable spectacle, and it seemed a charity to hope that a violent and constant cough with which the old man was afflicted, would speedily combine with his age and infirmities to release him from his present sufferings. Yet, in the midst of all this, he was even cheerful, nor was there a gloomy countenance to be seen at the village.”

The flesh of the reindeer, musk ox, walrus, and seal, with fish, water-fowl, and occasionally the carcass of a stranded whale, forms the chief nourishment of the Esquimaux. Nothing that has life comes amiss to them, and, although they prefer cooked meat to raw, this preparation is by no means deemed essential. The only vegetable diet procurable at the extreme north, except at those places where the natives can obtain foreign articles, consists of the leaves of sorrel, ground willow, &c., with a few berries and roots.

“In eating their meals,” according to Parry’s account, “the mistress of the family, having previously cooked the meat, takes a large lump out of the pot with her fingers, and hands it to her husband, who, placing a part of it between his teeth, cuts it off with a large knife in that position, and then passes the knife and meat together to his next neighbor. In cutting off a mouthful of meat th knife passes so close to their lips, that nothing but constant habit could insure them from the danger of the most terrible gashes; and it would make an English mother shudder to see the manner in which children five or six years old, are at all times freely trusted with a knife to be used in this way.”

The Kayak or Canoe

Noatak kaiaks
These skin-covered craft, of marvelous lightness and efficiency, are of outstanding importance to the Eskimo. Remarkable too is the manner in which they are handled by their owners, who are exceedingly expert even in rough water.

Most of the birds and quadrupeds upon which they rely are migratory, and only to be taken between the months of May and October. In March, April and May, the difficult and dangerous hunting of the seal and walrus is their only resource, and success in the pursuit their only refuge from starvation. The “kaiak” (kayak) or canoe, constructed of skins, and capable of containing but a single person, is all essential in seal-hunting. Great dexterity is required in its management, and how the operation of throwing the dart or harpoon, and of securing the bulky prey, can be carried on in safety in such a slender and unsteady conveyance, seems incomprehensible to the unpracticed eye. The frail boat is built with great elegance and lightness. A frame of slender beams of fir is constructed, twenty or twenty-five feet in length, a little less than two feet in breadth, and about one foot deep. This is entirely covered with the skin of the neitiek, or small seal, so neatly and strongly sewed as to be perfectly watertight. A circular hole is then cut in the deck, wherein sits the solitary navigator, urging the kaiak forward by means of a paddle having a blade at each end. He cannot founder so long as he can maintain an upright position. An upset would be in inevitable destruction to one unacquainted with the nature of the craft, but the Esquimaux readily rights the kaiak under such circumstances, by a dexterous use of his paddle. A float is attached to the harpoon, used in striking the seal, which prevents him from escape by diving. As he reappears, after a momentary submersion, his pursuers press upon and speedily dispatch him.

When the prey is brought to land, the duty of flaying, separating, and preparing it for preservation, devolves upon the women. Nothing is allowed to be wasted, but every, portion of the carcass is applied to some useful purpose; the fastidiousness of the whites, touching the portions suitable for food, being utterly unknown. The lean meat of the seal, and other animals is preserved in various ways. Much of it is cut in thin slices, and dried in the warm and smoky atmosphere of the huts, and a concentrated article of food, called “Pemmican,” is prepared by pounding it with fat.

The welcome event of a wounded or dead whale being driven on shore, brings down the whole neighboring population to share in the spoil. Nothing could be more valuable to these people than the various substances obtained from the enormous carcass. The blubber is separated and preserved for oil; the coarse muscular tissue forms to them a palatable article of food; the sinews serve for lines and cordage; and the whale-bone is made avail able by traffic with Europeans.

The Reindeer

Of the reindeer, two species furnish food and clothing to the inhabitants of the cold regions of northern America, although, singularly enough, none of them have succeeded in domesticating the animal. They are accustomed to discard no portion of the flesh, and even devour the con tents of the stomach. Perhaps in no instance has the service of an animal proved of more signal aid and comfort to any race than that of the dog to the Esquimaux. The principal use to which he is applied is that of drawing the sledge, but, upon hunting excursions, in the summer, he is loaded with a weight, it is said, of some thirty pounds. The sledges in which winter journeys are performed, are drawn by a number of dogs proportionate to the weight to be transported, the distance to be traversed, and perhaps the possessions of the owner. The animals are separately connected with the sledge, at unequal distances, by single thongs of leather or hide. The most sagacious and well-trained of the pack is placed at the end of the longest tether, some twenty feet from the vehicle, to act as leader, and the intelligence and certainty with which he obeys the signal of command from the driver is very striking.

The whip with which the movements of the team are guided, and with which the refractory or stupid are disciplined, consists of a short stock only eighteen inches in length to which a lash, long enough to reach the leading dog, is attached, and allowed to trail beside the sledge. This lash is rendered pliable by a process resorted to for preparing leather for various purposes, viz.: that of chewing. The operation is performed by the women, and to its constant exercise, some travelers attribute the bad condition of their teeth, before noticed. The sledge is composed of two runners, of wood or bone, sometimes of the jawbones of a whale, connected by crosspieces and lashings. Moss is packed closely between these, and skins are laid upon the top. The runners are preserved from wear, and made to slide easily over the surface of the snow by coating them with smooth ice.

Eskimo Usage of Dogs

The Esquimaux perform journeys of sixty miles a day, with a single pack of dogs, and stories, at first glance al most incredible, are told of- the distances accomplished, and the weights transported by particularly fine specimens of the breed. Besides serving as a beast of burden and draught, the Esquimaux dog is a bold and active assistant in the hunt for reindeer, bears, &c.; but, singularly enough, while he will rush upon an animal, so much his superior in size and strength as the bear, he is terror-stricken at the sight of the wolf, to whom he bears a striking resemblance, and with whom he would seem more equally matched.

Faithful and docile, and subsisting upon the coarsest refuse, the dog supplies to the Esquimaux the place of the reindeer, in other high latitudes, for all laborious service. He meets with nothing but rough treatment and scanty fare: his master never caresses or makes much of him; but this does not prevent him from forming the strong attachments peculiar to the race.

Patriarchal Government

No where do we find a system of patriarchal government maintained in more primeval simplicity than among the Esquimaux, and no where is that authority more mildly administered. Families and communities live together in the greatest harmony, and no one arrogates to himself a control over those about him beyond the circle of his own family. Dexterity and success in fishing and hunting form ^almost the only claim for admiration or distinction in the eyes of this unsophisticated people. So peaceful and .con tented a life, amid the eternal snows of the north, with such few means of comfort and enjoyment, stands forth in striking contrast with the private discontent and public animosity of more privileged nations.

Effects Of Foreign Intercourse

Where the natives of Greenland and other countries at the north have held free intercourse with Europeans, in stances have been found, among them, of much higher intelligence than is usually attributed to the race. Captain Parry, in his second voyage, particularly describes a female named Iligliuk. Her correct ear for music, and appreciation of its beauties, were very remarkable; and the interest and attention which all the novel mechanical arts exercised on board the ship excited in her mind, gave evidence of no little capacity for improvement.

We cannot give a better idea of the effect which inter course with foreigners has produced upon some of the Esquimaux, in changing their original quiet and unobtrusive demeanor, than by the following quotation from Captain Lyon:

“I could not but compare the boisterous, noisy, fat fellows, who were along-side, in excellent canoes, with well-furnished, iron-headed weapons, and handsome clothing, with the poor people we had seen at Southampton Island; the latter with their spear-heads, arrows, and even knives of chipped flint, without canoes, wood, or iron, and with their tents and clothes full of holes, yet of mild manners, quiet in speech, and as grateful for kindness as they were anxious to return it, while those now along-side had, perhaps, scarcely a virtue left, owing to the roguery they had learned from their annual visit to the Hudson s Bay ships. An air of saucy independence, a most clamorous demand for presents, and several attempts at theft, some of which were successful, were their leading characteristics. Yet I saw not why I should constitute myself the censor of these poor savages; and our barter was accordingly conducted in such a manner as to enrich them very considerably.”


Brownell, Charles De Wolf. Indian Races of North and South America: Comprising an account of the principal aboriginal races; a description of their national customs, mythology, and religious ceremonies, the history of their most powerful tribes, and of their most celebrated chiefs and warriors; their intercourse and wars with the European settlers; and a great variety of anecdote and description, illustrative of personal and national character. Hartford, Conn., Chicago,E. B. & R.C. Treat; [etc., etc.]: Hurlbut, Scranton & Co. 1864.

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