Noatak kaiaks


Exquimaux of Melville Peninsula

The most complete picture ever yet given of Esquimaux life and peculiarities, is to be found in “Parry’s Second Voyage in search of a Northwest Passage; “particularly in that portion of the work, at the end of the narrative, devoted to an “account of the Esquimaux of Melville Peninsula and the adjoining Islands.” It is our purpose, in this chapter, to give a brief outline of the statistics and details there collected.

Their Stature And Costume

Respecting their general appearance, Parry’s description of the natives does not vary materially from that which we have already given. He represents their stature as follows: the average height of the men, five feet, five and one-third inches; of the women, five feet and one-half inch.” The women appear shorter than this standard, from a stoop acquired by carrying their infants in a “hood,” and from the great bulk of their clothing. They are not an ill-formed race, and, among the tribe, were “three or four grown-up people, of each sex, who, when divested of their skin dresses, their tattooing, and, above all, of their dirt, might have been considered pleasing-looking, if not handsome people, in any town in Europe.”

They wear their hair generally long; the men allowing it to flow carelessly, while the women dispose it in two plaits or queues, which hang down on each side of the face.

Their dress bears marks of no little skill and nicety of finish, and is admirably calculated to defend them from the terrible severity of the winter season. A double outfit of jackets, breeches, and boots, made of deer and seal skins; the inner suit having the hair turned inward, while the outer garment exhibits a hairy defense against the snow or rain, is essential upon all occasions of exposure to the open air. Waterproof boots and shoes, made of sealskin, form a complete protection from the wet when the men are engaged in fishing and sealing. A warm and comfortable hood of furs covers the head and neck, and surrounds the face. The most absurd and ungainly portion of the dress of either sex is the boot worn by the women. This is enormously enlarged, for the purpose of furnishing a convenient pocket or general receptacle for whatever may be carried upon the person. The cavity is even large enough to admit of a child being stowed in it a common custom in Labrador.

All their clothing is strongly and neatly stitched, and no little pains is taken to render it ornamental by a judicious arrangement of light and dark furs.

The true Indian taste for beads and showy ornaments prevails, and is satisfied, when other materials are wanting, by affixing numberless strings of the teeth of wild animals to the borders of their garments. In one instance, “a row of foxes noses” was seen “attached to the forepart of a woman s jacket like a tier of black buttons.”

All the women of this tribe were thoroughly tattooed. The manner of performing this operation was by passing a needle and thread through the outer skin, the thread being saturated with oil and lampblack.

Snow Huts And Their Furniture

The internal arrangements of the circular snow-huts in which the winter is passed, are as follows: Around each room, next the wall, a bank of snow is built to the height of two or three feet, upon which are placed, first a coating of pebbles, then a row of tent-poles, paddles, and whale bone, and above all a layer of birch twigs. Upon these are spread the skins and furs, which constitute the bedding of the inmates. It is evident that quite a low temperature must be maintained in order to preserve both house and furniture. The only means of warming the huts is by a sort of lamp, consisting of a shallow dish wrought of stone (lapis ollaris), “its form being the lesser segment of a circle. The wick, consisting of dry moss rubbed between the hands till it is quite inflammable, is disposed along the edge of the lamp on the straight side, and a greater or smaller quantity lighted according to the heat required or the fuel that can be afforded.” The flame is fed by the drippings of a slice of fat or blubber, suspended with in reach of the blaze. The stone pots for cooking are hung over this lamp, and, above all, is a net, stretched upon a hoop, whereon wet boots and other garments are placed to dry.

The general atmosphere of the apartment is kept a little below the freezing point. Parry observed the thermometer, at a time when it fell to twenty five degrees below zero in the open air, to stand at thirty two degrees within a few feet of the fire; and this when the hut was filled with Indians and dogs. To increase the warmth, occasions a troublesome dripping from the roof, an inconvenience to which the inhabitants are obliged to submit during some of the spring months, before the season has become mild enough for dwelling in tents.

The principal household utensils are the lamps and pots above mentioned, certain cups of the horn of the musk ox, vessels of whalebone, and the ivory or iron knife. The latter, or at least the material of which it is composed, is obtained by commerce with the whites. They manufacture themselves a knife, having a thin iron edge let into the bone, which forms the blade. To a limited extent some of the Esquimaux obtain and manufacture iron from the iron pyrites found in certain localities, and which serves them for flint and steel in lighting fires.

Implements For Hunting And Sealing

The implements for hunting, in use among these Esquimaux, are simple but effective. The “siatko,” which serves the purpose of a harpoon in taking seals, walruses, and even whales, is a particularly ingenious contrivance. It consists of a short piece of bone, pointed with iron, and attached by the center to the “allek,” or long thong of leather. The blunt end of the siatko is fitted to the end of the dart, and is attached by a line, that it can be disengaged the instant the dart strikes the prey. From the manner in which it is slung, it instantly turns at right angles to the direction of its entrance, and will endure a very severe strain before it can be drawn out. At the other end of the “allek” is tied an inflated sealskin, which serves to bring the animal quickly to the surface of the water.

For their bows, they are obliged to use the wood of the fir-tree, and, in order to give them the requisite strength and elasticity, they are very artfully and neatly served with lines constructed of sinews. At each end of the bow, is a knob of bone, and to these the strengthening lines are attached and drawn tight, while the bow is bent back ward. They pass from end to end, on the back of the-bow, and are secured and assisted by other shorter cords fastened by hitches round the wood. The above description applies to the best weapons of the sort. “A bow in one piece says the narrative, “is very rare: they generally consist of from two to five pieces of bone, of unequal lengths, secured together by rivets and tree-nails.” The arrows are of wood and bone united, and have heads of iron or slate. They will inflict a mortal wound at a distance of forty or fifty yards.

In the construction of all these implements, a knife and drill are the principal tools used. The latter operates with a bow, like that in common use among us.

It is evident that intellectual advancement is entirely incompatible with such a life as we have described. The ideas of the supernatural entertained by the Esquimaux are vague in the extreme. “They do not appear,” says the description in Parry, to have any idea of the existence of One Supreme Being, nor, indeed, can they be said to entertain any notions on this subject which may be dignified with the name of religion.”

Of certain games, consisting mostly in fantastic distortions of the body, and comical ejaculation, they are never weary; and a strange monotonous song, of which the words and music are given by Parry, furnishes amusement until the performers desist from sheer weariness.

Mental Traits

Their moral character is probably upon a par with that of most savages. They do not possess the high, indomitable spirit, the scorn of suffering, the clannish fury of patriotism, nor the fondness for war, so commonly considered the nobler traits of the American aborigines; but, on the other hand, they are more kindly domestic in their feelings, and less cruel and revengeful than their brethren at the south.

They exhibit little gratitude for favors, and when ex posed to the strong temptation presented them by the presence of such a magazine of treasure as a foreign ship, they will generally indulge in pilfering. Those travelers who have been most familiar with the strange race, accord to them many pleasing qualities: while their vices are such as must naturally result from their destitute and hopeless condition. Their whole history might prove unspeakably valuable to us did we wisely gather from it a lesson of content.


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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