MoboReader> Literature > The Land of Tomorrow

   Chapter 15 THE NATIVE RACES

The Land of Tomorrow By William B. Stephenson Characters: 44308

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02


IN speaking of the native races of Alaska it is not my purpose to enter into the subject except in so far as it belongs to a book of this character. As was said of the mines, the real student of such subjects will find (in the journals devoted to ethnology) what definite information he seeks. Strangely enough, however, a diligent search has revealed that there is not to be found in any library a book or in any magazine an article dealing with that most unusual custom which prevails among the Eskimos,-the trial marriage. Whether this custom exists among any other natives of the world I do not know. But I think not.

The natives of Alaska are of four groups. First, the Eskimos, who dwell in the northern part of the territory in the area near the Arctic Ocean and Bering Sea. Second, the Aleut, a people closely related to the Eskimos, who are to be found only in the Aleutian Islands and the mainland adjacent thereto. Third, the Thlinkits, who are Indians and confined to the southeastern section of the country known as the Panhandle. Fourth, the Athabaskans, of the same stock as the American Indian, who occupy the interior and touch the coast only at Cook Inlet.

The Thlinkits were once the most civilized and at the same time the most warlike of the native tribes. When the Russians came they found them living in well-built log houses and with an organized tribal system. They are to-day of greater intelligence than any of the other native tribes and are skilled craftsmen. The Athabaskans, on the other hand, with the exception of some of the most isolated Eskimo tribes, are the least civilized. Only those on the coast have any kind of tribal organization and this is not countenanced by the United States Government. Like the clansmen of Scotland, they seem to group themselves in families. The Aleuts were once quite prosperous, expert in the taking of the sea-otter, a very difficult animal to catch. The ravages of the Russian fur-traders almost annihilated the native population. They enslaved them and compelled them to capture the sea-otters for them. But the latter are now almost extinct and the Aleuts eke out a precarious existence by fishing and trapping foxes. They call their habitations barábaras and they resemble the igloos of the Eskimos.

It is the latter people that I know best and of whom I would speak most. There are no Indians in St. Michael. The native people here are wholly Eskimos, and one has to live among them to realize the moral descent of a once-fine native race. One must know them in order to comprehend the height from which they have fallen! In winter they live in their igloos. And an igloo is a place so unspeakably filthy that one can scarcely entertain a thought (much less a sight) of it. In summer they live in tents. Yet--. In spite of their uncleanliness, in spite of every other argument which may be urged against them, one always finds himself at the end of his ruminations admitting to himself that, after all, they are a fine native race! It is a conclusion at which he never fails to arrive even in the face of appalling evidence. The conviction will not be downed.

I have often walked about their summer camps at St. Michael, Nome and other localities. Always I have found the scene practically the same. One cannot help being struck with the industry which the Eskimos display. Every inmate of the tent will be at work! And each is at work upon something useful! Not one of them will be caught idle. The father usually will be seen carving a piece of ivory, or wood. The Eskimos are skilled carvers. While President Taft was in office a magnificent piece was sent him for his desk. It was carved from the tusk of a walrus by a native. In the tent the mother will be making mukluks, or fur boots, while the older daughter beats out and twists the caribou sinew into that strong thread with which the furs and boots are sewed. Let me add that they never come unsewed! The smaller children will each be engaged in some light task, such as making curios, or smoothing the first roughness off of the ivory from which the father, later, will carve something. Every member of the family will be engaged in producing something of value. Wherever one goes among the Eskimos he will be struck by this admirable trait.

They are a light-hearted, good-natured people, easily amused. They have a ready smile for you as you pass them by. Compared with the white man they are undersized. From my own six-feet-two they seem rather diminutive to me when I look down upon them, but they are by no means the dwarfs that people imagine them. The average height of the man is five-feet-four. Tall Eskimos are not unusual. They are well-built, graceful in movement and possessed of small hands and feet. The nose (in some of the tribes) is flat, but in others it is quite the opposite, and the mouth, although somewhat large, is always filled with beautiful teeth. Their smile is most attractive. I have seen many handsome Eskimos,-that is, they would be handsome if they were clean!

The centaur of old was no more a part of his horse than the Eskimo is a part of his boat. He is a born navigator,-as aquatic as a duck. He fashions for himself a small boat of skin in which he practically encloses himself. These boats are of two kinds and in their construction the Eskimo reveals his ingenuity. They are cunningly contrived and cleverly managed. With this primitive craft he performs all sorts of unbelievable stunts. An expert and daring fisherman is he. The smaller boat (called a kayak) is a sealskin canoe and is a rather tiny affair. It has circular hatches for one man. The bidarka (or bidocky) will hold two men. But the baidará is made of walrus hide and will hold from twenty to thirty persons. It will live in a heavy sea and is taken on long sea voyages. The stranger who travels even a short distance in one, however, usually does so with his heart in his mouth most of the time. The fabric belies its looks. It appears so flimsy as to be dangerous and the water is plainly visible underneath. But the natives walk boldly about in them. Every step depresses the skin for two or three inches, but long experience has taught them that the spot on which they stand will sustain the weight of a ton! I have actually seen them turn a summersault in the water with one of these home-made craft and come up smiling! Yet, strange to say, while they are, apparently, more at home on the water than on the land, few of them swim. Perhaps it is that the water is too cold.

Who that has seen these diminutive people venture forth into a treacherous and perilous sea with naught between them and death but this tiny home-made boat to do battle with the huge monsters of the ice-encumbered deep-the whale, the walrus and the seal-can question their courage? Not I! The Eskimo has made no effort to conquer his environment. More wisely he has adapted himself to it and constrained it to his needs. The land of his birth is inhospitable. His environment is savage. He wrings his sustenance from the land only by powerful effort, and human nature takes on a new dignity in the life of such people. Only the sturdiest of creatures, set naked in an Arctic world, could rise superior to such an environment.

As for the Eskimo woman,-in youth she is not unattractive, often quite good-looking, in fact. But I hereby testify that of all the hideously unattractive and ugly creatures known to the human race the full-blooded, middle-aged Eskimo woman carries off the palm. As it was in the beginning, before God said "Let there be light"-she is without form and void! She ages rapidly. She dresses as do the men, in the parka, a long, loose garment reaching to the knee, made of muskrat and reindeer skin in winter and of drill in summer, fur-seal boots and breeches. As the men are nearly always smooth-faced it is often difficult to tell them apart. They both use tobacco. And they are nothing if not economical! They chew it until every particle of flavor has vanished. Then they dry and smoke it!

A friend of mine, a well-known woman writer who once served the American Minister to China as personal secretary, one day confided to me that since the day she left the celestial empire (some fifteen years ago) she had never seen any dirt worth mentioning! Obviously, she has never glimpsed the interior of an igloo! With an American Army Officer of the Medical Corps I once visited one. We were told that it was one of the cleanest Eskimo villages in Alaska. The saints preserve me from a visit to the dirtiest one! An igloo is a windowless hut, shut tight against the air. It is usually crowded with a large family, grossly clad in skins which are poorly tanned, partly decayed. They are unspeakably fed, greasy of skin. Refuse of every kind was piled about the igloo and a recent thaw made the place a mass of liquid filth.

Of course, the reason for all this is apparent, and in a way unavoidable. Fuel is scarce and hard to obtain. Therefore, ventilation, with its waste of heat, would be fatally extravagant. Food is gathered in summer and stored for winter. When it comes out of storage much of it is decayed. Crowding is unavoidable and this means filth and infection. Water is scanty, cleanliness impossible. All this leads to the prevalence of disease and the disease most prevalent is tuberculosis. Moreover, this village which we visited has no doctor. The nearest one is seven miles away.

Conditions in Alaska, so far as medical relief for the natives is concerned, are distressing and inexcusable. Year after year, with persistent regularity, the Sundry Civil Appropriation Committee of the House strikes out the modest sum of seventy-five thousand dollars petitioned for by the Board of Education for medical relief work among the natives of Alaska. In all southeastern Alaska there is but one hospital for natives,-a Presbyterian institution at Haines. Dr. Romig, a former Moravian Medical Missionary in the Bristol Bay district in Bering Sea, gave as an estimate that forty per cent of the Eskimo population of this district, numbering some seventeen hundred people, were afflicted with transmissible diseases-chiefly tuberculosis, syphilis and trachoma. The physical condition of these people is pitiable in the extreme. Yet the government provides one physician and a small inadequate infirmary without proper equipment and maintained in an abandoned schoolhouse!

Contrast this with what is being done for the Indians of the United States. For the three hundred thousand there are now employed two hundred doctors, eighty nurses, seven dentists, seventy field matrons, and seventy-seven miscellaneous hospital attendants. Also, the government maintains for the Indians forty-nine hospitals, four tuberculosis sanitaria with a capacity for caring for a thousand four hundred and ninety-nine patients! The reason for the striking contrast between this and the shameful neglect of the Alaskan natives ought to be found and removed. The present condition is a reproach to us as a nation. Not only this, it is a menace to the health and safety of the white people already there and an argument against the coming of others.

Much has been said and written of the origin of the Eskimos. There is a difference of opinion as to whence, originally, they came. My own belief is that they are of Mongolian origin. A similarity of language would tend to strengthen this belief. When it comes to a native tongue I confess that the Eskimo has a peculiarity which is unique and baffling, more so than I have ever encountered in any other language. I once got up against this in a manner which took some time to untangle. As United States Commissioner at St. Michael it was part of my duty to try offenders against the law. The first time the offender chanced to be an Eskimo I suddenly discovered that I had troubles of my own. Apparently his no meant yes, and vice versa. I could not understand it at first, but at last it dawned upon me that although he spoke brokenly in English he was thinking in his own tongue. For instance, I would say to him:

"You did so-and-so, didn't you?"

"Yes!" he would reply, when I knew very well that he meant to deny it.

I called in a priest, a man who spoke the native language, from whom I learned that my surmise was correct. The Eskimo, when he says yes means "Yes, I did not!" When he says no he means "No, I did!" There you are! One has to be mentally cross-eyed in order to get him!

The Eskimos are very peaceable people except when (in violation of the law) the white man sells them whisky. It must be acknowledged that the latter has done little to encourage their uplift. In fact, he is largely to blame for the demoralized condition of the Eskimo to-day. One may no longer sell liquor in Alaska, but the mischief, so far as the natives is concerned, is already done. For a long time there seemed no way to prevent the furnishing of whisky to the Eskimos. A law might cover it, it is true. But experience has taught me that if a man is clever enough and unscrupulous enough he can drive a horse and wagon through the best law that was ever made! Where there was no saloon the liquor was furnished the natives in the guise of pay or bribe, and every man who has lived in Alaska knows how little regard the white man has had for the sanctity of the native home. Wives and daughters were constantly dishonored. If the husband or father protested or put up a fight he was overcome by threats or bribes and given liquor to drink until what natural good qualities he once possessed disappeared forever.

If one would see the native races at their best he must see them as far as possible from the haunts of the white men. There he will find them by no means an inferior people. I know of one cannery where every employee except the superintendent and the bookkeeper is a native, and one has but to observe their work to be convinced of their capability. But it seems impossible for them to live near the white people without both whites and natives starting down hill. From the acquaintance to the debauchery of the native woman by a certain type of white man is but a step. It has not been a great many years since the whalers used to come up from San Francisco to winter in the Arctic and catch whales. Their first act on arriving was to carry off the native women, take them aboard the vessels and keep them all winter. In the spring when they got ready to return they would throw them ashore unceremoniously. This went on many years but has now been stopped by the government. Sometimes the white men marry the native women and when they do they quickly sink to their level. The native man, always imitative of the white man, in time forsakes the hunting and fishing which once furnished him an honest living and sooner or later he is to be seen hanging around the villages, picking up odd jobs.

Some of the customs of the natives of Alaska (and elsewhere) are both quaint and startling. When a native guest enters a house neither host nor guest take notice of each other. The host goes on with his work and the visitor either assists him or produces some of his own. When he departs, however, the host says to him:

"In?vdluaritse!" (Live well!)

But they greet the white visitor in smiling friendliness and when he leaves the host usually says to him:

"Aporniakinatit!" (Do not hurt thy head!) Presumably this is a warning against the upper part of the low doorway.

The Eskimo's idea of hospitality sometimes extends to lengths which are somewhat appalling and occasionally it requires not a little diplomacy to refuse them without giving offense. When one gets caught in an Eskimo village and has to spend the night there it is the commonest of occurrences for the man of the house to offer him not only the freedom of his home but his wife as well! Among the natives the interchange of wives is common.

And this brings us to that most discussed of all questions,-the morality (or the lack of it) of the native peoples of the earth. No matter to what far corner of the world one may journey he will find this problem the same in all of them. The Eskimo is no exception. Before the coming of the white man he was utterly godless. He had no religion, no form of worship, no imagery, no idea of any "happy hunting ground" hereafter. In many sections this is still true, although they have been brought under the influence of the church in some localities.

In St. Michael the natives are not permitted to live in the village, but their tents dot the hillsides around and during the summer months the streets are alive with them. Often they come from great distances with their furs, carved ivory, etc., which they have for sale. Their winter dwelling, the igloo, is a pit in the ground, roofed over with logs and sometimes, not always, a window made of fish skin or the entrail of a walrus. The hut is entered by a kind of ante-chamber in the top of which is a hole large enough to admit a man. If he chances to be a large man he sometimes has difficulty in getting through! He must descend a ladder to a narrow passage or tunnel which leads to the principal room, often fifteen or twenty feet from the entrance. The sole furniture of a native residence is a seal-oil lamp which is used for both heating and cooking. It is lighted in the autumn and burns incessantly until spring.

The igloo is usually from six to eight feet high and about thirty feet in circumference. Often it houses from ten to twenty persons. During the cold and stormy weather every aperture is closed. How they endure the odor and the vitiated air is something no white man can understand. The summer dwellings were formerly constructed above ground and consisted of light poles roofed over with skins. Now, however, these have given way to the ordinary tent which is not only cheaper but preferable for many reasons.

In almost every village, or native settlement, the visitor will find the council-house, a much larger hut than the others. It is called a kashga, and is used also as a sort of club where the youths and the unmarried men of the village congregate. Here matters of importance are discussed and guests from a distance lodged. The hut is usually about twenty feet square and ten feet high.

It was in one of these kashgas that I had what was perhaps the most interesting experience in connection with the native races that I have had during the years that I have lived in Alaska. I have come in touch with the ceremonies of the natives of many corners of the earth, but this one was unique,-even more so than the celebrated Snake Dance of the Hopi, of Arizona. I had once been able to befriend a young Eskimo. In gratitude for the favor he invited me to attend a native festival to which (he gave me to understand) no white man had ever been admitted. Whether this meant that no white man had ever been admitted or that none had seen the ceremony as indulged in by this particular tribe I am unable to say. Nevertheless I understood that he was attempting to honor me. I confess that it was with some misgivings that I went, but I have never been sorry.

This particular ceremony was known as The Ten Year Festival. Some tribe from another locality is asked to visit the home tribe and the ceremony is held during the visit. The visitors this year came from Unalakleet, bringing large quantities of gifts and many of them going back empty-handed at the end of the festival. "Potlatching," or trading, is the favorite occupation of the Eskimos and many a time have I been a victim. But I usually hastened to "potlatch" whatever I happened to draw off onto some one else at the earliest possible opportunity!

In some respects the Ten Year Festival is not unlike the ceremonies of the American Indians. In the kashga, heated to suffocation, the natives and their visitors foregather. A square hole is cut in the floor and a sort of shelf, or bench, runs around the sides of the room. On this bench sit the principal personages of the tribe, their feet dangling and not infrequently kicking those below them in the face. The "orchestra" with their tom-toms begin their monotonous drumming. The medicine man is heard below chanting a weird tribal song and presently his head appears through the hole in the floor. He comes up, dancing and singing, both song and chant increasing in intensity as he appears. The other members of the tribe join the dance and the song. Their motions become more and more violent. A perspiration which is largely grease, due to the oil which exudes from their skin, rolls from their naked bodies as they writhe and lash themselves into a perfect frenzy. The women join the dance, cavorting about unclothed, just as the men do.

The final episode of the ceremony occurs when the medicine man breaks from the kashga and runs outside in the bitter cold. Of course, everything is frozen tight, but a hole is cut in the Bay and into the ice-cold water he plunges, returning to the kashga dripping wet. He then tells them that he has been in consultation with the Great Spirit, or whatever it is that they call their ruling power, and that he has been instructed to tell them that the crops will be good, the furs plentiful, that they will be successful in catching the walrus and the seal.

I have already spoken of the unusual custom of the trial marriage which exists among the natives of the Far North. So far as I know, it exists nowhere else,-at least under supervision of the church. But when the United States purchased Alaska there was a paragraph in the treaty which read as follows:

"The inhabitants of the ceded territory, according to their choice, reserving their natural allegiance, may return to Russia within three years, but if they should prefer to remain in the ceded territory they, with the exception of the uncivilized tribes, shall be admitted to the enjoyments and all the rights, advantages and immunities of citizens of the United States, and shall be maintained and protected in the full enjoyment of their liberty, property and religion. The un

civilized tribes will be subject to such laws and regulations as the United States may from time to time adopt in regard to aboriginal tribes of that country."

The supposition is that the "laws and regulations" were not immediately forthcoming and that gradually the natives came under the influence of the Greek Catholic Church. The trial marriage is a blending of the customs of both of these.

I presume that there is no other place in the world where the natives approach more nearly to living in a state of nature than here. This applies as much to their family life as to their out-door existence. In former times when the Eskimo man and woman decided that they would like to wage the war of life together, to combine against their implacable foes, the cold, the storm and the darkness, they just went ahead and did it. This was and in many cases still is the beginning and the end of the subject of marriage with them. The native custom in the olden days was a somewhat strenuous experience for the bride. It is still followed, but it has now become a mere ceremony, quaint and picturesque. The young Eskimo seldom "falls in love." He selects a wife, usually choosing her for her health and strength. In the olden days, having picked her out, he would lie in wait for her, seize her by the hair of her head and drag her off to his igloo, the whole family following and (apparently) attempting to rescue her. Strangely enough, his choice was not always the young girl. There was a lively competition for widows, especially if they were the mothers of sons who would be able to help bring in the whale and keep the wolf from the door.

Of Eskimo morality and civilization there are many degrees. Some of the tribes as yet untouched by the influence of the missionaries have moral laws of extreme refinement. And they live up to them! Do you know of another spot on earth where both man and woman who have proved guilty of unfaithfulness are meted out the same punishment? I do not. But the reindeer Koriaks, one of the tribes not far from Nome, place the greatest stress upon loyalty and chastity of both man and woman, and the punishment for both, when they transgress the law, is instant death!

As to many of the tribes, however, little can be said and that little is not to their credit. They have no higher conception of life than that which is wholly animalistic. Through all the long ages, with them a physical act has been merely a physical act. It has had no moral significance. And can the idea of untold ages be easily eradicated? And, after all, are they worse than other people? Comparisons are odious. But it must be remembered that these natives live out their lives thus thinking no evil! What, then, of the white man, born with the knowledge of the moral significance which is attached to the personal relationship and who has permitted himself to become degraded by the vices of civilization? The native man is unmoral. The white man is immoral. There is a difference! Moreover, the Scarlet Letter is not alone for the Hester Prynnes of Old Plymouth. From time immemorial among some of the tribes of the North the unchaste Eskimo woman has been forced to wear a sign of her degradation,-a green band in her hair. However, unlike Hester Prynne, she is given another chance, albeit an unfair one. If she gives birth to an able-bodied boy she becomes an object of unusual and sincere respect and her green band becomes, as it were, a crown.

Humanity itself, in the Far North, sometimes becomes quite as cold and frozen as the land itself. But there is one thing which never fails to thaw it,-children. And any one who lives long in the north country can not but realize that children are of vital necessity in any sparsely-settled land. The Reverend Hudson Stuck, to whose admirable volume, Voyages on the Yukon, reference has already been made, relates a good story bearing on this point. Long residence in Alaska has taught him much that has never yet been writ in books and has made of him, although a man of the strictest religious convictions, kindly tolerant of the frailties of humankind. Above all else, he is impatient, as we all are, of the non-essentials in education which are being crammed down the throats of the natives by teachers, often due to youth and inexperience, while the essentials, the things of real value to them as individuals and to the country as a whole, are neglected. The Archdeacon relates that once he visited a Mission where the man in charge, a youth, with misguided enthusiasm, boasted that there was neither a half-breed nor an illegitimate child in the village! The Archdeacon received the information in silence, but after a tour of inspection he returned to the subject.

"I see no children at all," he remarked. "Aren't there any?"

The young man proudly admitted that there were none,-whereupon the Archdeacon proceeded to shock him.

"I much prefer half-breed children or even illegitimate children to no children at all!" he said. "By the grace of God, much may be done with the half-breed or even the illegitimate child. But in the name of all that is hopeless and preposterous," he finished, "what can ever be accomplished in a country where there are no children at all?"

It has always been a matter of real regret to me that the Archdeacon did not record the answer to his question!

Just when the custom of the trial marriage in its present form originated I do not know. That it must have entered with or at least followed closely in the wake of the Greek Catholic Church is undeniable. As was the case with the native ceremonies of the American Indians,-the Sun Dance, the Ghost Dance, the Flute Dance and the Snake Dance-religious ceremonies, every one of them, exaggerated and highly-colored reports of which were carried to the government by over-enthusiastic and sometimes fanatical missionaries and agents with the result that the government took steps to suppress them, the trial marriage of the natives of Alaska, while not yet suppressed, now rests under official displeasure. A part of my duty was to investigate this subject. I did so-with a result more astonishing to myself than it could possibly have been to any one else. Like the man of old who went to the temple to scoff and remained to pray, I issued forth from this investigation with most of my preconceived theories on the subject knocked galley-west. Some of my hitherto staunchest principles, if not quite broken, were so badly bent that I have never yet been able to hammer them out quite straight again!

I had it out one day with Father B--, a priest of the Greek Church, a benevolent and kindly old man who in the early days of his mission among the Eskimos had cherished a dream of them as a separate people,-a race apart, who should work out their own salvation with the assistance (not the insistence) of a wisely directed form of religion. That dream for a while promised to be realized, at least to a certain extent. But with the coming of the first white men, most of whom were utterly lawless, he saw his vision fade and finally vanish. Nevertheless he worked on and the trial marriage is his solution of the problem. It is a sort of welding of the customs of both the native and the church.

There is one point in regard to the custom on which I wish to be plainly understood. In Alaska it is against the law for an unmarried man and woman to live together. To say that the custom exists with the consent of the Church is wholly unfair. Every one who has lived in such a country as this knows very well that many of the customs as well as the laws are born of necessity, and the custom of the trial marriage is unquestionably one of these. It certainly exists with the knowledge of the Church and its origin undoubtedly lies in this fact: The parishes over which one priest has jurisdiction lie far apart. A visit to each of them is possible only about once a year. Without the Church there would be no marriage, even a belated one. Not infrequently it happens that a young Eskimo who wishes a wife goes to the priest and asks his assistance in finding one. The girl may (and often does) live in one parish and the young man in another. He will either go to her home or she will go to his. But they can not be married until the next visit of the priest which is sometimes a whole year later.

Before the priest will consent to assist the youth in finding a suitable companion, however, he makes certain requirements which the young man must meet. He must build an igloo, furnish it and stock it with supplies. He must then construct his boat in order that he may fish and thus make a living for them both. This done he may have his girl. Score one in favor of the trial marriage! He may not have her unless he is prepared to house and support her. When his igloo and boat are complete the young people go to the new home and live together for one year. At the end of the year, however, they must be married by the ceremony of the Church. If they do not come to him to be married the priest seeks them out and forbids them to live together any longer.

While the idea itself rather sticks in one's throat, the thoughtful man can not deny that the trial marriage has much to recommend it. They who have come most closely in touch with it, the missionaries and priests, say that it is indeed seldom that the couple fail to return at the end of the year to be married. When they do, it is asserted, there is usually a reason, and when this reason exists, they claim, it is far better for them to separate. The year of trial has proved that they are not suited to each other. If a child has come to them, the mother takes it and goes back to her people, and both the man and woman may select another mate and enter into another compact if they desire. But this seldom happens.

I argued the question to a finish with Father B--. He could not be moved from his position and in the end I could but acquiesce in much that he said. How much better this system is than that which prevails under the stress of our present day civilization! In the rapid and feverish life of the cities of the world to-day,-what happens? The lover and his lass during the period of courtship put forth their whole stock of attractiveness. Seeing each other periodically it is quite simple to keep out of sight one's faults and weaknesses. No sooner are they married than the hitherto concealed frailties begin to appear. Then--. They realize that there exists a bond between them and more often than not, like a dog straining at his leash, they endeavor to find out just how elastic the tie is,-just how far they can strain or stretch it. First arguments, then differences, then quarrels. Before they know it the cord snaps. Life is never the same again. Lovers' quarrels may be made up. Family quarrels never! What then? Nine times out of ten, for social or economic reasons, they go on living together, ekeing out an unhappy and often tortured existence. What could be worse? That which (for lack of a better term to apply to it) we call the social evil is not confined to the scarlet woman of the streets. It often exists in the best families of the land!

Among these people of the Northland, however, it is different. Both the youth and the maiden know very well that at the end of the year there is a possibility of either leaving the other. The result of this knowledge is that from the very first they fall into the habit of trying to please each other! And it is a habit they seldom outgrow. If they find that they can not please each other they are privileged to separate,-in fact, are required to do so. They are not permitted to remain together quarreling all their lives and ruining the family life of the children who come to them. This, in my judgment, explains the light-heartedness of the Eskimos. They are a happy people and the parents never punish the children. Domesticity counts for much among them. Home is sanctuary from the elements. They have little else,-but they have each other! The manner in which they are forced to live for so many months of the year, so closely confined, draws them very closely together. I question whether what they lack, or what we imagine they lack, does not matter less than we think. To me it seems that they miss little of life's essential meaning. They do not have much, it is true. They are often ill-fed. They are not intellectual. They are not sentimental. They are just human! And although they may be for months shut in by the icy blasts of winter they do not complain. Why? Because no cold can penetrate the inner glow and warmth which is born of an adequate comradeship!

The trial marriage permits the indulgence in one of their quaintest of customs. No Eskimo maiden ever accepts a proposal of marriage. Indifference to the attention of her admirer is the acme of good form! I find that "keeping up appearances" is characteristic of humanity whether the latter dwell on Greenland's icy mountain or India's coral strand! And propinquity is and ever has been the most prolific parent of love-at either the North Pole or the Equator. The "force" with which the Eskimo youth of to-day seizes his bride by the hair to "drag" her off to his igloo is altogether counterfeit, as is also the attempt on the part of her family to "rescue" her. It is merely the indulgence in one of their most ancient customs.

I have been much among the natives,-especially those who abide on my island, and because of what I have seen of their family life I am almost a convert to the system. As a rule the Eskimo makes a good husband, willing to perform any labor, endure any hardship or suffer any deprivation in order to procure food for his wife and children. Many an Arctic man of my acquaintance has died for his family, and I am often reminded when I think of them of the familiar lines:

"All love that hath not friendship for its base

Is like a mansion built upon the sand!

Love, to endure life's sorrow and earth's woe,

Needs friendship's solid masonry below!"

It is said that some one once asked Diogynes this question:

"At what age is it best for a man to marry?"

With the classical brevity of the Greeks he replied:

"In youth it is too soon,-in age too late!"

I disclaim any intention of offering a treatise on the subject of marriage, but the investigation of this custom of the natives unquestionably gave me a huge jolt! It turned my thoughts into a channel which otherwise I might never have had occasion to explore. Would that I could chart it! If only we could bring ourselves to regard marriage as a profession and would set ourselves in a business-like way to excelling in it! Could it in any way detract from its dignity? Or its sacredness? Surely not. Medicine and surgery are professions. The Law is a profession, and the Church. Diplomacy, legislation and arms are professions. Marriage is the greatest of all professions,-and the most difficult of any to master! One may master to a degree which may be regarded as little short of perfection the other professions,-music, art, oratory, etc. What man of to-day has the conceit to regard himself as a well-nigh perfect husband?

That the rewards of marriage are incomparable is undeniable. Life's journey, at best, is lonely. No man can deny that even though his daily task may take him amidst the crowd he lives the greater part of his life alone! A dear and close companionship is all that makes life tolerable. Nothing else ever has, will or can. Fame is a delusion and a snare. Ambition is a disease. Affectionate companionship and a home are the only things worth having. Why not build a home instead of a house? Why not go about the process in a business-like way? Why not make honor and loyalty fashionable and permit faithlessness to go out of style?

One of America's foremost writers declares repeatedly throughout his excellent novels that judgment has never yet entered into the selection of a mate,-that sentiment and emotion alone decide the after life of every couple who are wed. This is, unfortunately, true except in rare cases. None would care to abolish wholly the electrical current which flashes between the sexes. And yet--. Marriage entered into from a sense of duty on both sides is not without its strong argument. He who undertakes marriage because he regards it as both a duty and a privilege, or solely from a sense of duty, who either actively or passively selects a mate for no other reason, is very likely because of that same sense of duty to fulfill his obligations faithfully and to behave well. Nothing in all the earth is quite so fine as an active conscience! For such a man life reserves some of her grandest hours. The Golden Apples do not grow so far above the heads of any of us that we can not reach out and gather them if we try! And he who follows the path of duty will find his own apple quite as luscious and sweet at the core as that of him who trod the flowery road of personal pleasure!

I am one of those who hope that with the end of the great World War a new spirit of tolerance may spread its white wings over all the world and that sooner or later some of the time-worn social rules and regulations, archaic because designed for a civilization two thousand years ago, may be abrogated or at least amended and modified. May the day come when life shall be individual, when creed and dogma shall be buried in a grave so deep that there shall be no possibility of a Resurrection! When that nameless and indefinite thing known as Public Opinion shall be forced to lower its threatening finger and lose its power! When all men and all women shall enjoy the privilege of working out, each for himself and herself, that most potent factor in the human experience, namely, the personal relationship, and when we shall all live saner, cleaner, healthier, happier and more moral lives in consequence!

Dr. William H. Dall, Paleontologist of the United States Geological Survey and Honorary Curator of Mollusks at the National Museum at Washington, D. C., has written the following charming verses about the natives of Alaska. "Innuit" is the name by which the Eskimo calls himself and his people from Greenland to Mt. St. Elias. The topek is the winter house of turf and walrus hide. In the igloo, or snow house, there is no wood. All Innuit believe in evil spirits which are supposed to dwell far inland, away from the shores. In times of starvation Innuit ethics permit a mother to put her baby, when she can no longer feed it, out in the snow to die. The child's mouth must be stuffed with mud or grass. Otherwise its spirit will return and be heard crying about the house at night.

THE SONG OF THE INNUIT

O, we are the Innuit people,

Who scatter about the floe

And watch for the puff of the breathing seal

While the whistling breezes blow.

By a silent stroke the ice is broke

And the struggling prey below

With the crimson flood of its spouting blood

Reddens the level snow.

O, we are the Innuit people,

Who flock to the broken rim

Of the Arctic pack where the walrus lie

In the polar twilight dim.

Far from the shore their surly roar

Rises above the whirl

Of the eager wave, as the Innuit brave

Their flying lances hurl.

O, we are the Innuit people

Who lie in the topek warm;

While the northern blast flies strong and fast

And fiercely roars the storm;

Recounting the ancient legends

Of fighting, hunting and play,

When our ancestors came from the southland tame

To the glorious Arctic day.

There is one sits by in silence

With terror in her eyes,

For she hears in dreams the piteous screams

Of a cast-out babe that dies-

Dies in the snow as the keen winds blow

And the shrieking northers come,-

On that dreadful day when the starving lay

Alone in her empty home.

O, we are the Innuit people,

And we lie secure and warm

Where the ghostly folk of the Nunatak

Can never do us harm.

Under the stretching walrus hide

Where at the evening meal

The well-filled bowl cheers every soul

Heaped high with steaming seal.

The Awful Folk of the Nunatak

Come down in the hail and the snow,

And slash the skin of the kayak thin

To work the hunter woe.

They steal the fish from the next day's dish

And rot the walrus lines-

But they fade away with the dawning day

As the light of summer shines.

O, we are the Innuit people

Of the long, bright Arctic day,

When the whalers come and the poppies bloom

And the ice-floe shrinks away;

Afar in the buoyant umiak

We feather our paddle blades

And laugh in the light of the sunshine bright,

Where the white man's schooner trades.

O, we are the Innuit people

Rosy and brown and gay;

And we shout as we sing of the wrestling ring

Or toss the ball at play.

In frolic chase we oft embrace

The waist of a giggling maid

As she runs on the sand of the Arctic strand

Where the ice-bears bones are laid.

O, we are the Innuit people,

Content in our northern home;

Where the kayak's prow cuts the curling brow

Of the breakers snowy foam.

The merry Innuit people,

Of the cold, gray Arctic sea,

Where the breathing whale, the Aurora pale

And the snow-white foxes be.

There is a diversity of opinion as to the ultimate fate of the native races of the earth. To my mind there is but one answer. Search the wide world over to-day and where will you find a wilderness? There are none which the aggressive white man has not penetrated. And wherever the white man enters the native man begins to disappear. It has always been so, and it always will be so. If only the white man would let them alone! Is it not better to have the vast Arctic spaces people by a native race than to have it unpeopled by anybody? The Eskimos live where no one else on earth can or will live. They are a picturesque and harmless people. In their struggle for existence they have fought valiantly. Surely they have earned the right to exist unmolested, earned it bravely.

* * *

Free to Download MoboReader
(← Keyboard shortcut) Previous Contents (Keyboard shortcut →)
 Novels To Read Online Free

Scan the QR code to download MoboReader app.

Back to Top

shares