1902 Encyclopedia > Eskimo


ESKIMO, ESKIMOS, or ESQUIMAUX, the name applied by European ethnologists to a large number of cognate but widely separated tribes, which are scattered along the coasts of the arctic regions of America and Asia. The Danish form of the word has recently supplanted the older French form. The name is a corruption of the Abenaki Indian Eskimat-sic or the Ojiba Askimeg, both terms meaning "those who eat raw flesh." The native name is Innuit—a word signifying, as names of savage tribes frequently do, "The people." The Eskimo constitute a very homogeneous race, and are the widest spread aboriginal people in the world. They are entirely unknown in Europe, being confined to the arctic coast of America, and a small portion of the Asiatic shore of Behring Strait. On the American shores they are found, in broken tribes, from East Greenland to the western shores of Alaska,—never far off the coast, or south of the region where the winter ice allows seals to congregate in large numbers. They thus stretch for 3200 miles from S.E. to S.W.; and though in all likelihood they have little intercourse with each other, yet, judging from the traditions, the separate tribes must have maintained their present characteristic language and mode of life for at least 1000 years. Most probably, like the rest of the aborigines of the New World, they came from Asia at some very remote period. The N.W. American Coast Indians, whose modes of life are much the same as the Eskimo, bear a striking resemblance to tbcm in appearance. The Eskimo may thus have been fishing Indians, who formerly lived on the banks of the great rivers which flow into the Polar Ocean, and were gradually driven seaward by the more southern Indians, against whom they to this day maintain a violent enmity. In the course of their migrations they arrived in Grinnell Land, crossed Smith Sound, not further north than Cape Union, according to Nares, then advanced gradually southward along the west coast of Greenland, doubled Cape Farewell, and spread up the east coast as far north as man has yet reached. They may have rounded, with the musk ox and the lemming, the north end of Greenland, but the probabilities are in the direction indi-cated. Even on hunting expeditions they rarely with-draw more than 20 miles from the coast, and only in very exceptional cases 30 miles. Save a slight admixture of European settlers, they are the only inhabitants of both sides of Davis Strait and Baffin's Bay. They extend as far south as about 50° N. lat. on the eastern side of America and in the west to 60° on the eastern shore of Behring Strait, while 55° to 60° are their southern limits on the shore of Hudson's Bay. Throughout all this range no other tribes intervene, except in two small spots on the coast of Western America, where the Kennayan and Ugalenze Indians come down to the shore for the purpose of fishing. The Aleutians are closely allied to the Eskimo in habits and language, though their culture is somewhat more highly developed. Rink divides them into the following groups, the most eastern of which would have to travel nearly 5000 miles to reach the most western. 1. The East Greenland Eskimo, few in number, every year advancing further south, and having intercourse with the next section. 2. The West Greenlanders, civilized, living under the Danish crown, and extending from Cape Farewell to 74° N. lat. 3. The Northernmost Greenlanders —the Arctic Highlanders of Ross—confined to Smith, Whale, Murchison, and Wolstenholme Sounds, north of the Melville Bay glaciers, not extending to the western shores of the former strait, nor within the memory of man having any intercourse with those south of them. They are very isolated, have greatly decreased of late years, did not until recently possess the kayak or skin-covered canoe, the umiak or open skin boat, or the bow and arrow, are bold hunters, pagans, and are perhaps the most typical of the Es-kimo in Greenland ; they have not of recent years greatly decreased, though at present they do not number more than 200. 4. The Labrador Eskimo, mostly civilized, 5. The Eskimo of the middle regions, occupying the coasts from Hudson's Bay to Barter Island, beyond Mackenzie River—perhaps comparativelya rather heterogeneous group, inhabiting a stretch of country 2000 miles in length and 800 in breadth. 6. The Western Eskimo, from Barter Island to the western limits in America. They differ somewhat from the other groups in various habits, such as the use of the baidar or double-manned skin-covered canoe, in the clothing of the men, in their labrets, and in the head-dress of the women. They are allied to the Aleutians and the Indians of Alaska. 7. The Asiatic Eskimo or Tuski, who are again nearly allied to the Namollo and Itelmes. None of the Arctic tribes of Europe or Asia have the slightest con-nexion with them. Of all the Eskimo those of Greenland and Labrador are the best known; the others are known but partially.

Appearance and Dress.—The Eskimo are not so small as they are usually represented, their height—5 feet 4 inches to 5 feet 10 inches, and in rare cases even 6 feet—being quite up to the average of the coast Indians. Their dress, however, gives them a dwarfish appearance. Both men and women are muscular and active, the former often in-clining to embonpoint, and both having a pleasing, good-humoured, and not unfrequently, even handsome cast of countenance, apt to break into a " grin" on very small provocation. The face is broadly oval, flat, with fat cheeks; forehead not high, and rather retreating ; teeth good, though, owing to the character of the food, worn down to the gums in old age; nose very flat; eyes rather obliquely set, small, black, and bright; head largish, and covered with coarse black hair, which the women fasten up into a top knot on their crown, and the men clip in front and allow to hang loose and unkempt behind. Their skulls are of the meso-cephalic type, the height being greater than the breadth; according to Davis, 75 is the index of the latter and 77 of the former. Some of the tribes slightly compress the skulls of their new-born children laterally (Hall), but this practice is a very local one. The men have usually a slight moustache, but no whiskers, and rarely any beard. The skin has generally a " bacony " feel, and when cleaned of the smoke, grease, and other dirt—the accumulation of which varies according to the age of the individual—is only so slightly brown that red shows in the cheeks of the children and young women. The people soon age, how-ever. Their hands and feet are small and well formed, and, as a rule, they have a more pleasing appearance than all except the best-looking Indian tribes. The women and children dress entirely in skins of the seal, reindeer, bear, dog, or even fox, the first two being, however, the most common. The men and women's dress is much the same. The jacket of the men has a hood, which in cold weather is used to cover the head, leaving only the face exposed; it must be drawn over the head, as it has no opening in front or behind. The women's jacket has a fur-lined "amowt" or large hood for carrying a child, and an absurd looking tail behind, which is, however, usually tucked up. The trousers are either tight or loose, and are fastened into boots made of prepared seal skin, very ingeniously and neatly made. The women's trousers are usually ornamented with eider duck necks, or embroidery of native dyed leather; their boots, which are of white leather, or (in Greenland) dyed of various colours, reach over the knees, and in some tribes are very wide at the top, thus giving them an awkward appearance and a clumsy waddling walk. In winter there are two suits of clothes of this description, one with the hair inside, the other with it outside. They also sometimes wear shirts of bird-skins, and stockings of dog or young reindeer skins. The boots require to be changed when wet, otherwise they would freeze hard in cold weather. Their clothes are, like all the Eskimo articles of dress or tools, very neatly made, fit beautifully, and are sewn with " sinew-thread," with a bone needle if a steel one cannot be had. In person the Eskimo are usually filthy, water not often coming in contact with them unless acci-dentally. The children when very young are, however, sometimes cleaned by being licked with their mother's tongue before being put into the bag of feathers which serves as their bed, cradle, and blankets.

Dwellings, Occupations, Characteristic Implements, and Food.—In summer the Eskimo live in conical skin tents, and in winter usually in half-underground huts (igloos) built of stone, turf, earth, and bones, entered by a long tunnel-like passage, which can only be traversed on all fours. Sometimes, if residing temporarily at a place, they will erect neat round huts of blocks of snow with a sheet i of ice for a window. These, however, though comfortable in the winter, become damp and dripping in the spring, and are then deserted. In the roof are deposited their spare harpoons, &c; and from it is suspended the steatite basin-like lamp, the flames of which, the wick being of moss, serves as fire and light. On one side of the hut is the bench which is used as sofa, seats, and common sleeping place. The floor is usually very filthy, a pool of blood or a dead seal being often to be seen there. Ventila-tion is almost non-existent; and after the lamp has blazed for some time, the family having assembled, the heat is all but unbearable: the upper garment must be taken off, and the unaccustomed visitor gasps half asphyxiated in the mephitic atmosphere. In the summer the wolfish-looking dogs lie outside on the roof of the huts, in the winter in the tunnel-like passage just outside the family apartment. The Western Eskimo build their houses chiefly of planks, merely covered on the outside with green turf. The same Eskimo have, in the more populous places, a public room for meetings. " Council chambers" are also said to exist in Labrador, but are only known in Greenland by tradi-tion. Sometimes in South Greenland and in the Western Eskimo country the houses are made to accommodate several families, but as a rule each family has a house to itself.

The Eskimo are solely hunters and fishers, and derive most of their subsistence from the sea. Their country will allow of no cultivation worth attending to; and beyond a few berries, roots, &c, they use no vegetable food. They are essentially sarcophagous. The seal, the reindeer when obtainable, and various cetaceous animals supply the bulk of their food, as well as their clothing, light, fuel, and frequently also, when driftwood is scarce or unavailable, the material for various articles of domestic economy. The shuttle-shaped canoe or Jcayalc, covered with hairless seal-skin stretched on a wooden or whalebone frame, with only a hole in the centre for the paddler, is one of the most characteristic Eskimo imole-ments. The paddler propels it with a bone-tipped double-bladed paddle, like that used in the " canoes" familiar as aquatic playthings in England. He is covered with a waterproof skin or entrail dress, tightly fastened round the mouth of the hole in which he sits, so that, should the canoe overturn, not a drop of water may enter. A skilful kayaker can turn a complete somersault, boat and all, through the water. The umiak or flat-bottomed skin luggage-boat, rowed by the women, is another, though less interesting, Eskimo vessel. The sledge, made of two runners of wood or bone,—even, in one case on record, of frozen salmon (Maclure),—united by cross bars tied to the runners by hide thongs, and drawn by from 4 to 8 dogs harnessed abreast, is another article of Eskimo domestic economy which no European ingenuity has ever been able to improve. Some of their weapons afford remarkable evidence of inventive skill,—in particular, the harpoon, with the point detachable after it has struck the seal, narwhal, or white whale; the line to which the harpoon is fastened, with the inflated sealskin at the end, which tires out the prey, besides marking its course, and buoys it up when dead; the bird-spears, with bladder attached, and the adventitious side-points which strike the animal should the main one miss it; the rib bow of the wild Eskimo, &c. Although they have to maintain a severe struggle for existence against the elements, the Eskimo have been able, in the manufacture of their tools, to develop artistic and mechanical skill far surpassing that of savages more favour-ably situated, but less endowed with brain power. They sometimes cook their food by boiling, but, when it is frozen, never hesitate to devour it raw. Blood, and the half-digested contents of the reindeer's paunch, are also eagerly consumed by them; but it is a mistake to suppose that they habitually eat blubber. Fat they are no doubt fond of, but blubber is too precious: it must be kejit for winter fuel and light. They are enormous eaters; two Eskimo will easily dispose of a seal at a sitting; and in Greenland, for instance, each individual has for his daily consumption, on an average, 2^ B> of flesh with blubber, and 1 lb of fish, besides mussels, berries, sea-weed, &c, to which in the Danish settlements may be added 2 oz. of imported food. Ten pounds of flesh, in addition to other food, is not uncommonly consumed in a day in time of plenty. A man will lie on his back and allow his wife to feed him with tit-bits of blubber and flesh until he is unable to move.

The Eskimo cannot be strictly called a wandering race. They are nomadic only in so far that they have to move about from place to place during the fishing and shooting season, following the game in its migrations. They have, however, no regular property. They possess only the most necessary utensils and furniture, with a stock of provisions for less than one year ; and these possessions never exceed certain limits fixed upon by tradition or custom (Rink). Long habit and the necessities of their life have also compelled those having food to share with those having none,-—a custom which, with others, has conduced to the stagnant condition of Eskimo society and to their utter improvidence

Moral and Mental Character.—So far as a nation can be characterized in a few words, it may be said that the Eskimo are, if not in the first rank of barbarous races, not in the last, and that, though they want some of the mental endowments of races like the Polynesians, they are equally free from many of their vicious traits. Their intelligence is considerable, as their implements and folk-tales abun dantly prove. They display a taste for music, chartography, and drawing, display no small amount of humour, are quick at picking up peculiar traits in strangers, and are painfully acute in detecting the weak points or ludicrous sides of their character. They are excellent mimics, and easily learn the dances and songs of the Europeans, as well as their games, such as chess and draughts. They gamble a little,—but in moderation, for the Eskimo, though keen traders, have a deep-rooted antipathy to speculation. When they offer anything for sale—say at a Danish settlement in Greenland—they always leave it to the buyer to settle the price. They have also a dislike to bind themselves by contract. Hence it was long before the Eskimo in Green-land could be induced to enter into European service, though when they do so now-a-days they pass to almost the opposite extreme—they have no will of their own. It is affirmed by those who ought to know that any sort of licentiousness or indecency which might give rise to public offence is rare among them. In their private life their morality is, however, not high. The women are especially erring; and in Greenland, at places where strangers visit, their extreme laxity of morals, and their utter want of shame, are not more remarkable than the entire absence of jealousy or self-respect on the part of their countrymen and relatives. Theft in Greenland is almost unknown; but the wild Eskimo make very free with strangers' goods —though it must be allowed that the value they attach to the articles stolen is some excuse for the thieves. Among themselves, on the other hand, they are very honest,—a result of their being so much under the control of public opinion. Lying is said to be as common a trait of the Eskimo as of other savages in their dealings with Europeans. They have naturally not made any figure in literature. Their folk-lore is, however, extensive, and that collected by Dr Rink shows considerable imagination and no mean talent on the part of the story-tellers. In Green-land and Labrador most of the natives have been taught by the missionaries to read and write in their own language. Altogether, the literature published in the Eskimo tongue is considerable. Most of it has been printed in Denmark, but some has been "set up" in a small printing office in Greenland, from which about 280 sheets have issued, beside many lithographic prints. A journal (Atuagagl-dliutit nalinginarmik iusarumindsassumik univhat, i.e., " something for reading, accounts of all entertaining subjects") has been published since 1861. Up to 1874 it extended to 194 sheets in 4to, and about 200 leaves with illustrations. Two Eskimo have appeared as authors on a small scale, the last being Hans Hendrik, who has published an autobiography, narrating his life among the Smith Sound Eskimo, and as the hunter of the expeditions of Kane, Hayes, Hall, and Nares. Some of them pick up handicrafts very readily, and those who have wrought in the Copenhagen workshops are said by their employers to learn various kinds of labour more rapidly than average Danish youths of the same age.

Religion. — The Eskimo nearly everywhere hold the same religious ideas, though in Greenland and Labrador they are, with few exceptions, nominally at least, Christians. The whole world is, according to the pagan Eskimo's belief, governed by inuas, supernatural powers or " owners," each of whom holds his sway within natural limits. Any object or individual may have its, his, or her inua, though generally speaking the idea of an inua is limited to certain localities or passions—such as a mountain or lake, or strsngth or eating. The soul, for instance, is the inua of the body. The earth and the sea rest on pillars, and cover an under-world accessible by various mountain clefts, or by various entrances from the sea. The sky is the floor of an upper-world to which some go after death, while others—good or bad—have their future home in the under-world. Here are the dwellings of the arsissut—the people who live in abundance. The upper one, on the contrary, is cold and hungry; here live the arssartut or ball-players, so called from their playing at ball with a walrus head, which gives rise to the aurora borealis. The mediums between the inua and mankind are the angalwhs (Esk. plur., angakut) or wizards, who possess the peculiar gift of angahooneh—or the state of " being angakok"—which they have acquired by the aid of guardian spirits called tornat (plural of tornak), who again are ruled by lornarsuk, the supreme deity or devil of all. Such is their religion in the barest possible outline. They also invoke a supernatural influence which is called kusiunek or iliseenek, which may be translated as witch-craft : this is believed to be the mystic agency which causes sudden sickness or death. In the folk-lore of the Greenlanders as of other nations, divine justice manifests itself chiefly in the present life, though they have a faint belief in reward or punishment in the future world, according as the individual has behaved in this.

Language. —The idiom spoken from Greenland to North-eastern Siberia is, with a few exceptions, the same; any difference is only that of dialect. It differs from the whole group of European languages, not merely in the sound of the words, but more especially, according to Rink, in the construction. Its most remarkable feature is that a sentence of a European language is expressed in Eskimo by a single word constructed out of certain elements, each of which corresponds in some degree to one of our words. One specimen commonly given to visitors to Greenland may suffice : Savigiksiniariartokasuaromaryotittogog, which is equivalent to " He says that you also will go away quickly in like manner and buy a pretty knife." Here is one word serving in the place of 17. It is made up as follows :—Savig a knife, ilc pretty, sini buy, ariartok go away, asuar hasten, omar wilt, y in like manner, otit thou, tog also, og he says.

Social Economy.—The Eskimo differ from most other tribes of savages, and notably from those of the rest of America, by having no chiefs or political and military rulers. Fabricius concisely described them in his day :— "Sine Deo, domino, reguntur consuetudine." The govern-ment is mainly a family one, though if a man is distin-guished for skill in the chase, strength, shrewdness, or other qualities useful to a wild community, he will no doubt obtain a corresponding influence in the village or settlement. There is also a good deal of dependence of one upon another, as must happen in a people situated as the Eskimo. The family, the inhabitants of a house, and the inhabitants of a wintering place or hamlet are the three subdivisions recognized by the Eskimo; but any connexion between the different wintering places is hardly known and is not recognized. They never go to war with each other; and though revengeful, and apt to injure an enemy secretly, they rarely come to blows, and are morbidly anxious not to give offence. Indeed, in their intercourse with each other they indulge in much hyperbolical compliment, and language courteous from the teeth outwards. But they are not with-out courage. On the Coppermine and Mackenzie Bivers, where they sometimes come into collision with the Indians, they fight fiercely, and are a name of terror. Polygamy is rare, but the rights of divorce and re-marriage are exercised among the wild Eskimo without any definite restriction. The courtship or marriage customs and the laws of inheritance will be found fully described in the works mentioned in the bibliography. The chief laws are such as the following. Every seal caught at a wintering place should be equally divided as far as it will go. Any one picking up driftwood has only to put some stones on it, as it lies on the shore, to establish his ownerships in it. If a seal is harpooned and gets off with the harpoon sticking in it, the first owner loses his right in it if the bladder float gets de-tached. Any other kind of goods found are the property of the owner. If two hunters at the same time hit a bird, the bird is equally divided between them. All kind of game which is very large or rare is common property. In South Greenland whoever is the first to see a bear has ownership in it, no matter who kills it. The borrower is not bound to give compensation for any injury to the tools of another which he may have borrowed. If a man repent of a bargain he has a right to retract; nothing is sold on credit, or at least without being repaid in a short time. The Greenlanders were always fond of festivals, as are the Eskimo to this day all over their country. When they met each other they used to rub noses together, but this, though a common custom still among the wild Eskimo, is entirely abandoned in Greenland except for the petting of children. There is, in Greenland at least, no national mode of salutation, either on meeting or parting. When a guest arrives or enters a house, commonly not the least sign is made either by him or his host. On leaving a place they now sometimes say " inuvdluaritse," i.e., live well, and to a European " aporniakinatit," i.e., do not hurt thy head, viz., against the upper part of the doorway.

Population.—No precise statement can be made re-garding the numbers of the Eskimo race. For Greenland, however, we have exact data so far as the Danish possessions are concerned. In 1870, the date of the last census, there were, from Cape Farewell to the limit of the West Greenland region, 9588 people. Add to this about 200 for Smith's Sound, and say 400 for East Greenland, and the whole population of that island continent—inhabited and habit-able on the coast only—will not be many more than 10,000. On an average, the proportion of females to males in Green-land has been 1118 to 1000, while in Iceland it is 1102, and in Denmark and the Faroe Isles there are 1018 to 1000 males. The natives of Greenland have decreased since the Danes came into the country, and at present tlvs population is at a stand-stilL On a rough estimate, the whole Eskimo race does not, it is believed, exceed 40,000. But we have really no data, except at spots where they have come in contact with Europeans.

Bibliography.—Fragmentary notices of the Eskimo may be found in numerous works. We need only take cognizance here of modern writers who have actually lived among the Eskimo. These are :— Rink, Eskimoiske Eventyr og Sagn(1866) ; Supplement to the same work (1871) ; Tales and Traditions of the Eskimo (1875) ; Danish Greenland: its People and its Products (1877); Gronland, geogra-yhiskogStatisliskbcskrcvet, 2 vols. (1857); OmEskimoernesHerkomsl (Aarbog for Nord. Oldk. og Hist. 1871, pp. 269-302), Richardson, Polar Regions (1861), pp. 298-331; Markham, Arctic Papers of the B. G. S. (1875), pp. 163-232 ; Simpson, Bid, pp. 233-275 ; Hans Uendriks the Eskimo's Memoirs ("Geographical Magazine," Feb. 1878, el seq.); Brown, Raxes of Mankind, vol. i. (1872), pp. 5-20 ; Countries of the World, vol. i. (1877), pp. 123-144. See also the works and papers referred to in the foregoing works; the diction-aries and grammars of Fabricius, Washington, Kleinschmidt, and Janssen, and a sketch of the Eskimo language by Dr Rink in course of publication by the Smithsonian Institution ; and finally the various narratives and other official reports and papers of the Arctic voyagers, particularly those of Parry, Lyons, Franklin, Collmsou, M'Clure, Graah, Kane, Rae, Haycs, Hali, Bessefs, Koldeway, and Nares. (R. B.)


A. party cf Eskimo from the western side of Smith Sound, about Cape Isabella, crossed over in an umiak and five kayaks, about five years before the survivors of the crew of the " Polaris " wintered there in 1872-3. They introduced the use of the bow and arrow, hitherto unknown among the " Arctic Highlanders."

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