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The Manners Of The Esquimaux Indians

( Originally Published Late 1800's )

(From "The Description given by Mr. [William] Wales of the Esquimaux Indians.")

They are not without some notion of religion, but it is a very limited one. They acknowledge two beings : one the author of all good, the other of all evil. The former they call Ukkemah, which appellation they give also to their chiefs ; and the latter they call Wittikah. They pay some sort of adoration to both, though it is difficult to say what. Their opinion of the origin of mankind is, that Ukkemah made the first men and women out of the earth, three in number of each ; that those whom we Europeans sprang from were made from a whiter earth than what their progenitors were, and that there was one pair of still blacker earth than they. They have likewise an imperfect traditional account of the deluge, only they substitute a beaver for the dove.

I have been induced to gather a few characteristic impressions of the manners of the Esquimaux Indians, which you may probably think interesting for your venerable journal.

Their general appearance is remarkably healthy and vigorous ; they exhibit great dexterity in the use of paddles in their canoes through the most boisterous waves. They have a frank and fearless manner of approaching strangers, even from distant countries, and show great eagerness to traffic for axes, iron hoops, tin kettles, etc., for which they will barter their oil, blubber, and whalebone ; and Mr. West says, that in this act of trade they held their articles very tenaciously, till they had got hold of what they were to receive in exchange; which, if they approved, they universally licked with their tongue; and when not satisfied, they expressed much savageness with ferocity in their countenance and manner. Their clothing was entirely of skins, with the hairy side outward, sewed with the sinews of the whale, split into thin fibres for thread, and discovered a good deal of neatness and strength, and must be well calculated for the cold climate which they endure. Some of their dress was ornamented with seahorse and bears' teeth, and their appearance altogether truly barbarous. Wandering as they do in savage liberty along these desolate shores, and their women in a state of the greatest degradation which barbarism can impose on the heathen, there still appeared a strong parental attachment to their children, and a great readiness in imitation. One or two of them danced with the captain on deck, and caught his steps with great agility. They excited strong emotions of pity as they with-drew to their haunts along the shore. Little appears to be known of them at present, though they have visited the Company's ships annually for many years past, from whence it was designed to send our interpreter to ascertain their condition. They appeared at the Factory to sink in the lowest state of degradation as human beings. I could (adds Mr. West) scarcely refrain from tears on visiting them in their huts. The life of the Indians appears to be one succession of difficulties in procuring subsistence, and they wander through it without hope and without God in the world The children are growing up in ignorance and idleness ; they are the offspring of the Company's officers and clerks, by Indian or half-breed women.

A considerable number of Esquimaux Indians trade to Churchill, the most northern post of the Company's territories. They are entirely clothed with the skins of deer. in summer, they live upon seals and whales, like those of Hudson's Straits. In winter, they live under the snow, burning oil with moss as a wick, which cooks their food, while at the same time it contributes to their warmth. The chief of this department supposed that they might travel 150 or 200 miles north of the fort, till they met another tribe, who, like them, might range the same distance on the shore further north.

The missionary pressed upon them the subjects of baptism and marriage, but they seem very far from either adopting or understanding them. The women are not considered as companions, nor do they partake their meals with those they live with—they are degraded merely as slaves ; while the children are neglected, and grow up as wild and uncultivated as the heathen. But they readily gave up their children for education.

Their boats are constructed of birch rind, and are strong enough for a voyage of 800 miles up the Red River. It was usual for them, when they stopped for the night, to make a large fire with pine-trees ; they place the branches on the ground under their blankets when they lie down in their tents, and a little hay enables them to sleep comfortably.

The more I see (says this rev. missionary) of the character of man in this country, the more do I lament and feel indignant at his general conduct. The depressed female is taken just for the morning of her days, and then too generally turned adrift, for the next person or Indian who chooses to take her, and has often been so neglected, as to have been found starved to death in some old shattered tent !

Mr. West performed many marriages and baptisms, and some of the latter were upon adults, who had been half-breeds, sons or daughters of Scotchmen or Englishmen, by Indian or half-breed women. He endeavoured to explain to them the object of baptism, but found great difficulty in conveying to their minds any just ideas of Christ. The half-breeds talk Indian principally, and there is no word in that language to express a Saviour. He goes to the fort from the farm on a Sunday in a cariole drawn by wolf-dogs.

When an Indian dies, his corpse is staged; i.e., put upon a few cross-sticks, about ten feet from the ground. In burying or staging the dead, the Indians generally put all the property of the deceased into the case; and whenever they visit the corpse, which they do for years afterwards, they encircle the stage, smoke their pipes, weep bitterly, and frequently cut themselves with knives, or pierce themselves with the points of sharp instruments.

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