#15 Tribal Life
     (Julian Bilby, 1923)

 …now the time has come to get ready for a very big annual enterprise indeed—the great deer hunt, upon which the fortunes of the tribe will turn for months. If the Eskimo lay up little store of food, they accumulate all the hides they can for winter clothing. For several weeks before the start is made, stores of meat are prepared, slices of seal cut and spread on the rocks, or hung on lines in the sun to dry. Plies of moss and cotton plant are collected and dried for the winter’s supply of lamp wick. Sealskins are cleaned and stretched and dried for clothing, boot soles, boat coverings, and water buckets; intestines are inflated and dried for sail cloth and material for making windows. The dogs are outfitted with sealskin panniers for transport purposes. The trek ahead of the tribe is a long and laborious one. They will journey for days by water up the rivers, and climb long ranges of hills and cross many valleys, before they reach the interior and the pastures of the deer. Each man, woman and child must shoulder his own pack, for none can carry a double load. And so, it often chances, comes the tragedy of old and enfeebled age.

Seorapik was an octogenarian. Her hair was grey and her back was bent. She had managed, somehow, the previous year to carry her belongings on the long, long trail, and stumble along after the tribe. But at last the bitter fact forced itself upon her that she could follow the hunters no more. She must stay behind—alone. She could no longer carry her load nor keep pace with the folk on the way, and none might carry her. She had alternative but to remain in the deserted village and await the tribe’s return.

Now Seorapik, like every other Eskimo, was an intensely sociable being. She loved nothing so much as to hear laughter and jokes about her, and to be in the thick of all the village talk and doings. As she faced the prospect of the long lonely weeks ahead, in the lifeless silence of the empty camp, with the days growing ever shorter and colder, without a soul—except perhaps a child—to bear her company, her heart quailed and grew very heavy. There was the danger, too, of attack by wolf or bear, and of sickness coming on—and death. Death, all alone! True, they would leave her a plentiful store of food—the good village folk—and lots of skins; but what comfort could these afford her in their absence?

But the law of the North is stern and immutable. They knew it—those sons and daughters of hers, and all their sons daughters. They grieved for Seorapik, and remember her many acts of kindness to each and every one of them, and her life of cheery toil spent wholly in their service. They had a custom to be sure—but it was hard to endure it when it came face to face. A familiar custom, designed to meet such as case as this; but a heartbreaking one, all the same. Seorapik remembered it, too, and was the first to summon the courage to announce it.

She proposed to bid the tribe goodbye rather than let it take leave of her. Her time to go on the long, lone journey from which none ever returned could not be far off in any case. She decided to anticipate it. She could not face seeing her folk load up the packs, start out on the trail, without her, and disappear over the hills. She could not contemplate the intense loneliness that it would all mean, and miss the laughter of the children, and even the rough and tumble among the dogs. So the dread subject was broached to her son.

He gave his assent. Itteapik announced the decision to the villagers, and they came to help with the preparations for Seorapik’s death.

A rough, round igloo was built, and the old woman withdrew into it, taking her few belongings, escorted by all her kindred and friends. They encouraged her to the last with every kindly and sympathetic thing they could think of to say. She braved it out, and, with her cheery but quavering goodbye still in their ears, her loved ones blocked up the entrance to the little death chamber in such a way that no dog or wolf might break in.

And there she sat down slowly and willingly to starve to death, quite happy so long as her children continued to come from time to time and call to her from outside, and tell her all that was going on, every single little thing that happened… She never asked for food or drink; they never gave it… She never wanted to come out; they never moved a stone… She simple had to go. Their part was to make her last days, her last hours, as happy as they could, simply by being there—quite close—outside.

Then the time came when the feeble voice just ceased to make one more response. She had gone on her own long journey first, to the land where parting would be no more, nor the fear and sadness of it. Her last hour had been happy ones, cheered by the sounds of the village life, the cries and gurgles of the babies, the shouts and cat-calls of the boys and girls, the murmur of men and women talking over their accustomed tasks. She had no loneliness to bear, after all, no desolation, no silence. The old Eskimo died with a smile of love and contentment on her face, with a long record behind her of woman’s good and motherly work, of a humble, “primitive” life indeed, but lived according to what light she had—and so into the better life beyond.

There was Nandla (the spear), too, the blind hunter, who also went to death under the lash of arctic circumstance. The incident took place nearDavis’ Strait, and was related to the writer by one who had witnessed it. Again, the inexorable law of the wild left one handicapped as Nandla was no choice. The man was comparatively young, but by reason of his blindness useless to himself and a burden upon others. In a hungry land, where every extra mouth to be filled represents a problem, there is no room for one who cannot provide for himself. The severity of the code of the North is very great. It cannot be judged by the ordinary standards of humanity.

Spring was at hand—the joyous spring of the arctics. The days were lengthening and the seals increasing in numbers. They were coming up from the south for the breeding season. In the village all was life and bustle. The hunters were full of preparations, and the dogs scarcely less so. The boys were loading the sleds and harnessing the teams. One by one, each hunting outfit glided off over the frozen ground, out towards the bay.

Outside his snow house sat Nandla, the blind hunter, listening to every sound and seeing every detail in his mind’s eye. His heart was heavy as lead. In his younger days he, too, had gone forth just like these others, to spear the season’s catch, and come home rejoicing with a heavy sled. But repeated attacks of snow blindness (despite his wooden snow goggles) had destroyed his sight; and here he was, in early middle age, a useless hopeless, helpless man, tied to the house, dependent upon his folk for food and clothing, and a drag upon them all.

Each night, as the hunters came home, the whole tribe gathered as usual round the cooking pots, when the excitements and doing of the day would be discussed with no less gusto than the food. Nandla always had his place in the family circle, and eagerly drank in every word the hunter had to say. He longed to hunt again, himself; to bring back the kill, to see the children come pushing into his house for their share, and to bid his wife give generously to the aged and the destitute! In his mind he pictured it all: the village nestling in the bay, huge, snow-clad cliffs rearing up at the back of it, and overhead the pure blue of the bright sky, where the glaucus gulls wheeled and cried. He pictured the scavenger ravens perched about everywhere, on the look-out for bits; the vast expanse of the frozen bay, glaring white in the cold sunlight; and beyond, a heavy black mist smoking up in the wind, marking the water line. Out there were the hunters—mere dots—moving about in the still immensity.

And here was he—Nandla—idle and useless, unable to occupy himself even with such tasks as fell to the ancients of the tribe—the repairing of lines, harness, and weapons. He could not patch up a snow house any more, or trim a lamp! Often, during the months of severe weather and of scarcity his relations had been hard pushed to find the wherewithal to feed him or clothe him. Nandla was very wretched.

At length, one evening, after just such a bad spell of weather and of luck, Nandla begged to be taken out on to the hunting grounds. Now, his relatives had been thinking things over rather grimly, and had seen nothing ahead for him but long years of misery and possibly of want. The problem suggested but one solution. It was simple enough. This request of the blind man’s to be equipped once more for the hunt and taken along with the rest, gave them their opportunity. They fell in with his desire and made their plan. They knew of a certain rout where danger lay. Nandla should be taken that way.

It was neither treachery nor murder they planned, but an end for the afflicted man of his anxieties and griefs. Nandla set out that morning full of delight. His heart was full of unwonted excitement. He yelled to the dogs and bumped and glided over the ice on the sled with a long missed sense of exhilaration.

They soon reached the grounds. Nandla’s guide seized his hand and led him towards a gaping seal hole.

“Follow me!” he said, dropping the other’s hand and lightly stepping to one side.

“I follow!” replied the sightless man, and straightway fell into a hole.

He went right under, then and there—under the ice—and was immediately drowned and frozen. A handy piece of ice served to seal the death trap, and all was over. Nandla had died on the hunt, and had entered the Eskimo heaven like the other valiant men of his tribe, and taken his place with the doughtiest of them, where there would be joy and plenty for evermore.

[#15] Julian W. Bilby, Among Unknown Eskimo (London: Seeley Service & Co., Ltd., 1923, pp. 147-53);

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Filed under Arctic, Arctic Cultures, Indigenous Cultures


#15 Tribal Life
     (Julian Bilby, 1923)

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