#12 Those Who Were Left Behind
     (Knud Rasmussen, 1921-1924)

The communism which necessarily prevails in Eskimo society in order that all can manage to exist renders it a duty for the family to care for all helpless persons; among such are reckoned fatherless children, widows or old men and women who on account of age are no longer able to keep up with the rest on the constant hunting expeditions. In the absence of immediate relatives, the village as a whole is charged with the care of those who are unable to provide for themselves. But although such might often be inconceivably modest in their demands, they might sometimes be left to their fate. This applies more especially to old women, who could no longer render any useful service. Often pure heartlessness was the cause, but it might just as often be the severity of the struggle to make ends meet, which forced the head of a household to restrict the number of mouths to be fed, in times of scarcity, when despite all efforts he could not even procure food enough for those nearest of kin. Orphan children were blocked up in snow huts and left there, buried alive. They were called “mato˙ruƒ˙ät”: “those who have been covered up.” Old and worn out folk would be left behind on the road when unable to keep up with the rest on a journey: one day the old creature would lag behind, and be left, in the track of the sledges, no one troubling to fetch the laggard in to camp when the snow huts were built. These were called “qimatät”: “those who were left behind.” Sometimes also, the party would simply neglect to take them along when first setting out from the old site, and they might then freeze or stave to death—often a lingering death, unless they chose to hang themselves rather then suffer so long. But though the severe conditions of life were responsible for these cruel customs, it was nevertheless always reckoned a shameful thing to be guilty of such heartlessness. And the stories, which have always a moral touch, and point very clearly the difference between right and wrong, generally provide some miraculous form of rescue for such unfortunates, with a cruel and ignominious death for those who abandoned them…

[#12] Knud Rasmussen, Intellectual Culture of the Iglulik Eskimos (Report of the Fifth Thule Expedition 1921-24) (Copenhagen: Gyldendalske Boghandel, Nordisk Forlag, 1929): 159-60.

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