National Geographic : 1949 Oct
Nomads of the Far North BY MATTHEW W. STIRLING* Chief, Bureau of American Ethnology, Smithsonian Institution AT the beginning of the 16th century a meager 300,000 hardy nomads consti tuted the entire native population of the far north, an immense area comprising Greenland, peninsular Alaska, and all of Canada save the southern and far-western parts. These people lived off the country, defying winter storms and temperatures that some times went to 60° F. below zero or more; building homes of bark, skins, or snow; cloth ing themselves with fur; eating game and fish -in short, adapting themselves to Nature in its harshest moods. Paintings Combine Art and Research In the 16 paintings which follow, W. Lang don Kihn has pictured them as they lived in the early days and as some of their descend ants still live. He has painted them in tra ditional attire and characteristic surroundings, consulting old drawings and copying original costumes and implements. Among these people only three major lin guistic stocks are represented: Algonquian, Athapascan, and Eskimauan. Algonquian,' spoken by such tribes as the Micmac, Naskapi, Montagnais, Chipewyan, and Cree, extended from the Gulf of St. Law rence to the Rocky Mountains in southeastern Alberta, where it was spoken by a Plains tribe, the Blackfeet. Athapascan was used throughout the great drainage basins of the Mackenzie and Yukon Rivers. Characteristic Athapascan tribes were the Tanana, Kutchin, Hare, Yellowknives, Nahani, and Slaves. The Chipewyan, Caribou-eaters, and Bea ver, due west of Hudson Bay, lived more like their Algonquian neighbors to the south; the Sarcee were essentially a Plains tribe; and the Tahltan, Sekani, Carrier, and Chilcotin of the western Rocky Mountains reflected the culture of the northwest coast tribes. Eskimauan was spoken along the entire Arctic coast, including the Arctic archipelago, from Yakutat Bay, Alaska, to Newfoundland. Beothuk, the curiously isolated aboriginal language of Newfoundland, has been extinct for more than a century. The Algonquian region of the North is an extension of the Eastern Woodlands culture area. Probably its nuclear group was the (hippewa living in the western Great Lakes area, whose influence spread northward. It is a region of forests, lakes, and rivers with no high mountain ranges. The Indians are migratory and live by hunting and fishing. The Athapascan area has many lakes and rivers but is somewhat more varied. In the west it incorporates the northern extension of the Rocky Mountains. The central Athapascan area, drained by the Mackenzie, is a flat or rolling country, heavily forested with spruce, pine, birch, and poplar. The winters are long and severe, although snowfall is not heavy. The summers are warm and comfortable, but plagued with biting flies and mosquitoes. The most im portant game animal is the caribou. Moose and bear are fairly abundant, as are numerous small mammals. Northeast of this forested area lie the Northern Plains, or Barren Grounds, summer grazing ground of caribou and parts of it a home of the musk ox. This bleak, frozen desert extends 2,500 miles from the delta of the Mackenzie River to Labrador. The Indians now penetrate the Barren Grounds in the summer in search of skins and furs, but the territory is predominantly Eskimo.4 The drainage basin of the Yukon is similar to that of the Mackenzie in many respects, but is more mountainous. Wildlife is similar, and salmon in season are important to the native economy. The terrain occupied by the Eskimauan stock is a region primarily of seacoast and tun dra, and largely treeless and frozen throughout * This is the seventh in a series of authoritative articles by Dr. Stirling on the American Indian, illus trated with W. Langdon Kihn's paintings. Mr. Kihn, a distinguished painter of Indian subjects, was com missioned by the National Geographic Society to il lustrate the comprehensive series on American In dians. To gather data, he traveled to Indian reser vations, excavation sites, and over areas populated by Indians long before the white man came, noting costumes, customs, scenic backgrounds, utensils, and ornaments of the tribes shown. Thus the paintings combine artistic beauty with a wealth of accurate in formation. See, in the NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGA ZINE: "America's First Settlers, the Indians," Novem ber, 1937; "Indian Tribes of Pueblo Land," Novem ber, 1940; "Indians of Our Western Plains," July. 1944; "Indians of Our North Pacific Coast," January, 1945; "Indians of the Southeastern United States," January, 1946; and "Indians of the Far West," Feb ruary, 1948. t The Algonquian linguistic stock takes its name from the Algonquin, one of the numerous tribes speak ing this language. rSee "Canada's Caribou Eskimos." by Donald B. Marsh, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE, January, 1947.