National Geographic : 1947 Jan
Canada's Caribou Eskimos BY DONALD B. MARSH Anglican Archdeacon of Aklavik, Northwest Territories, Canada With Illustrations from Photographs by the Author THEY call themselves Padlermiut, People of the Willow Thicket. White men have dubbed them Caribou Eskimos, and with good reason. Fifty years ago these people were dependent upon one animal, the caribou, for life itself. Men, women, and children alike dressed in skins of caribou, which they hunted with bows and arrows. They fed on caribou meat, mainly raw and frozen. Caribou bones and antlers were their tools. Caribou hides cov ered their summer tents. Though they lived on Canada's Northern Plains, only slightly west of Hudson Bay, theirs was an inland culture (map, page 91). Unique among Eskimos, they possessed no traditions of the sea. They spoke a language like that used in Greenland, yet they had no lore about the hunting of aquatic mammals, Greenland's means of sustaining life. Seal, walrus, and polar bear were unknown to many of them. Salt water and tides were mysteries. Today the Padlermiut depend as much on traders as on caribou. They hunt with guns instead of bows. Within a lifetime they have emerged from the Stone Age; the high pressure existence of modern times stares them in the face. 20 Years Among the Igloos Before their primitive customs disappear entirely, I should like to picture these Padler miut, southernmost of four Caribou Eskimo tribes, from a missionary's vantage point. In summer I have shared their smoky caribou-skin tents; in winter, their freezing snow-block igloos. For 20 years I have watched them struggle with the elements and with advancing civilization. When I first set sail from Churchill, seat of a small Church of England mission, I scarcely knew what to expect at Eskimo Point, my destination, 160 miles north on Hudson Bay. Even then, some twenty years ago, changes had already overtaken the Padlermiut. For one thing, those I met were encamped beside the sea. As the anchor dropped, I saw against a background of conical caribou-skin tents a group of old men with long flowing hair and wrinkled, seamed, but smiling faces. All were clad in caribou skins, many of which were so stained with dirt and grease as to look the color of the earth. They stooped slightly forward as they walked, as if to help themselves along; yet theirs was the dignity and poise of men who are sure of themselves. The women had straggly, matted hair and greasy skin clothes, but they too greeted me with friendly smiles. With a shrug of the shoulders as they shook hands, mothers hitched the babies they carried on their backs so that the young generation might peep at me over the maternal shoulder and perhaps shake hands too. Babies Wary of Strangers Almost all the babies set up a howl on view ing the stranger, for they were not used to white men-especially one with glasses. But one little copper-colored maid shyly regarded me with big brown eyes and at last stretched out a chubby hand. After touching mine, she withdrew like a flash into the safety of her pouch, but not before I saw the little naked body so close to the bare back of the mother and thought how nice and warm such a nest must be in the rigors of winter. The young men and lads were grouped by themselves, and their appearance gave me a shock. Surely these were not Eskimos! Al most without exception they were dressed in sweaters, many with encircling bands of color, while the crowns of their heads were close cropped, tonsure fashion. Sweaters and pants alike were store goods. Only on their feet did they wear the tradi tional sealskin or caribou-skin boots of the Eskimos. They looked badly out of place and appeared self-conscious in their finery. So this was one of the changes coming to the North! Later I was to learn how pro phetic it was of the startling transformation taking place in the lives of these Eskimos. Even in those days the Caribou Eskimos had learned to drink tea, which they now consume in enormous quantities. They bought a brand put up in lead-covered packages so that the metal might be melted down in frying pans to make bullets. Fire sticks, flints, and steels were still to be found in their tool chests. I often marveled at the patience of men who sat all day split ting matches to make them go twice as far.