National Geographic : 1947 Jan
The National Geographic Magazine Jabbing Spears at a Spinning Target, They Risk Wounds Gambling for Prizes A caribou antler hangs on a cord. As it revolves, contestants aim at the hole in its center. The first to pierce it wins a fox fur, perhaps even a rifle; then he must put up a prize for the next round. This inning has resulted in a draw, two spears having pierced the bull's-eye. Sitting in a circle, the players are exposed to accidents. Some wear mittens as armor. medicine men is the ability to tell what is happening many miles away. The wearing of charms comes as naturally to the Eskimo as his belief in shamans. I have seen some so smothered in tokens that they appeared to be in rags. Little bags may con tain a fish heart, a length of sealskin sewn on to give strength, a weasel skin to impart cun ning as a hunter, or a strip of cloth as a token from a well-wisher. The Eskimo's primitive qualities are best seen at a drum dance (page 89). There he really lets himself go back to barbarism. Darkness and Drum Beats Let us go and watch one. Though you have received your invitation early in the evening, it is impolite to rush. Delay an hour or so. After all, you have the long Arctic night in which to watch the dance. Now the sun has sunk; darkness suspends the taboo against drum beating. Soon the reverberating booms of the drum pulse through the night. For the dance, two conical skin tents are joined to make one roomy tribal dance hall. Be careful how you thread your way within its Stygian depths. Men loll around in a rough outer circle. Women squat shoulder to shoulder in a tighter inner ring. Singing a monotonous chant, the women keep time by swaying to and fro. Many close their eyes as if in a trance. That man now stepping into the women's circle is the drummer. He picks up a stumpy clublike stick and the huge caribou-skin drum. Gently he taps the edge of the drum. Now he looks up as if trying to remember his song. Louder sing the women. The drummer revolves his instrument, strik ing first one side and then the other. His body sways rhythmically. Then his knees bend until his caribou-skin coattails sweep the ground. With short steps he hops around the ring. A candle's flickering flame throws his shadow in grotesque shapes and highlights the onlookers' faces, grimly intense. As the song dies away, the drummer's wife softly starts another. Soon he is once more in full swing. You close your eyes and visualize the tom toms of Africa. This is 1947. The Eskimos' clothes have changed, their food habits have changed, but this is the dance they have danced for cen turies. This is the Stone Age.