Quotes from Kabloona (Also, Moby Dick)

I finished Moby Dick. It was actually very good–a pleasant surprise. I don’t really know why I was surprised; after all, Moby Dick is commonly ranked as one of the best books of all time. Perhaps it is just because I hated Hawthorne so much, or my generally dismal memories of English class. Either way, if you are the sort of person who likes reading books, you may like it. If you’re the sort of person who says, “that looks like too many pages,” you might not like it.

On to Kabloona.

Kabloona continues to be excellent. (Those of you who have not suffered through mountains of university-level drek do not know how wonderful it is to read a well-written ethnography.) Since your library probably doesn’t have a copy, I have decided to periodically post a few excerpts.

Kabloona is the tale of a French man, de Poncins, who decided in 1939 to go live among the Eskimo (Inuit) of the Canadian arctic. (“Kabloona” is Eskimo for “white man”.) Though these Eskimo now regularly traded with whites and had things like metal runners for their sleds, they still basically lived their ancestral lifestyle–one that has all but disappeared today.

I had been under the impression that the whole “Eskimo live in igloos” thing was a myth–that they actually lived in more permanent structures most of the time, and only built igloos as temporary shelters while out hunting or traveling.

It turns out that I was wrong. Perhaps some Eskimo lived in more permanent structures for part or all of the year, in different times or places, but the folks de Poncins lived with actually lived in “permanent” igloos made of snow for most of the year and tents made of animal hides during the summer. (They also built smaller, “temporary” igloos while out hunting or traveling. But I should let De Poncins speak.

The sea:

The sea does not freeze solid in a single night. Day after day I watched it, and I saw how, helped by the shifting winds, the grainy-surfaced mirror would crack and break, the water would flow fee, and then the struggle would begin again. Something more powerful than the demonic power of the sea was vanquishing its impetuousness, curing its restless spirit. Little by little it was forced to yield, and the waves flung by it against the already frozen shore would stop in mid-air, defeated, crystallized.


…he told us that the snow was of a good sort, travelling would be easy now, and they had already built igloos on the big lake. The fishing? Very good. Many big fish–e-ka-luk–in the lake. As a matter of fact, he had brought in a couple of sackfuls to trade–handsome, red-fleshed, thick-lipped fish, frozen stiff. Seals? His son had killed “three of the left hand,” which is to say, added to the fingers of the right hand, eight of them.

In The Universal History of Numbers, Ifrah documents a lot of cultures that form numbers this way. Cultures that have not historically been engaged in very much trade or had need to count large numbers of discreet objects tend not to have numbers for those things. Some cultures literally have no words for numbers over three.


Twenty-five men, women, and children made up the entire population of King William Land, a territory ten thousand miles in extent.

Does a population of 25 people lead to inbreeding? Yes, it probably does.

…Utak brought another Eskimo into the Post, a slack and shiftless ne’er-do-well, a man perpetually destitute. He had arrived from ten days off to trade–a single fox. We were in mid-December and the man had not yet got round to mudding his runners, so that his wretched sled was next to useless. One mile out from the Post he had dropped a caribou-skin, had not missed it (proving he could not count up to four); and when, later, I told him that I had picked it up, he forgot to come to my quarters to fetch it. Each year this man and his wife had a child; and as his wretched wife had no milk, each year without fail the child died. But they, the Eskimo man and his wife, did not die. There was always an Eskimo to lend them a snow-knife, another to repair their sled for them on the trail, a third to house them because the man could not build a possible igloo. And never–it was this that was so admirable–never would you have heard a single impertinent or angry word spoken about these two. Of course they were teased a bit at night in the igloo, and great tales were told of the man’s comical futility; but they were unfailingly taken care of. The others would say, “He couldn’t get here because of his sled”: they would never say, “That man doesn’t know how to get over a trail.”

In addition to the regular difficulties of having a very tiny, thinly dispersed population, I must suspect that a lot of Eskimo were half-siblings without realizing it, due to the habit of wife-swapping.

… the exchange of wives was common among the Eskimos. It is not, as with certain other primitive peoples, a token of hospitality. … This was different, was a simple matter of sociability, a courtesy not to be refused between friends or visitors. Among hunting partners–the Eskimos often hunt in pairs—it was automatic, a relief from the monotony of existence.

…Among other articles of the code there was one that was absolutely rigorous: the privilege of disposing of the lady belonged exclusively to the husband. The man who mad his request directly of the wife committed a grave infraction of the code and serious trouble would certainly ensue.

To ask an Eskimo to lend you his wife is a thing so natural that no one will hesitate to put the question in a crowded igloo within hearing of a half a dozen others. It dos not so much break the thread of conversation, and the husband will say ye or no, according to hi momentary mood,with entire casualness.

The rest takes place as casually as the demand itself…. the husband will slip peacefully into his krepik, his deerskin bag, while his wife lets herself down into yours. And the presence of the husband in the same igloo need not intimidate you: he knows nothing of jealousy and is asleep before you have settled yourself in the company of his wife.

…Again and again I was to be baulked in my understanding by the 20,000 years of evolution–or is it more?–that separate the Eskimo and me. … Here sits a human being in one room while in another room sit his wife and a passive, a most casual, lover. And what does he do? He laughs. About what is going on in the other room? Not a tall. He laughs because it is fun to play at hiding things with a friend.

He is not jealous, then? No. And the reason ay be that jealousy is a function of the sense of individual property, and he has this sense, if at all, in the very faintest degree. You enjoy his wife? What harm can come to him of that? …


There were Eskimos who had no food. No one said of such a man,”He was too lazy to do any trapping.” What people said was, “He did not trap this season.” Why he should not have trapped was nobody’s affair. I remember the case of a native who had an ample cache of fish and was well provided against the winter. While he was at the post, Two Eskimo families camped at his cache. Being without grub, they opened it and lived on it; when he arrived the cache was empty. Pity! But it couldn’t be helped.

De Poncins attempts to reassure us that Eskimo women are not only just fine with the wife-swapping situation, but actually the ones really in charge behind the scenes. But this situation is perhaps not so great:

There is a good deal of killing among them, but in their eyes it is always just and often an act of communal devotion.

! De Poncins has described 5 (technically, six) murders so far; three of them were due to sexual jealousy/competition for women. Here’s one:

Among the Eskimos, meanwhile, the mystery of the white man’s justice remained. There was the case of Agil-ha-ak, “The Ptarmigan.” This case was hardest of all to understand. For in the first place, Agil-ha-ak had merely killed a young man who had sought to run off with his wife. The fact that, in the way of hunting partners, the man had enjoyed Agil-hi-ak’s wife offended nobody’ but to want to take her away, have her to himself, was criminal and deserved death. Secondly, what did they [the Canadian police] do by way of punishing Agil-hi-ak? hey housed him warmly; they gave him clothes to wear’ they fed him well and brought him all the tobacco he could smoke. Everybody was kind to him. They took him off on a long wonderful journey to Aklavik [the prison], over a thousand mile away, where he saw more white men’s houses (igloo-pak) than could be imagined. Precisely because he had killed a man he was freed from every hardship. …

It was four years before Agil-hi-ak came back. … he had lost his taste for the open life, yearned to return to Aklavik, where the white man was through with him since he had “expiated his crime.” Agil-hi-ak was not a better Eskimo for having submitted himself to the white man’s justice.

Such stories as Agil-hi-ak’s made the trip to Aklavik popular amongst the Eskimos. One or two might have been hanged there, but the mot of them had merely been housed and fed. To think that one had only to kill a man in order to receive the gift of this great excursion! One day an Eskimo came to the police and told them that he had killed two Indian near Bear Lake. There had been no witnesses, unfortunately, but the Eskimo insisted, was positive that he had killed his Indians. His face was so filled with glee, he looked so much like a kid about to be fed his favorite candies, that the police were suspicious.

“Too easy!” they said. “He thinks he is going to get a round-trip ticket to Aklavik for this story; but you don’t catch us out, my lad. For once the police are not going to be done in the eye. Clear out, now and leave us be!”

A year went by, and a white trapper arrived at the police post. He had come in from Bear Lake, and there, in a shack, he had found two dead Indians.

These incidents may not have occurred among the group of 25 our author lodged with, but recall that the entire population of Eskimo in the area was never very large. Even today, there are only about 50,000 Inuit in all of Canada (about half of whom live in Nunavut, the 725,018 square mile territory that corresponds to the area where de Poncins lived.

Greenland, which is largely Inuit/Eskimo, has a homicide rate of 19.4 people per 100,000.

The US has a homicide rate of 4.7 / 100,000 people, Sweden has a rate of 0.7, and Japan has a mere 0.3. [source]


I’ll post more later, when I have a chance to type it up. Oh, and Happy New Year.

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