Kabloona Friday

I finished Kabloona, though I still have a few excerpts for you guys.

De Poncins does eventually discover that he feels warmer after eating the Eskimo’s food than after eating bread. It is really a pity that all those guys who died of scurvy on their ways to the poles did not know that.

Oh, and I think I may have figured out the mystery of why arctic peoples don’t have fur. De Poncins describes in one passage how his beard (which he could not shave while on the trail,) had become laden with ice in the -50 degree weather, and periodically the ice would crack and a chunk of beard would get ripped out of his face.

Polar bears handle fur just fine, but their noses jut out much further than ours; our exhalation goes directly down our faces.

Additionally, one of the constant concerns in the arctic is keeping properly dry. You get snowy, you go indoors to warm up, the snow melts, now you’re wet. Head back outside, and the wet freezes.

Bare skin probably dries faster than fur.

Anyway, back to our quotes:

A group of Eskimos were sitting in an igloo. Night had fallen, and they sat laughing and smoking after a good day of sealing. … the idea of a coming feast excited the men, and the pitch of their conversation rose and became playfully crude. At that moment the word was spoken. Not an insulting word, not a direct slap, but a word mockingly flung forth and therefore more painful, a word that made a man lose face before the others, that crippled him if he had no retort. One of the younger men had spoken. Encouraged by the laughter of the rest he hand gone further than he intended. Planted before an older man, who was lying back on the iglerk, [sofa made of snow] he said to him scornfully, “When you don’t miss a seal, you certainly strike him square. If we were all as accurate as you are, the clan would have to get along without eating.”

The old man’s blood rushed to his face, but except for a single flash of the eyes he remained impassive. He sat still, unable to reply. … He got up after a moment and slipped out of the igloo. His igloo. This made it more unbearable. …

He strode to the other end of the camp, and crawled into Akyak’s igloo. There, without a word, he sat down. Akyak was alone. She looked at him and wondered what the old man was doing in her igloo when he had guests at home. But she asked no questions. Causally, she picked up the teapot and poured him out a mug of tea. He drank it at a gulp, and then said suddenly:

Inut-koak“–“I am an old man.”

Astonished, Akyak protested vaguely; but he was not listening. Already he was on his way out. …

The old man went sealing with the rest. But those words gnawed at him unbearably. … Bowed over his hole in the ice, he brooded. If he had been able to kill several seals in a row, he would have resumed his place as the great hunter of the clan, and it would have been his privilege to speak mockingly to the younger man. But fate was against him. He missed seal after seal. …

The day came when he would no longer sit with the rest in another Eskimo’s igloo. While they laughed and feasted, he remained at home, motionless on his iglerk, eyes shut, arms hanging loose, like a sick doll. He had stopped going with the others out on the ice. He was beginning to mutter to himself. He was forgetting to eat. His dogs would howl, and he would not so much as go out of doors to beat them.

…Still, the other would come to see him, whether out of curiosity or malice it is hard to say. They would find him sitting at his end of the iglerk, saying over and over to himself:

Inut-koak“–“I am an old man.”

Some would try to cheer him up.

“Com, come!” they would say. “You have the best wife in the camp. There’s nobody like you with a woman.”

Inut-koak!” he would repeat obstinately.

…He was not thinking, but brooding… There was only one way to be rid of it, and that was death. But whose death? His, or the young man’s?

It was going to be his, and he knew it. He was too old to kill. The thought invaded him, took possession of him, and as he never struggled against it, it undermined him. …

One day he made up his mind. It was evening, his family were there, and the old man spoke.

“Prepare the rope,” he said to his wife.

Nobody stirred. They were all like this, and it was true of all of them that once an Eskimo had made up his mind there was no dissuading him from his decision. Not a word was said. The dutiful wife came forward with a rope made of seal. A noose made in it never slips. …

In the igloo the old man fashioned a running noose. With a single jerk the thing was done. Seated on the edge of the iglerk, his face bent down to the ground, he had strangled himself, and his body lay slack. No one would touch it. they would leave it as it was, and strike camp to escape the evil spirit that had possessed this man. The next day they  were gone and the igloos stood empty in the white expanse.

It was not that they did not care enough to stop him, but that they did not wish to impose upon his freedom to do as he wished.

Going into the other igloo on the second day, I found on the ground a doll. It was a thing that might have been made not only for a child, but by a child–shapeless, covered in caribou hide, shining with fat like the Eskimos themselves, and pigeon-toed as their women invariably are. Tufts of musk-ox fur had been stuck either side of the head to simulate human hair. The thing had no form, was crude, wretched, yet how expressive it was! … It filled me with pity, and with admiration, too, for if it spoke of wretched poverty, it spoke no less of stoicisim. …

On the spot I gave two plugs of tobacco for the doll, and instantly I became the idiot white man. For a bit of hide that the child would no longer play with, I had given two plugs of tobacco. I had hardly left them before they began hastily to manufacture bright new dolls, dressed in new skins. Surely the Kabloona would pay five or six plugs for the new dolls! They were in Algunerk’s igloo the next day before I was out of my sleeping-bag, and when, in triumph, they held up the new dolls, and I wrinkled my nose (the Eskimo sign for “no”), they grumbled angrily and withdrew, convinced now that the white man was surely mad.

After a very long journey, de Poncins finally managed to meet Father Henry:

I am going to say to you that a human being can live without complaint in an ice-house built for seals at a temperature of fifty-five degrees below zero, and you are going to doubt my word. Yet what I say is true, for this was how Father Henry lived; and when I say, “ice house for seals,” I am not using metaphorical language. … An Eskimo would not have lived in this hole. An igloo is a thousand times warmer, especially one built out on the sea over the water, warm beneath the coat of ice. I asked Father Henry why he lived thus. He said merely that it was more convenient, and pushed me ahead of him into his cavern. …

Compared with this hole, an igloo was a palace. From the door to the couch opposite measured four and one half feet. Two people could not stand comfortably here, and when Father Henry said Mass I used to kneel on the couch. “If you didn’t, you would be in my way,” was how he put it. … The couch was a rickety wooden surface supported in the middle by a strut, over which two caribou hides had been spread. On these three plank forming a slightly titled surface, Father Henry slept. …

Father Henry and I took to each other from the beignning. A seal ice-house bring people together moe quickly than a hotel room, and a good deal more intimately. Convesation in such a place is frank and honest, untrammelled by the reticences of society.

“I said to him one day:”Don’t you fidn this life too hard for you, living aline like this?”

“Oh, no,” he said; “I am really very  happy here. my life is simple, iI have no wories, I have everything I need.” (He had nothing at all!) “Only ne thing preys on my mind now and then” it is–what will become of me when I am old?”

He said this with such an air of confessing a secret weakness that my heart swelled with sudden emotion, and I tried clumsily to comfort him.

“When you are old,” I said, “you will go back among the white men. You will be given a mission at Chesterfield, or at Churchill.”

“No, no, no!” he protested, “not that.”

From a conversation reported to our author about himself:

“Does he speak Eskimo?”

At this point, Father Henry said to me: “Observe the delicacy of these men. He might have said, ‘badly.’ Instead, in order not to hurt anyone, he said, ‘All that he has said to us, we have clearly understood’

De Poncins has managed to reach a group of Eskimo with almost no contact with the outside world:

As we moved from camp to camp, I was surprised everywhere by the spaciousness, I might almost have said the magnificence, of these igloos Their porches were invariably built to contain two good-sized niches, one for the dogs, the other for harness and equipment. In some camps I found again the communal architecture of which I had seen a deserted specimen on the trial–three igloos so built as to open into a central lobby. Each igloo housed two families, one at either side of the porch, and was lighted by two seal-oil lamps. I measured them and found they were twelve feet in diameter–so wide at the axis that the iglerk, which in the King William Land igloo fills three quarters of the interior, took up less than half the floor space. The seal-oil lamps, or more properly, vessels, were nearly three feet long. All this luxury was explained by the presence of seal in quantity, whereas round King, seal is, to say the least, not plentiful.

Back of each lamp, on a sort of platform of snow, lay the usual larder of the Eskimo rich in provisions, into which every visitor was free to put his knife and draw forth the chunk of seal or caribou or musk-ox that he preferred. …

What I was seeing here, few men had seen, and it was now to be seen almost nowhere else–a social existence a in olden days, a degree of prosperity and well-being contrasting markedly with the psueduo-civilized life of the western Eskimo and the pitiful, stunted, whining life of the King William clan with its wretched poverty , its tents made of coal-sacks, its snuffling, lackluster, and characterless men clad in rags’ that life like a dulled and smutted painting with only here and there a gleam to speak of what it had once been.

I figure one of the reasons anthropology has changed so much is that today, there’s a  good chance your subjects will read your book, so you might not want to refer to your informants as pitiful, stunted, and whining.

 

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4 thoughts on “Kabloona Friday

  1. I’m enjoying the extracts, how many are left?
    The one thing I can add:
    The polar explorers did know that meat prevented scurvy, they just thought it was type of food poisoning caused by improper preservation. Also the explorers often couldn’t take fresh seal meat inland due to the weight. The deaths due to scurvy occured because while people knew fresh meat, lemons and other foods prevented scurvy the mechanism wasn’t understood, so in the case of lemon juice they didn’t store it correctly, they replaced it with limes which were less effective and no one realised because steam ships meant that trips were shorter.

    http://www.idlewords.com/2010/03/scott_and_scurvy.htm

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    • Thanks, I’m glad you’ve enjoyed them. Just one left, but I have a few other anthropology books I’m considering excerpting if people like them.
      So they did, poor sods. At least, they knew that fresh meat (and veggies) did not cause scurvy, and that preserved foods seemed to bring it on; rot is not a terrible theory for what might be wrong with one’s food, it just happened to be wrong.

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