Degeneracy of Type

If “evolution” is a word that comes up a lot in the late 1800s (even before Darwin,) “degenerate” is the word of the 1930s and 40s.

In Kabloona, (1941) an ethnography of the Eskimo (Inuit) of northern Canada, de Poncins speaks highly of the “pure” Eskimo, whose ancestral way of life remains unsullied by contact with European culture, and negatively of the “degenerate Eskimo,” caught in the web of international trade, his lifestyle inexorably changed by proximity and contact with the West.

In Caughey’s History of the Pacific Coast, (1933) he writes:

The Northwest Coast Indians felt the ill effects of too much contact with British, Russian, and American traders. The rum of the trading schooners was one of several factors contributing to the degeneracy of those not actually exterminated.

In Nutrition and Physical Degeneration, (1939) Dr. Price argues that modern foods are low in nutrient value and inferior to many native, ancestral diets, and that the spread of this “white man’s food” caused an epidemic of disease, tooth decay, and skeletal mal-formation, which he documents extensively. Dr. Price refers to the change in appearance from one generation to the next, coinciding with the introduction of modern foods, as “interrupted heredity.” The parents represent “pure racial type,” with strong teeth and bones, while the children, bow-legged and sick, suffer physical degeneration.

(This kind of language that Dr. Price uses sometimes confuses us moderns, because we flinch reflexively at phrases like “racial type” when in fact his argument is the inverse of the racist arguments of his day.)

From SMBC--there's something wrong with this comic. I bet you can figure out what it is.
From SMBC–there’s something wrong with this comic. I bet you can figure out what it is.

Now, there is something twee about anthropologists (and historians) who long for the preservation of other peoples’ cultures when the people within those cultures seem to prefer modernity. Igloos and teepees may seem fun and exotic to those of us who don’t live in them, but the people who do might genuinely prefer a house with central heat and a toilet. Obviously the whole anthropologist schtick involves people who really like studying cultures that are distinct from their own, and if the people in those cultures adopt Western lifestyles, then there just isn’t much to study anymore.

(Imagine if we found out tomorrow that all of what we thought were variations in human DNA turned out to be contamination errors due to local pollen, and vast swathes of this blog became moot.)

It is easy to write off such notions as just feel-good sentimentalizing by outsiders, but these are at least outsiders with more first hand knowledge of these cultures than I have, so I think we should at least consider their ideas.

The degeneracy described as a result of contact with the West is not just physical or cultural, but also moral. A culture, fully-fledged, is one of humanity’s greatest technologies, a tool for the total transmission of a group’s knowledge, morals, and behaviors. Your ancestors, facing much the same environment as yourself, and armed with similar tools, struggled to obtain food, marry, raise children, and survive just as you do. The ones who succeeded passed down the lessons of their success, and these lessons became woven into the tapestry of culture you were raised in, saving you much of the trial-and error effort of reproducing your ancestors’ struggles.

picture-144Some people claim to believe that all cultures are equally valuable and important. I don’t. I think cultures that practice things like cannibalism, animal sacrifice, and child rape are bad and I don’t cry for their disappearance. But virtually every culture has at least some good features, or else it wouldn’t have come about in the first place.

Cultural lessons stem from the practical–“Ice the runners of your sled to make it run more smoothly”–to the moral–“Share your belongings in common with the tribe”–to the inscrutable–“don’t eat the totem animal.” (Some of these beliefs may be more important than others.) Throughout all of recorded human history, most of us have passed on bodies of moral teachings under the name of “religion,” whether we believe in the literal truth of mythic stories or not.

Rapid cultural change–not the gentle sort that percolates slowly across generations, but massive variety precipitated by an industrial revolution or the sudden introduction of a few thousand years’ worth of technological advancement to a long-isolated people–outstrips a society’s ability to provide meaningful moral or practical guidance. Simply put: people don’t know what to do.

Take alcohol. People have probably been producing fermented beverages for at least 10,000 years, or for about as long as we’ve been trying to store pots of grain and fruit. The French have wine, Mongolians have fermented horse milk, the Vikings fermented honey and the Founding Fathers drank a lot of apple cider.

Alcohol has beneficial effects–few pathogens survive the fermentation process–and obviously harmful effects. Societies that traditionally produced large quantities of alcohol have evolved social norms and institutions to help people enjoy the beneficial effects and avoid the bad ones. France, for example, which in 2014 produce 4.5 billion liters of wine and consumed 2.8 billion liters of the same, is not a nation of violent, wife-beating, car-crashing drunkards. French social norms emphasize moderate wine consumption accompanied by food, friends, and family.

By contrast, in societies where alcohol was suddenly introduced via contact with whites, people don’t have these norms, and the results–like rampant alcoholism on Native American reservations–have been disastrous. These societies can–and likely will–learn to handle alcohol, but it takes time.

chart_of_gonorrhea_infection_rates_usa_1941-2007Our own society is undergoing its own series of rapid changes–industrialization, urbanization, post-industrialization, the rise of the internet, etc. Andean cultures have been cultivating coca leaves for at least 3,000 years, apparently without much trouble, while the introduction of crack/cocaine to the US has been rather like dropping bombs on all of our major cities.

The invention of fairly reliable contraception and the counter-culture of the ’60s and ’70s led to the spread of “free love,” which in turn triggered skyrocketing gonorrhea rates. Luckily gonorrhea can be treated with antibiotics (at least until it becomes antibiotic resistant,) but it’s still a nasty disease–one internet acquaintance of mine caught gonorrhea, took antibiotics and thought he was in the clear, but then doctors discovered that the inside of his penis was full of scar tissue that was dangerously closing off his bladder. They had basically cut him a new urethra once they were done removing all of the scar tissue, and he spent the next few months in constant, horrible pain, even while on medication.

latestAnd to add insult to injury, everyone in his social circle just thought he was bitter, jealous, and trying to make his ex-girlfriend look bad when he tried to warn them that they shouldn’t sleep with her because she gave him gonorrhea.

Of course, gonorrhea is just the tip of the horrifying iceberg.

By contrast, the Amish look pretty darn healthy.

Degeneracy isn’t just a sickness of the body; it’s a falling apart of all of the morals and customs that hold society together and give people meaning and direction in their lives. You don’t have to waste years trying to “find yourself” when you already have a purpose, but when you have no purpose but to feed yourself, it’s easy to become lost.

I should note that Dr. Price didn’t just examine the teeth of Eskimo and Aborigines, but also of Scots, Swiss, and Americans. His conclusion–nutritional degeneracy due to contact with modern foods–was the same regardless of culture. (Note: nutrition and food production have changed since 1939.) Or as Scott Alexander recently put it:

I am pretty sure there was, at one point, such a thing as western civilization. I think it involved things like dancing around maypoles and copying Latin manuscripts. At some point Thor might have been involved. That civilization is dead. It summoned an alien entity from beyond the void which devoured its summoner and is proceeding to eat the rest of the world.

Well, that sounds a fair bit more dire than Dr. Price’s assessment. Let’s assume Scott is being poetic and perhaps exaggerating for effect. Still: massive cultural changes can sweep the normative rug out from beneath your feet and leave you injured and confused. It will take time–perhaps centuries–for society to fully adjust to the technological changes of the past hundred years. Right now, everyone is still muddling through, trying to figure out what will kill us and what will save us.

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.

 

Kabloona Friday

Continuing a series of excerpts from Kabloona, an ethnography of the Eskimos published in 1941.

The homosexual Eskimo:

An apparition at the Post pulled me up one day with a shock of amazement. I am as well aware as the next man that sexual aberration knows no geography and no chronology, that inversion is a phenomenon observable in ancient as in modern times, in primitive as in civilized societies. Yet it was not in my thoughts that I should one day see a homosexual Eskimo; and if I put this man in my notebooks, and write about him now, it is not because of his aberration but because he was, in his repellant way, a singularly comic and glittering figure, at once loathsome and fascinating.

There was never such a master of pantomime as this infinitely strange, perpetually agitated, and yet extraordinarily self-possessed rogue who dropped in one afternoon from Back’s River and was off again the next day. He seemed to take it for granted that neither Gibson nor I would understand his speech, for immediately on coming in he began to display his talent as a mime, and he did it with obvious relish. He had no need of worse: face and hands sufficed him to paint for us his four days on the trail. He had run out of tea on the second day, and he wrote in sign language a poem of the brewing and drinking of his last cup. he had started with only a little coal-oil; and in a moment he was coxing the last drop of oil out of an invisible tin, aping marvelously–how he did it I do not know–the very tin itself, showing us with his hands what emptiness was. … Forgetting himself momentarily, he would speak rapid words, but his pantomime went faster than his words, and he would fasten his eyes on your face with the shrewdness and the childish self-satisfaction of an old actor, as if saying, “Don’t you admire the way I am doing this?”

Another thing: he looked exactly like portraits of Louis XIII’ and not only did I sketch him, but fearing that my drawing might be the fruit of my imagination, I photographed him, and it was Louis XIII to the life who stared at me from the negative. A narrow strip of beard that looked half natural and half makeup, ran down his chin, and he was either all curtsies and scrapings, bowing forward with rounded back to leer at you while his hands sent dismayingly over your person and he murmured over the beauty of your clothes, or he would straighten up abruptly, stick out his chest, and posture stiffly as if posing for his portrait.

Unfortunately, though several drawings and photographs made it into the book, this Louis XIII’s portrait did not. However, it is pretty easy to find portraits of the original Louis XIII:

Louis XIII by Franz Pourbour the Younger, 1620
Louis XIII by Franz Pourbour the Younger, 1620

You know, I can see the possible resemblance.

The WIkipedia notes some rumors on the subject of “Was Louis XIII gay?” and there’s some even weirder stuff on the talk page. I don’t know if this is some real connection, or if people just like to speculate that famous people might have been gay.

At any rate, it is a blow against the claim that homosexuality is unknown among hunter-gathers.

… To heighten the impression of inversion this man dragged along with him, behind him, a child whose features were no less astonishing than his own–a little Aiglon* with romantic locks brushed across his forehead and immense, incredibly ringed eyes that were a little melancholy and rather protuberant.

*According to Google, “Aiglon” is a private boarding school in Switzerland, so I take this as a French term for a school aged child?

What was this? Was it a girl, a boy? A boy, yes, said our Louis XIII, turning round to stroke the passive forehead’ and a very good trapper. He got two foxes the other day. The word “trapper” went very ill with the look of the boy, and I was sure the man was lying about his minion. As the evening wore on, and the child began to droop with sleep, he refused to allow the boy to go off to the igloo alone, explaining with inconceivable gestures that they always slept together (gesture of rocking the child to sleep in his arms) and saying that the boy was never able to go to sleep without him.

…The whole thing was beyond words disconcerting, and I aid to myself that next day, when thi man and the child had moved of over the sea, had vanished into the infinity of the North, I should be perfectly right to believe that the whole thing had been a dream.

It is interesting how our definition of “homosexual” has changed over time to no longer include “synonymous with pedophile.” I don’t know if this is because of a shift in the behavior of gay people, a shift in how people think of gay people, or a mere shift in the technical carving up of categories. The association with actors, however, remains.

The meeting of two worlds:

Trading at a Hudson’s Bay Post is a struggle in which two mentalities, the White and the Eskimo, meet and lock. In the end each is persuaded that he has won the match–the white man because in this barter he has got his “price,” and the Eskimo because he is convinced of having got something for nothing.

Your Eskimos turn up with sacks of foxes and signify that they want to trade. The trading is done at the Store, which stands some forty yards off from the Post proper. You lead them out, and as they troop over the snow there is a good deal of strangled laughter. What a great farce this is! Once again they are going to do the white man in the eye, and once again the white man is not going to know what has happened to him. All those wonderful things that fill the Store are to be theirs for a few foxes. What can the white man want with foxes? in the igloo, a fox-skin will do as a clout, but even to wipe things with, the ptarmigan makes a better rag It isn’t possible that the white man should have so many things that need wiping!

One by one, like Arab into a mosque, they file into the Store, wives and children at their heels. And though they have been inside before, each time that they see these treasures they stand stock still, silent, stunned. … To people for whom a rusted file is a treasure–Amundsent speaks of Eskimos traveling six hundred miles to get a few nails–this is the holy of hollies. They raise their heads and see fifty tea kettles hanging from the ceiling almost within reach. … The notion that thanks to a few tufts of frozen fur they are going to possess these gleaming treasures is too much for them. It sends them off into brief gusts of nervous laughter. And what an amazing being this white man is! Not only does he have all these pots and kettles that you see, but every year a new lot arrives. He must have, buried in his distant country, immense caches of pots and kettles. …

…when he leaves the Store, dragging behind him a wooden box filled with treasures, he senses vaguely that many of these shining objects are of no use to him. Oftener, however, it is simply that he no longer wants those things which, a moment ago, he was unable to resist. And then a second stage of trading begins–that between the natives themselves. And since in their eyes nothing possesses intrinsic value, but the value of an object is great or small accordingly as they desire or disdain it, a handsome dog-collar may be swapped for a clay pipe, or a half sack of flour for a red pencil. A needle thus becomes worth a whole fox, a worn strip of leather has the value of a lamp. And what is most curious is that no Eskimo will ever say to you that he has been had in a trade. It is not that his vanity forbids such a confession but that this can never occur to him. He wanted what he got in the trade; soon after, perhaps, he ceased to want it; but between the two his primitive intellect will not allow him to establish any relationship. Nor is this phenomenon peculiar to Eskimos. In the South Sea islands I have known natives to do sixty miles through the bush and across rives in order to trade for matches they furiously desired because the matches had red heads.

In the interests of fairness, I should note that de Poncins comes around to the necessity of the Eskimos’ ways and mentalities after a fair amount of exhausted traveling about on the ice himself. Much of what he says in the first half of the book is meant to show his own misconceptions. But continuing on with the subjects of trade and culture:

Everything about the Eskimo astonishes the white man, and everything about the white man is a subject of bewilderment to the Eskimo. Our least gesture seems to him pure madness, and our mot casual and insignificant act may have incalculable results for him. Let but a Post Manager say to an Eskimo, “here is a package of needles for your wife,” and he will have started … a train of questions and ruminations that may lead anywhere. The free gift is unknown among the Eskimos: better yet, it is incomprehensible to them. Had the white man said, “Lend me your wife in exchange,” the Eskimo would have understood. An exchange is normal’ a gift passes his understanding. It sends his thoughts going. It i amoral. He will not thank the white man. He will go back to his igloo and ruminate. “Since the white man has given me these needles,” he will in effect say to himself, “it must be that he does not want them, and if he does not want his treasures, why should not I have them?” From that day forth, this Eskimo will be a different man. He will begin by despising the white man, and soon he will plan cunningly to exploit him. Since the white man has proved himself a fool, why not? So the Eskimo becomes a liar and a cheat. A single generous impulse on the part of the white man has stared the moral disintegration of a native.

De Poncins does not tell us how he came to believe in the possibility of this final series of events, whether due to conversation or personal experience or what-have-you. Nevertheless, let us take it as a general warning against the dangers of misunderstood gifts.

On happiness:

Many people imagine that the sun is necessary to human happiness and that the South Sea islanders must be the gayest, most leisurely and most contented folk on earth. No notion could be more falsely romantic, for happiness has nothing to do with climate: these Eskimos afforded me decisive poof that happiness is a disposition of the spirit.

(De Poncins himself, however, develops some serious cabin fever in the middle of winter.)

Here was a people living in the mot rigorous climate in the world, in the most depressing surroundings imaginable, haunted by famine in a grey and sombre landscape sullen with the absence of life; shivering in their tents in the autumn, fighting with recurrent blizzard in the winter, toiling and moiling fifteen hour a day merely n order to get food and stay alive. Huddling and motionless in their igloos through this interminable night, they ought to have been melancholy men, men despondent and suicidal; instead, they were a cheerful people, always laughing, never weary of laughter.

A man is happy, in sum, when he is leading the life that suits him, and neither warmth nor comfort has anything to do with it. I watched these Eskimos at the Post. This house, you would say, ought to mean for them the zenith of well-being and relaxation… But look at them! They are dull, sullen, miserable. Physically, they seem shrunken, their personalities diminished and extinguished. Instead of laughing, they brood; and you see them come in, take their seats on the bench and remain like sleepwalkers, expressionless and spiritless… But open wide the door, fling them into the blizzard, and they come to. they wake up suddenly; they whistle,; their women scurry about, their children crack the triumphant whip, their dogs bark like mad: an impression of joy, of life, fills the environs of the Post.

I suspect that people are basically happy when living in accordance with their natures, active, and possessed of a sense of agency over their lives.

Kabloona Friday

(Part of a series on de Poncins’s Kabloona, an ethnography of the Eskimo/Inuit.)

How’s winter treating you?

Up near the North Pole, I hear it gets really cold. Like, really cold:

That journey homeward in darkness was an unrelieved agony. I was cold; I was freezing; not only in the flesh, but my soul was frozen. As I sat on the swaying and creaking sled the cold became an obsession, almost an hallucination, and soon I was in a delirium of cold. … My brain had shrunk to the dimensions of a dried raisin. Stubbornly, painfully, almost maliciously, it clung to a single thought, made room for no other image: “I am cold!” I was not cold as people Outside are cold. I was not shivering. I was in the cold, dipped into a trough where the temperature was thirty degrees below zero…

During this same journey across the frozen polar sea, the Eskimo, dressed in the same clothes and just as many layers, experienced no such hypothermic delusions. Undoubtedly this is at least in part due to evolutionary adaptations that help them withstand the cold, but a few pages earlier, de Poncins had vividly (and unknowingly) described another reason the Eskimos were much warmer than he:

I do not know what the hour was, but I who had dozed off woke up. Under my eye were the three Eskimos, three silhouettes lit up from behind by the uncertain glow of a candle that threw on the walls of the igloo a mural of fantastically magnified shadows. All three men were down on the floor in the same posture… They were eating, and whether it was that the smell of the seal had been irresistible, or that the idea of the hunt had stimulated their appetites, they had embarked upon a feast. Each had a huge chunk of meat in his hands and mouth, and by the soundless flitting of their arms made immeasurably long in the shadows on the wall, I could see that even before one piece had been wholly gobbled their hands were fumbling in the basin for the next quarter. The smell in the igloo was of seal and of savages hot and gulping. …

I have seen astonishing things, in remote places and not merely in circuses. In the New Hebrides, for example, I have unpacked my own meat in a circle of cannibals and have seen in their eyes a gleam that was perhaps more intense than comforting. Here, in this igloo, all that I had seen before was now surpassed. There were three men, and there must have been fifty pounds of meat. The three men attacked that meat with the rumbling and growling of animals warning their kind away from their private prey. They ground their teeth and their jaws cracked as they ate, and they belched… The walls of the igloo were horrid with the ruddy dripping of bloody spittle and still they ate on, and still they put out simian arms and turned over with indescribable hands morsels in the beginning disdained and now become dainties greedily swallowed. And till, like beats, they picked up chunks and flung them almost instantly down again in order to put their teeth into other and perhaps more succulent bits. They had long since stopped cutting the meat with their circular knives: their teeth sufficed, and the very bones of the seal cracked and splintered in their faces. What those teeth could do, I already knew. When the cover of a gasoline drum could not be pried off with the fingers, an Eskimo would take it between his teeth and it would come easily away. When a strap made of seal skin freezes hard–and I know nothing tougher than seal skin–an Eskimo will put it in his mouth and chew it soft again. And those teeth were hardly to be called teeth. Worn down to the gums, they were sunken and unbreakable stumps of bone. If I were to fight with an Eskimo, my greatest fear would be lest he crack my skull with his teeth.

But on this evening their hands were even more fantastic than their teeth. … Their capacity of itself was fascinating to observe, and it was clear that like animals they were capable of absorbing amazing quantities of food, quite ready to take their chances with hunger a few days later.

The traditional Eskimo diet contains little to no vegetable matter, because very few plants grow up near the North Pole, especially in winter. It consists primarily of fish, seal, polar bear, foxes, and other meats, but by calorie, it is mostly fat. (This is because you can’t actually survive on a majority-protein diet.)

To run through the dietary science quickly, de Poncins has throughout the book been generally eating white-man’s food, which includes things like bread and beans. This is not to say that he disdained fish and seals–he does not make much mention of whether he ate those, but he does talk about bread, potatoes, beans, etc. So de Poncins is eating what you’d call a “normal” diet that makes use of glucose to transform food into energy. The Eskimo, by contrast, are eating the “Atkins” diet, making use of the ketogenic cycle.

No plants = no carbs; no carbs = no glucose.

But the brain cannot run without glucose, so luckily your body can make it out of protein.

Interestingly, you will die without proteins and fats in your diet, but you can survive without carbs.

Anyway, one of the side effects of a high-protein, ketogenic diet is (at least occasionally,) increased body heat:

Karst H, Steiniger J, Noack R, Steglich HD: Diet-induced thermogenesis in man: thermic effects of single proteins, carbohydrates and fats depending on their energy amount. Ann Nutr Metab 1984, 28(4):245-252.

Abstract: The diet-induced thermogenesis of 12 healthy males of normal body weight was measured by means of indirect calorimetry over 6 h after test meals of 1, 2 or 4 MJ protein (white egg, gelatin, casein), carbohydrate (starch, hydrolyzed starch) or fat (sunflower oil, butter). The effect of 1 MJ protein was at least three times as large as that of an isocaloric carbohydrate supply. [bold mine]

(isocaloric = having similar caloric values)

In other words, the Inuits’ low-carb diet probably increased their internal body temperature, keeping them warmer than our author.

I have attempted a low-carb diet, (solely for health reasons–I have never wanted to lose weight,) and one of the things I remember about it is that I would suddenly feel completely, ravenously hungry. There were times that, had I not been able to get food, I would not have begun devouring anything even remotely chewable. Of course, that may have just been a personal digestive quirk.

I feel compelled to note that this post is not advocating any particular diet; you are most likely not an Eskimo and there is no particular reason to believe, a priori, that you are better adapted to their diet than to the diet of your ancestors (whatever that happens to be.)

Unfortunately, this also holds true for the Eskimo, who probably are adapted to their ancestral diet and not adapted to the white man’s foods, which explains why diabetes and obesity are becoming epidemic among them:

Age-standardized rates of T2D show 17.2% prevalence of Type 2 Diabetes among First Nations individuals living on reserves, compared to 5.0% in the non-Aboriginal population; … First Nations women in particular suffer from diabetes, especially between ages 20–49. They have a 4 times higher incidence of diabetes than non-first nation women[3] as well as experiencing higher rates of gestational diabetes than non-Aboriginal females, 8-18% compared to 2-4%.[1]

“First nations” is Canadian for “Indian”.

In Greenland (majority Inuit):

The age-standardized prevalences of diabetes and IGT were 10.8 and 9.4% among men and 8.8 and 14.1% among women, respectively.

I am reminded here of the chapter in Dr. Price’s Nutrition and Physical Degeneration (copyright 1939) on the Eskimo (which is, alas, too long to quote in full):

During the rise and fall of historic and prehistoric cultures that have often left their monuments and arts following each other in succession in the same location, one culture, the Eskimo, living on until today, bring us a robust sample of the Stone Age people. … The Eskimo face has remained true to ancestral type to give us a living demonstration of what Nature can do in the building of a race competent to withstand for thousands of years the rigors of an Arctic climate. Like the Indian, the Eskimo thrived as long as he was not blighted by the touch of modern civilization, but with it, like all primitives, he withers and dies.

In his primitive state he has provided an example of physical excellence and dental perfection such as has seldom been excelled by any race in the past or present. … It is a sad commentary that with the coming of the white man the Eskimos and Indians are rapidly reduced both in numbers and physical excellence by the white man’s diseases. …

Bethel is the largest settlement on the Kuskokwim, and contains in addition to the white residents many visiting Eskimos from the nearby Tundra country surrounding it.

From this population, Dr. Price noted:

88 Eskimos and mixed-race people, with 2,490 teeth.

27 lived on the traditional Eskimo diet. Of their 796 teeth, one had a cavity.

21 lived on a mixed Eskimo/white diet. Of their 600 teeth, 38–6.3%–had cavities.

40 lived on imported white foods. Of their 1,094 teeth, 252–or 21.1%–had cavities.

In another location, 28 people eating a traditional Eskimo diet had one cavity.

13 people on traditional Eskimo diet: 0 cavities.

72 people on Eskimo diet: 2 cavities.

81 people eating white foods: 394 cavities.

20 people eating white foods: 175 cavities.

(Yes, Dr. Price is a dentist.)

It is a common belief around the world that childbearing makes women lose teeth (my own grandmother lost two teeth while pregnant;) Dr. Price notes the case of an Eskimo woman who had borne 20 children without losing a single tooth or developing any cavities.

One does not get a conception of the magnificent dental development of the more primitive Eskimos simply by learning that they have freedom from dental carries [cavities]. The size and strength of the mandible, the breadth of the face and the strength of the muscles of mastication all reach a degree of excellence that is seldom seen in other races. …

Much has been reported in the literature of the excessive wear of the Eskimo’s teeth, which in the case of the women has been ascribed to the chewing of the leather in the process of tanning. [de Poncins also makes note of the frequent chewing of hides–evX.] It is of interest that while many of the teeth studied gave evidence of excessive wear involving the crowns down to a depth that in many individuals would have exposed the pulps, there was in no case an open pulp chamber. They were always filled with secondary dentin.

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.

Numbers:

…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.

Population:

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? …

Relatedly:

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.

Kabloona, religion, and the far reaches of the world

From the beginning of Kabloona:

In the spring of 1938 I stood one afternoon before the house of the Oblate Fathers in the Rue de l’Assomption in Paris. The day was fine, the street deserted and still, the house-front blank with that anonymity characteristic the world over of the city dwellings of priestly communities. I was about to embark upon a long trek into what was for me the unknown. If those within were willing to help me, my first step would be taken without stumbling. If not… well, I should go forward somehow. …

There I stood, then, with my finger on the bell at the door of the Oblate Fathers. It is the particular mission of the Oblate Fathers to evangelize the most distant and disinherited peoples of the earth. For generations, Christian priests have gone out of this house to the confines of the world–to central Africa, to the Brazilian jungles, to the Arctic. Here in this house you would not have guessed it. Not a footfall sounded, not a map hung on a wall. Someone, a shadow, had opened a door and vanished, shutting the door behind me. I stood alone in an old-fashioned reception room, waiting in the company of three green chairs and, on the wall, the enlarged photograph of a dead bishop.

A man came in: obviously a religious, and one look at his face and bearing told me that he was a chief. He signed to me to it down, and we sat in two of the three straight-backed chairs. Without a preliminary word, I blurted out the purpose of my visit, which was to go live with the Eskimos. Not those of Greenland, who, I gathered, were domesticated under governmental tutelage; nor those of Alaska, who carved souvenirs for tourists; but the Canadian Eskimos, those of the Central Arctic who, because they inhabited regions so emote and difficult to reach, still lived their primitive life of thousands of years ago, knowing of the white men only an occasional solitary missionary. I knew that their islands in the Glacial Ocean formed part of the immense diocese of that Oblate father who was celebrated in Canada as the “The Bishop of the Wind”; that the bishop toured his diocese in his own airplane’ and what I wanted was to be flown in by the bishop. Could the Oblate Fathers help me to realize my wish?

The man had not stirred. A proposal that had seemed to me, as I made it, monstrous, childish in its effrontery, seemed to him entirely normal. You have only to write the bishop,” he said in a curiously depersonalized voice, “He will reply.” As if the Arctic lay round the corner! This was my first lesson in humility, and I had been taught it even before leaving Paris. In a single word this religious, for whom neither time nor space existed, had reduced my vainglorious project to the dimensions of a Sunday picnic. But the bishop did not know me, I had ventured to say; the recommendation of the House would perhaps be necessary…. With a wave of the hand my objection was dismissed. “Not at all. It will be much better if you write direct. Here is the address. Good afternoon.” And silently this imperturbable servant of Christ had left me, shutting himself back into that eternity out of which he  had for an instant emerged.

It was in April that I wrote, addressing my letter to the bishop’s episcopal seat at Fort Smith, on the sixtieth parallel. At the end of May came the bishop’ reply. His Grace would be pleased to fly me in, provided there was space’ “for,” he wrote, “the plane is small and there will be another passenger. Meet me at McMurray, in northern Alberta, at the beginning of July.” …

I had left Paris on June 11, 1938.* It was on the 9th of July that I took off from Fort McMurray with Bishop Breynat, his chaplain, and Bisson, his pilot. … As the plane rose above the tree-tops Bisson made a sign with his hand; we fell back, and I, looking behind, saw the chaplain purple with tenseness and the bishop quietly absorbed in his breviary. …

In this wise I saw Goldfields born and die again, where the bishop left, by way of a gift, a haunch of beef. I saw Fond-du-Lac spring into existence and then vanish, where, on a little knoll, Brother Cadoret knelt, and the Indians with him, to kiss the bishop’s ring. It was there that an Indian had ventured to speak to the bishop.

“You go to see the Great Seated One,”–the Pope–he said. “Take him this, and when you have seen him, pray for Higine.” He had put three dollars into the bishop’s hand; and as we sat again in the plan and the earth darkened and the lakes below us shone like metal in the darkening earth, the bishop still held in his hand the three dollars, forgetting in his emotions to put them into his purse. …

We had flown fifteen hundred miles when I saw one night, shining in the Arctic sun, a pool bigger than any I had seen before. This was the sea, the Glacial Ocean. Again the pilot dived, again a little cluster of huts sprang up; and exactly at midnight on the 14th of July, I was set down in Coppermine. Father Delalande took us to his mission house, and without a word the old bishop climbed the wooden ladder into the attic and went to bed Next day he was off. He had done what he could for me in dropping me here at the last outpost of civilization.

*The Nazis occupied Paris on June 14th, 1940.

From Josephine and Frederick’s account of their attempt to drive from Lubumbashi to Kinshasa–a distance of about a thousand miles, or 1,500 km–in the DRC:

In the dark we were greeted by the priests in the mission. Before we could even say something they said “Il faut rien dire, on comprend!” – “No need to talk, we understand”. They were friendly and gave us a bucket of water to wash in. We could park the car in their garden. We closed our tent at midnight. The adrenaline was still rushing trough our veins. …

The mission is at the same time a (boarding) school. … The priests (Brothers actually) are nice guys. There are 4 of them, young and smart. All of them have studied in Lubumbashi or Kinshasa. After they finished the seminary they were sent to a mission. They cannot choose which one. We could hear the sadness in their voices when they told their stories.

They sampled the “world” when studying, they have a degree (one of them had a masters in engineering) and then they are sent to a mission. They know they will probably never have the chance again to live in a city. At the mission they take care of the kids, teach, etc.. A noble and rewarding job. But they carry all this knowledge that they cannot put in practice here. They have no computers, no tools, no electricity, no budget, …

The priest-engineer was setting up a project to generate clean energy from a river. He had a recycling project. A radio project. An irrigation project, … He had to run all these projects without any funds, without material. So many ideas, so little chances. …

Thus far the missions were havens of peace and quiet. Were things were functional (sometimes) and clean (sometimes). Not so at the home of Frère Louis. He lived like the Congolese lived… in a rundown building without any comfort. He had a bathroom that hadn’t seen a brush in ages,.. . It struck us as a bit odd, but later we would understand that Frère Louis is one of these rare people that does not care about himself, but only about the others. We would meet Frère Louis later on this trip and everything would become clear then.

He was well organized though. He was the only one in town with transportation … He uses this truck to get supplies from Lubumbashi to all of the project he is running in the area. The big wheels, the portle axles and the huge winch make it a capable bundybasher. …

While we were there several people came to visit. Among them was a friendly older lady. She had beautiful (homemade) clothes. She was responsible for the orphanage that was run by Frère Louis. …

“That night we talked for hours with Frère Louis. Our little adventures here dissapear in the nothing compared to everything he went trough. He had been in DRC for over 40 years, he stayed during all the wars. He had to abandon everything and run for his live three times as teams were sent out to kill him. But he always returned. Many books could be filled with his adventures.

He is also responsible for most of the bridges Katanga. He build hundreds of bridges himself. He has a small working budget from Franciscans, but he funds most of it all by himself. He has put every last penny in the Congolese people. That is why his house in Luena was so rundown.

There is much more, but I have quoted too much already. You can read it all on Frederick and Josephine’s thread.

According to the Orthodox Church in America website:

Several centuries later, two monks, Hourg and Barsanuphii, journeyed east to Kazan, capital of the Tartars, learned the Tartar language, and established a monastic community for the conversion of the Mongol peoples. St Stephen of Perm (1340-96), another monk, would in turn journey beyond Kazan, across the Ural Mountain, into the forests of Siberia to labor among the pagan Zyrians. There Stephen devised a Zyrian alphabet, translated the Gospel, and subsequently converted an entire people. This model of monastic evangelization became the pattern for other Russian Orthodox missionaries as they trekked ever eastward, eventually establishing a network of missions across Siberia and along the entire Pacific Rim: in China (1686), Alaska (1794), Japan (1861), and Korea (1898). The eight Orthodox monks who arrived in Alaska in 1794 were simply part of this centuries-old missionary heritage of the Russian Orthodox Church.

From the Wikipedia, on the history of the Orthodox Church in America:

Russian traders settled in Alaska during the 18th century. In 1740, a Divine Liturgy was celebrated on board a Russian ship off the Alaskan coast. In 1794, the Russian Orthodox Church sent missionaries—among them Saint Herman of Alaska – to establish a formal mission in Alaska. Their missionary endeavors contributed to the conversion of many Alaskan natives to the Orthodox faith. A diocese was established, whose first bishop was Saint Innocent of Alaska. The headquarters of this North American Diocese of the Russian Orthodox Church was moved from Alaska to California around the mid-19th century.

Abbot Nazarius of Valaamo Monastery blesses missionaries leaving for America, at the direction of the Empress Catherine the Great.
Abbot Nazarius of Valaamo Monastery blesses missionaries leaving for America, at the direction of the Empress Catherine the Great. source

On Saint Herman:

Saint Herman of Alaska
Saint Herman of Alaska

The Shelikhov-Golikov Company appealed to the Most Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church to provide a priest for the natives [of Alaska]. Catherine the Great decided instead to send an entire mission to America. She entrusted the task of recruiting missionaries to Metropolitan Gabriel of St. Petersburg, who sent ten monks from Valaam, including Herman.[14] The missionaries arrived on Kodiak on September 24, 1794.[15]

Herman and the other missionaries encountered a harsh reality at Kodiak that did not correspond to Shelikhov’s rosy descriptions. The native Kodiak population, called “Americans” by the Russian settlers, were subject to harsh treatment by the Russian-American Company, … The monks themselves were not given the supplies that Shelikhov promised them,[17] and had to till the ground with wooden implements.[18] Despite these difficulties, the monks managed to baptize over 7,000 natives in the Kodiak region, and set about building a church and monastery. Herman was assigned in the bakery and acted as the mission’s steward (ekonom).[19]

… After over a decade spent in Alaska, Herman became the head of the mission in 1807, although he was not ordained to the priesthood. The local population loved and respected him, and he even had good relations with Baranov.[22] Herman ran the mission school, where he taught church subjects such as singing and catechism alongside reading and writing. He also taught agriculture on Spruce Island.[23]

Herman moved to Spruce Island around 1811 to 1817.[25] The island is separated from Kodiak by a mile-wide strait, making it ideal for eremetic life. Herman named his hermitage “New Valaam.” He wore simple clothes and slept on a bench covered with a deerskin. When asked how he could bear to be alone in the forest, he replied, “I am not alone. God is here, as God is everywhere.”[26]

Despite his solitary life, he soon gained a following. He received many visitors—especially native Aleuts—on Sundays and church feasts. Soon his hermitage had next to it a chapel and guesthouse, and then a school for orphans.[7] Herman had a few disciples, including the Creole orphan Gerasim Ivanovich Zyrianov, a young Aleut woman named Sofia Vlasova, and others. Entire families moved in order to be closer to the Elder, who helped to sort out their disputes.[27] Herman had a deep love for the native Aleuts: he stood up for them against the excesses of the Russian-American Company, and once during an epidemic he was the only Russian to visit them, working tirelessly to care for the sick and console the dying.[7][28] Herman spent the rest of his life on Spruce Island, where he died on November 15, 1836.[29]

In 1812, Russian’s most southerly colony in the New World became Fort Ross, California:

The reconstructed Russian Orthodox chapel at Fort Ross, CA, photo by Introvert
The reconstructed Russian Orthodox chapel at Fort Ross, CA, photo by Introvert

From the Wikipedia Page on Russian colonization of the NW:

In 1920 a one-hundred pound bronze church bell was unearthed[by whom?] in an orange grove near Mission San Fernando Rey de España in the San Fernando Valley of Southern California. It has an inscription in the Russian language (translated here): “In the Year 1796, in the month of January, this bell was cast on the Island of Kodiak by the blessing of Juvenaly of Alaska, during the sojourn of Alexander Andreyevich Baranov.” How this Russian OrthodoxKodiak church artifact from Kodiak Island in Alaska arrived at a Roman Catholic Mission Church in Southern California remains unknown.

Saint Peter the Aleut
Saint Peter the Aleut

Unfortunately, the Catholics and Orthodox didn’t always get along so well in California, as in the case of Saint Peter the Aleut, tortured and murdered by the Spaniards in 1815.

Even the Jews have their missions:

Non-Jews Help Jump-Start New Chabad Center in Alaska: A warm welcome in wintry Wasilla from the entire community

When Rabbi Mendy and Chaya Greenberg moved into their new home on a quiet dirt road in Wasilla, Alaska, one week before the High Holidays, they received a different kind of welcome.

A crew of local residents—almost all of them not Jewish—descended upon their house to unpack boxes, sweep, clean and arrange furniture. In fact, with just hours left before the onset of Shabbat, they even purchased and set up a brand-new dining-room table around which the couple would celebrate the holy day.

Who is this group of helpful denizens, and why have they raised thousands of dollars and volunteered countless hours for a Jewish group?

The answer lies with Ruthann Crosby-Cleeves, a local chaplain who leads “ChessedAlaska,” an organization dedicated to teaching the Seven Noahide Laws—the universal values of the Torah—to non-Jewish people.

And in Nepal:

On the sixth day since a massive earthquake crumbled buildings and shook mountains in the impoverished country of Nepal—before recent warnings of a new earthquake to come forced everyone back indoors—the focus of Chabad’s efforts have been concentrated on providing sustained humanitarian aid to thousands of people who have lost everything in the rubble. …

The delegation brought hygiene supplies, hot meals, fresh water and fruit.

“Tiny babies are thirsty for water, their eyes empty and dead, their small faces wizened like those of old people,” continues Lifshitz. “Wherever we went, people fell on our necks, begging for some food, for more water. We promised them that we would not forget them. We will be back tomorrow, and then again, the day after tomorrow. We will be there for the as long as they need us.”

Just before she left to return to the Chabad House, Lifshitz recalls that a woman with a pinched, wrinkled face approached her. “All she wanted was a hug,” she says. “We hugged for a very long time. Her tears remained on my shoulder long after we parted ways. How much strength did I get from that single hug…”

Rabbi Kotlarsky distributing food after the Nepal Earthquake, 2015 (photo courtesy Chabad.)
Rabbi Kotlarsky distributing food after the Nepal Earthquake, 2015 (photo courtesy Chabad.)