The Religious Beliefs of the Eskimos Forbid the Punishment of Children
A Children’s Paradise
The Religious Beliefs of the Eskimos Forbid the Punishment of Children
THE RELIGIOUS beliefs and customs of the Mackenzie River Eskimos are the subject of an article in the current number of Harper’s Monthly Magazine.
The formulators of religious opinion among this primitive northern people are the “Shamans” who hold communion with the spirits and are familiar with the things of the other world.
The ordinary Mackenzie River shaman has about half a dozen familiar spirits, any of which will do his bidding. A shaman may be old and decrepit or for some other reason may be what we should call “hard up.” This is a propitious occasion for some ambitious young man to obtain a familiar spirit. He will go to the old shaman and some such conversation as this will take place :
“Will you sell me one of your Keyukat?” (that being the Mackenzie River name for a familiar spirit).
“Yes. I don’t see why I might not. 1 am getting to be an old man now and shall not need their services much longer; besides, I have had. my eye on you for a long time and shall be glad to have you for my successor. I think I might Íet you have my Polar Bear spirit.” “That would he kind of you, but don’t you think you could spare your Tide Crack spirit?”
“Well, no; that is the one that I intend to keep to the very last. It has been very faithful to me and useful, but if you don’t like the Polar Bear spirit you might have my Indian spirit.”
And so the bargaining goes on, until finally it is decided that the young man buys the Raven spirit for a numiak freshly made of five beluga skins, twenty summer-killed-deer skins, two bags of seal oil, a green stone labret, and things of that sort without end—giving a new boat, in fact, loaded with all sorts of gear.
The young man now goes home, and presently, using the appropriate formula given him by the shaman, he summons his familiar spirit, but the familiar spirit refuses to appear. The young man then goes back to the old shaman and says to him: “How is this? The spirit which you sold me has not come.” And the old man replies: “Well, I cannot
help that; I transferred him to you in good faith, and if you are one of those persons with whom spirits refuse to associate, that is a thing which I cannot helpI did my part in the matter.”
As a matter of fact it is only once or twice in a generation that such a thing takes place. When he has once publicly paid for the spirit, the young man has everything to lose by admitting that he did not receive it. He cannot get back what he paid for it; he cannot have the advantage of being considered a shaman; and he will lose social standing through the publication of the fact that the spirit refuses to associate with him. As a matter of practice, therefore, the purchaser will pretend that he received the spirit and he will announce that fact. Some time later sickness occurs in a family or a valuable article is lost. The young man is appealed to, and in order to keep up the deception which he has begun by pretending to have received the spirit, he goes into as good as imitation of a trance as he can manage, for he has from childhood up watched the shamans in their trances. If he succeeds in the cure, or whatever the object of the seance may be, his reputation is made ; and if he does not succeed nothing is lost, for it is as easy for an Eskimo to explain the failure of a shamanistic performance as it is for us to explain why a prayer is not answered. It may have been because some other more powerful shaman was working against him, or it may have been for any one of a thousand reasons, all of which are satisfactory and sufficient to the Eskimo
Most travelers who have visited the arctic lands have commented upon the fact that Eskimo children are never punished, or, in fact, forbidden anything.
One family of Eskimos were the servants of the expedition for its whole four years, and I had known them also on previous expeditions. This family consists of the man Ilavinirk, his wife Mamayak, and their daughter Noashak. When I first knew Noashak I formed the opinion that she was the worst child I had ever known, and I retained that opinion for over six years, or until she was a young woman of perhaps twelve years. (Some Eskimo girls are fully developed at the age of twelve or thirteen.) In spite of her badness Noashak was never punished.
During the entire time that Noashak’s family was with us she was the undisputed ruler of our establishment. My plan of work was such that I could not get along without the help of Eskimos, and I had continually before me the choice of doing as Noashak wanted or else losing the services of her parents.
It was during the absence of the sun in December, 1909, that this family and
were traveling up Horton River. We
had been several days without anything to eat except seal-oil; our dogs were tired and weak from hunger and had ceased pulling. Ilavinirk and I were harnessed to the sled on either side, beaking our backs to pull it forward, and Mamayak was walking ahead breaking trail for the sled. Noashak, then a fat and sturdy girl of eight, was on top of the load, which was heavy enough in all conscience without her. Whenever we stopped to rest she would immediately jump off the sled, run up some cut bank and slide down it, run up again and slide down again, and so on as long as we stayed. The moment we started she would jump on the load and ride.
One day when her father and I were more tired than usual and getting weaker from long fasting. I asked Ilavinirk whether he did not think it would be a good idea if Noashak got off and walked a little (we had, by the way, saved food for Noashak so that she had something to eat when the rest of us did not). He put the matter to her, telling her that it was his opinion that walking would really do her good ; he told her how tired he and I were getting, and wanted to know if his dear daughter was not willing to walk now and then so as to enable us to travel a little farther each day and to reach our destination, where plenty of food waited for us, that much sooner. But she said she did not feel like walking, and that ended the discussion.
It was only in February or March, 1912, that I got the key to the situation, and I found it then to involve also that most interesting question of how it is that Eskimos get their names.
I had noticed ever since I knew them that Mamayak in speaking to Noashak always addressed her as “mother.” When one stops to think of it, it was of course a bit curious that a woman of twenty-five should address a girl of eight as “mother.” I suppose, if I thought about the matter at all, I must have put this practice of theirs in the same category with that which we find among our own people, where we often hear a man addressing his wife as “mother.”
One day another Eskimo family came to visit us, and strangely enough the woman of the family also spoke to Noashak and called her “mother.” Then my curiosity was finally aroused, and I asked: “Why do you two grown
women call this child your mother?” Their answer was: “Simply because she is our mother,” an answer which was for the moment more incomprehensible to me than the original problem. I saw, however, that I was on the track of something interesting, and both women were in a communicative mood, so it was not long until my questions brought out the facts, which (pieced together with what I already knew) make the following coherent explanation, which shows not only why these women called Noashak “mother,” but also why it was that she must never under any circumstances be forbidden anything or punished.
When a Mackenzie Eskimo dies the body is taken out, the same day that the death occurs, to the top of some neighboring hill and covered with a pile of drift-logs, but the soul (nappan) remains
in the house where the death occurred for four days if it is a man, and for five days if it is a woman. At the end of that time a ceremony is performed by means of which the spirit is induced to leave the house and go to the grave, where it remains with the body, waiting for the next child in the community to be born.
When a child is bom it comes into the world with a soul of its own (nappan), but this soul is as inexperienced, foolish, and feeble as a child is and looksIt is evident, therefore, that the child needs a more experienced and wiser soul than its own to do the thinking for it and take care of it. Accordingly the mother, as soon as she can after the birth of the child, pronounces a magic formula to summon from the grave the waiting soul of the dead to become the guardian soul of the new-born child, or its atka, as they express it.
Let us suppose that the dead person was a wise old man by the name of John. The mother then pronounces the formula which may be roughly translated as follows: “Soul of John, come here, come here ; be my child ’s guardian ! Soul of John, come here, come here; be my child’s guardian!” (Most magic formulae among the Eskimos must be repeated twice.)
The fact that the child possesses all the wisdom of the dead John is never forgotten by its parents. If it cries for a knife or a pair of scissors, it is not a foolish child that wants the knife, but the soul of the wise old man John that wants it, and it would be presumptuous of a young mother to suppose she knows better than John what is good for the child, and so she gives it the knife. But if she refused the knife (and this is the main point) she would not only be preferring her own foolishness to the wisdom of John, but also she would thereby give offense to the spirit of John, and in his anger John would abandon the child. John must, therefore, be propitiated at every cost, because if the father began to forbid his child or to punish it he would at once become known to the community as a cruel and inhuman father, careless of the welfare of his child.
Among the Mackenzie River Eskimos, if you see a man who is bow-legged or hump-backed, and if you ask the reason for this, the answer will usually be: “It is because his parents forbade him things when he was young and offended his guardian spirit.”
As the child grows up the soul with which he was born (the nappan) gradually develops in strength, experience, and wisdom, so that after the age of ten or twelve years it is fairly competent to look after the child and begins to do so; at that age it therefore becomes of less vital moment to please the guardian spirit (atka), and accordingly it is customary to begin forbidding children and punishing them when they come to the age of eleven or twelve years. People say about them then: “I think the nappan is competent now to take care of him and it will be safe to begin teaching him things.”
In the case of Noashak the transition period arrived in February, 1912. For
four or five months before that it had been known to her parents and to all of us that she was beginning to chew tobacco. She used to steal it wherever she could find it. The matter gave her parents a good; deal of concern; they tried in every way to hide the tobacco so that she could not find it; but she was ingenious, and considered it a personal triumph whenever she was able to assist any one toward the apparently accidental discovery of tobacco stains on her lips, for that was an evidence that she had outwitted her parents again.
One day her parents discussed the matter witty me, saying that I understood their point of view and that they therefore wanted my advice. I refrained from interfering much, however. They eventually decided that Noashak’s nappan was now approximately fully developed (Noashak was as big as her mother already) and so they thought they would try punishing herThe next time that she was caught chewing tobacco her father gave her another lengthy talk, urging her to stop the practice, but she only laughed at him, upon which he slapped her. To be struck was an undreamed-of thing in her philosophy. At first she was speechless with astonishment, and then she started crying with rage, and kept on crying all day, at the end of which she seemed to have thought the matter over carefully and1 to have realized that she was no longer ruler of the family. She accordingly stopped chewing.
It appears from the foregoing that every man has two souls, the one with which he was bom and the one he acquired immediately after birth. No one knows what becomes of the guardian soul after the death of the persons whose guardians they have been. I have repeatedly asked about it, but no one seems to have ever heard the matter discussed and no one seemed to think the question was of great importance.
This answers, then, the commonly asked questions: “What is the Eskimo’s idea of a future life?” “What has he that corresponds to heaven and hell?” He has nothing which corresponds to either heaven or hell. For four or five days after death the spirit remains in the house where the death occurred; from then on it remains by the grave until it is summoned to enter a new-born child, and from that time on until the death of the child the soul remains with it, unless it has been compelled to abandon it earlier, as would happen if the child were habitually punished.
moonî” I was asked, and when I replied that no one ever had, they said that while they did not have telescopes as long as ship’s masts, yet they did have men, and truthful men, too, that had been to the moon, walked about there and seen everything, and they liad come back and told them about it. With all deference to the ingenuity of white men, they thought that under the circumstances the Eskimos ought to be better informed than the white men as to the facts regarding the moon.
It may seem to you that these that we have described are extraordinary and untenable views, and that it ought to he an easy thing to undeceive the men who hold them, but if you have ever tried to change the religious views of one of your own countrymen so as to make them coincide with yours, you will know that the knowledge that comes through faith fs not an easy thing to shake.. But if you concern yourself, not with the unteaching of old beliefs but with the teaching of new ones, you will find an easy path before youThe Eskimos already believe many mutually contradictory things, and they will continue believing them while they gladly accept and devoutly believe everything you teach them. They will (as the Christianized arctic Eskimos are in fact doing) continue believing all they used to believe, and will believe all the new things on top of that.
The belief in the spirit flight is as strong at Point Barrow after more than ten years of Christianity as the belief in witchcraft was in England after more than ten centuries of Christianity.
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