Special Articles

A Journey Through Arctic Canada

William Thompson November 1 1917
Special Articles

A Journey Through Arctic Canada

William Thompson November 1 1917

A Journey Through Arctic Canada

Special Articles

William Thompson

EDITOR'S Noth.—The writer of this article traveled to that interesting region of Canada which lies within the Arctic Circle in the interests of the American Geographical Society. The trip was. in a sense, tin experiment. It was a quick one made with a minimum of “dunnage —perhaps the quickest and lightest ever made. In the following article. Mr. Thompson yives a few of his impressions and some interesting facts with reference to the people there, the Eskimos and Indians. The pictures presented give * graphic idea of this strangest corner of Canada and its possibilities.

THE essentials for an Arctic voyage are usually considered to be a staunch ship, sometimes well reinforced, duplicated engines, sails and auxiliary motor, a double set of anchors, plenty of rope, life preservers, life boats, waterproof and fur clothing, dogs, stoves, lamps, several bushels of matches, oil, candles and an ample supply of coal and wood, provisions, consisting of pemmican, flour, lard, dried fruits, salt, pepper, canned butter, spices, baking powder, beans, peas, canned meats and bacon. To this may be added a complete, medical outfit, guns and ammunition, sextants, barometers, thermometers, instruments for registering wind velocity and endless number of things that come into daily need in that vast Arctic wilderness.

When I intimated to my friend Bowman, Director of the American Geographical Society at that splendid palace of American geographers, Broadway and 156th St., New York, that my outfit would consist of two dress suit cases, containing only the articles necessary for a trip to the sea shore or mountain resort, one small dog, a railway ticket to Edmonton, a ticket issued by the Hudson Bay Company entitling me to passage from Peace River Crossing by the Peace, Slave and

Mackenzie Rivers to the Arctic, his manner indicated a grave doubt as to the feasibility of my equipment for such an undertaking. With an admonition from him to bring back all the information and plunder I could get relating to the Indian and the Delta and Coast Eskimos I returned to my lodgings.

However, the equipment served. I journeyed successfully to Canada’s “farthest north” and back again with nothing added to what I originally planned.

IET me begin my story at Edmonton.

-r A railway journey of 312 miles terminated at Peace River Crossing at which point we boarded the steamer “Athabasca.” Two and a half days’ journey brought us to Vermilion Chutes. After crossing a portage of four and half miles we boarded the steamer “McMurray” which was to carry us to Fort Fitzgerald via Chipewyan on the west end of Lake Athabasca, a rock bound desolated settlement where Sir Alexander Mackenzie outfitted for his fourteen weeks drift to the Arctic Ocean on that vast waterway which was afterward to bear his name.

As we voyaged “down North” — the term has its paradoxical inference—life

became more primitive. We had reached the border land of the Indian, the land of never worry, idleness, gambling, superstition and dried fish. Hulbert Footner in his “New Rivers of the North” gives a very adroit analysis of the Indian character whin he writes:

“As to popular literature on the Red Skin in general, as every one knows, it is rather misleading. This because writers, including famous names, insist in applying our thoughts and feelings to them, whereas their fascination for us lies, not in any likeness to us, but In our difference. For instance, love between the sexes which forms such an overwhelming place in our literature, is very much less important to the Indian. His overmastering passion is the love for the chase. His susceptibilities to feeling of any kind is less than the white man’s, and he requires a stronger stimulus, hence his love for gambling, his fanatical dances and his cruelty. His very simplicity of nature

is baffling to

us. He is, of course, of a lean, hard, active habit of body and of temperament, inclining to the Saturnine.

“He is the reverse of what you would calla man of feeling and he sedulously conceals the display of what feelings he has. He is, of course, liberty-loving, and restraint or discipline of any kind are intolerable to him.

“He is stubborn in his ways; that is to say, instinctively resistant to outside influences, but he is keenly sensitive to ridicule. Such a man will nearly always be found to possess a genuinely poetic appreciation of nature and natural phenomena. His mental processes are as simple as a child’s. He is admirable with his qualities of strength, hardness, resolution and courage. He has no faculty of generalizing, and but small powers of deduction. His sense of location in the woods is due to an acquired knowledge of the place. He loves his own country—he learns to know every mound and tree—this is his sole concern in life. In a strange country he is more helpless than the white man. His ability to follow tracks through the bush is truly astonishing to a white man from the pavements; but I have seen white men become as expert.”

This is not true of the Eskimo, who shares this northern part of Canada with the Indian. He is inquisitive, alert, analy-

tical and in his primitive way a philosopher.

A t Fort F itzgerald w e crossed the portage o f sixteen and onehalf miles where w e boarded the steamer Macke mie

leaky, uninviting craft, which was to be our home for many days while negotiating the one thousand three hundred and fifteen miles of twisting

riverways that end at the Mackenzie River Delta, 300 miles north of the Arctic circle. At Norman we left the Great Bear River, which has its source from the lake bearing the same name, and swung into the mighty Mackenzie. At the head of this historic stream is the site where Sir John Franklin in 1825 established his headquarters while on his expedition to explore the Arctic coast. This settlement was named Fort Franklin. Fort Norman, a post so often moved, was also located here for several years.

A few thousand tired exhausts of the engine and we were abreast of Fort Good Hope. Seventeen miles beyond we crossed the Arctic circle. It is difficult to adjust oneself to the real midsummer Arctic in this latitude. Here the wild rose smiles in crimson clusters and the willow and spruce wisp and bend in this vast and little known land where the white man is not to be found.

The chief interest that this country of the far north holds is in the study of the races which inhabit it. The Eskimo

presents the scope for absorbing study, particularly in respect to the way he reacts to contact with civilization. What will be the value of the Eskimo, when the engulfing spread of industry has reached—as it will reach—the shores of the Arctic? Will he vanish from the face of the earth or will he adapt himself to the conditions and become a valuable Canadian?

Viscount Bryce, before the Royal Geographical Society, once said: “The relation of nature to human development, the influence which natural environment has upon the progress of civilization and upon all the arts which belong to civilization, is an enormous theme upon which we might discourse for days, or even weeks. I only indicate to you what profits the historian, and especially the historian who has devoted himself to the study of the earlier stages of man’s growth and development, finds in examining in one country after another the relation which exists between natural environment and the progress of human communities. The racial changes in progress to-day illustrate the processes by which races were formed in prehistoric times. The ancient races and their customs, and their habits, are in many regions vanishing and in others suffering change.

There are processes now going on in the Pacific Islands which will probably have in forty years completely altered them and destroyed half their charm.”

There are no peoples t o which Bryce’s observations would apply more aptly than to the Delta and Coast Eskimo. They could also be applied to the Indian of the Mackenzie River. The intermarrying of post traders with Indian half-breed women, and whalers mixing with the Eskimos of the Delta and Coast tribes have resulted in producing a strange race of people. To determine the origin of these mixed races ethnologists will find themselves nonplused in generations to come. The half-breed offspring of French and Indian parentage resembles the people of Southern Spain and Portugal, a mixture of North African blood with the Iberians. There are many half-breeds of the Mackenzie River region who, if living in the Southern Italian province of Calabria or Sicily, would pass as native born Calabrians or Sicilians. This would apply as faithfully to the Eskimo. There was Pat, an interpreter for the Canadian Arctic expedition. He has a Danish father and a full-blooded Coppermine Eskimo mother, and he is as Romanesque as a Roman in face and figure.

THE Delta and Coast Eskimo as compared with the Indian is superior in every way. He is clean, thrifty, optimistic and industrious. He receives from the Northern Trading Company "debt” in a form of sailing crafts that are paid for in skins. This is arranged in instalments over a term of years. A default in payment has been very unusual.

Twenty-seven years ago Bishop Stringer went among the Delta and Coast people. He found them cruel, acrimonious in their attitude toward him and his propaganda. He narrowly escaped death at their hands. To-day they regard him with great reverence, and during his visits to Herschell Island and Fort MacPherson they flock In hundreds to see him. As late as 1900 nearly all girls infants were put on the snow to die. Since that time it has rarely been known to have occurred. When Stringer went among them polygamy was practised. To-day each man has but one wife. Her most valued accomplishment, by the way, is to make seal-skin boots, which are water-tight. If she possesses this accomplishment she is considered a desirable candidate for a matrimonial alliance. The elder wife in the days when polygamy was practised, looked after the camp, the younger wife was the child bearer.

The mother attends to the birth of her own infantFor the first two years the

'VIT' E had an exceptional chance to see V » the Eskimos at their best. We reached the Mackenzie delta at the time of the annual festivities.

When the sun returns, in the summer, and is visible continuously for six weeks, both night and day, these primitive people show their delight in a very primitive way. They sleep in the day time and sing and dance all night. They enter with great spirit into their festivities. The men rarely dance together, however, as do some of the other Arctic tribes. Their dance resembles the “Hula Hula” of the Pacific races. They sing of a certain sparrow-like bird on the coast, a bird they call Mikilailaluk. They intone tuneful lullabies to their young and “Home Sweet Home” is a favorite song of theirs. In their language the words are pronounced in almost every case phonetically.

child does not wear clothes, but i s carried under the artigi, o r coat, next to the skin.

The death of a child at birth in one com munity has not been known for nineteen

Before being Christ i a n i z e d they had no conception of a God or future life; and, despite the efforts of the missionaries, their ideas are still very nebulous. They are extremely sentimental. The men make good husbands. They are energetic workers and take excellent care of their utensils and hunting implements. Most families of the Delta Eskimo live in log houses and enjoy a very comfortable existence. They are homeloving and devoted to the old and to their children.


Angutvul kelagmi Alkan Chakaidli; Kilaktun nagoyoak, Nuna ililugo.

Ubium Nikekchakput Aituchagipligut Ilingnin kichianin Inunakpaktugut.

Chwinakput ikidzung Ilitsaotigut Nagligushugakput Umigiyanun Pigishugatigut Kelaom apkonmini O nukiktuyutin Isuitpan.

THEY go whaling in summer and trap in winter. They like the white man’s food when they can secure it. In the summertime they eat their fish and blubber raw, and in the winter frozen. They will eat cooked food, but it is a matter of indifference to them. They will barter for the white man’s canned stuff, eat to their satisfaction and then go out and consume quantities of blubber and raw fish as a dessert. I have seen girls—and pretty girls they were, too, with white skins that bore evidence of their mixed origin—cut the head from fish and strip the entrails before proceeding to eat them raw. It is a fact that even some white men who have lived long and traveled far in the Polar regions become capable of eating of raw blubber and fish. The rigors of the north make a strong diet necessary. In some respects the Eskimos are quite civilized. They have, for instance, containers for keeping their tea warm which they take with them when trapping.

When trapping they do not work as rapidly as the Indian. One assumes that this is due to the great amount of fur worn by them. A day’s walk, when visiting their traps will not exceed twenty miles. An Indian or white trapper will make thirty. The population of villages move together. The women often harness themselves to the sled and will do the work of two dogs.

They have implicit confidence in the integrity of the white man. This is due to the fact that the white men have endeavored to play fair. Promises of provision for services rendered to the whalers by the Eskimo were always kept when the whalers returned the following year. The Eskimo does not fear death, but looks upon it rather as a great adventure. Formerly the dead were wrapped in shrouds and put upon poles. To-day they are put in the grave. With the body in a coffin are placed the gun, the cup and saucer and a few other things intimately associated with the deceased. The sled, which is used to carry the body to its last resting place, is left at the grave.

TO conjecture that the Eskimo will ever attain a degree of civilization that will enable him to enter the ranks of civilized man, and take a part in the word’s affairs, is not to be even problematic a 11 y considered. Those who know him best recognize the mental limitations by which he is handicapped. It is a case of so far and no farther. When civilization reaches the land where the Eskimo now has possession he will vanish from the face of the earth as most aboriginal races do. He is, after all, a product of the strange conditions under which he has had to subsist.

ON our return journey we left Fort MacPherson on July 8th, arriving at Peace River Crossing August 5th. Allowing six days from Peace River Crossing to New York, we made the journey from New York to the Arctic and return in seventy-one days. From this there should be deducted a delay of twelve days at Fort Smith, which was made necessary by ice in Great Slave Lake, and also three days’ delay at Burnt Island, in Great Slave Lake, waiting for favorable winds to carry the ice to the Northern shore, which would make it possible for us to make Hay River on the east end of the lake.