Women and their Work


What Feminine Reader Does Not Visualize Perils and Pleasures of a Trip to the Arctic? Then Make the Journey With This Ottawa Traveller, Who Writes So Vividly.

GERTRUDE M. GRAIG September 1 1924
Women and their Work


What Feminine Reader Does Not Visualize Perils and Pleasures of a Trip to the Arctic? Then Make the Journey With This Ottawa Traveller, Who Writes So Vividly.

GERTRUDE M. GRAIG September 1 1924


Women and their Work

What Feminine Reader Does Not Visualize Perils and Pleasures of a Trip to the Arctic? Then Make the Journey With This Ottawa Traveller, Who Writes So Vividly.


IT IS always well to see both sidesof a question, but I hardly realized last year, when I accompanied an expedition into the northernmost regions of Canada, that I was to be the object of so much interest to the Eskimos of Northern Baffin Island; my anticipations naturally were confined to what I would think of the Eskimos, than to what they would think of me. It was not until I had come into actual contact with them, that I fully realized what it meant to be a centre of interest and curiosity. None of these natives had ever seen a white woman.

To the Eskimos of Southern Greenland, Greenlanders as they prefer to be called, a white woman was no novelty. Many of these women, themselves, almost white, have been accustomed for years, not only to seeing white women, but to contact with them in the persons of the wives of the Danish officials, who, when assigned to duty in Greenland, are encouraged by their government to take their wives with them as an example to the natives.

At Godhavn, on Disko Island, a large island on the west coast of Greenland, latitude 68 deg. 30 min., we were hospitably received, not only by the government trade agent, in charge during the absence of the inspector of the northern district, but by the scientist of the station and by the officers of an inspection ship of the Royal Danish Navy that chanced to be in harbor.

Godhavn is beautifully situated on the southern coast of Disko Island, and is the capital of the northern inspectorate of Greenland.

The almost landlocked harbor, with the steep hills of Disko on one side, and the quaint buildings of the European officials and the interesting homes of the natives in the settlement on the other side, formed a panorama that beautiful July day never to be forgotten.

Although one hundred and fifty miles north of the Arctic circle, and, although only a day or so of July still remained it was uncomfortably warm for even the lightest outside wraps. I had discarded my heavy, seagoing clothing, and in honor of the occasion had “dressed up” in an ordinary light spring suit which proved to be warm enough. Mosquitos, with their familiar hum, were out in force feasting upon the new

brand of thick, luscious southern blood!

Our ship was the first of foreign register that had visited Godhavn in many years and the day was declared a school holiday. We were followed, from point to point, by crowds of school children, varying in complexion from the dark brown of the full-blooded Eskimo to the fair hair and blue eyes of the Dane. The picturesque costume of the native women lent a touch of color to the scene, while the Danish flag fluttered gracefully at the inspectorate, a touch of scarlet against the blue of the bay with its dozens of huge white icebergs—those giants of the north, the joy of the artist and the terror of the navigator.

Women’s Summer Costume

THE native women’s summer costume consists of a cotton smock of checked pattern, usually a wide sash of gaudily patterned ribbon, a pair of tightly fitting sealskin breeches and long boots. The breeches and the boots are ornamented by a pattern or mosaic, of minute, brightly dyed pieces of leather, sewn on in a pattern, almost like bead work, in the form of a strip or double strip down the front of each leg of the breeches, continuing down the front of each boot. The

Above left—A young iceberg in Davis Strait. Right—Canadian Eskimo belles, Baffin Island. Centre—The Franklin cenotaph at Erebus Flarbor, Beechey Island. Eskimos known as “Highlanders,” Northern Greenland. Beechey Island where Franklin spent his first winter.

breeches are of the skin of the hair seal, hair side out and dressed by the natives' themselves. The boots are of seal leather tanned by the natives, as they have learned from the Danes, and dyed scarlet, dark blue, black or bleached a pure white. On gala occasions they wear a collarette of whitest embroidered linen, and they replace their ordinary boot linings or stockings with fancy ones, with embroidered tops.

The Danes have maintained Greenland as a protectorate for many years and the results of their painstaking care is evident everywhere. The natives have their own laundries, and even their own photograph galleries, and there are in Greenland two or more monthly magazines edited, set up and printed in their own language by the Greenlanders. They live in primitive houses, usually a stone foundation with the upper portion of imported lumber—for there is no timber in Greenland—the lumber part being reinforced for warmth’s sake by a wall of turf or peat, often two feet thick. These dwellings are spotlessly clean, inside, and it was a pleasure to visit them. In the schools, the Greenlanders are not encouraged to learn Danish but are taught to read, speak and write their own language.

When our launch left the landing place, taking us back to our ship, the school children gathered and waved a “flutter” farewell, each child waving a white handkerchief, at the same time shouting an equivalent for “Good bye and God speed.”

Skirting the coast of Greenland, northward, we were soon in the vicinity of Melville Bay, that spot dreaded by the whalers and explorers of all nations. Still we saw no ice, so turned westward towards the Canadian archipelago, the real object of our summer’s cruise. Contrary to expectations we met no ice on the way across Baffin Bay and passing Glacier Strait, were soon at anchor in the harbor of the most northerly Royal Canadian Mounted Police post.

Off Cape York, we experienced the novelty of taking pictures by the 'ight of the midnight sun. It gave one a curious feeling to play bridge, down below until midnight, and then to

come up on deck and find the sun shining brightly. One instinctively felt that something must be wrong with the clock!

August 7 was a day ever to be remembered! Only 750 miles from the North Pole, not a breath of wind, and so warm that I sat on deck in the bright sunshine and knitted industriously and comfortably with bare hands. Off, to the eastward, was a majestic procession of icebergs on their way south to dissolution —a procession in sight during the entire day, and it was remarkable how evenly spaced the ’bergs were and how nearly in line they appeared to be, all probably under the influence of some current of the depths.

Reminiscent of Fbanklin

A BRIEF exchange of visits with MacMillan, the American scientist and explorer, at Etah, Greenland, and an unsuccessful attempt to reach Cape Sabine, took up our time until August 10, when we turned south and proceeded westward through Lancaster Sound. Passing the beautiful cliffs of North Devon on our right we came to Erebus Harbor, on Beechey Island, site or the first winter quarters of the Franklin expedition in 1845, and headquarters of several of the search parties who, for years afterwards, scoured the country, seeking for traces of Franklin and his men.

The remains of the old building still stand on the gravel beach, on the north shore of Beechey Island, and desolate enough the place seems even in the summer. It makes one shiver to imagine what it must be like under the influence of the icy blasts of an Arctic winter. With scarcely a vestige of vegetation and exposed to all but southerly winds, it seems the acme of inhospitality. Yet many of those valiant men looked upon it as home for years and considered it the one spot in the North where food and comforts were to be found, and they left its comparatively great comforts to do their share in the world’s greatest search, the search for Sir John Franklin and his men. It gave one a feeling of awe to read the inscription on the marble tablet of the cenotaph-

“To the memory of Franklin, Crozier, Fitzjames and all their gallant brother officers and faithful companions who have suffered and perished in the cause of science and the service of their country, this tablet is erected........”

The tablet was sent out by the loving thoughtfulness of Lady Franklin, sixtyfive years ago, and is seen only at intervals of many years by wandering Eskimos or by venturesome whites.

The harbor was swarming with “white whales,” a species of porpoise valued for its oil and its hide. These animals played around the ship in hundreds, and were particularly plentiful in the shallower parts of the harbor. Several attempts were made to shoot one as it went up the harbor exposing its back with its own peculiar rolling motion; but there were no casualties. The whalers “round up” these white whales in the upper end of any bay they frequent, by getting behind them in small boats and frightening them, by shots, shouts and beating tin pans, into the shallow water where they are easily shot.

At Ponds Inlet, in northern Baffin Island, my experience with the Eskimos really began. The post here consists of the HudsonsiBay Company’s warehouses, office and living quarters, and the R.C.M.P. living quarters and storehouses, with a collection of “shacks” for the permanent residents among the natives and the many skin tents of the transients, with an occasional cotton tent, the property of some more opulent native. The native shacks, built of rough lumber supplied by “the Company,” are lined up along the beach, each with its “H.B. Co.” flag, flying above the ridge. The flag consisted of a hugebandana handkerchief on which were sewed the letters “H.B.C.” in white cotton. Extending in front of the natives’ home, is a line of boulders edging a gravel walk, an idea of the Company’s factor to keep the place neat and clean, while the ground immediately surrounding the post was laid off, ornamentally, in small lots and walks outlined by whitewashed boulders. The R.C.M.P. post, two hundred yards away, was also the picture of neatness. One’s first impressions were most favorable:

the white man’s influence was everywhere evident.

Among the Highlander Eskimos

WE WERE greeted by the sergeant in charge of the police post and the factor, and the other white men of the post, after which we had to shake hands “all round” with the Eskimos. My first impressions of the natives were far from favorable. They appeared to be warmly and comfortably clothed but their garments were not as picturesque as those of the_ Greenlanders. When I saw them in their “good clothes,” I was forced to admit, that, although not brightly colored like the Greenlanders’ and of an entirely different “style,” they were equally picturesque—the brown caribou skin of the kouletang contrasting beautifully with the symmetrical decorations made of the white parts of the skin of the caribou, inset in various, crude, geometrical patterns. The more opulent of the native women wore, upon gala occasions, costumes of caribou hide with elaborate bead-work ornamentation, particularly around the shoulders and breast. These they wore with an air of conscious pride, as reflecting their superior position in the community. The bead work was splendidly done, a credit to the patience and skill of the fortunate possessor, for beads and beadwork denote wealth as the Eskimos know it.

I soon grew accustomed to the everpresent odor of rancid or semi-rancid seal oil, as I did to repeated handshakes with hands that were seldom, or never, washed. This I forgave, as anyone would, who realized that for the greater part of the year all the fresh water they have is procured by melting snow or ice over the flame of a stone lamp, the oil for which must be procured by the skill of the hunter of the family. Truly, water thus procured is too precious to be used for washing!

The Eskimos with their short stature, bow-legs, peculiar walk, round shiny faces and continual good nature, were a source of interest to me. But this was far overshadowed by their undisguised interest in the first white woman any of them had ever seen. I was followed by small groups of Eskimos, men, women and children, wherever I went. Although they paid little or no attention to the ordinary comings and goings of the ship’s launch, they seemed to have some method of notifying each other when I was coming ashore. I was invariably greeted at the beach by a considerable gathering of the natives, with each and every one of whom I had to shake hands each time, even if I went ashore two or three times during the same day.

One of the native men, Tom Kudnoo, was an outstanding character. He had profited by his many years of contact with the traders and whalers, and could speak English very well indeed. Unlike most Eskimos, he could count veil, and had a working knowledge of the white man’s calendar, referring to past events as having occurred in certain years, instead of in the native manner by referring minor happenings to some outstanding event, such, for instance, as the visit of a certain ship. To such an extent was he conscious of his superiority, that, sometimes in talking with our party, he would refer to his fellow tribesmen as “the natives,” and just before we left, he presented me with a “souvenir,” no less, from his wife!

Generally speaking, the natives are weak on figures. Ask one of them how many children there are in the family, and after much thought, and after slowly paming the children over one by one, meanwhile counting on the fingers, he or she will answer, perhaps, “five,” a look of great satisfaction appearing, as of a tremendous undertaking well done. If asked the same question in half an hour, the same process of deep thought and naming the children individually would be gone through again, with a result, differing, possibly by one or more, from the previous count!

Motherlove Here, As Everywhere

THE mothers, particularly, seem very fond of their children and proud of their babies. I soon found that to pay a little attention to some child on her mother’s back, or toddling at her side, was the surest way to gain her confidence. I was beseiged by women bearing presents of good-will, none of them valuable, some

of them almost paltry from our point of view. Before I left Ponds Inlet, I was thus the possessor of Eskimo dolls, narwhal horns, walrus tusks, caribou skins, a white fox skin, several babys’ bibs of ermine, prime and unprime, small articles more or less crudely carved from walrus ivory, as for instance crochet needles, polar bears and other animals, and native mittens of caribou skin, and even a coat of sealskin made by one of the native women after the white man’s pattern.

The children obey their parents implicitly; we never saw the slightest evidence of disobedience. On the other hand, the children consider they are entitled to be present at any conference of their elders.

Boy babies are more desirable than girls, as they can support their parents in their old age. This they do, too, this spirit of filial affection putting to shame many from so-called civilization.

By the time a boy is able to hunt skilfully enough to support a wife, he has usually picked out some dusky charmer for his helpmate and approaches her parents telling of his desire. If he is rich enough, in worldly goods, to pay the price they demand for their daughter, he pays it, and the girl is his and away they go on a hunting expedition. By this simple act they advertise to their small world that they have joined forces “for richer for poorer, for better or for worse.”

Outside of a small ration of tea, sugar, tobacco and biscuits—occasionally condensed milk, doled out by the Company’s agent—the natives subsist largely on the products of the chase—polar bear, walrus, seal, caribou and the smaller animals and birds, all forming welcome additions to the larder, and, in addition, in summer, sea trout or salmon for those fortunate enough to be near a salmon river, as at Ponds Inlet.

School of Narwhals

EXCITEMENT prevailed among the natives during one of the last afternoons we were at Ponds Inlet owing to the presence of a school of narwhals in the harbor. The narwhal is of the whale family and sometimes attains a length of twenty-five to thirty feet. The males are distinguished by their long straight horn or tusk of ivory, projecting straight out from and slightly to one side of the upper jaw. The narwhal is considered to be the legendary progenitor of the unicorn but in reality has two horns, the second usually rudimentary, and seldom projecting through the skin, although there are authentic cases of narwhals with two fully developed horns.

Shooting from the shore and from boats, the natives managed to kill two of the narwhals, and there was rejoicing at the prospect of fresh food for all hands, including the dogs. Narwhals are usually secured when they come up for air in leads or cracks in the ice in the spring, though they are killed in varying numbers at various other seasons.

Our next port of call was Pangnirtung, on Cumberland Gulf, on the east coast of Baffin Island, just south of the Arctic circle. There has been a Hudsons Bay Company post here since 1921, and this is the chief centre of activity for the gulf district, as many as two hundred and fifty natives congregating at times.

Cumberland Gulf, like Ponds Inlet, was one of the chief fishing and trading centres of the north country when the Arctic whaling industry was flourishing years ago, and the natives were accustomed to the white man and his ways, but had never before seen a white woman. Ten days here enabled us to clean boilers and to take on ballast, and once again we were on our way south.

Reaction to the Movies

POSSIBLY the most distinctive episodes of the summer were our moving picture shows for the benefit of the natives. While at Ponds Inlet in 1922, our cinematographer had secured some excellent movies of the natives there and of various activities around the post, and in 1923 we were able to show the natives the pictures of themselves. By special invitation they came out to the ship, launch load after launch load, until some hundred and twenty were squatted on the deck. Much more demonstrative than an ordinary civilized audience, they called back and forth to each other, talked incessantly to the figures on the screen, and altogether

enjoyed themselves. It was the same at Pangnirtung, where we had an audience of ninety.

The Eskimos, if demonstrative in their enjoyment and interest in films depicting themselves and their friends, were silent and awed when shown some of the wonders of civilization. Modern skyscrapers, railway trains, aeroplanes, automobiles, trolley cars, all were viewed in silence, the deepest attention being paid to the detailed explanations of the interpreter. Horses, too, and cattle, bicycles, and above all, pictures of timbered country and of large trees, interested them; for none of them had ever seen a tree growing!

The night of the “show” at Pangnirtung was particularly exciting. Just as our audience was about to come aboard, two casualties were brought out from shore to be attended to by the doctor. A cask of oil had gone on the rampage down a rocky piece of beach when being loaded into a small boat and, two Eskimos happening to be in the way, were treated by the cask without consideration. As if it were not enough to have the ship’s saloon turned into a surgical ward, and her deck into a moving picture theatre, the natives at the show suddenly became restless. Upon inquiry the interpreter discovered that the excitement was caused by a rapidly approaching visit from the stork, the woman in the case desiring to get ashore at once, show or no show. Needless to say, the ship’s officers gave her every assistance in their power, evidencing no desire to have the ship class as a maternity hospital, as well!

One of the Eskimo women at Pangnirtung had been blind for five years, her

loss of sight following immediately after a severe headache which lasted for several days. Knowing how sensitive the fingers of a blind person become, I allowed her to “see” my face, hair and clothing with her fingers, while her husband explained to her what she was “seeing.” Her appreciation and gratitude for this simple little act were pathetic; she insisted on presenting me with a sealskin coat which she had just completed for herself. Although blind, she was an excellent needlewoman, and her work, particularly some ornamental interlacing of variously dyed strips of sealskin, was really wonderful.

The most surprising feature of the trip was the absence of low temperatures during the summer. In spite of all I had heard about the country, I found it difficult to reconcile the comparatively warm weather we experienced with what I seemed instinctively to expect. Our lowest temperature as shown by the ship’s official thermometer, was twenty-nine degrees above zero, Fahrenheit, or only three degrees below the freezing point. I must admit, though, that with a breeze off the ice, and no sun, the cold is penetrating. Summers vary in the North as elsewhere and, possibly, we were particularly fortunate in 1923, but it was pleasing to learn by actual experience that the North is not a land of perpetual winter. Grasses of several kinds are abundant in many places, and there is the greatest variety of wild flowers wherever there is the least shelter. The summer season, is short, but this is compensated for by the fact that when it is daylight, it is daylight for twenty-four hours a day, and all nature rejoices accordingly, and plant life thrives in a surprising manner.