The changeling Eskimos of the Mountain San

FRANK CROFT February 1 1958

The changeling Eskimos of the Mountain San

FRANK CROFT February 1 1958

The changeling Eskimos of the Mountain San


At this Hamilton sanatorium sufferers air-lifted from the Arctic sample our strange customs, foods and gadgets. We can cure them and sometimes amuse them —but we can't convince them our world is better

A dramatic but little-known air lift has been shuttling between the eastern Arctic and the Mountain Sanatorium at Hamilton each summer for the last eight years. The “freight” on the southbound flights has been Eskimos in every stage of tuberculosis. Under their wondering eyes has unrolled a two-thousand-mile pattern of tundra, muskeg, forest, lake and field, ending at a gigantic igloo of glittering tile where steaming food is pushed around on wagons and women in stiff white dresses and funny hats are allowed to give orders.

I he northbound flights take the Eskimos home again, health and strength restored and now expert TV-set twirlers, curling-iron users, familiar with Dick I racy—wise, in tact, in all the ways of the white man.

Early this spring more than a hundred Eskimos will be returned to their families, cured. From 1952, when two Eskimos were discharged as cured, until now, more than four hundred patients have gone happily back to the barrens. The individual patient accepts this white man’s miracle with quiet gratitude; for the men and women who are operating the scheme it is. in the words of Dr. Hugo T. Ewart, medical superintendent, “one of the most gratifying campaigns in the entire history ol our war against the hug. Eight years ago tuber-

culosis threatened the survival of the eastern Arctic Eskimos. Today, its extermination is in sight.”

The rout is not yet complete. Eskimo patients will continue to arrive at the Hamilton sanatorium, hut in smaller numbers. Even four years ago the incidence ot active tuberculosis was ten percent of the total eastern Eskimo population. A survey made late in 1956 showed that it had been reduced to five and a half percent.

But the story ot the Eskimos at Hamilton’s Mountain Sanatorium is something more than statistics, surgery, and streptomycin. It is the story of the impact of the white man’s world on primitive men, women and children. When a group of patients were taken on a tour of the city their guides expected that the steel mills, with their vastness, clangor, and open hearths looking like Hell's main entrance, would fascinate the Eskimos. They were bored.

But when a park was passed the Eskimos broke into excited chatter, pointing to grass, trees and flowers. Miss Marion McKnight, of the san’s teaching staff, started something when she showed a group ot young Eskimos how the annual rings of a tree stump recorded the age of the erstwhile tree. Some have become expert at estimating the

age of a growing tree by

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The changeling Eskimos

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its thickness. The final thrill is to compare their own years with those of the tree. But this is a pastime the young enjoy more than the old; staff members have noticed that older Eskimos find trees oppressive and confining after a lifetime in the barrens.

When arrivals at the children’s ward were first given ice cream they threw it on the floor, and nurse Henrietta McGhee found herself the target for a dozen pairs of angry little black eyes. The children thought they were being offered snow; they had reacted to the imagined insult with primitive directness. It was not long before they were scooping up their ice cream just as any child does.

Food is always a problem with new patients. At first both young and old refuse everything hut meat and fish. New adult patients at first will eat the protein foods (with their fingers) and sweep the vegetables and fruits off their trays. But in a short time they take to variety. And they soon learn to use the white man’s tableware.

Sarah Abrams is an attractive young woman with firm but typically Eskimo views on the white man’s food.

Sarah was preparing to return to her home on the shore of Ungava Bay after nearly two years in the san, when she stopped to tell me her food likes and dislikes. What did she like best? “Meat!” Did she like desserts? “Little bit." Vegetables? “No salad, potato or carrots; but peas—little bit." What beverages did she like? "Oh. milk, coffee, just little bit; tea much—yes, much like tea.” Sarah was not impressed with cars, TV or radio but she was delighted to be taking back an iron, soap, toothpaste and some rings.

Sarah’s home is not an igloo; it's a frame house. Nearly all Eskimos of the eastern Arctic have had some kind of contact with the white man. Too many radar, meteorological and wireless stations have been strewn across the Arctic for them to have escaped. The majority are still igloo dwellers — but in these igloos seal-oil lamps and primus stoves may stand side by side. An Eskimo of Baffin Land may hunt with a harpoon, but from a boat powered by an outboard motor. Many patients from as far away as Ellesmere Island come to the san with such things as sewing machines, chewing gum. bobby pins and cigarettes. All have Bibles, in Eskimo.

If there are any pagans among them they will not admit it. The Christian Eskimos of the Canadian Arctic are about eighty-seven percent Anglican and the remainder Roman Catholic, the only two denominations which have conducted missionary work in the far north. That is about the membership proportion for those two churches among the san Eskimos, but once in the san they seem to think that both denominations are interchangeable.

Each church conducts a daily service over an inter-ward transmission system, picked up on headphones by the patients. Nurse Eileen Fagan, supervisor of the admitting department, walked into one of the women’s wards one day, soon after the Eskimos started arriving in Hamilton. All the patients were sitting up in bed. their Bibles open on their laps, headphones in place, and hats, kerchiefs, or even towels covering their heads. “These must be Catholics.” the nurse thought, remembering that this was the hour for

the Catholic service. Later in the day she saw the same patients in the same devout attitude for the Anglican broadcast. Every Eskimo in the san takes the double dose, daily.

Although the Eskimos have abandoned the pagan beliefs of their fathers they bring to the Mountain Sanatorium some of their ancient skills. The recent popularity of Eskimo carvings is principally because the tireless sculptors at the san have widened the market by the quantity of their output. An average of two hundred soapstone bears, walrus, seals, birds. Eskimos and kayaks flow to stores and specialty shops in southern Canada every month. More than half the men carve. Their talents range from primitive genius to run-of-the-mill carvers; even the least expert has a good sense of form and proportion. Production is so steady that a Quebec quarry sends regular shipments of soapstone blocks cut in five different sizes.

Last year the carvings had a retail value of more than ten thousand dollars. The men usually turn this revenue into wrist watches or cameras, and they generally remember their families and friends by sending bright-colored fabrics or tools back home. A carver sells smaller objects, such as birds, for as little as a dollar or two, wholesale, and the larger pieces, such as ivory or soapstone kayaks, hunters poised over seal holes, and outsized bears or walrus, for as much as forty dollars.

An Eskimo kangaroo?

They work quickly. The CBC brought its cameras to the san not long ago to make a documentary film on Eskimo art. They handed one of the carvers a block of soapstone in the morning, planning to return later in the afternoon when they thought he would be nicely started, and so get a film of him actually bringing the stone to life. After lugging cameras and lighting gear into the ward that afternoon they were chagrined to find their artist turning the pages of a comic book; a beautiful, completely sculptured polar bear stood on his bedside table.

So far the men have stuck pretty well to their own people, and the animals they know, for subject matter. But if they remain in the south much longer, anything might happen. Not long ago an orderly watched goggle-eyed as an Eskimo put the finishing touches to, of all things, a kangaroo. The carver had been fascinated by a picture of a kangaroo in a book and had decided to reproduce it in stone.

Carving seems to be a compulsion. When the first patients arrived in 1950, many asked for something to carve as soon as they had been tucked into bed. The nurses thought they wanted to whittle, so odd bits of wood were brought from the floor of the san’s carpentry shop. Mildly grateful, the Eskimos started in on this strange medium and produced some creditable animals. One man hacked an excellent kayak model from a piece of two-by-four. One of the early arrivals brought a walrus tusk with him and lost no time in turning out a kayak, complete with hunter. San authorities were quick to arrange for the soapstone supplies. An Eskimo carver uses a couple of files, part of a hacksaw blade and perhaps a small knife or chisel.

“Sewing and stitching may not be al-

The older Eskimo patients don't bother learning English — so the san’s staff is learning Eskimo

ways as impressive as the work of the carvers, but the women are just as skilful and fast at their work as the men arc at theirs,” says Mrs. Michael Sullivan, a home-economics teacher. Most of them arc familiar with sewing machines when they come to the san, but those who are not pick it up in no time. “Some of our garment manufacturers would rub their hands if they could get a few Eskimo women on the payroll,” one teacher declares. “It’s nothing for a woman to make a housecoat in a day. And remember, their day starts soon after nine and ends before four-thirty, with a two-hour rest period in between. Their housecoats are not just sacks either. They are lovely garments, with bound buttonholes and all the fashion touches.”

Since the Eskimos came to Hamilton the women have been making a lot of the pajamas and nightgowns for many of the patients. These were formerly all bought in the Hamilton stores. As payment, the sanatorium gives the Eskimo women a choice of materials for themselves. For instance, for three pairs of children's pajamas, a woman will receive material worth $2.25. From this material they make their own housecoats, pajamas, slacks, and sleeper-type pajamas for the children. Even the little girls are happiest when given a needle and cloth. They make dolls’ clothing, and parkatype jackets for themselves. Naturally, when such a jacket is worn, a doll travels in the carrying pouch on the “mother’s” back.

“We’re getting our own back”

The Eskimo children, like any children, pick up a new language quickly. The very young start to talk in nothing but English. This worried their elders in other parts of the sanatorium until it was arranged that some of the older Eskimo patients should visit the children for an hour a day to teach them their native language.

The adults make little effort to learn English; they are quite satisfied with their own tongue. “I think we are getting some of our own back,” chuckles Norman Dain, principal of the san’s school staff. “Everyone knows the attitude of the typical Anglo-Saxon toward foreign languages. The foreigner speaks English or we don't speak at all. There seems to be something of that in the Eskimo. They are a very confident people, but without being smug or arrogant about it. The funny thing is, we are learning to speak Eskimo, and finding it very interesting.”

Classes in Eskimo are conducted for the staff three times a week by Raymond Gagne, languages teacher on the school staff. Gagne picked up his Eskimo from the patients; two years ago he had acquired sufficient fluency to teach it to others. “It’s tough going,” says Patricia Dawson, of the admitting staff, “but it’s worth it just to see the bewildered faces of the new patients light up when we greet them with a word or two in their own tongue.”

Being forced into learning the Eskimos’ language isn't the only surprise the staff has been dealt by the Eskimo invasion. Hamilton's Mountain Sanatorium is the largest institution in the British Commonwealth for the treatment of TB. Its medical and nursing reputation has always been as impressive as its size. So it was a shock for the white-clad men

and women, bustling about its gleaming corridors and spotless wards, to learn that the Eskimos call it an igluyuak— literally, “imitation igloo.”

But in spite of their self-assurance the Eskimos can be homesick. A few ambulant patients can always be seen on the brow of the escarpment, on which the sanatorium buildings stand, gazing over the city to the harbor where the coming and going of cargo ships reminds them of the annual visit of supply ships to their own settlements at home.

The yearning for home is often complicated by the fact that modern drug therapy for tuberculosis has the patient feeling normal soon after starting treatment. In the pre-antibiotic days a TB patient knew he was ill because of loss of appetite and a lack of pep generally. Today, a few shots of streptomycin and he wants to go back to work, though there is actually a long campaign ahead before the germ is routed. To show the more impatient Eskimos why they have been brought to the san in the first place and must remain for months, groups are taken to the laboratory and shown a culture of TB bacilli under a microscope. "They soon catch on that something’s eating them,” a lab worker explains. “And they quickly understand the contagious nature of the disease—that it is safer for their families for them to be here, where they will be cured.”

Such explanations, of course, can be a help but not a cure for homesickness. An eighteen-year-old boy was seen leaving the grounds one day and hiking up the road. Gagne happened to notice the boy when he was well away from the grounds and took after him in his car. The teacher managed to talk him into returning, but there were tears in the boy’s eyes, a thing almost unknown among the Eskimos.

One departure ended tragically. In February 1952, David Mikeyook, aged sixty, was admitted to the san with a small group from Great Whale River. On October 1 he was given limited walking privileges. That evening he waited his chance, then left the san, clad in pajamas, pants and a dressing gown. Although the search was widespread he was never seen alive again. On November 30 his body was found by a small boy playing in a stand of thick bush half a mile from the sanatorium. Coroner Dr. A. Michalski said that Mikeyook had been dead only a few days.

No one will ever know what was in Mikeyook’s mind that October evening; even people familiar with the Eskimo character can’t agree. Some think it was the traditional willing sacrifice made by the old who refuse to allow their sickness or feebleness to become a burden on the community, and quietly wander off to perish by themselves. It may have been pure homesickness that gave him the desperate hope that he might find his way back to the Arctic. No matter what his reason, Mikeyook’s successful evasion of searchers, and even the usual human traffic in such a thickly populated area, was amazing in its resourcefulness and cunning.

Many of the young men show their resourcefulness less drastically. Eskimos had not been at the san many weeks when the younger ambulant patients were noticed coming in from the grounds, swinging dead rabbits in their hands. They promptly cooked their game over hot plates meant for staff

t;a and coffee breaks. The men had snared the rabbits on the grounds, and have been keeping their hand in ever since.

Their hunting instinct never dies. Charlie Fleming, who was brought to the san from northern Quebec, gave up trapping for a living when he found that the white nan was paying $2.50 an hour to workers on the Mid-Canada radar line. More than a hundred and fifty men in his community of two hundred adult males did the same. “But we still trap and hunt on Sundays and holidays,” he explains, through an interpreter, “not because we have to any more, but because it is what you must do whenever \ou can.”

Charlie, like all Eskimos in the Mountain Sanatorium, was brought there as the result of an intensive TB program in which three federal-government departments have been co-operating. They axe the Northern Administration Branch (Eskimo) of the Department of Northern Affairs and National Resources, the Welfare Division of the Department ol Citizenship and Immigration, and the Division of Health Services of the Department of National Health and Welfare.

Can they readjust to old ways?

Eight years ago the first X-ray units wore sent into the north by plane and ship. The Eskimos laughingly allowed themselves to be placed before the large, square, innocent - looking cameras in every settlement w'hcrc a unit was set up. The incidence of TB was high, and hospitals in the sub-Arctic hadn t enough beds to receive all the patients the roving X-ray units were discovering. The Mountain Sanatorium at Hamilton was approached and medical superintendent Hugo Ewart w'as glad to report that it could take about three hundred Eskimos. The empty beds at Hamilton were proof of the losing, though still stubborn, battle the TB bug is waging against streptomycin, improved surgery, and extensive case finding. (In 1956 deaths from TB in Canada were 7.8 lor every hundred thousand of population: ten

years ago the rate was 48.2.) At the height of the program, in 1956 and 19.s7, there were more than three hundred Eskimos in the Hamilton San, a fact that gave the city the distinction of being one of the four largest Eskimo communities in Canada.

Bringing a Stone Age people into a twentieth-century environment, thousands of miles from home, has not been a mental handicap in the patients’ fight for health. The mortality rate has been no higher among the Eskimos than among the white patients; the recovery rates are about the same.

"The next important question is how well they fit back into their previous way of life when they return home." Dr. Harold Peart, assistant superintendent, points out. Peart has been north with the case-finding teams and has seen Eskimos leave their families for the mysterious land to the south, and return again completely cured. "It is still too early to give a hard-and-fast answer,” he continues, "but so tar they all seem not only willing but happy to resume their rigorous Arctic life. ’

No Eskimo has ever been heard to say that he would like to remain in the land of central heating, television and packaged foods. Flowers and trees, men riding horses across little screens and shooting at each other, electrically driven sewing machines, are lots of fun. But for the Eskimo, as for anyone, there is no place like home. ★