Don’t Pity the Poor Eskimo – Part II (Dec, 1938)

Part I

Don’t Pity the Poor Eskimo – Part II

By Ruth and Bill Albee


ESKIMOS of the Bering Strait region probably did not invent the pneumatic tire, but they seem to have known about its basic principle and utilized it long before the white man realized its possibilities.

These Eskimos, just emerging from the Stone Age, offer a wonderful opportunity to observe a primitive people in a primitive environment, and to compare their standard of intelligence with that of people of our modern age. Those who cherish illusions that modern man represents the acme of mental development are likely to have their illusions shattered.

For instance, many moderns think of straight-line production, precision workmanship, utilization of byproducts, and streamline design as characteristics of our modern industrial age. But we found that they were old stuff to the Eskimos at Cape Prince of Wales, Alaska. In their own way, the Eskimos have practiced these principles for countless generations.

As teachers among them, working for the Bureau of Indian Affairs, we were supposed to teach their children how to cope with life. But we found them teaching us. We were amazed at their resourcefulness, efficiency, inventive genius and mechanical skill.

Modern industry can show few better examples of efficiency than that displayed by an Eskimo crew butchering a walrus. Six to ten men, working apparently without leadership or direction, will skin and cut up a 3,000-pound to medicines—and food is listed as one product. Not even the Chicago packers, who boast of using every part of the pig but the squeal, can do much better.

No one who has ever seen an Eskimo woman split a walrus hide can again think of precision workmanship as being exclusively a machine-age characteristic. The walrus hide is about three-quarters of an inch thick—too thick and too heavy to be used as a covering for a skin boat or oomiak. So the women split the hides into two layers, each approximately three-eighths of an inch thick. In this operation, the women use the traditional “ooloo,” a knife with a curved blade, somewhat similar to the old-fash-ioned chopping knife. Holding a curved board between her knees to provide a cutting surface, she guides her ooloo strokes with her free hand and gauges the thickness of the two layers by a delicate sense of touch. It takes from six to eight hours to split a hide approximately twelve feet square. When the job is completed, the two layers will be of uniform thickness throughout. A thin spot might bring disaster to a hunting crew using the oomiak.

But the Eskimo men display even greater skill and precision in their work with rawhide. To explain their work and the Eskimo pneumatic tire, one must first explain that for some uses to which sealskin is put, the entire carcass is removed through a single opening at the neck, leaving the skin in one piece. An Eskimo man, using nothing but a hunting knife and his fingers for a gauge, will cut around the skin from neck to tail in a continuous spiral. Within an hour, he can reduce a seal hide to a rawhide thong from 500 to 800 feet long. These thongs have many uses, such as for making harpoon lines and nets to catch seals. They are so uniform in width and thickness that the eye can detect no variation.

On feast days the men hold contests demanding even greater skill. Each contestant takes an arm’s length of rawhide thong not over three-sixteenths of an inch thick, and splits it with a quick pull of his knife.

The man who splits his thong into strips of the most nearly uniform dimensions, wins. Sometimes the judges ponder many hours before the victor is proclaimed.

The women cure these whole seal hides with oil to make bags or “pokes” that have many uses. Stuffed to capacity with dried meat soaked in seal oil, and with the opening sewed up airtight with sinew, the poke serves as a container to store food and preserve it for future use. Inflated with air, and attached to a harpoon line, it serves as a buoy to support and mark the location of seals or walrus harpooned out in the open water.

But perhaps the most interesting use of a seal poke is as a pneumatic roller. Two or three half-inflated pokes, placed under the keel of a loaded oomiak, will enable a crew to pull the boat with ease over a sandy beach. Wooden rollers, or even tightly inflated pokes, are not satisfactory, as they dig into the loose sand, and pile it up in front of the roller. But the Eskimo was smart enough to discover long ago that the pneumatic wheel, or roller, overcame irregularities of terrain. In building a dog sled for use on snow or ice, the problem was to construct a vehicle capable of transporting heavy loads over rough terrain at high speeds. Hence the sled, like the oomiak, must be strong but flexible enough to absorb shocks. Most dog sleds are made from imported hickory. One two-inch by twelve-inch plank, twelve feet long, will be ripped by hand into more than two hundred linear feet of hickory strips varying from two inches by two inches to one-quarter inch by three inches, all the wood needed for a ten-foot sled, such as the one illustrated.

The members, like those of the oomiak frame, are lashed together with taut rawhide thongs, providing strong, resilient joints that will yield and then pull back into place without breaking. Thin steel bands, bolted to the bottom of the wooden runners, provide the sliding surface.

The Eskimo’s innate mechanical sense finds many expressions in his adaptation of modern devices to his needs. Almost any Eskimo can take an outboard motor that a white man would relegate to the junk heap and make it function satisfactorily. We watched one of our Eskimo friends lengthen the shaft of an outboard motor to use on his skin boat.

He carved a “gasket” five inches thick from a piece of hardwood to insert where the bottom housing joins the shaft. In the gasket he drilled holes for bolts, water circulation, and shaft. Then he filed threads on sections of steel rods and thus made bolts to extend through the gasket. Finally he made a new long shaft from a rust-pitted drift pin resurrected from an old bit of wreckage on the beach. Cutting it to length, he filed bearings and keyways by hand, and reassembled shaft and housing. The motor functioned perfectly for three years to our knowledge, and is probably still in use.

Everything they can procure, even the common nail, is put to many uses by the Eskimos. One day we watched one of them rebuild a rifle in our workshop. It was an old rifle and several of the working parts had worn loose. So he made new parts from nails, heating, hammering, and filing them to shape. When finished, the old rifle worked splendidly.

Nowhere does the Eskimo display greater skill than in his ivory carving, an art handed down for countless generations. Ivory is about as hard as brass. The Eskimo now uses a hack saw to rough-shape his ivory, rasps and files for the finer details, small chisels made from saw files to work out finer lines and crevasses, bow drills for holes, and emery paper and crocus cloth for the finishing touches. Finally he rubs it well with jewelers’ rouge. The high polish secured by the rouge distinguishes real Eskimo work from the Japanese carvings that constitute most of the ivory offered for sale to Alaskan tourists.

Among Eskimo implements of comparatively recent origin, perhaps the most ingenious is the ilhook, or retriever. Before introduction of the rifle, seals were harpooned and pulled ashore by the harpoon line. But with a rifle an Eskimo might kill a seal or a duck far out in the water, and then be unable to retrieve it, without launching a boat. So he invented the ilhook, consisting of a streamlined, bullet-nosed, driftwood float carved to approximately the size and shape of a 200-watt electric-light bulb. Curved metal barbs protrude from the float, and a long rawhide line is securely fastened to it. In use, the float is whirled around the head rapidly and let fly out past the seal, carrying the line with it. If the line does not fall directly across the object to be retrieved, the hunter moves along the shore line until the float is in such position that it can be pulled directly across the quarry. Thereupon the metal barbs snag the object, and hold it while it is dragged ashore.

One instance of the Eskimos’ innate mechanical sense impressed us deeply. Two educated Eskimos who had visited “the States” told us that the greatest fear they experienced was not from automobiles or trains, but from swaying trees. They could never quite overcome the fear that a tree, swaying in a stiff wind, would blow over on them!

The huge topheavy mass of branches, balanced on the small trunk, had no visible means of support. They had never seen trees growing in their native land, and while they knew that trees had roots, it didn’t seem possible to them that there could be enough roots to anchor such an apparently illogical structure. To some, this concept might indicate a lack of intelligence on the part of the Eskimos. But their error was not one of logic. It was due to lack of information.

Here is where the white man enjoys perhaps his greatest advantage. He can avail himself of knowledge accumulated through the research of millions of experimenters, and the experience of millions of fellow craftsmen. Newspapers, magazines, radio, and motion pictures rapidly collect and disseminate new ideas and foster their adaptation to new uses, providing a constant source of inspiration. Perhaps it is this constant stimulus and this easy access to accumulated knowledge rather than any fancied superior intelligence that makes the white man seem to excel in mechanics and invention.

The Eskimos, in common with other peoples cut off from the rest of the world by physical barriers, have until recently enjoyed no such advantages of easy communication of ideas. They have had only their own traditions and experience, plus their native understanding of fundamental principles, to guide them.

From what we have seen of these Stone Age people, we believe that they display as much intelligence in analyzing and solving problems as do those who live thousands of miles and hundreds of years removed from them in the age of the machine.

1 comment
  1. Vicki Lash says: September 11, 200811:10 am

    I am a teacher at Cape Prince of Wales and have been here for 7 years. My students are researching the way nets were made here long ago. I had found a piece of one in an abandoned shed and asked if I could have it since the building was going to be torn down.
    My request was granted, however with a look of awe that I’d be interested in an old net that was “older than I am”

    I found this article and am delighted. I believe that Albee also wrote a book, Kanguk, about life here as told to him by an elder who illustrated it. What a wonderful piece of information you have given the world!!
    Vicki Lash

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