THE COASTAL ESKIMO by SHELDON JACKSON 1891

THE COASTAL ESKIMO OF ALASKA
A SEMI NOMADIC PEOPLE

Written by  Dr. Sheldon Jackson
U.S. General Agent of Education for Alaska
August 8, 1891


Extracted  by Coleen Mielke
Wasilla, Alaska

Eskimo's on the coast of Alaska have underground permanent houses in the winter and they use tents made of reindeer skins, walrus hides or cotton canvas in the summer.

In making a winter house, a cellar from 20' to 24' square and 3' to 5' deep is dug. Along the sides and at the corners of the excavation are set posts of driftwood or whale bone. On the outside of these, poles of driftwood are laid up, one upon another to the top. Other timbers are placed across the top, forming the ceiling or roof. Against the outside and upon the roof, dirt and sod are piled until it has the appearance of a large mound. In the center of the dome is an opening about 18" across. Over this is stretched the transparent bladder of a seal or walrus. This opening furnishes light into the room below. A narrow platform extends along one or more sides of the room where belongings of the family and reindeer skin bedding is stowed. The platform is also a sleeping place for the family.

Large shallow dishes of earthenware, bone or stone, filled with seal oil are a combined stove and lamp for the family. Some lighted moss makes a dull line of flame along the edge of this dish. Frequently a piece of blubber is suspended over the flame and the dripping keeps the lamp replenished. Many of the houses were so warm that we found our usual outdoor clothing burdensome.

Sometimes, at the side of the room and sometimes in the floor near the center is a small opening about 20" square. This is a doorway and leads to a hall or outside room and a reindeer curtain hangs over it. This outer place is sometimes a hall 12' to 15' long by 2' wide and 2' high, leading to a well or shaft. This shaft is 6' to 7' deep and leads up a crude ladder into the open air. In other cases, it is a large room 12' to 15' square containing, on either side of the passage way through the center, a place to store the winter supply of oil, fish and flour. The exit from the storeroom is similar to that from the hall, up a ladder and through a small hole. When a storm is raging outside, this hole is covered with a board or flat stone or large flat whale bone.

All villages of importance contain a public room or town hall. This is built like the private dwellings only much larger, 60' square and 20' high and contains three tiers or platforms. This building is called the kashima or kashga and is used for public festivals and dances. It is also the common workshop in which the men make their snowshoes, dog sleds, spears and other implements. Villages viewed from the deck of a coasting vessel have the appearance of many hillocks or dunes along the beach.

Eskimo's of Arctic Alaska are still in the stone age; manufacturing arrows and spearheads from flint is a living industry. Stone lamps, stone hammers and chisels and even some stone knives are still in ordinary use among them. Fish lines, nets and bird snares are still made of whale bone, sinew and rawhide. Arrows, spears, nets and traps are used in hunting, although improved breech loading arms are being introduced.

For transportation on land, the Eskimo's have snowshoes, dog teams and sleds. On water the kiak (kayak) and umiak are used. The kiak (kayak) is a long narrow, light, graceful skin covered canoe with one, two or three holes according to the number of people to be carried. It is the universal boat of the Eskimo. The umiak is a long skin covered boat. This is the family boat or carryall. Those in use around the Bering Straits are about 24' long and 5' wide. They will safely carry 15 people plus 500 pounds of freight coasting in the sea. Those on Kotzebue Sound in the Arctic Ocean are 35' long and 6' wide with a capacity of 3,000 pounds of freight and a crew of 6. There are also exceptionally large umiaks that will carry 50 to 80 people. Both kiaks (kayaks) and umiaks are made of walrus, seal lion or white whale hides stretched over light frames of spruce wood.

Eskimo families rarely have more than four children. The drudgery of women is such that they often destroy a child, particularly if it is a girl. A missionary reported that someone tied a helpless 2 year old at waters edge at low tide. A passer-by heard the child's cries and found the baby neck deep in water. He rescued the child and took it home to care for. It was a sickly child left in the care of an old woman and it was too hard to care for.

If a family is poor, they sometimes give all of their children, except one, to another childless family. Children are also sold by their parents, the price usually being a seal skin bag of oil or a suit of old clothes.

During infancy, children are carried under a parka astride of mothers back, being held in position by a strap under the child's thighs and around the mothers body across the chest. When out from the parka, they are carried seated on the back of the mothers neck and shoulders with the child's legs hanging down in front on both sides of the neck.

Like other ignorant people, the Eskimo's are firm believers in witchcraft and spirits. They also believe in transmigration of souls, that spirits enter into animate and inanimate nature, rocks, winds, tides and animals; that they are good or bad and can be changed by sorcery.

At the mouth of the Kuskokwim River, an old woman was accused of having caused the deaths of several children because she was a witch. This was so firmly believed that her own husband pounded her to death, cut up her body into small pieces and consumed it with oil in the fire. The promoter of this great evil is the shaman or sorcerer. He is believed to be the only one who can control the evil spirits and protect the people from them.

The prevailing illnesses among the Eskimo are scrofula, diphtheria, pneumonia and consumption. They have a superstitious fear about in a house, so when the sick are nearing death, they are carried out of the home. If they do not die as soon as expected, they ask to be killed which is usually done by the shaman stabbing them in the temple or breast. The dead are wrapped in reindeer or seal skins and drawn on a sled back to the village where they are placed on an elevated scaffold, out of the reach of animals, or on the ground covered by driftwood. Some tribes leave the dead bodies uncovered to be devoured by village dogs.


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