The Add-on Eskimo
The father of the family, Okfagit, looked around the circle of his family and gave thanks in his heart for his six healthy children, ranging in age from eight to eighteen. Among the Eskimos many children died before their second birthday; he was thankful that so many of his had survived.
As they ate, Okfagit said, “We will be hunting seals today, and you, my son Ayit, will come along on your first hunt!” Ayit’s eyes danced with pleasure, excited to hear that finally, at eight years old, he was going to be allowed out with the men on a hunt.
His father was a typical Eskimo, short, about five feet tall, with a round and somewhat flat face, well suited to the harsh arctic conditions of his homeland: his short nose did not freeze as easily as the longer one of a white man. He was strongly built, and the years of hunting had toughened his body so that he could go for long periods without sleep or food and still function well.
The life of an Eskimo here on the Eastern end of Asia was both harsh and dangerous. With yards of snow falling in the winter, it was a struggle to get about. And at each turn there was the chance of death: getting caught in a blizzard as Ayit’s grandfather had, falling through the ice, being injured while hunting alone, being swept off the cliffs by a strong gust while collecting bird’s eggs, having a boat capsize or sink, and even having a whale jump over the boat and land on it, killing all—which had happened to one family from their village just two years earlier. But Ayit didn’t think about such danger. He accepted it as part of everyday life
After breakfast Ayit collected the two wooden floats studded with metal spines used to snag the seals that were shot in the water. Before stepping out of the house into the cold, crisp air, his father took his big rifle, which he had gotten from Russian traders, put it into his gun sheath and slung his seal skin equipment bag over his back.
He looked around at the other homes in his village of Chatlino and saw others preparing to hunt. There were eight houses in the village of fifty-four inhabitants.
Okfagit looked out over the shore ice to the edge where it was piled up. This was where the moving ice packs had been driven by the wind and currents into the solid shelf of shore ice, stacking up towers of ice. He could see some open patches of water beyond them and smiled. These were where the seals would come up for air, places where he could get food for his family, oil for their lamps, and skins for their clothes.
His three older sons began to hitch the dogs to their sled, expertly putting the harness onto each and attaching them to the sled. They used the line method with a lead dog, and the others fastened behind, instead of the fan method some other artic dwellers used.
With Ayit and one brother sitting on the sled, their father stood on the back and spoke to the dogs. They leapt to their feet and, barking excitedly, lunged ahead, jerking the frozen runners out of the snow, and lurching off towards the shore ice. The two older boys walked behind, as it was only a mile to the edge of the shore ice, and it wouldn’t take them long to get there.
Okfagit pulled up the dogs at the piles of ice and stamped the sled’s anchor into the snow. The dogs laid down, knowing they were in for a wait. He took his pole, a walking staff with an iron point on one end and a metal hook on the other and climbed a pile of ice. He looked out in each direction, orienting himself to where the open water holes were. He then climbed down and called for the boys to follow him out onto the “young ice,” which had formed in the night as the ice packs had moved away from the shore ice.
This was dangerous because an incautious step could plunge one through the ice into the freezing water. If it was just a leg that went through, that was not a big problem because they were all dressed in waterproof, seal-skin clothes. But if a person went all the way through and water poured down inside his parka, it would mean almost certain death.
Okfagit tested the young ice (above) with his staff before he stepped onto it. His boys followed him carefully, each with his own stick. When they reached the open water, they found an ideal spot where some ice was piled up on the edge of the open water, giving them a hiding place. When a seal surfaced, it would not be able to see them, for if it did, it would immediately submerge before they could get off a shot.