Winter Sight for the Add-on Eskimo
As winter came on and the daylight faded in the Artic night, the Eskimos gathered in one home or another to visit, with the seal-oil lamps burning to give light and heat.
It was also a time for the shaman to practice his arts. Several families would crowd in together as the shaman got his drum, made from a piece of wood bent in a circle and tied to a handle. The skin was made from a walrus stomach and made a satisfying boom when struck with a stick.
The shaman sat cross legged, closed his eyes and began to beat out a rhythm. Okfagit leaned over to his son, “He’s calling the spirits,” he said. As Ayit watched, suddenly a tiny artic fox appeared and began to run around the perimeter of the drum. “See, that little fox is a spirit,” whispered Okfagit. The shaman chanted on, now keeping his eyes closed.
When he was done calling the spirits, he said, “The spirits give power,” and lifting his parka, he plunged a knife into his stomach. Withdrawing the knife, he put his hand on the bleeding wound, muttered an incantation, then took his hand away, revealing a fully healed stomach, only a scar remaining.
He played his drum and sang some more, then fell into a trance and lay twitching on the floor. When he awoke, he shouted, berating several men, one at a time, saying they had angered the spirits. Then he said, “The spirits call us to worship them, to praise them, for they created everything, all belongs to them. They loan it all to us, but we must use all only as they direct us.”
Ayit shuddered at the dark, ominous feeling all this gave him. He longed for someone who could bring light into their family and village, who could protect them from these evil, demanding and destructive spirits. But there was no one.
The next day Ayit trudged behind his father on his snowshoes as they hunted caribou before the snow got too deep. He looked around at the beauty of the snow-covered landscape, the tall pines lifting their heads up on the mountain sides, the rugged cliffs and the still flowing brook.
Looking back, he saw the view of the expansive sea. It was breath-takingly beautiful. He thought of the summer when the short tundra grasses had waved in the wind while the thousands of birds wheeled overhead. He thought of the many animals around them—seals, walrus, bears, caribou, foxes and wolves—and noted how each was unique and fascinating.
Suddenly a thought came. “I don’t believe the spirits created all this,” he said to himself. “They are so ugly and mean, so evil. They destroy those who don’t obey them, and they randomly bring sickness and suffering to others. No, they couldn’t have created all this beauty. I think there must be a good, creator god. Perhaps it is our Apa, but he is so far from us, I don’t know.”
He trudged on, not realizing that the Good Creator God had just spoken to him, giving him insight beyond his 16 years and beyond his human ability. This revelation was to lead him on to the most significant event of his life.
They wound their way up to the mountain’s edge and then turned to follow its skirt. As they came around one bend, there was a small herd of caribou digging through the snow, looking for the lichen they favored so much.
Both men quietly knelt in the snow and slowly raised their rifles. Each fired twice before the remaining caribou fled. They stood and walked across to where the four bodies lay.
First, they offered each a drink of fresh water to honor their spirits. Then they began preparing them to take home. When they had the hides off, Okfagit sent Ayit back to bring the dogs and the sled they’d left further down the hill, tethered where the dogs would not disturb any game.
When he returned, Ayit helped his father to put the caribou skins on the sled, then piled the meat on top, lashing it all down. They were both pleased with their success, and not only because of the meat they’d gotten. The caribou skins were highly prized because they were the warmest type of skin they could find. This was because the hairs of the caribou are hollow, providing extra insulation for the animal—and for the person who wore the skin.
When they got home, the meat was cut into smaller parts and put outside up on meat racks or on a platform to freeze. Then Nisana and her daughters carefully scraped the skins to get all the fat off. When the skins were ready, they put them into small wooden vats full of human urine to cure. When that process was complete, they would hang them outside on the walls of the house to bleach and soften. In time the skins would be ready for making blankets or clothes.
Unlike other Eskimo families, Ayit had no grandparents. Life in the artic was often cruel and short lived. His father’s father had died in midlife, frozen in a snowstorm. Nothing could be done to save him. His mother’s father died of an illness brought on by parasites found in their drinking water. One grandmother had died when she fell through the ice while crabbing. The other died from an illness, probably contracted from the whalers who stopped by in the summer. Ayit was thankful that his father was still alive to teach him the skills needed to survive in their harsh climate, and for other elders in the village taught him the customs of his people.
Picture: inside of an Eskimo house where the neighbors gathered