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"There are many things about the natives and their customs I can only surmise, intimately though I knew them. They are a remarkable people in many ways, honest, charitable and kind, yet cruel too from the grim necessity of the North. They actually looked down upon white men as being incompetents reckoned by their own standards. They gave us full credit for producing valuable and convenient articles and implements, but they really laughed at our limitations in caring for ourselves in the North."
"... this nation displays intelligence. This is amply demonstrated by their native ingenuity, their love of work and the relative degree of comfort they have achieved in their daily lives. Thieving, irascible, mendacious, distrustful, unreliable, they take on with you an attitude of overwhelming conceit, treat you as inferiors or, at any rate, as equals... they are shameless, dishonest, laugh impertinently at anything you say or do, ape your every action... break, destroy or steal anything that does not belong to them, and are ever ready to thrust a knife into the midriff of anyone who happens to turn up. ..the Eskimos do have moral qualities and human virtues... they are hospitable... fearless... They remember benefits received, are devoid of jealousy and show consideration for one another."
Such were the descriptions and opinions of American whaling Captain Hartson Bodfish and Roman Catholic missionary Father Petitot regarding the native people of the Arctic coast.
The Yukon coast and Herschel Island were part of the traditional territories of the Mackenzie Inuvialuit or Tchiglit people. The Kigirktarugmiut, a Mackenzie River subgroup who occupied this region, lived in the village of Kigirktayuk, located at Pauline Cove on Herschel Island.
The Mackenzie Inuvialuit descended from the Thule, came from Alaska sometime in the last 1,000 years and brought highly developed hunting skills and technology. Seasonal food gathering intimately shaped their culture. Depending on the time of year and the food source being hunted, a single family would function either independently or in small groups to hunt and fish. Larger groups of people, 75 to 300, would gather for whaling, weir fishing, caribou drives, and floe-edge sealing. All who participated in a hunt would share the food.
During the winter, which lasted from October to May, the Inuvialuit people did not journey far from their winter homes. If food supplies were low they made excursions on to the sea ice for sealing and fishing, also traveling inland to hunt for caribou.
In mid June to mid July, while the breaking ice was ushering in the short summer season, families dispersed to fish camps around the Mackenzie Delta and the mouths of the coastal rivers. They caught herring, arctic char, whitefish, and inconnu. They would also venture out in their kayaks to hunt the caribou and seals that gathered at the waters' edge.
With the arrival of fall in late July and August, the Inuvialuit came together at whaling camps to hunt beluga whales and waterfowl, abundant at that time of year. In September and early October, bowhead whales provided an additional food source for their diet of fish, seals, and caribou.
It was essential that food caught in the summer and fall be preserved to ensure the Inuvialuit's winter survival. Fish was preserved in various ways. It was split and dried over a fire; dried on open racks until slightly decayed and then stored; preserved in pokes of oil; or stored in permafrost pits. These pits were dug to a depth of 2 feet. Meat was placed in them and then covered with split wood and earth. Bird and animal meats were usually stored in this manner.
The Inuvialuit demonstrated creative uses for materials readily available to them or acquired through trade with neighbouring tribes such as the Alaskan Inuvialuit, and the Gwitch'in in the Yukon interior. As metals became available through European contact, these were also incorporated into their tool kits. Toggling harpoons, fixed barbed point spears, tridents, fishing leisters, hunting arrows with stone or barbed bone, antler points, bows with simple and composite arrows, fishnets woven from strips of caribou sinew, and fish hooks carved from pieces of bone or soapstone are a few of the ingenious tools fashioned from these various materials.
Wood frame skin kayaks with double bladed paddles were used for transportation and hunting whale, seal, mink, and muskrat. An umiak, which held more people, was a large wood framed boat covered with beluga skin with single blade paddles for transportation and hunting. Sleds with runners made of bone or antler and pulled by 5 or 6 dogs were used in the winter for seal and land hunting.
Their material culture included small boxes, needle cases, beads, hair combs, snow goggles, labrets, harness toggles and buckles of bone, ivory antler and wood, shallow wooden food-serving trays, and ladles of wood and horn.
To a large extent spiritual leaders, or shamans governed the Inuvialuit. They believed that spirits inhabited everything from animals to mountains to storms. The shamans were expected to expel evil spirits from a sick body, to bring back the fair weather, or to advise on suitable locations for subsistence activities. Shamans acted as intermediaries between the spirits and the people, and for these skills, were well compensated.
The Inuvialuit believed in a great spirit which they thought to be embodied in the sun. Consequently, the sun's return after the long, cold winter was welcomed with ceremonies and dances.
Native clothing offered superior protection from the harsh northern climate. Men and women wore similar outfits made from animal skins. Caribou was preferred as the fur had an insulating value not found in other animal's fur. The following descriptions give an indication of the indigenous attire.
Women wore caribou skin trousers and shoes, generally made in one piece with slits on the sides, for freedom of movement. They also wore large hoods to allow room for their thick bundles of hair.
Men wore undershirts, underpants, and stockings made from muskrat fur. These undergarments were worn with the fur side of the pelt next to the skin. Caribou pantaloons with the hair turned out were pulled over the undergarments. They wore knee length boots of caribou or sealskin with beluga whale skin soles. For additional warmth, hare skin stockings were worn inside their boots.
Both men and women wore hooded parkas trimmed with wolverine fur. The long hairs of the wolverine protected the face from the biting wind and tended not to freeze as easily as other types of animal fur. These parkas also had a distinctive border trimmed with alternate rows of dark and light coloured fur.
Mittens were made of walrus hide, a tough, water resistant skin. Inside the mittens were worn gloves made of caribou with the fur turned out which provided additional protection from the cold.
In rainy weather, water proof overcoats were made from the intestines of the bearded seal, or from fish skin or sealskin which were cut into long strips and sewn together.
Summer clothing was essentially the undergarments of the various winter outfits, however, the hair side of the pelt was worn away from the body.
© Old Log Church Museum 2002