A detailed description of Baffin Island and the Inuit way of life, with an appendix of Eskimo deities, including the vampiric Aipalookvik who ‘Has a large head and face, human in appearance but ugly like a cod’s. Is a destroyer by desire and tries to bite and eat the kyakers.’ (p.266). His account is also notable for descriptions of euthanasia: a blind man is willingly led to an ice hole where ‘He went right under, then and there under the ice and was immediately drowned and frozen. A handy piece of ice served to seal the death trap, and all was over. Nandla had died on the hunt, and had entered the Eskimo heaven like the other valiant men of his tribe, and taken his place with the doughtiest of them, where there would be joy and plenty for evermore.’ (p. 153) [From John Bockstoce collection catalogue, item 10, from McGahern Books, 2019.]
p. 57: The origin of the Eskimo is a matter of ethnographical conjecture. They themselves had no written language until comparatively few years ago, and depended upon oral tradition for their history. And even to-day it is only the few who have been taught to read and write, so that legend still holds sway throughout the greater part of Baffin Land, Cock-burn Land, and the rest. Their past is lost in obscurity. In the obscurity perhaps of that neolithic or "reindeer age" of which their life, even now, has so often been cited as a close replica.
p. 85-86, on native seal hunting: No food is borne on the sled, for the hunter depends upon himself for his dinner. The duty of the boys is to watch the sled, to mind the dogs, and see they do not fight or stampede, to study the conditions of the ice, the signs of the weather, the habits of animals, to note their calls and movements and how to imitate them, to take careful notice of the topography of the country and make mental drawings of it to serve as charts and maps, to read the stars, and, generally to endeavour to become skilled and successful hunters themselves.
p. 175-78, on the Eskimo language: Up to within recent times the Eskimo had no system of writing. But another patient evangelist, inspired by the necessity of delivering the message of Christianity in a more permanent form than by oral teaching only, invented what is known as the Syllabic Character for the benefit of the Indians, at a post called Norway House. This was the Rev. James Evans, a minister of the Canadian Methodist Church. The Syllabic Character, which is a sound (and not a letter, or alphabetical) writing, similiar [sic] to shorthand, was designed for the Cree, but proved to be easily adaptable to represent the Eskimo speech. Without such a method, it is difficult to imagine how restless and roving tribes, at this post to-day and gone to-morrow, could ever have been taught to read. By this means, however, an ordinarily intelligent individual can learn in eight or nine weeks.
The principle of Mr Evans’ characters is phonetic. There are no silent letters. Each character represents a syllable; hence no spelling is required. As soon as the series of signs — about sixty in number — are mastered, and a few additional secondary signs (some of which represent consonants and some aspirates, and some partially change the sound of the main character), the native scholar of eighty or of six years of age can begin to read, and in a few days attain surprising accuracy.
Such results as these, such gifts of pure intellectual effort, are surely among the greatest blessings civilisation has to confer on the few primitive peoples still left in the world.
Of late years the British and Foreign Bible Society have taken charge of the work, and now the Gospel in Cree, Syllabic and Eskimo is widely spread.
The Syllabic Character is known far and wide to day in the arctics. It has not been spread solely by white men, for the people teach each other as they travel from tribe to tribe. The Eskimo freely write letters to their friends and hand them over for delivery to anyone taking a journey in the desired direction. The letters always reach their destination, because the postman at his first sleeping place invariably reads them all through from first to last; so that if, as often happens, one or two should get lost, the addressee receives the missive by word of mouth; and incidentally the postman knows everybody’s business and is altogether the most glorious gossip who could ever drop in and enliven the circle round the igloo lamp of a winter’s night.
Pen, ink and paper, it may be noted, are innovations of the new civilisation. Prior to the advent of the white man the only idea and the only means of caligraphy the Eskimo had was the etching on ivory or bone. Many vigorous and spirited drawings exist of hunting or other scenes, scratched on blade or handle, and sharply bitten in, black and clear, by rubbing with soot from the lamps. It is not remarkable that a knowledge of writing and reading should have spread among the people in this way, for the Eskimo are avid of instruction, and eagerly avail themselves of any opportunity of being taught. Where Christianity itself has gained a footing it has been largely through the instrumentality of some among them who have come in contact with missionaries, and passed on to others all they had seen and heard.
One of the most puzzling aspects of Eskimo is its "agglutinative" character. The words all run together. All the parts of speech may be joined to the verbal root and then conjugated in its various moods and tenses, so that the word finally produced by this process may be sixty or more syllables long. Students find the principal difficulty, not so much in building up and saying these peculiar words, but in correctly understanding what the natives say.
[p. 180-83 has a lengthy passage on further aspects of the Eskimo language, concluding as follows]:
p. 183: It is for the future to reveal whether or no the newly found gift of writing will lead these people on to extensive literature. The Moravians have published some well known books, such as "Christie’s Old Organ," etc. If so, by the analogy of every literature in the world, it will begin with verse, by the enshrining of the folk tales immemorially dear to every nation, and by the composition of some sort of Eskimo saga. The Greenland Eskimos composed long songs in honour of Fridtjof Nansen before he took leave of them, after the first crossing of their icy continent. It may be that these Eskimo poems, printed in his book, together with Dr. Rink’s collection of "Tales and Traditions of the Eskimo," and Dr. Boas’ similar collection of the fables of this people ("The Central Eskimo") and the present writer’s contribution to the same subject, constitute so far the bulk of the offering made by these children of the arctic to the literature of mankind.
p. 199-202, The Conjurers: The accomplished conjuror must be able to detect and affix guilt. Here he is concerned entirely with the minds of his fellow men, and trying to fathom and read them. The Eskimo mind is as tortuous as the Eastern. The conjuror pursues his own method, which may have a good deal to recommend it in the eyes of those who have made a study of the occult, but which is not the method of direct evidence and deduction. He throws himself into a perfectly genuine trance, and stakes everything on the intuitions of that state and the awesome effect of it upon the interested beholders.
To do this the conjuror sits down with his face to the wall, and drawing his hood well over his features, rocks himself backwards and forwards, calling the while on his familiar spirit (his Tongak) to come to him. He continues this howling and rocking until such concentration of mind is effected that he becomes unconscious; he foams at the mouth. Whilst in this condition of self-induced hypnotism — or however the spiritists may explain it — his spirit, it is believed, goes below to Sedna, or above to the regions of beatitude, to find out what has been the cause of the guilt in question, and discover the requisite punishment.
The interesting thing about this performance is that it is by no means the tissue of imposture one might suppose. The Eskimo conjuror may be no more and no less a fraud than the medium of a spiritistic seance. The writer has been creditably assured by these practitioners that the trance ensues in the vision of a great white light (like the light thrown on a sheet by the magic lantern), and then in that illumination they see the whole scene of the supposed crime re-enacted, all the people implicated in it, and its every detail. They are told, or inspired, what penalty to inflict. On returning to consciousness, the vision is not forgotten, but sharply remembered. The conjuror is able to accuse the offender, to question him, and extort a confession from him. The penalty generally takes the form of some obnoxious task to be performed or some fine to be paid in kind.
This power to see the white light and to project in it the thoughts, probably, of the assistants at the conjuration — for the performance, when genuine, amounts to nothing less — is really a remarkable psychic feat. Probably the conjurors understand it as little as the laity; they have only trained themselves to achieve it, and they explain it according to the fantastic body of superstition which constitutes the Eskimo religion. It is only after long practice and the sustained effort after great mental concentration that the manifestation is attained, that the light can be seen, and incidents recorded in it. This is the final test for the honours of full conjurorship. The candidates sit night after night with the teacher, faces to the wall, and the lamps burning low, shutting out all extraneous objects and distractions, in the endeavour to see the light, to pass into trance. Those who remain for ever unable to arrive at this, fail to pass the test, and are rejected from the class of the full-fledged. They must content themselves with minor dignities in the order of conjurors. One of these inferior grades is that of the Kunneyo, the one who incants for the seal hunters. Another is the Makkosâktok, the one who goes round with the ship during the Sena ceremonies; and a third is the Noonagecksaktok, another official at the great annual celebration.
On the completion of his training and on his passing the final test for the witch-doctorate, the candidate is publicly acknowledged as a Conjuror. He makes a visitation of all the dwellings in the settlement, performs incantations in each, and receives in payment a number of charms, such as small pieces of carved ivory or bits of deerskin fringes. These things are valueless in themselves, but signify that the tribes – folk have accepted the new conjuror.
It is easy to see how the conjurors acquire the power they undoubtedly have over the people, and easy to imagine how much of fraud, imposition, hypocrisy and sheer self-seeking could be practised under the thick cloak of their rites, incantations, superstitions, and — last, but not least — their clever trickery and legerdemain. What may be perhaps not quite so easy is to convey to the reader an idea of the real good faith and of some demonstrable if inexplicable occult command underlying much of the conjuror’s art. The whole subject is too big, either from the point of view of primitive superstitions and procedure, or from that of occultism, to be dealt with at much length here and now; but by way of illustrating the point that the Eskimo conjuror can perform miracles (collective hypnotism?) as striking as the well-known Eastern trick of the mango-tree, one of the incidents of the Sedna ceremony may be instanced.
At a certain stage of the Sedna proceedings, the conjuror, who has the spirit of a walrus or bear for Tongak (familiar spirit), spears himself through the jacket, or is speared by others, deep in the breast. When this whole performance is not merely a spectacular trick, it seems to be quite genuinely done. A line is attached to the deeply imbedded, barbed spear-head, and the people catch hold of this and pull on it and haul the impaled man about, to prove that he is fairly caught, as the victim of a hunt might be. The conjuror is bathed in blood. At length, however, he is let go, and he makes his wounded way alone to the seashore. Here the Tongak releases him from the spear, and after a short space of time he returns to the festival whole and well as ever, with no sign about him except his torn clothing to indicate the rough handling he has undergone.