Among the Innuit of Baffin Island 1883
In the summer of 1883 Franz Boas travelled from Germany to Cumberland Sound, Baffin Island, aboard the sailing vessel Germania whose main objective was to evacuate the personnel of the German station of the First International Polar Year from Kingua Fiord. Boas planned to spend a year as a participatory observer, living and travelling with and studying the Inuit of this part of Baffin Island. This detailed study summarizes and evaluates Boas’ preparations, his fieldwork, and the subsequent period of data analysis and evaluation. The fieldwork may be divided into two phases: Over the winter of 1883–1884 Boas confined himself to Cumberland Sound and during this phase he was considerably dependent on the American and Scottish whalers wintering at Kekerten. During the second phase, in the spring and summer of 1884, Boas crossed the Cumberland Peninsula and visited numerous Inuit communities along the Davis Strait coast; during this period he was much more dependent on his own resources.
Below—a selection from his journal entries of late 1883.
2 Oct, 1883 [Tuesday] Calm in the morning; at 8.30 the Eskimos towed the ship out of the harbour; afterwards there was a good northerly breeze. Overcast; east shore clear. Soon afterwards we had a very strong north wind and high seas which probably make it impossible to pick up the oil; very cold.
[FB/MK] (…) Listen Marie, if you want to be proud of me about it [his research] because the people in Hamburg praised me as I was leaving, you have no real cause to be. It was quite natural that they should flatter me ostentatiously on the last day. Don’t be afraid, I know what such talk signifies, so I remain your sensible Franz. And even after what I later read about myself in the newspaper, [which was more laudatory] than I would prefer, I shall still be writing sensibly; I know too that the Berliner Tageblatt will be tooting its own horn. The only yardstick of what one does is the acknowledgment that one has done one’s duty, whether the success is great or small. Believe me, no idle gossip will ever turn my head. I have my eye firmly on my goal and know what I have to do and what work is worthwhile. You know, I don’t even think much of the fine expressions about devotion to science. Anyone who goes out to investigate something has his own good personal reasons, whether it be the pure desire for knowledge, the desire for adventure, or whatever. And you know what it was in my case: the desire to establish an independent existence – even before I knew that my beloved loves me again – and scientific interest. I do not know what would have been more difficult for me, to go or to stay.
(…) Since the weather is no better, and since there is no prospect of a change in the weather, the captain has decided to take us to Middleaktuk, and then to return home. If it is better on the morning of the 4th he wants to take the oil with him. In the morning I finished my letters; I could see only extensive, heavy ice masses to the north, lying immediately west of Middleaktuk I. An ice field about 15-20′ high; we are passing a piece that has broken off. Three last cheers and the final parting from Europe for this year.
21 Oct, 1883. This morning we had to repitch the tent entirely, because the wind had reduced it to total disarray. The roof lay on the ground and everything was full of ice and snow. For 3 days we unfortunates have had no dry gloves left, so this morning I hit on the bright idea of using stockings as gloves; this works quite magnificently. (…) Due to the shortage of firewood I have had to reduce our meals to one, at noon, when we have coffee and bread with frozen meat, or soup, bread and butter. In the morning and evening there is only bread and meat. We had been working all morning to be able to have lunch and now the hot soup pot has appeared in our tent, and with it all the Eskimos, each with his tin cup in hand.
23 October [Tuesday] I began to work out my observations. After long contemplation the barometer was mounted near the table. I gave Nachojaschi and Yankee bread, powder and tobacco; I also gave N.[achojaschi] another knife since he had lost his. In the afternoon they asked me to go and see a sick woman. She had pneumonia and was very sick, with a high fever. I wanted to put warm, wet poultices on her chest, but realized that it was impossible, because she was continually sitting with her chest and abdomen bare, catching the full draught from the door. So I could do nothing but give her some opium for her cough and quinine for her fever.
24 [October, Wednesday] I have had Wilhelm make a box for the thermometer. I am continuing to work up my data from Pagnirtu. My things are gradually getting finished; thus my stockings, curletang [I. qulittaq = outer coat] and pants are ready. Mutch’s kuni [Inuk woman] is complaining of a sore ear. The sick woman appears to be slightly better, but I prefer not to give her anything more, since I still cannot help her.
26[October, Friday] In the morning Mutch made a coffin for the dead woman, who has not yet been buried. Itu did not come to make coffee for Mutch this morning, because his son was very scared over the woman’s death. The occupants of the hut have abandoned her. One woman immediately tore her skin pants off and ran outside when she realized that she was dead. She had died unnoticed by anyone.
[FB/parents, sisters] (…) When you get these letters from me, you will certainly rebuke me endlessly for being lazy, but you would be wrong. It is so abominably cold outside that I am delighted when I can crawl into my sleeping bag; there, after I have finished my notes, I prefer to write letters. The day before yesterday we had just returned, tired and famished, from the abominable trip we had just made, and this means that travelling is probably finished for the fall, because today the harbour is half full of ice, and by the day after tomorrow may be completely frozen over. Since we had utterly foul weather when we were travelling, we had plenty of time to think of home and to dream of the past and future; and I am doing that very happily again here. I can picture all of you at your daily work; see you sitting at the coffee table in the morning, picture you at noon and in the evening. Oh!, I could have been doing that too, instead of freezing in a tupik at -10°; I could be lolling in an armchair, with my feet on a stool! I wonder whether Marie has reached New York yet? I must break myself of the habit of posing such questions since I cannot get an answer.
5 Nov. [FB/MK] (…) The amiable Eskimos are constantly coming and going here. Almost the whole of Kikkerton is engaged in drawing maps for me, from which I hope to get on the track of my questions. I have already achieved a good part of what I need to know, but you can’t imagine how much an effort is involved to drag all this out of these people. Today I really wanted to pitch my tent out on the ice, but the weather is so foul that I have given up until it gets better; it is warm (-4°) however, though there is a storm blowing and it is snowing with full force. But can you imagine how comfortable I am sitting here in the house!
6 Nov. It is better to question the Eskimos individually than several of them together, because it seems that they are shy in front of each other. One can never get as much out of them when there are several together as from one of them alone. Finally we summoned Shangin [Shanguja] [,] a young man who has migrated here from Tudnunirn [Tununirn/Eclipse Sound, North Baffin]. From him I finally heard the name Iglulik for the first time! I gave him some paper so that he could draw a map.
11 [November, Sunday] Wilhelm had the watch this morning. Today is a major festival for the Inuit which they celebrate every fall. Last year they omitted it since there had been two deaths shortly beforehand. Around 9 o’clock the men (mainly) assembled down below amidst a lot of noise, then ran around the entire settlement. They all have their best pants on, and some are wearing the voluminous woman’s coat as their coat; all were wearing bird decorations: duck feathers on their backs, or skins and wings of ptarmigan on their hoods. They are now running from house to house shouting triil In the evening the women came out and threw bread or meat high in the air for them. They even came to visit Mutch and the cooper. Then diey assembled down below, and took a circular loop of rope; those born in summer [‘the ducks’] stood on one side and those in winter [‘the ptarmigan’] on die other. Next they pulled as strongly as possible on each side in order to see whether summer or winter would win. Then the rope was laid down. A large tin pot was placed in the middle and the women brought some water from every house in pannikins.
They first called individuals in and seemed to tell their fortune. (Prior to this the women came out of the individual huts and threw strips of ugiuk meat, berries, pannikins and plates among the crowd.) I threw out … and beads. There was a fine struggle for the beads! Afterwards men and women arranged themselves in separate lines and the spirits led the men to the women, who took them into their tupiks. Apparently, however, they did nothing with them. Then they took the harpoons away from the spirits and stabbed them dead from behind and cut up their limbs with their hands. They then remained lying and the seal was opened up and half squeezed out. The hollow was filled with water, which everyone brought in a mug. Individuals then came to inquire about their fate. The shaman takes their mug and drinks from it. He never speaks but often emits strange throat noises, which I had sometimes heard earlier to my amazement. Finally they summoned fair winds, seals, etc. In the evening, before it grew dark they enthusiastically chased a round lid through the whole of Kikkerten.
16 [November, Friday] Today I stayed at home in order finally to transcribe my observations. I am getting everything more or less ready. In the evening we called in Nuktukarlin’s kuni[,] who I had been told knows Armarkdjua and the surrounding area. I heard a new song from Kakodscha and his son, Atteina (the sick boy). In the evening Kikker showed me how to make some string figures. 17th [November, Saturday] Another boy is very sick with diphtheria? In the morning I went down to the ice with Ssigna to dismantle the tupik. The dogs have attacked my sleeping bag. I finished dismantling the tupik. Then I remodelled the small winding drum and the compass in order to be able to use them by securing the
25 November] [ Sunday] Writing and lazing about all day.
4 Dec.Travelling by dogsled is great fun. Just imagine a small, low hand sledge, such as is used at home for pulling loads but lighter, with 12 dogs harnessed to it, all pulling continually. Ssigna, Wilhelm and I were sitting wrapped in our furs on this low sledge Ssigna driving the dogs with his 20′ whip. He constantly has to yell and shout at them to keep them moving [,] and then they run and jump over and under each other, occasionally bite each other, so that in less than half an hour the traces are in such a tangle that one has to stop. I hope that a week from now I can get away from here to begin my trip to the north.
13 Dec. You see, Marie, here I am writing the same things on the pages of my journal and to you, since this is the only possibility of getting some information about my daily life to you. The igloo is too cold, so I do not write more than is absolutely necessary and if I wait a few days you will not learn what I am actually doing. So please accept these brief notes with the occasional words addressed specifically to you. Now, when we have been in the igloo for about 4 hours, it is warm enough to write something, though it is still not up to the freezing point, yet I feel quite comfortable. Feelings of what is pleasant and unpleasant are really quite relative. At home we would be infinitely sorry for somebody in our situation, yet here we are cheerful and in good spirits. I hope that by then I shall be at Ananatu [Anarnitung], a camp near here, and to hurry back to Kikkerton by sledge from there.