The Copper Eskimo

By: B. W. M.

Originally Published in 1915

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When Stefansson was making his ethnological researches among the Eskimo of Coronation Gulf, he met Captain Joseph Bernard, who, with his little ship the Teddy Bear, was already wintering nearby. This man, like most people in new or little known lands, traded with the natives and thus acquired a large amount of material representative of the native culture. This collection was recently acquired by the Museum, through the generosity of Mr. John Wanamaker, and now forms one of its most interesting ethnological collections. Its interest lies not only in the several new types and forms of articles represented, but also in the fact that it is the first, or one of the first, of the few collections brought from this little known part of the continent.

For their implements the natives depend so much on copper that they have been given the name “Copper Eskimo.” It is among these people that Stefansson reported finding “Blond Eskimo.”

Copper, however, is not the only thing which nature has supplied in abundance, for not far inland are large deposits of stone from which pots, kettles and lamps can be made. Driftwood also occurs. Seal in winter and caribou in summer are so plentiful as to be the main sources of food. And yet despite the presence of so many helpful things the life of the people is not always an easy one. In the winter there may be days or even weeks when it is so stormy or cloudy that it is impossible to go hunting, and on such occasions, hunger and even famine may prevail. In fact, a winter seldom passes without some of the natives having to eat skins and sinews which may have been stored up for clothing or bedding.

The dress of the Copper Eskimo, while much like that worn elsewhere in the Arctic, differs in detail. Both the men and women wear coats or frocks which are very much alike in cut, differing only in the hood, which for the women is large and for the men is short and small. The garment itself resembles very much the modern dress coat, except that this coat has a hood and is not open in front. The coats are made of caribou skin, the white skin being often combined with the gray to form a very attractive garment. The man’s coat is usually decorated with a bone button in the small of the back and sometimes with a number of strings worn at different places. For decorating the woman’s coat, the ears and teeth of caribou and often the skins of small animals are attached to the back. In winter or cold weather two coats are worn, an outer decorated one with the hair side out, and an inner one with the hair in. For dancing and ceremonies much time and work are spent in preparing the clothing. One ceremonial woman’s coat of gray skin is quite elaborately trimmed with narrow strips of red and black hairless skin and with white hide having the hair on. Quite similar to this coat in material and decoration are two hats which have in addition to the narrow strips of hide, a strip of loon skin with the feathers still on. On top of these hats one or two loon beaks stand upright, and at the back a weasel skin is attached.

Both men and women wear breeches of the same material and decoration as their coats. These breeches are much higher waisted than are those of other Eskimo. The men’s extend from well above the waist to well below the knee, where they lap over the boots, two pairs of which are worn in winter. Inside of these boots next to the feet a pair of soft slippers is worn. One pair of well-made hairless moccasins is worn between the two pairs of boots and a second pair outside of them. The soles of both boots and moccasins are usually strengthened with a strip of leather sewed across the ball of the foot and another across the heel. This may make eight or ten thicknesses of skin under the feet. The women’s breeches are tight fitting and extend only to the middle of the thigh, where they are tucked into the high boots or stockings which are tied to the belt. These garments, made with the hair either on or off, fit closely about the foot and ankle and then become larger and larger until at the top they may be nearly a yard around. Two pairs of these stockings with extra moccasins, as well as two pairs of breeches are worn in winter.

Stefansson’s remark that “the clothing worn by these people is as irrational as any worn in civilized countries,” is certainly well founded, for nothing but style or custom could endorse many of their garments. The man’s coat with its short sleeves, which do not reach to the short mittens, and the small hood, which but partly covers the head, is certainly not the best sort of garment for cold weather. The boots of the women are so large as to hinder walking and also so loose as to readily admit snow. The men’s breeches, not having puckering strings at the bottoms, leave the knee exposed. And still more strange is the fact that many of the people prefer to suffer cold by wearing their regular clothing, than to keep warm in the long coats and warm gloves possessed by all of them and worn mainly in house building.

Aside from clothing, the articles made by the Copper Eskimo show much ingenuity, for with the simplest of tools, articles of remarkable workmanship are made. Several types of knives are used. The material available, the preference of the maker and the probable use of the weapon, determine its form. In addition to the bone knives which are used only in making snow houses, there are knives of copper and iron. There is a long copper knife made especially for snow cutting, but many prefer to use the dag or dirk-like knife with its double-edged metal blade and long handle. These dags and knives, like butcher knives, some with the ordinary style handle and some with a handle much longer, are used by the men in making snow houses and in cutting up game. A special knife is used for working wood and in making implements. This knife, with its short crooked blade and long antler handle, is much like the work knife used throughout the far north.

One other cutting instrument of great importance is the ulu or woman’s knife. This ulu, with its curved blade of iron, copper, tin or even slate, is used in many ways, such as cutting up animals for food and skins for clothing. In eating, a ulu is nearly always preferred for cutting the meat. Especially is this true if the knife be of copper. The shank which connects the blade and the handle is made flat enough to allow deep cuts to be made.

In order to clean and soften skins, their inner surface must be carefully scraped and worked. For this purpose a pistol-shaped scraper of antler having a small fan-shaped copper blade is used. This sort of scraper is seldom if ever used among any other people. An adz is used in working wood and in making stone lamps and kettles. This small tool, with its sharp, well-made copper blade, attached to a handle of antler, is very much like those used in Europe in the Bronze Age. Another ingenious tool is a saw resembling a back-saw. This is made of a serrated piece of sheet iron riveted to an antler handle. Large pieces of copper are pounded into shape and sharpened to form chisels or ice picks. These blades are set into antler handles, which for the ice picks are cut slanting so that they may be attached to poles. With this new type of tool, holes are easily and quickly cut through the ice.

Fishing is carried on throughout the year by those unable to hunt the seal and caribou. Beside spearing fish, several methods of fishing are employed. The oddest of these is by using a large gaff of antler having two long copper prongs. This is attached to a long pole and lowered through a hole in the ice. Here it is held until the fisherman feels something touch the pole. Then it is quickly drawn up and, if successful, the prongs have caught the fish. In much the same manner a long barbless copper hook and sinew line are used. In this case a few pieces of bone are attached to the hook to serve as lures. A simpler form is a short line with a small hook and a separate lure. With these simple forms of fishing tackle it is often possible to secure large amounts of fish.

Seals are the main source of food in winter, so the men are well provided with weapons to secure them. The harpoon is the principal one used, but to it are added some minor articles such as the snow stick and seal indicator. Throughout the north the harpoons are based on the same principle, but differences occur from place to place. The harpoon used by the Copper Eskimo is composed of several parts. The shaft of wood three or four feet long, has a spur of antler spliced to one end to serve as an ice pick. To the other end is riveted a short shaft of bone or ivory having a socket in its end. Into this opening is fitted a rod of bone about eighteen inches long. The other end of this rod is pointed to fit into the harpoon head or, if necessary, to stab with. The heads are bone or ivory with a small copper or iron point. However, a few heads entirely of iron or brass are used. Through a hole in the harpoon head is attached a line of hide or braided sinew, by means of which the harpooned seal is retrieved.

Often in hunting the snow stick is used to locate the center of the hole through which the seal rises to breathe. The snow stick is a cane-like bone rod tipped with iron or horn. It is used mainly for testing snow to see if it is in the right condition for making snow houses. The seal indicator is a slender needle-shaped rod with a string and bone peg attached to its eye. After the center of an air hole has been located the seal indicator is thrust through the snow so that its tip is just below the water. Thus the seal, upon coming to the surface, raises the indicator. This warns the man, who quickly drives his harpoon into the animal. After drawing the seal to the surface and clubbing or stabbing it, the hunter pins up its wounds with bone pins, so that the blood will not be lost, attaches a line and drags his game home.

In summer, for hunting caribou, bows and arrows are mainly used. The bow with its case, ten to twenty arrows in a quiver, and a pouch or two of odds and ends, constitute an outfit. Black seal skin, often decorated with strips of white skin, is nearly always used to make the bow case and quiver. For carrying, these are attached to a bone handle or a strap. The bow resembles the one used by the Tartars. It is made of three pieces of spruce spliced together and backed with a number of cords of sinew. As this backing constantly demands attention to keep the bow at its best, a pair of sinew twisters for adjusting the backing accompany each bow. The arrows show great diversity, for there are seldom two alike. Points of bone, copper, iron or even brass are found. There may or may not be foreshafts, and barbs may not occur, or there may be from one to eight or ten barbs. Even in feathering no special method is used, as is the case among almost all other tribes. Arrows with no feathers, some with two or three half feathers and others with two entire feathers, are often in the same quiver. The feathers from almost all of the large birds of the north are used, but the feathers of the owl, loon and eagle are the most common. Another odd thing about the arrows is that nearly all of them are made of from three to eight pieces of wood. At first this seems to be due to lack of material, but this is not the case. A man will often take a straight stick and cut it into several pieces and then he will splice and glue these together to form an arrow shaft. The arrows average about three feet in length. This is much longer than the arrows used elsewhere in the Arctic region. The pouches attached to the bow cases or quivers contain parts of arrows, bone tubes for drinking purposes, bone pins or plugs to stop the wounds of dead animals, bone handles to attach to lines for drawing animals or sleds, pieces of sinew and other small articles.

For sewing and garment making the women of Coronation Gulf have several interesting articles, of which the scissors are the oddest. One pair has been carefully cut out of bone and strips of iron riveted on to form cutting edges. Another pair is rather crudely cut out of sheet iron. Needles of iron or copper are very valuable and scarce, so cases are made to contain them. A few years ago a needle was of the same value as a butcher knife or a complete bow outfit. The manufacture of a needle requires much time and skill, for after it has been pounded into shape and sharpened it may be broken in drilling the eye. The needle case is a caribou leg bone, which has been cut off at each end, cleaned of marrow and decorated with a simple incised design. Through the bone is a strip of leather into which is thrust the one or two needles. At one end of the strap one or more hooks or toggles are usually attached. These serve to fasten the case to the belt or to hold the scissors or thimble. The thimble is of bone, open at the end, and pitted only over a small part of the surface. To the other end of the case strap may be attached bone implements used to pick marrow from bones or to crease with in making moccasins.

For fire making there are bags of squirrel or other skin, which contain two pieces of pyrites and a leather case of pussy willow down. Fires are started in the same manner that flint and steel are used elsewhere. Sparks are struck from the pyrites onto the down, which serves as tinder. The fire making outfits often include pouches made of the skin of birds’ feet. These pouches contain moss or other material to serve as lamp wicks.

The lamps are similar to those used by other Arctic people. In size much variation is found, the lamps used on hunting trips are small, being six or eight inches long, while those used in the household may be as much as three feet long. The stone pots also show a wide range in size, some holding as much as four or five gallons. As several months are required to make a large pot, it is carefully repaired with copper strips if it becomes broken. Many of the pots in the collection show signs of repairs. A blubber beater made of musk ox horn is used by the natives to pound blubber so that it may be more readily used as fuel.

Large cups and ladles are likewise made of horn to use in serving the soup which forms part of every cooked meal. These cups in many cases have been broken and repaired by riveting a piece of horn over the broken place. A cup similar to the horn cups but cut out of stone is one of the new features of the collection.
Aside from the stone lamps and kettles used in the regular work, there are a number of toy pots and lamps for the children. Many other articles, similar to those found elsewhere in the far north, are included in the collection. Among these are the cup and ball game, wooden goggles, bone combs and bow drills.

B. W. M.

Cite This Article

M., B. W.. "The Copper Eskimo." The Museum Journal VI, no. 4 (December, 1915): 163-168. Accessed February 22, 2024. https://www.penn.museum/sites/journal/440/


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