Nunatsiaq News
TAISSUMANI: Around the Arctic September 20, 2012 - 2:14 pm

Taissumani, Sept. 21

The Inuit of Greenland, 1656 (Part 2)


Missionary Charles de Rochefort’s description of the Inuit met by Captain Nicholas Tunes in 1656 on the coast of west Greenland, continues this week.

He described the fishing and hunting that he observed among the men of the community:

“Their ordinary Exercises, nay indeed Employments, are Fishing and Hunting; and though they have no Fire-arms nor Nets, yet ingenious and inventive Necessity hath inspir’d them with other ways whereby they effect their desires. They eat whatsoever they feed on without any dressing, or any other sauce than hunger. Nay they laugh at those who boil fish or flesh, affirming that the fire takes away the natural taste thereof…

“Though they need no fire to dress their meat, yet they very much commend the use of it, and their Caves are not destitute of it in the winter time, both by its light to abate somewhat of the tediousness of that long night which reigns in their Country, and by its heat [to abate] the cold whereby they are besieged of all sides. But when they take their rest, or are forc’d to go out of their Caves, they put on a certain Fur, which by the excellent disposal of Divine Providence secures them against the injuries of the cold, though they lay in the midst of the snow.”

Early visitors to the Arctic almost always took the time to describe the unique clothing of the Inuit, and Tunes was no exception:

“The men’s cloths are a Shirt, a pair of Breeches, a short Coat, and a kind of Buskins. The Shirt comes but a little below the Waste. It hath a Capuchon, or Cap annexed to it, to come over the head and neck. It is made of the bladders of great fishes cut into long pieces of equal bredth, and very neatly sewn together. It hath no opening at the breast as ours have; but that it may not rent when it is put on, the ends of the sleeves, the head-piece, and the bottom of it are hemm’d in with a very thin black skin…

“The rest of their cloths, even their Buskins, are of several pieces cut proportionably one to another, as their Shirts are, but they are of a stronger stuff, to wit Harts-skins [caribou skins], or Sea-dogs-skins very well dress’d with the hair on.”

Similarly, hunting equipment received considerable attention:

“The Savages inhabiting about the foresaid Streight [Davis Strait] never go abroad into the Country but they have at their back a Quiver full of Arrows, and a Bow or a Lance in their hands. Their Arrows are of several kinds, some are for the killing of Hares, Foxes, great Birds, and all sorts of small Game; others for Harts, Elks, Bears, and other great Beasts. The former [arrows] are not above two or three foot in length, and instead of iron at the top they put a small sharp bone, which on one of the sides hath three or four little hooks, so that it cannot be taken out of the place wounded without widening the wound. The latter, which are at least four or five foot long, have also at the end a sharp bone jagged like the teeth of a Saw. They cast these latter with the hand; but to give them the greater force, and make them do execution at a greater distance, they fasten to their right arm a piece of wood a foot and a half long, which on one side hath a deep channel into which they put the butt-end of the Javelin, which being cast thence goes off with a greater violence.

“They sometimes carry also in their hands a kind of Lance, of a tough and heavy wood, which is tipp’d at the smaller end with a round bone, the point whereof had been sharpened on a stone, or they strengthen it with the horns or teeth of the fish before described [the narwhal]: These Lances are seven or eight foot in length, and beautifi’d at the butt-end with two little wings of wood, or Whale-bone, which make them a little more sightly than they would be otherwise.”

Tunes, a trader, described the Inuit method of whaling eloquently, with one possible inaccuracy. (It is doubtful that the harpoon line was made of caribou hide, but rather bearded seal or walrus.) In keeping with the custom of whalers of the time, he described the whale as a “fish.” The description includes a good account of the use of an “avataq” or float to exhaust the whale and prevent it from sinking:

“Besides the several sorts of hooks wherewith they take the smaller fishes frequenting their Coasts, they have divers kinds of Javelins, which with a wonderful dexterity they dart at the great and monstrous fishes which they take in the Sea. And that those they have hurt with these Darts may not sink to the bottom, and elude their expectation, there is fasten’d to the butt-end of them a thong of Harts-leather [caribou skin] 25 or 30 fathom in length, and at the end of that thong or line of leather there is a bladder, which keeping above water shews where the fish is, and so they draw it to them, or gently drag it to land after it hath spent itself in struggling.”

Taissumani recounts a specific event of historic interest. Kenn Harper is a historian, writer and linguist who lives in Iqaluit. Feedback? Send your comments and questions to .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).


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