Quantum Gypsies

The tragedy of Inland Eskimos

Food & Shelter

During the peak of their civilisation in the nineteenth century, there were seven major tribes of Ihalmiut: Hanningaoirmiut, Akilingmiut, Tulemaliguamiut, Kingnetuamuit, Harvaktormiut, Padliermiut and Kekertarahatormiut. The lifestyles of the various tribes was near enough the same; being centred on their total means of survival, Tuktu, the deer. The camps were situated on regular deer trails and the deer would pass between two and four times a year on their strange migration routine.

In the spring they flocked north from their wintering grounds in the forest, out over the open tundra, as far north as the Arctic circle. Then, at the height of summer, they trekked south, back to the timberline, only to return north in late summer. Finally, as autumn drew on and snow started to cover the tundra, they moved back south to the relative security of the forests.

The Ihalmiut were not a nomad people, though they had little of what could be called permanent shelters. They did not follow the deer, but sat across their trails and made two big hunts; in the spring for meat and in the autumn for meat and hides to make clothes and tents.

It is impossible to cultivate anything on the tundra and no edible plants grow naturally. So the Ihalmiut were that rarest of human races, a people totally dependant on meat for their nutritional requirements. This had led to a number of physiological changes, the chief one being a greatly enlarged liver to deal with the massive intake of protein; some five to six kilos of meat a day during a good hunt. This large liver, plus a slightly thicker layer of subcutaneous fat, gave them a corpulent appearance. The meat was washed down with an estimated two to three gallons of water or tea, which probably helped the liver to cope.

A recreational drug was provided by Atamojk -- the dried leaves of a low bushy plant, which substituted for tobacco.

There was one other consideration that influenced their choice of campsite and that was the availability of wood. The only timber that grows on Canadian tundra is the scrub birch and a few stunted willow stands and these are only available in summer as the winter snows cover them in deep drifts. Around lakes is the best place to find timber and so the camp would usually be pitched at the nearest Caribou river crossing to a lake.

The typical camp would consist of two or three families, as the timber would not usually support more. Although the winters were savage and completely snowed over, the people did not learn to make snow igloos until the beginning of the twentieth century and even then, preferred to live in tents made of Caribou hides. These tents were conical, about fifteen feet in diameter at the base and some ten feet high. They were made of sewn deer skins, stretched on a wooden frame and, as it was impossible to drive pegs into the permafrost, the bottom was held down by a ring of boulders. It was a very insubstantial house for the climate, with great gaps between the roughly sewn skins through which the wind and snow would pass with ease. However the tent only really served as a secondary windbreak, for the real Ihalmiut house was carried on the back as clothes.

The winter clothing of the people consisted of two suits of deerskin, each of which was made up of a parka top and trousers, made from hides taken in the autumn when the coat of the deer is at its thickest. The outer suit was worn hair side out and the inner with the hair next to the skin. A pair of caribou skin boots were laced to the knee over the trousers and inside these were soft slippers made of hare hide. Both men and women dressed in the same fashion, except that a woman's parka had a large pouch on the back, just below the hood. In this were carried chaldean too young to walk, who wore nothing but a lump of dried sphagnum moss as a nappy.

Though they were called eaters of raw meat, the Ihalmiut would cook their meat if they had enough wood to light a fire. Meat could be roasted in a fire, or boiled by dropping hot stones into a into a square pot carved out of soapstone.

A continual problem for inland peoples in these latitudes was a shortage of fat. Coastal Eskimos have a plentiful supply of fat from the sea mammals that they hunt, but it takes a lot of caribou to provide the amount of fat available in a seal, so there was never enough to render down for winter heating and only a tiny amount was spared for lighting, all the rest was eaten. Most parts of the Caribou were consumed, but the steaks and legs that we would choose were usually fed to the dogs. There are more useful trace elements in the organs, blood, marrow and suet of a deer and this will probably have driven the choice of body parts in their diet.

The laws of life

Despite, or maybe because of, the difficulty of just keeping alive in their harsh environment, the Ihalmiut seem to have had a well developed social cohesion. There was a basic code of behaviour at the root of Ihalmiut social order called the laws of life, which had two cornerstones:

Women were not included in the purview of these laws as they were adjuncts of the men. Song cousins -- which means very close friends -- would share all possessions, including wives.

The laws lead to a concept of property that is alien to the European mind. A communization of all possessions, but with ownership still existing. Every item of equipment was the personal property of one person, song cousins, or of a family group. But if a stranger in need of a spear should come to a camp, any spear was his for the taking. He did not need to ask permission of the owner, though he usually did, and no direct recompense was expected or offered. He may or may not have returned the spear when he was finished with it, for the spear was now his property and not just something he borrowed.


Children had complete freedom and were never hit. Farley quotes Ootek, one of the surviving Ihalmiut he met as follows when corporal punishment was mentioned: "Who but a madman would raise his hand against blood of his blood? Who but a madman would, in his mans strength, stoop to strike against the weakness of a child? Be sure that I am not mad and neither is Howmik [his wife] afflicted with madness."

Children were weaned as late as three years old, yet because during this time they constantly travelled with their mothers and observed every facet of life, by the age of five they are well versed in the ways of their elders.

Noble savages?

The practical consequences of the laws of life are intriguing. Murder was such a rarity as to be a phenomenon that the Ihalmiut believed only madness could cause. There was no murder for gain because there is nothing to gain if you can take what you need anyway. Likewise, there could be no theft if you could take what you wanted from anyone.

It is very tempting to construct a mental picture of some noble savage living in a state of primitive communism, but the social order was more probably dictated by the harsh environment, than by "peace and love". There was a strong need for small group cohesiveness in order to live in the harsh environment and had the Ihalmiut survived being civilized, I am sure that they would have become as greedy and selfish as the rest of us.

Last updated 15 January 2009