inuitThe following story is from People of the Deer, an out-of-print account by Canadian writer Farley Mowat of his time during the 1940s in the Arctic with the original Canadians, the Innuit. I would urge you to read it for several reasons. If you are a writer, read it as an excellent example of research, exposition and story-telling. If you are an entrepreneur, read it as a powerful lesson on the abundance of innovation in the natural world all around us, and think of how such innovations could be adapted to solve pressing human problems. And if you are an environmentalist or a philosopher, read it as a tale of how much has been lost since our ubiquitous and homeogeneous ‘taker’ culture crowded out the extraordinarily varied and remarkable hunter-gatherer tribes that once covered the planet and lived in harmony with it. For the Ihalmiut People that Mowat describes in this story are no more. All that remains of them are stories like this one.

As I grew to know the People, so my respect for their intelligence and ingenuity increased. Yet it was a long time before I could reconcile my feelings of respect with the poor, shoddy dwelling places that they constructed. As with most Eskimos, the winter homes of the Ihalmiut are the snow-built domes we call igloos. (Igloo in Eskimo means simply “house” and thus an igloo can be built of wood or stone, as well as of snow.) But unlike most other Innuit, the Ihalmiut make snow houses which are cramped, miserable shelters. I think the People acquired the art of igloo construction quite recently in their history and from the coast Eskimos. Certainly they have no love for their igloos, and prefer the skin tents. This preference is related to the problem of fuel.

Any home in the arctic, in winter, requires some fuel if only for cooking. The coast peoples make use of fat lamps, for they have an abundance of fat from the sea mammals they kill, and so they are able to cook in the igloo, and to heat it as well. But the Ihalmiut can ill afford to squander the precious fat of the deer, and they dare to burn only one tiny lamp for light. Willow must serve as fuel, and while willow burns well enough in a tent open at the peak to allow the smoke to escape, when it is burned in a snow igloo, the choking smoke leaves no place for human occupants.

So snow houses replace the skin tents of the Ihalmiut only when winter has already grown old and the cold has reached the seemingly unbearable extremes of sixty or even seventy degrees below zero. Then the tents are grudgingly abandoned and snow huts built. From that time until spring no fires may burn inside the homes of the People, and such cooking as is attempted must be done outside, in the face of the blizzards and gales.

Yet though tents are preferred to igloos, it is still rather hard to understand why. Great, gaping slits outline each hide on the frame of a tent. Such a home offers hardly more shelter than a thicket of trees, for on the unbroken sweep of the plains the winds blow with such violence that they drive the hard snow through the tents as if the skin walls did not really exist. But the People spend many days and dark nights in these feeble excuses for houses, while the wind rises like a demon of hatred and the cold comes as if it meant to destroy all life in the land.

[read entire story]

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  1. O RLY YA RLY says:

    There’s a series of alternative history stories by Tais Teng (pseud. for Thijs van Ebbenhorst-Tengbergen) in which the global powers are the Inka’s, Dutch, Japanese and… Inuit! (not translated to English and generally hard to find, though)

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