12. The Tropical Life Of The Polar Eskimos

During 1906 and 1908, when Captain Leavitt and Dr. Marsh were recounting their own failure to discover malignant disease among primitive arctic natives, they told me also they had heard that cancer was equally difficult to find among primitive natives in the tropics.

What, then, did uncivilized natives of arctic and tropical lands have in common, or lack in common, that might account for these corresponding immunities to a particular group of maladies?

The whaler surgeon and medical missionary agreed that no matter what relative immunity the polar and tropical aborigines really possessed in common, the main explanation would likely turn out to be something nutritional, though there might be other contributing factors such as one which had struck both of them: Neither of these allegedly noncanceriferous groups was ever much exposed to cold.

This factor of similarity of tropical to arctic primitive living was known to Captain Leavitt from personal experience. When crossing the equator southbound and northbound on Cape Horn voyages from New England to Alaska he had found, as he expected, that uncivilized men of the humid tropics commonly lived naked; and frontier doctors there had told him that cancer was nearly or quite absent. In the arctic lands he had found, contrary to his expectation, that naked living was common also for most of the northern Eskimos through much of the year; and by the time I spoke with him he had been examining thousands of them for decades without seeing or hearing of cancer.

From his own experience, Dr. Marsh agreed with the captain that most north Alaska Eskimos lived through most of the year in the equivalent of humid tropic warmth, and apparently without cancer. From hearsay he agreed, too, about the tropics, this on the basis of what he had read in missionary publications and heard at mission conventions. The information, as he summarized it, I have preserved in memory and in notes; I possess none of it in his writing. I do have the equivalent, however, from another Alaskan source.

The aforementioned Reverend Henry H. Chapman, now rector of St. Peter's-by-the-Sea, Sitka, southeastern Alaska, was born at an Episcopal mission far to the northwest on the lower Yukon. On September 8, 1958, he wrote me a general letter on malignant disease from which I have quoted at greater length elsewhere. One of his paragraphs contains an illustration of how tropical and arctic missionaries can share their opinions with each other:

“In the summer 1929 I attended a conference of missionaries representing several denominations at Hartford, Connecticut. In the course of a conversation with a medical missionary, who had spent many years in the tropics, I remarked on the absence of cancer on the Lower Yukon River. The doctor was greatly interested and said he had observed the same among the natives of tropical Africa. He said it was apparently characteristic of primitive peoples.”

Discussing such things, Leavitt and Marsh told each other and me that an element in any concurrent tropic and arctic freedom from cancer might be the nakedness, the copious sweating, and the resulting thirst, which are natural wherever people are exposed for long periods to heat in the temperature range from 70° to 100° F., and above.

From such discussions came the epigram used at the head of this chapter: “The tropical life of the polar Eskimos.”

Similarly derived is a paradox I have long employed, especially in talks before medical groups: “During winter, the Eskimos lived in homes that were stationary tropics. When they went outdoors they carried tropical warmth around with them inside their clothes.”

In discussing these stationary and portable tropics it is important to note that the characterizations have never applied to Temperate Zone Eskimos like those of Labrador and southern Alaska, or to snow-house dwellers like those arctic Canadians who lived farther east than the Mackenzie group. The most rigorous application of the paradox was to the district Leavitt, Marsh, and I discussed at greatest length, northern Alaska and northwestern Canada; and there it ceased to apply when houses and clothing became Europeanized, following, say, 1910. (For accounts of rigid application, see the books of John Simpson and John Murdoch reviewed in the next chapter, and my own early books listed in the bibliography.)

When we discussed cancer in relation to “the tropical life of the polar Eskimos,” Leavitt's viewpoint was that of the surgeon, and was usually expressed in relation to his own vain search for the disease. He talked of what a convenience it was, when scouting for cancer, especially for breast cancer in women, to find upon entering any winter house that everybody was sitting around stripped to the waist. When I talked with Dr. Marsh, on the other hand, he dwelt upon the rare exposure of Eskimos to chill, their protracted exposure to temperatures above 80° F., their copious sweating, the consequent drinking of much ice water, considering that these things would be likely to affect metabolism and might possibly tend to inhibit cancer.

It should be emphasized that both Captain Leavitt and Dr. Marsh believed the difference between native and European foods to be the main factor behind that increase of cancer which they believed always follows Europeanization. But, since they thought cancer to be a result of disturbed metabolism, they felt that the Eskimos' “tropical” winter life might have a material bearing upon the incidence of the disease.

By the last of my Herschel Island conversations with him, Leavitt had been observing the winters of the Eskimos of northern Alaska and adjacent arctic Canada for twenty-two years. It was he who told me in the autumn of 1906 what to expect if I spent the winter as guest of the not yet civilized people east of the Mackenzie delta as I planned to do. At the time of my last Point Barrow conversation with Dr. Marsh, in 1912, he had been observing the winters of the northern Alaska Eskimos for fifteen years.

But observation can never be quite the same as experience and I think that my own knowledge has come to be more complete than that of my early mentors. For I know how it feels to be an Eskimo. I lived the life which they observed — and I shall now proceed to tell what it seemed like to be an adopted member of an Eskimo group just emerging from their Stone Age.


For reasons which are given in my book Hunters of the Great North, I began in September 1906 to live in modified Eskimo style west of the delta of the Mackenzie River in northwestern arctic Canada. My diary says that about the middle of November the sun disappeared (not to reappear until late the following January). By November I was getting restive; for although the Eskimos of Shingle Point were kind and charming they were too Europeanized. I asked them how far east I would have to go to reach people who had no tea, salt, or sugar, and who still lived approximately as everybody used to live before the whalers began wintering among them (1889).

One of the Shingle Point group, who had been a cabin boy on a whaling ship and spoke fair English, answered me that his cousin Ovayuak, east of the delta, would by now have used up all his tea, and that he abominated both sugar and salt. He should by now have nothing to eat but the fish that were being caught from day to day, unless he had on hand some fat of seal, white whale, or polar bear, to go with the fish. So we headed east from Shingle Point on the morning of December 1. By January 15, 1907, I had been living a month in the home of Ovayuak at Tuktuyaktok, 600 miles east of Point Barrow.

The medical missionary theory, of which Leavitt and Marsh were the chief protagonists, held that nutrition — the kinds of foods eaten and the manner of their preparation — might be the single determinant of cancer incidence; but that nutrition might perhaps be marginally affected by elements like sweating, water drinking, and the comforts and amenities of Eskimo life — such as the friendliness of house mates, the conversation, the singing, the useful work in which we all shared.

I shall describe a typical day, beginning around 4:00 P.M., as the last daylight fades from a clear sky at a typical temperature of 40° below zero F.

In the North Dakota of my youth I was used to shivering at 40° below in a 40-pound wool-and-buffalo coat outfit if I sat still in it out-of-doors for a half hour. Now, in the arctic Mackenzie delta, I find myself in a 7-pound caribou-skin Eskimo outfit, sitting nearly motionless on a block of hard snow for hours without the slightest tendency to shiver. Of course I make the usual European mistake, crediting the marvelous caribou skin material of my suit with my warmth and comfort. Only gradually through years did I shed this belief. Eventually, by the time I had published several volumes about the Arctic, I came to realize that the truly marvelous thing about Eskimo clothes is not materials but engineering — the same principle being applied to Eskimo garments as to Eskimo houses.

Though the daylight is gone, and there does not happen to be a moon, the starlight reflected from the snow is bright enough so that at a quarter mile the platform cache near our house is clearly visible, its spruce-log stilts supporting a platform on which our tons of fresh river fish are safe from the keen appetites of our dogs. The house we imagine rather than see; for although its peak was, in summer, 8 or 9 feet above ground level, the whole structure has long since been so drifted over with snow that in the bright twilight of a mid-January noon it is no more than a swell or bulge in the expanse of white.

What we do see, by the starlight of late afternoon, is the outer door of our alleyway, facing us as we come from down-slope, from the river ice. This 6-foot door, framed in logs, is always open. There is no way of shutting it, but it is shielded by a snow-block windbreak that is shifted from day to day as the wind changes. We do not want a gale, if it were to blow up, to drift snow into the 30-foot alleyway that is a curl-up place for the dogs and, along its wall, a storehouse for nonedible goods.

The length of the alleyway is faintly illuminated with taper-like flames that burn in small oil lamps (seal or whale oil). But at the remote end a flood of yellow light pours down through the 30 by 40 inch flap door that will never be closed all winter. The dogs are well mannered and have been taught not to take advantage by climbing up through the open door but to stay down in the alley. Beneath the doorway are two or three treads, and these I mount to scramble up into our living room.

Plans of winter house
Plans of Eskimo winter house (northern Alaska)

As I climb up into our dwelling my accustomed glance takes in the scene. Two or three boys or girls are carrying around muskox-horn dippers of ice water. These children are six or eight years old and are naked except for the briefest of trunks. Smaller children are wholly naked on their mothers' laps or rolling around naked on the floor. The cupbearers offer the cold water to whoever beckons them. The thirsty gulp to compensate for the sweat that is pouring down their faces and torsos. The grown men and women, stripped above the waist and below the knee, are sitting Japanese-fashion on the foot-high bed platforms, or on hassocks if they want to be still higher up and warmer.

Slipping my coat-shirt over my head, I roll it into a bundle, walk smartly toward my assigned sleeping place, seat myself on the coat as a hassock, and rapidly strip off my footgear and trousers. I then put on a pair of last year's worn-out trunks that somebody has given me. My haste in undressing is to prevent sweat from dampening my good outdoor clothes.

Point Barrow winter house
Summer view of Point Barrow winter house (northern Alaska)

Entire days spent in the house taught me that temperature throughout the day would be, most of the time, around 70° F. without causing anyone to sweat. Around 2:00 P.M., however, the big cooking lamps are lighted. The moss wick along the flame edge of the lamps has been so lengthened that each burns without smoke or smell but with a flame of 10, 15, or even 20 inches, creating a terrific heat. At first this heat is neutralized; for the pots are filled with cold water and in it are segments of frozen fish, each 3 or 4 inches long and with the entrails already removed. Entrails are dog feed, as is everything from inside the fish's body. These are placed on trays for the dog team's one meal of the day, given in the late afternoon.

As the pots approach the boil, the heat from the lamps becomes effective for warming the house and the temperature steadily rises. At 4:00 or 5:00 P.M., the heat within doors is roughly stratified at about 50° in the bottom layer, just above the floor; 80° at our shoulder level where we sit on the bed platforms; and 100° or more at just below the roof, 7 feet above the floor.

For the heat, produced by the lamps and the body warmth of the people, is controlled by gravity and regulated by the diameter of the ever open ventilator, located at the peak of the roof. Except for the door in the floor and the ventilator in the ceiling, the house is as nearly airtight as the Eskimos could make it when they built it last summer. The supporting framework is of split or round spruce driftwood timber. The frame is shaped like an inverted wooden basket. The walls slope inward slightly. They have been so banked with loose earth — not sod — that they are 5 feet thick at ground level and about a foot thick at the “eaves.” The “cottage” roof is covered evenly by about 4 or 5 inches of loose earth.

The intended openings of an Eskimo winter house are only two, the 30 by 40 inch trap door in the floor and an 8 by 8 inch ventilator in the ceiling. The air outdoors may be as cold as 50° below zero F. — hardly ever colder. Where the entrance treads begin, 4 feet below the floor, the chill of the alleyway is that of outdoors. It is still far below zero up to where the outdoor air begins to well up through the trap and spread in a thin film over the level floor that is a foot lower than the bed platforms.

When I was new in this house, I at first thought it insufferably hot at my shoulder level on the bed platform. The Eskimos sympathized with me, for they supposed whites to have certain physiological peculiarities, one of them inability to stand extremes of either heat or cold. They considerately explained to me that I could cool off by lying flat on the plank floor. This I did and estimated the temperature at 50° F. After a few days I came to realize that sweating is not unpleasant when you are practically naked, as we were. In a few weeks I had proved to myself that my physiology was as well heat-controlled as that of the Eskimos. My trouble had been mental. I had been brought up with the wrong sort of taboos and with handicapping beliefs.

One of the things that surprised me was the slight use of chamber pots. I was accustomed to them in Dakota and in New England, where I later lived, and most of all in Old Country England. I expected a strong and disagreeable smell. But I noticed none, and reminded myself that only small children used the pots and that the house ventilation was ample, for the gravitational difference between the heavy cold air of outdoors and the lighter warmed air of indoors was such that the emerging draft through the ventilator was furious. Now and then I experimented with the ventilation by climbing on the roof of our dwelling and holding a palm 12 inches or so above the ventilator shaft, whereupon the draft pushed against my hand, shoving it up.

Interior of winter house
Interior of Point Barrow winter house, looking toward trap door

Indoors, however, I could sense no movement of air up through the house. For the aperture of the trap, through which the fresh air must have been rising into the house, was so much larger than the diameter of the ventilator, that while the uppermost hottest air escaped into the outdoors as a blast, the cold air within doors rose imperceptibly. That the lowest foot of floor temperature seemed like 50°, instead of like zero or 40° below, I explained to myself by the “principle of the diffusion of gases” and by the constant stirring-up of the air resulting from the scurrying about of the children.

As I say, only babies used the chamber pots. Everybody else ran outdoors whenever they needed to, little tots of three or four years and all the rest of us. At first I used to put on clothes, and the Eskimos advised it; for, since I was white, they supposed that not merely would I suffer pain from the cold but would also “catch cold.” I eventually learned that they had acquired this idea from whalers, who had explained to the Eskimos that people catch head colds and become ill if they are suddenly chilled. The Eskimos, I noticed, wore no clothes (other than the house trunks) when they went outdoors briefly, except when a strong wind blew.

Ground plan and section of winter house
Ground plan and section of winter house in Mackenzie region

After a week of seeing people come in from being outdoors three to five minutes in the coldest of calm nights and without a sign of shivering, I began to experiment, going out wet with perspiration and dressed in nothing but my worn-out and brief trunks. I found that I enjoyed the first three or four minutes, even at 50° below. In two weeks I was going out seminaked with all the freedom of an Eskimo. I even started going out without footgear, doing as I was told, being careful not to step barefoot on metal, a stone, or glare ice. Stepping into powdered snow reminded me of childhood experiences in North Dakota stepping barefoot into a bin of wheat. After four or five minutes of a calm night outdoors, I discovered, I began to feel uncomfortable. In another minute or two I would have started shivering.

After two or three hours of peak heat, with head and shoulders at something like 90° F., we began to cool off. For, the cooking finished, the lamps were reduced from broad flames to a candle-like flicker. Boiled fish was cooled to lukewarm before it was eaten, the broth also cooled before we drank it. Then, as the warmth continued dropping, we told stories and sang songs. Some men tinkered or made gadgets; some women repaired or sewed garments. Around 10:00 P.M. we had a cold supper from the leftover boiled fish. By now the house was down to 70° and someone stuffed a mitten or a wad of skin into the ventilator shaft to cut the aperture down a third or even two-thirds. The ventilator was never entirely closed. As said, the trap door was always wide open.

As I look back, the thing that strikes me most sharply is the interaction between sweating and drinking. We enjoyed the steaming sweat and the copious drinking between four o'clock and seven o'clock. Ice water was at times replaced by chunks of snow which some liked to slice with a knife and eat as an Iowan might slice and eat a watermelon on a hot summer evening.

I have spoken of streaming sweat. Indeed my housemates at Tuktuyaktok may be said to have eaten their meat in he sweat of their brows — at dinner, that is, though not at other meals, as will appear. To me it seemed that there was danger that the perspiration would stream to the floor and that we would find ourselves sitting in puddles. I never saw this happen; for we always swabbed ourselves with something or other during the three, or at most four, hours of excessive sweating. As swabs we used pieces of worn-out fur garments which had been cut up for this use, or remnants from the women's work of tailoring or mending clothes. Chiefly we used excelsior made for the purpose.

A part of the quiet evening work of the men was to shave steadily at blocks of dry spruce with their sharp “crooked knives,” making the wood into an equivalent of our commercial product. Baskets of excelsior stood around conveniently. We took handfuls, swabbed ourselves, and placed the damp swabs in other receptacles that were used as we use wastepaper baskets.

As said, the custom was to run out, stripped to the waist, at any temperature — but only when there was little or no wind. To go out into a blizzard we dressed. Then it was usual to call on a small boy or girl to help us wipe ourselves dry before dressing. While you wiped your own front, the small assistant would wipe your back with excelsior. Then you slipped down through the trap door into the alleyway and paused for details of dressing, such as tying the drawstrings and the ankle lashings of your boots.

On an ordinary day, when you were going out stripped the chill of 30° or 40° below felt good on your overheated torso and the sweat started drying off as you walked out through the alley. Outdoors the chill felt good, too, though not for long — not for over five minutes. It never felt good at all if a strong wind blew.

Bedtime was around 11:00 P.M. Several of the men had watches and there were two or three clocks in the house. Timepieces are among the first things transition Eskimos buy when they are getting civilized and our people were always consulting the time. If there were visitors, we had spare floor room for about ten; if visitors numbered more than that, they built their own camps around our house and occasionally there were several of these. We regulars slept on the bed platforms of three alcoves, our heads toward the center of the house.

Our bedding consisted of caribou skins. They had been rolled up along the wall to be out of the way of possible dripping sweat. Now they were spread out. Each of us had a light robe. Some, including me, had a Hudson's Bay Company blanket. We undressed with an approximation of the European type of modesty. I kept my trunks on till I was under the blanket, whereupon I took them off and slept naked, as did everybody. My pillow was my rolled-up coat. There were no nightshirts, pajamas, or such. Anybody who needed to go out during the night, and who did not want to dash out stripped, would put on his trunks, slip a shirt on, and sometimes would put on boots, though without socks.

During the night, the temperature in the house was about 70° F; nobody was sweating and no body-wiping precautions were needed before dressing. I found, too, that when you go outdoors semistripped from a house temperature of 70°, the outdoor chill begins to get unpleasant rather promptly. Three minutes at 40° below was all I cared for. It is only when you are overheated that stepping out into an intense still cold feels pleasant as long as four or five minutes. Going out from great heat into dry cold produces no shock.

Formerly, I was told, practically every village had a men's club house, or bath house, where they courted shock. They would sit wholly naked at temperatures considerably above our Tuktuyaktok dwelling maximum of about 100° F. and would then run out and roll in the snow. The shock of this was greatest when the snow was slushy, as in the spring, for dry snow is a rather slow conductor of chill. Sometimes they produced the desired shock by standing in a corner and having somebody, usually a small boy, splash them with ice water. This is, of course, what the anthropologists call “stimulant bathing”, and is similar to our well-known Turkish or Finnish baths.

The discontinuance of the bath house, and of stimulant bathing, had occurred about five years before, I was told — in 1900, as I learned from Captain Leavitt. The cause was the devastation produced by the great measles epidemic of that year, which swept all Eskimo and Athapaskan Alaska, and extended 400 miles eastward into arctic Canada, to be stopped by the uninhabited stretch of some 200 miles that separated, for at least the previous 100 years, the Mackenzie from the more easterly Coronation Gulf communities.

White men's information shows the highest death record to have been that of an Alaskan village near the mouth of the Kuskokwim which lost every grown person and all children except one girl of about six. The lowest careful estimate of which I have heard is for the Alaskan village of Cape Prince of Wales, where only about 25 per cent died. The Mackenzie deaths numbered, Leavitt thought, somewhere between 30 and 50 per cent.

At Tuktuyaktok we were reminded of the 1900 epidemic every time we went outdoors. For our house was surrounded by several empty houses. I gathered that before the measles devastation there had been perhaps a hundred Persons in the village regularly and there was a club house, a kadjigi or kadyigi, that was a sort of inn. When visitors came there would be singing and dancing at the club. Around the ten or eleven o'clock bedtime, the villagers would go home, leaving the visitors to occupy the kadjigi.

At Tuktuyaktok during midwinter, breakfast came around 8:00 in the morning. Perhaps two hours earlier we had the first stirring.

Among our civilized amenities we had matches, the big sort which crackled as you lit them. Somebody would rise quietly on an elbow, quietly stuff and then noisily light a Chinese-type pipe, the sort that had been in use in Alaska and western Canada long before the Russians reached Alaska. The crackle of the match awakened two or three other sleepers, who lit their pipes. Quiet talk then became general.

How might the weather be outdoors? Time enough to learn about that, it was suggested, whenever some enterprising woman mustered the energy to go out and fetch the makings of breakfast. In a sort of provocative dialogue, two women would nominate each other. Then they had an impromptu race dressing. In something less than a minute they would scamper across the floor, drop into the alleyway through the open trap door, and return presently with small armfuls of fish, like farm boys bringing in wood for the kitchen stove. Stooping so as not to drop the fish from too high up, they rolled them out on the floor, where they would gradually begin to soften from their glass-like hardness. (If dropped from too great a height, the glass-hard fish might have shattered on the planks of the floor, as if they were actually made of glass.)

The question may arise: Why did these two women dress at all, if the Mackenzie Eskimos were in the habit of going out seminaked? There are three answers, the first of which I have already given — it does not seem pleasant to go out naked unless you feel overheated at the time; and the morning warmth of our house was only around 70°, the night lamps having been trimmed low and the ceiling ventilator kept moderately open. The second answer is that nobody knew what the weather might be, for the house was soundproof and there could be a howling blizzard outside without its being heard. The third and sufficient reason for dressing was that the women were going to bring in armfuls of fish at perhaps 50° below zero; and at that temperature iron, stone, or a frozen fish would sear a bare arm just as if it were red-hot iron.

At this stage the only dressed persons were the women. The rest of the occupants of the house smoked and talked. I, the only nonsmoker (except the children, of course), lay dozing on my pillow, or wide awake listening to the quiet talk and attempting to pick up a new word or two of the language — which it was to take the first five of my total eleven Eskimo years to master. (To me my housemates spoke the Mackenzie trade jargon, consisting of about 600 uninflected words, a bit like pidgin Chinese. The true Eskimo language consists of more than 10,000 highly inflected words.)

In about an hour the frozen fish were, on their surface, soft enough so that they indented a bit when the women tentatively pinched them. Then came into play the broad-bladed women's knives that resemble our harness-maker's knives except that the Eskimo ulu is much larger. The fish were of several species, all from Mackenzie River fresh water, those selected for breakfast varying from 3 to 6 pounds in weight. As head chowder is thought the best chowder in New England, so were heads thought the best parts of a boiled fish by my Eskimos, and next after them the tails. Accordingly heads and tails, with the skin still on, were cut off and placed in a pot swinging over one of our lamps. This was intended for the children's breakfast, which would come after we fishermen had gone down to the river to our jobs.

The children provided for, the rest of each fish was skinned. A slit was run along the back and along the belly. Then the women bit into the edges of the skins and peeled them off, in somewhat the same manner as peeling a banana. Next the fish were cut in 3-inch segments and placed on trays, the outside of each piece now frozen not much harder than our ordinary, or rather hard, ice cream. The inside of each piece was harder, and the entrails hardest of all, for they were at the core of each piece.

When the trays were piled high, and passed around, they reminded me of corn-on-the-cob meals such as we used to share in Dakota. We Eskimos now rose on one elbow, still not dressed and our shoulders covered with blanket or robe. We each selected a piece of fish as the trays went by. Then we gnawed the segments from the outside, as if eating corn from a cob. When we got near the center, the entrails, we discarded them as farmers do corn-cobs and put them on the dog-feed trays. (I have read in books that “Eskimos eat the whole animal”; but I saw nothing of this, whether then among fish eaters or later among caribou eaters. Eskimos usually have dog teams that eat what the family does not like so well. Only in time of food scarcity have I known Eskimos' eating all parts of animals. Generally speaking, whatever is inside fish or caribou is dog feed.)

At breakfast, as at all meals, each had as many helpings as he liked. There was no broth now, or any warm drink. Usually we drank nothing during breakfast but had a sip of ice water at the end of the meal. We were not thirsty, for there had been no sweating since 8:00 or 9:00 the night before. We had had our last big drink around 10:30 before going to bed.

At all meals there was convenient to each of us a bowl of beluga whale oil or seal oil, or a bit of treasured past summer's polar bear fat. We preferred pieces of fish each of which had enough fat of its own, and so it was in other years when we lived on caribou; but no well-appointed Eskimo meal is without a bowl of oil or a tray of fat meat that may be added to the regular food if desired.

Of course, no primitive Eskimo eats by any theory, only according to the desire of the moment. There is protocol about offering fat to a guest, but none about his accepting or declining it.

After breakfast came leisurely dressing. There was no hurry such as there had been about stripping in the evening — no danger now of getting fur clothes damp through sweat, for the morning temperature was the customary one of New England winter homes, though a bit warmer than the January homes of Old Country England. However, I was advised to put on my coat last, remaining stripped to the waist until a moment before descending through the trap door.

In dressing, I first put on my 2-pound caribou-skin breeches, the hair side inward. Then I pulled on caribou-skin socks and boots. Each boot had a drawstring at its top, which tightened to hold up both the boot and the sock. There was a slipper sock to wear between sock and boot. The total weight of boots, socks, and slippers was about 2 pounds; so I was wearing 4 pounds as I stood up, my trousers suspended, belt fashion, by 3 drawstring above my hips. The trouser legs, open at the bottom (no drawstring), hung loose to about halfway between knee and ankle.

Just before descending into the alleyway I put on my 3-pound coat. I called it by its Eskimo name of attigi when speaking to the Eskimos; in my diary I sometimes called it a coat and at other times a shirt. Nobody called it a parka. That Siberian word did not reach the Eskimos of Point Barrow or the Mackenzie until after my time, though I understand the miners of western Alaska, some of whom had mined in Siberia, began speaking of parkas soon after the Nome gold rush of 1900. The attigi was of caribou and was worn hair side in. An attached hood might be pulled up to protect the ears, but nothing ever shielded the front part of the head, or the cheeks and nose.

As I wore my 7-pound soft-as-velvet clothes, walking the quarter mile down to my fishing station on the river ice, the garments hung loose, touching me at the fewest possible points. On top of my shoulders the attigi rested its almost imperceptible weight, snug but not tight either there or at the throat, thus permitting the very slow upward seepage of the air that had been warmed by my body heat lower down. The principle was the same as in the house — the shirt was freely open downward, as it hung loose to halfway between hip and knee, somewhat as the house was always freely open downward. And, just as the house ventilator was seldom fully open upward, so ventilation beneath the shirt was only meager upward, the body-warmed air percolating up over my shoulders and into the hood to warm my ears; while through the wide downward opening, around my waist the cold air could rise up no faster than the warmed air escaped near shoulder and neck.

The control over the air within my trousers was more rigid. Practically none rose up through the trouser legs that were open at the bottom, for practically no air was escaping upward because my drawstring belt was tight above my hips and the material of my garments was nearly airtight. Thus both shirt and trousers acted as containers of air. I was really dressed in two sheets or pockets of air, one under the shirt, held in place by that garment, and the other lower down held in position by the trousers.

Air is, next to a vacuum the best of nonconductors of chill. I was dressed in two air garments that protected me, jointly, from below the knee to the tops of my shoulders — even higher up than that by the warmed air seeping up into the hood.

This is what I have had in mind in saying that when the Stone Age Eskimo went outdoors he carried tropic warmth around with him inside his clothes.

For the fishing day, this was the continued story of my warmth and comfort. I reopened with an Eskimo-type ice chisel the fishing hole that had been covered during the night by the formation of 5 or 6 inches of ice. I moved my snow-block seat, if necessary, to the windward side of the hole; and, with my back to the wind, started fishing. I never felt any chill; but I might get a bit too warm. If I did I would take off my mittens and hold my spruce-rod fishing pole with bare hands. I threw back my hood so it would leave the top of my head bare, though protecting my ears as a fur collar does.

The sun was a degree or two below the horizon even at noon; but the twilight was bright as the other fishers and I walked toward the house for our 11 o'clock snack. Now, in the bright light, we saw what looked like a column of smoke rising from our ventilator, slender at first but getting thicker upward, the final plume of it drifting off before the hardly perceptible breeze.

The door of an old-time Eskimo house always faces downhill; for gravity controls the air, and heavy air does not flow uphill any more than water does. So we walked up a gentle slope, slightly stooped, through the roofed-over alleyway to where the yellow light of the house played down upon the treads by which we mounted. As we entered, the children were, as always, naked; but most of the women, and any men who happened to be in the house, now wore footgear and trousers, though they were stripped to the waist.

We fishers removed no garments as we entered, except our coat-shirts. Nobody was sweating as we sat around, eating our ice-cream-hard frozen fish and perhaps taking a sip or two of ice water. There was not the effusive jollity which had met us at home-coming for dinner the night before but rather a quiet amiability. We ate slowly, talked quietly, and were soon on our way back to the fishing.

At 4:00 P.M. we were home again, as we had been the day before. And that is the tale of a mid-January fishing day at Tuktuyaktok.

My purpose is to illustrate how the primitive Eskimos managed their problems in the control of heat and cold, and I have told only the story of a quiet day at home. I must also describe a strenuous day, one spent hunting caribou or journeying afoot. The journey is the simpler of the two to describe here. (For a day of winter caribou hunting I refer the curious reader to any of the first five or six books listed under my authorship in the bibliography.)

When we went off for an expected 20- or 30-mile midwinter traveling day, the dogs pulled a sledge loaded with gear but the people never rode — primitive Eskimo men and women always walk or run, though children may ride. The half hour before starting we spent loading the sledge and hitching up the dogs, so there was no sweat problem. Unless a cold wind was blowing we used our bare hands with loads and dogs. Usually, in this process, we were neither too hot nor too cold.

But with perhaps five dogs hauling perhaps 1,000 pounds on level going the Eskimos of my time expected a rate of about 4 miles an hour, a very brisk walk or a jog trot. At that speed temperature problems arise. Let us assume a typical calm, clear midwinter day around 40° or 50° below zero F.

At the first sign that I may be getting too warm, jogging along, I take off my mittens, if I have been wearing them, and throw back my hood so that it rests around my ears like a fur collar. In less than half an hour I may decide further cooling is necessary; therefore I lift up my attigi and, as I run, hold it so that a strip of my bare skin is exposed just above the waist. This is usually enough; after a few minutes of cooling I let the shirt drop back into place.

If the speed gets to be a real sprint, which is protracted, I may find that it is not sufficient to cool just my waist and abdomen. I then decide I need to cool off most of my torso. So now I thrust the fingers of one hand down at the front of my throat and lift the attigi upward and forward. A lot of warmed air then escapes through the neck opening. The cold air rises from below and surrounds my whole torso to shoulder level. This creates a grateful sensation. Nothing is pleasanter than cold and dry still air on an overheated skin.

It may be, however, that in spite of cooling hands and torso I continue sweating. The remedy for that is to unleash my boots at the top of the calf of my leg, running with each leg bare for two or three inches above and below the knee like a Scot wearing kilts. If that is insufficient to stop sweating around my thighs and abdomen, I hook a thumb into the top of my trousers in front, at the drawstring belt, and pull forward, pushing in on my abdomen with the fingertips of the other bare hand. The warmed air of the trousers then escapes upward with a rush and is replaced from below by cold air rising through each trouser leg.

Though sketchy, this description should indicate how to solve the sweat problem when traveling during midwinter in Eskimo country, Eskimo style. It is not a complete solution, for it does not apply below the ankle. As to footgear, Eskimos are no more advanced in cold-weather technique than Europeans. What they do, and what I have done, following them, is to permit what cannot be avoided, just carrying along several pairs of socks, changing them each night, and somehow getting them dried eventually.

From the European point of view there remains one serious problem, that of facial frostbite, say of nose, chin, or cheek. The European view has been that this is potentially serious and must be prevented at all costs. The Eskimo view is that in the case of frostbite an ounce of cure is worth a pound of prevention. Following Eskimo practice, I let any part of my face (but not my ears or nose) freeze as often as it wanted to. On a cold and windy day I have frozen my face fifty if not a hundred times. As I have explained, I often went bare handed, in order for the chilling to inhibit body perspiration. The dry but warm palm was always available. As I ran or walked I felt my face now and then to see if a patch of skin was stiffening with frost. When I had companions, they watched my face for blanching spots, as I did theirs, and we admonished each other. Once a stiffening patch was located, I placed my warm palm over it and in a moment it was gone.

A beard interferes with this technique; for the breath, and also wind-driven snow, will freeze in it, creating an ice mask. On one occasion (which was lesson enough for me) I started off on a cold day wearing a beard. When I felt my chin beginning to freeze I could not get at it to thaw the congealing spot with my warm hand, for the hoarfrost mask of my beard interfered. We were headed for a warm house, miles away, where food and good company awaited, and so we did not stop to make a camp in which to thaw the mask off my face. By the time we got to the rendezvous, I was wearing something like five pounds of ice in my beard, and beneath this shell the skin of my jaws and chin was frozen, the chin so deeply that I still carry the scar of it.

The Eskimo is not heavily bearded. His custom has been to eradicate what little facial hair there naturally is. In practice the well-instructed white man attains the same result by using close beard clippers every second or third day. Then, if you feel a spot freezing, or if a companion warns you of a white spot beginning to spread, you press a warm hand to a bare face and the spot is gone in a moment. Of all the thousands of chin and cheek frostbites of ten arctic winters, my only scar is one caused by a once-worn beard. If a spot is thawed before it exceeds the size and thickness of a dime, not even peeling will result; a nickel-size frostbite, if as thick as a nickel, will cause the skin peeling of a mild sunburn.

The Stone Age Eskimos of our continent's north shore have always lived and traveled by using this technique, in unhurried and unworried comfort. During winter nights, and on housebound days, their lives are wholly tropical in the gravity-controlled warmth and ventilation of their nearly airtight houses. When outdoors, the portable tropics of their nearly airtight clothes have protected them from chill except for their faces, which they tended as I have just explained, and except for the cold air which they breathed in, without any discomfort I ever noticed or heard them complain about.

In these last paragraphs I have been thinking of active males. The healthfulness of the humid-tropics style of Eskimo winter living may be for most women and for all children, greater than for men. In this respect the Point Barrow narratives, quoted in the following chapter, provide clear testimony for the first two or three generations of European-Eskimo contacts, thus for the time during which the Eskimos retained their native ways. This was the time during which no one found cancer among them though many searched. Among those searchers were Leavitt (1884-1907) and Marsh (1897-1912), who followed closely upon the period of the narratives quoted below which date from the 1850's and the 1880's. Since the house life to be described applied most particularly to children, I shall summarize, as an introduction, the experiences of both Leavitt and Marsh, especially those of Marsh, as I learned of them through many conversations.

Marsh believed that the right sort of infancy might help to prevent future malignancies. Therefore he kept warning me not to overlook the manner in which children were reared, both as to thermometric warmth and warmth of affection, and as to food and comfort.

Nakedness seemed to Dr. Marsh an outstanding characteristic of the northern Alaskan infant as of the African or South Sea child, Indoors, Barrow children were always naked, except on rare occasions during the summer; in winter there were seven or eight months each year during which they went naked at temperatures seldom less than 70° F. and often more than 80° F. When an Eskimo mother traveled, and even when she worked outdoors around the house, or fishing, she carried her baby at the small of her back inside her clothes and the naked child was warmed by contact with its mother's body. Children up to five and six ran naked indoors during the winter. For traveling in winter, youngsters more than two years old wore clothes, though they were also bundled up in loose furs on the sled.

Infant nutrition, Dr. Marsh argued, could perhaps show its effects well into adult life. A child was usually at the breast for as long as three years. Marsh had seen cases of more than six years — so had Leavitt; and so have I, since. At the age of a few days Eskimo babies started receiving, along with their mothers' milk, food masticated by the parent and passed directly from mouth to mouth. Thus she fed the child on what she herself liked best — always, of course, lean and fat meats, except in case of famine, when vegetables might be included and when the child and mother fared alike — neither of them well but the child a little better than the parents.

A repeated caution: Though frontier doctors, as I have known them in Alaska and northern Canada, talked a great deal about the warmth of Eskimo winter living, with its resultant copious sweating and drinking, they seldom failed to indicate that they considered these factors to be secondary as possible inhibitors of cancer. Most important in their thinking was food and its handling.

On that note, we turn from my own personal testimony of the years following 1906 to consider two sets of parallel but older testimonies, those of Simpson (1852-54) and Murdoch (1881-83).

Chapter 13 >>