Sixth Annual Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology

Date: 1888

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In treating of the single tribes, the routes were mentioned which are followed by the natives as they travel from shore to shore and from settlement to settlement. These routes are established by tradition and the Eskimo never stray from them. In order to obtain a more thorough understanding of the migrations of single individuals and of families, the relations between the tribes and the settlements must be discussed.

By the lively intercourse which is always kept up between the settlements, it cannot fail that marriages between members of different tribes should be of frequent occurrence and that many ties of affinity and consanguinity should thus be created. These relations, however, as distances increase, quickly become less common. For instance, in Cumberland Sound three people are found belonging to Tununirn, about ten belonging to Akudnirn, and quite a number coming from Padli. Also, two Sikosuilarmiut live there, a few natives of Akuliaq and Qaumauang, and very many Nugumiut. Hall’s accounts concerning the Nugumiut and the Aivillirmiut prove a similar proportion of strange natives among these tribes. Every tribe may be said to bring together its immediate neighbors, as it is closely related to them, while those which are separated by the tribe itself are strangers to one another. The importance of this mediate position is regulated by the strength of the tribe, by the significance of the country in reference to its produce, and by the routes crossing it. . . .

Between tribes that are strangers to one another ceremonies of greeting are customary which are not adapted to facilitate intercourse. The ceremonies will be described further on. . . .

Among neighboring tribes these ceremonies are dispensed with, for instance, between the Padlimiut and Oqomiut, Padlimiut and Akudnirmiut, while a Nugumio or an Akudnirmio unknown in Oqo has there to go through the whole of the performance. The exception in favor of the former tribe is doubtless due to the frequent intermarriages with those tribes, whereby a constant acquaintance is kept up.

Real wars or fights between settlements, I believe, have never happened, but contests have always been confined to single families. The last instance of a feud which has come to my knowledge occurred about seventy years ago. At that time a great number of Eskimo lived at Niutang, in Kingnait Fjord, and many men of this settlement had been murdered by a Qinguamio of Anarnitung. For this reason the men of Niutang united in a sledge journey to Anarnitung to revenge the death of their companions. They hid themselves behind the ground ice and killed the returning hunter with their arrows. All hostilities have probably been of a similar character. . . .

The reasons for the frequent removals of individual Eskimo to strange tribes are to be looked for in the customs of the natives. I can only mention here that intermarriage, adoption, and the fear of blood vengeance are the principal ones.

It is peculiar to the migratory habits of the Eskimo that almost without exception the old man returns to the country of his youth, and consequently by far the greater part of the old people live in their native districts. . . .


The social order of the Eskimo is entirely founded on the family and on the ties of consanguinity and affinity between the individual families. Generally children are betrothed when very young but these engagements, not being strictly binding, may be broken off at any time. When the children reach maturity the girl learns the duties of a woman and the boy those of a man. As soon as he is able to provide for a family and she can do the work falling to her share, they are allowed to marry. It happens frequently that the young man’s parents are unwilling to allow him to provide for his parents-in-law, and then he may be rejected at any moment. Usually the young couple must begin housekeeping with the young wife’s family and the young man, if belonging to a strange tribe, must join that of his wife. It is not until after his parents-in-law are dead that he is entirely master of his own actions. Though the betrothal be entered into in the days of childhood the bride must be bought from the parents by some present. In other instances the men choose their wives when grown up and sometimes a long wooing precedes the marriage. The consent of the bride’s parents, or, if they are dead, that of her brothers, is always necessary. Marriages between relatives are forbidden: cousins, nephew and niece, aunt and uncle, are not allowed to intermarry. There is, however, no law to prevent a man from marrying two sisters. It is remarkable that Lyon states just the reverse. I am sure, however, that my statements are correct in reference to the Davis Strait tribes.

Should the newly married couple join the wife’s family this would serve as a check to polygamy, which, however, is quite allowable. It is only when the new family settles on its own account that a man is at full liberty to take additional wives, among Whom one is always considered the chief wife. Monogamy is everywhere more frequent than polygamy, only a very few men having two or more wives. According to Ross polyandry occurs with the Netchillirmiut. As long as the mother-in-law lives with the young family the Wives are subordinate to her, while the mothers of both parties are independent of each other. No example came to my notice of both parents living with the newly married couple. Sometimes the man and wife did not set up a new household at once, but each remains at home. The property necessary for establishing a new family is the hunting gear of the man and the knife, scraper, lamp, ann cooking pot of the woman.

A strange custom permits a man to lend his wife to a friend for a whole season or even longer and to exchange wives as a sign of friendship. On certain occasions it is even commanded by a religious law. Nevertheless I know of some instances of quarrels arising from jealousy. Lyon states, however, that this passion is unknown among the Iglulirmiut. The husband is not allowed to maltreat or punish his wife; if he does she may leave him at any time, and the wife’s mother can always command a divorce. Both are allowed to remarry as soon as they like, even the slightest pretext being sufficient far a separation.

I may be allowed to refer once more to the division of labor between the man and woman. The principal part of the man’s work is to provide for his family by hunting, i.e., for his wife and children and for his relatives who have no provider. He must drive the sledge in travelling, feed the dogs, build the house, and make and keep in order his hunting implements, the boat cover and seal floats excepted. The woman has to do the household work, the sewing, and the cooking. She must look after the lamps, make and mend the tent and boat covers, prepare the skins, and bring up young dogs. It falls to her share to make the inner outfit of the hut, to smooth the platforms, line the snow house, etc. On Davis Strait the men cut up all kinds of animals which they have caught; on Hudson Bay, however, the women cut up the seals. There the men prepare the deerskins, which is done by the women among the eastern tribes. Everywhere the women have to do the rowing in the large boats while the man steers. Cripples who are unable to hunt do the same kind of work as women.

Children are treated very kindly and are not scolded, whipped or subjected to any corporal punishment. Among all the tribes infanticide has been practised to some extent, but probably only females or children of widows or widowers have been murdered in this way, the latter on account of the difficulty of providing for them. It is very remarkable that this practice seems to be quite allowable among them, while in Greenland it is believed that the spirit of the murdered child is turned into an evil spirit, called angiaq, and revenges the crime.

Besides the children properly belonging to the family, adopted children, widows, and old people are considered part of it. Adoption is carried on among this people to a great extent.

If for any reason a man is unable to provide for his family or if a woman cannot do her household work, the children are adopted by a relative or friend, who considers them as his own children. In the same way widows with their children are adopted by their nearest relative or by a friend and belong to the family, though the woman retains her own fireplace.

It is difficult to decide which relative is considered the nearest, but the ties of consanguinity appear to be much closer than those of affinity. If a woman dies the husband leaves his children with his parents-in-law and returns to his own family, and if a man dies his wife returns to her parents or her brothers who are the nearest relatives next to parents or children. When a woman dies, however, after the children are grown up the widower will stay with them. In case of a divorce the children generally remain with the mother.

As a great part of the personal property of a man is destroyed at his death or placed by his grave, the objects which may be acquired by inheritance are few. These are the gun, harpoon, sledge, dogs, kayak, boat, and tent poles of the man and the lamp and pots of the woman. The first inheritor of these articles is the eldest son living with the parents. Sons and daughters having households of their own do not participate in the inheritance. An elder adopted son has preference over a younger son born of the marriage. Details of the laws which relate to inheritance are unknown to me.

Sometimes men are adopted who may almost be considered servants. Particularly bachelors without any relations, cripples who are not able to provide for themselves, or men who have lost their sledges and dogs are found in this position. They fulfill minor occupations, mend the hunting implements, fit out the sledges, feed the dogs, etc.; sometimes, however, they join the hunters. They follow the master of the house when he removes from one place to another, make journeys in order to do his commissions, and so on. The position, however, is a voluntary one, and therefore these men are not less esteemed than the self dependent providers.

Strangers visiting their friends for a season are generally in a similar position, though they receive a wife if the host happens to have more than one; if the friend has hunting gear, a sledge, and dogs of his own, he can arrange a separate fireplace in the hut.

In summer most families have each their own tent, but in the fall from two to four join in building a house. Frequently the parents live on one side, the family of the son-in-law on the other, and a friend or relative in a small recess. Sometimes two houses have a common entrance or the passages communicate with one another. The inhabitants of both parts usually live quite independently of one another, while the oldest man of every house has some influence over his housemates.

If the distance between the winter and the summer settlement is very great or when any particular knowledge is required to find out the haunts of game, there is a kind of chief in the settlement, whose acknowledged authority is, however, very limited. He is called the pimain (i.e., he who knows everything best) or the issumautang. His authority is virtually limited to the right of deciding on the proper time to shift the huts from one place to the other but the families are not obliged to follow him. At some places it seems to be considered proper to ask the pimain before moving to another settlement and leaving the rest of the tribe. He may ask some men to go deer hunting, others to go sealing, but there is not the slightest obligation to obey his orders.

Every family is allowed to settle wherever it likes, visiting a strange tribe being the only exception. In such a case the new comer has to undergo a ceremony which consists chiefly in a duel between a native of the place and himself. If he is defeated he runs the risk of being killed by those among whom he has come.

There are numerous regulations governing hunting, determining to whom the game belongs, the obligations of the successful hunter towards the inhabitants of the village, etc.

When a seal is brought to the huts everybody is entitled to a share of the meat and blubber, which is distributed by the hunter himself or carried to the individual huts by his wife. This custom is only practised when food is scarce. In time of plenty only the housemates receive a share of the animal.

A ground seal belongs to all the men who take part in the hunt, the skin especially being divided among them. A walrus is cut up at once into as many parts as there are hunters, the one who first struck it having the choice of the parts and receiving the head. A whale belongs to the whole settlement and its capture is celebrated by a feast.

A bear or a young seal belongs to the man who first saw it, no matter who kills it.

Lost objects must be restored to the owner if he is known, game however, excepted; for example, if a harpoon line breaks and the animal escapes, but is found later by another man, the game belongs to the latter. In Hudson Bay he is also allowed to keep the harpoon and line.

There is no way of enforcing these unwritten laws and no punishment for transgressors except the blood vengeance. It is not a rare occurrence that a man who is offended by another man takes revenge by killing the offender. It is then the right and the duty of the nearest relative of the victim to kill the murderer. In certain quarrels between the Netchillirmiut and the Aivillirmiut, in which the murderer himself could not be apprehended, the family of the murdered man has killed one of the murderer’s relations in his stead. Such a feud sometimes lasts for a long time and is even handed down to a succeeding generation. It is sometimes settled by mutual agreement. As a sign of reconciliation both parties touch each other’s breast, saying, Ilaga (my friend).

If a man has committed a murder or made himself odious by other outrages he may be killed by any one simply as a matter of justice. The man who intends to take revenge on him must ask his countrymen singly if each agrees in the opinion that the offender is a bad man deserving death. If all answer in the affirmative he may kill the man thus condemned and no one is allowed to revenge the murder.

Their method of carrying on such a feud is quite foreign to our feelings. Strange as it may seem, a murderer will come to visit the relatives of his victim (though he knows that they are allowed to kill him in revenge) and will settle with them. He is kindly welcomed and sometimes lives quietly for weeks and months. Then he is suddenly challenged to a wrestling match, and if defeated is killed, or if victorious he may kill one of the opposite party, or when hunting he is suddenly attacked by his companions and slain.


If a stranger unknown to the inhabitants of a settlement arrives on a visit he is welcomed by the celebration of a great feast. Among the southeastern tribes the natives arrange themselves in a row, one man standing in front of it. The stranger approaches slowly, his arms folded and his head inclined toward the right side. Then the native strikes him with all his strength on the right cheek and in his turn inclines his head awaiting the stranger’s blow (tigluiqdjung). While this is going on the other men are playing at ball and singing (igdlukitaqtung). Thus they continue until one of the combatants is vanquished.

The ceremonies of greeting among the western tribes are similar to those of the eastern, but in addition "boxing, wrestling, and knife testing" are mentioned by travelers who have visited them. In Davis Strait and probably in all the other countries the game of "hook and crook" is always played on the arrival of a stranger (pakijumijartung). Two men sit down on a large skin, after having stripped the upper part of their bodies, and each tries to stretch out the bent arm of the other. These games are sometimes dangerous, as the victor has the right to kill his adversary; but generally the feast ends peaceably. The ceremonies of the western tribes in greeting a stranger are much feared by their eastern neighbors and therefore intercourse is somewhat restricted. The meaning of the duel, according to the natives themselves, is "that the two men meeting wish to know which of them is the better man." The similarity of these ceremonies with those of Greenland, where the game of hook and crook and wrestling matches have been customary, is quite striking, as is that of the explanation of these ceremonies.

The word for greeting on Davis Strait and Hudson Strait, is Assojutidlin? (Are you quite well?) and the answer, Tabaujuradlu (Very well). The word Taima! which is used in Hudson Strait, and Manetaima! of the Netchillirmiut seem to be similar to our Halloo! The Ukusiksalirmiut say Ilaga! (My friend!).


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Chicago: Sixth Annual Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology in Source Book in Anthropology, ed. Kroeber, Alfred L., 1876-1960, and Waterman, T. T. (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1920), Original Sources, accessed September 22, 2023,

MLA: . Sixth Annual Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology, in Source Book in Anthropology, edited by Kroeber, Alfred L., 1876-1960, and Waterman, T. T., Berkeley, CA, University of California Press, 1920, Original Sources. 22 Sep. 2023.

Harvard: , Sixth Annual Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology. cited in 1920, Source Book in Anthropology, ed. , University of California Press, Berkeley, CA. Original Sources, retrieved 22 September 2023, from