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Ethnology of the Greenland Eskimos: Encyclopedia Arctica 8: Anthropology and Archeology
Stefansson, Vilhjalmur, 1879-1962

Ethnology of the Greenland Eskimos

EA-Anthropology
(Therkel Mathiassen)

ETHNOLOGY OF THE GREENLAND ESKIMOS

Introduction
Greenland has a population of about 21,000. Of these only a few
hundreds are Danes, while the rest are Greenlanders, a mixed population,
formed during the modern period of more than two hundred years that
Greenland has been under Danish government, mostly through intermarriage
between the originally pure Eskimo population and Danes. The Eskimo blood,
however, dominates, and the children of these mixed marriages nearly always
speak the Greenland (Eskimo) language. In certain districts there are a
good many pure Eskimos
The population of Greenland falls naturally into three groups: The
Polar Eskimos number about 300 and live in northwestern Greenland north of
Melville Bay, in the Thule or Cape York district. The West Greenlanders,
numbering about 19,000, inhabit the west coast from Melville Bay in the north
to Cape Farewell in the south. The East Greenlanders, about 1,300, are on the
east coast, chiefly in the Angmagssalik district, with small groups at Scoresby
Sound and Skjoldungen. (The Scoresby and Skjoldungen groups are recent immi–
grants brought by the Danes, chiefly from Angmagssalik but a few from the
west coast.) Each of these three main groups has a stamp of its own, indicating
a rather long separation.

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The Polar Eskimos
The Polar Eskimos inhabit the territory between Melville Bay and
Smith Sound; but on their hunting excursions they often go far down into
Melville Bay, north to Inglefield Land, and, earlier, west to Ellesmere
Island. As the whole population numbers only about 300, it can be seen
that their country is very thinly populated. The main settlement is the
trading post Thule in Wolstenholme Sound: there are, besides, two small
outposts, Siorapaluk in Inglefield Bay and Savigssivik near Cape York, as
well as a changing number of small villages, not all of which are inhabited
every year.
The Polar Eskimos were discovered in 1818 by John Ross; but the knowledge
of them is mostly due to two men: Peary, who used their country as a base for
his North Pole expeditions from 1891 to 1909, and Knud Rasmussen, who together
with Mylius-Erichsen and Harald Moltke spend the winter 1903-04 there, and
who in 1910 erected there the Thule station as a base for his "Thule-Expedi–
tions" and at the same time as a trading pos [: ]t , which could partly finance
his expeditions. After the death of Knud Rasmussen, the Danish Government
took possession of the station.
The Polar Eskimos are still nearly pure Eskimos; there is, however, a
little intermixture of white and West Greenland blood, and these half-breeds
are usually more prolific than the pure Eskimos, whose marriages often are
childless. A proper study of the physical anthropology of the Polar Eskimos
has never been made. In most features they resemble the other Greenlanders
(see later, under the West Greenlanders). According to the few measurements
that have been taken they seem to be rather small, the men with heights from

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163 to 152 cm., the women from 150 to 142 cm. A considerable number of them
have "Indian" noses.
Mention should be made of the highly arctic conditions under which the
Polar Eskimos, the northernmost population in the World, live. Their terri–
tory is large, but nearly all the land is covered by the inland ice; it is
from the sea that they have to take their food, and this is frozen over for
ten months of the year. The climate is also high arctic, with a winter dark–
ness of three or four months and a similar period of midnight sun in the
summer; the summer is short and cool, and the winter is long with an average
temperature of about 30 to 40° Centigrade. In spite of these severe natural
conditions, this little group had for centuries been able to live in comfort
at this remote and isolated place.
In the short period of open water the Polar Eskimos hunt walrus, narwhal,
white whale, bearded seal, and fjore seal from kayaks. Formerly some caribou
were hunted, but they are now nearly exterminated, and musk ox hunting on
Ellesmere Island has been prohibited by the Canadian Government. Some salmon
are caught in lakes and rivers. Birds form an important food item, especially
the little auks, which breed in millions on the cliffs; egg collecting is
also of some importance. The birds are caught with bag nets on long poles
and are put up for winter consumption in whole seal s kins, the fat of which
penetrates the birds. This bird catching was formerly much more important
than now, being nearly their only summer occupation.
Such important culture elements as the kayak, the bow, and the salmon
spear were unknown in the country until they were introduced by a small group
of Baffin Islanders, immigrating in the 1860's. Archaeological investigations
show, however, that these elements had been known earlier in the district;

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but there was evidently a period of several hundred years when they were
unknown, probably on account of lack of wood, which is very sparse in the
district. The kayak and kayak implements are of the same clumsy types as
used in Baffin Island, and the Polar Eskimos are not nearly as clever kayak
hunters as the other Greenlanders.
By the latter part of September the new ice begins to form in fjords
and bays. In the fall seals are caught at the breathing holes on the smooth
ice, and walrus are caught from the ice edge and when they push their heads
through the new ice to breathe. In the darkness of full winter, hunting is
nearly impossible, but foxes can be trapped; in this period it is necessary
to depend on the caches of meat, mostly seal and walrus, laid up during the
spring hunting.
In the late winter or early spring, when the sun has come back, the
walrus hunt from the i d c e edge begins again, and this is also the time of the
bear hunts, the favorite occupation of the Polar Eskimos. In spring and early
summer the basking seals are caught on the ice ( utoq utoq hunting), previously by
harpoon, now always by rifle and shooting-screen.
Now that the caribou is nearly exterminated, the only land animals hunted
are the arctic hare and the fox. The hare is important because its fur is
used for stockings; the fox, earlier caught in stone traps but now always in
steel traps, is now the base for the economy of the whole district. For with
the foxskins the Polar Eskimo can buy at the trading pos e t s the products of
civilization to which they are now accustomed: rifles, ammunition, tools and
ironware, wood, textiles, tobacco, and some kinds of white man's food.
The winter houses are small, rounded, half underground, rather narrow
at the back, wider in the front part, where the narrow, sunken doorway begins.

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The building material is mostly stones, flat slabs which are abundant
in the district. The domed roof is also usually built of stones, arranged
on the catilever principle; sometimes whale bones are used in the construc–
tion; wood is seldom used. The back part of the house is occupied by the
raised platform, also built of flat stones; at the ends of the patform are the
lamp places; over the soapstone lamps are the cooking pots, hanging down
from the roof on thongs; here the cooking is done and here the women have
their working places. On winter journeys snowhouses are built, and there
are also used as temporary dwellings at the hunting places. The sonwhouses
of the Polar Eskimos are smaller and more poorly built than those of the
Central Eskimos, which are in use throughout the whole winter. The summer
dwelling is the sealskin tent, consisting of a vertical square frame of
wooden poles, against which rests a number of slanting poles, the whole
covered with sealskin. The old winter houses are now being replaced by
wood and sod houses of the West Greenland type; most of the well-to-do
families also have canvas tents.
The most important means of communication is the dog sledge. It is
[: ] rather long and narrow, with uprights; now always made of
wood, the earlier sledges were of numerous pieces of bond and wood lashed
together. A team usually consists of about ten dogs, hitched to the sledge
fanwise, with all the traces about the same length. The Polar Eskimos are
usually very good dog drivers. Because of the considerable amount of meat
procured by the walrus hunt, they can keep many dogs and feed them well;
the teams are always tied up and are not allowed to mix. The women's boat
seems never to have been used by the Polar Eskimos. The scarcity of wood
has made it difficult to construct these boats and the short period of open

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water has made them less necessary than elsewhere; the dog sledge, on
the other hand, can be used ten months of the year.
The clothing of the Polar Eskimos is rather peculiar. Their old
dress consisted of a shirt of birdskin with the feather side inside; over
that a hooded coat of foxskin, which in spring and summer [: ] was replaced
by a sealskin coat. The men wore bearskin trousers and boots of white, hair–
less sealskin with hareskin stockings; the women wore quite short foxskin
trousers and very long white sealskin boots. Urine tanning of skins is not
used.
The implement culture of the Polar Eskimos differs in many respects
from that of the other Greenlanders. This is to some extent due to the
influence of the immigrating Baffin Islanders. The clumsy kayak, the harpoon
without a throwing board, the big hunting float made of a whole sealskin, the
drag float for the harpoon line, the three-pronged salmon spear, were all
introduced by the newcomers. In other cases we find primitive features such
as harpoon heads of Thule type with open-shaft socket and the winged needle–
case, still used until about 1900. These elements are no doubt reminiscences
of the Old Thule culture, which previously existed in this region, and
certain features in the clothing, such as the bearskin trousers and the long
women's boots, which they have in common with the now extinct Sadlermiut
of Southampton Island, probably have the same origin.
The spiritual culture of the Polar Eskimos has been given especial
study by Knud Rasmussen, who has published extensively on the subject.
Erik Holtved, who spent three years among them (1935-37 and 1946-47) has
also collected a great deal of material, as yet unpublished. All the Polar
Eskimos are now baptized.

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The West Greenlanders
The West Greenlanders numbering about 19,000, are far the most numerous of the three groups
of Greenlanders. They inhabit the more than 1,100-mile coast line between
Devil's Thumb, just south of Melville Bay, and Cape Farewell, a coast much
cut up by large fjords and fronted in many places by a belt of skerries.
In most places there is a wide stretch of ice-free land between the coast
and the inland ice, but this land is mostly mountainous, often with local
glaciers. In other places the coastal land is rather narrow, and the in–
land ice sends large glaciers out into the sea, producing icebergs; that
is the case in Disko Bay, Umanak Fjord, and the Upernivik region. Because
of the great distance from north to south the climate varies considerably.
In the north we have a high arctic climate with cold, dark winters, and
with the sea frozen over the entire winter; in the south the climate is
more subarctic, with no winter darkness, with cool summers and stormy, not
very cold winters, and without a regular ice-covering of the sea.
The West Greenlanders since 1721 have been under the Danish Government,
and have, as a result, been greatly influenced, both physically and culturally.
The population is racially rather mixed, mostly through intermarriages between
lower Danish functionaries and Greenland woman. This half-breed population
seems to be prolific and vigorous, and their number is rapidly increasing;
nearly all of the leading Greenland families now have half-breeds. Only in
the far north, in Upernivik District, and in the southern part of Julianehaab
District, where a good many East Greenlanders have settled, are there larger
populations of pure Eskimo origin.
The West Greenlanders now inhabit a number of settlements, each with a
large trading station, and usually also a church, school, hospital, and often

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a wireless station. The center of administration is Godthaab; other large
places are Julianehaab, Sukkertoppen, Egedesminde and Jakobshavn. Each of
these places has from 600 to 800 inhabitants. Other settlements are
Frederikshaab, Holsteinsborg, Godhavn, Christianshaab, Umanak, and Upernivik;
The mining towns Ivigtut (cryolite) and Qutdligssat (coal); about 50 small
trading posts, usually also with a church and school, and about 120 smaller
settlements. Julianehaab District is the most densely populated region.
West Greenland is divided into two parts, each with its Governor: North
Greenland with its center is Godhavn, comprising the districts of Upernivik,
Umanak, Jakobshavn, Christianshaab, Godhavn, and Egedesminde; and South
Greenland, comprising Holsteinborg, Sukkertoppen, Godthaab, Frederikshaab,
and Julianehaab.
The stature of the West Greenlanders is usually between 160 and 165 cm.
for the men, about 150 to 155 cm. for the women. On the average they are
powerfully built and plump; the length of the trunk is comparatively large;
the chest is broad and powerful; the legs are rather short, the hands and
feet small. The shape of the skull is dolichodephalic, with an index usually
between 70.5 and 72; it is characteristically roof- or crest-shaped. The
brain capacity is large, about 1,400 to 1,500 cm. On the skull the face
breadth is not very great; but because of the frequently big cheeks the
faces of the living Greenlanders look very broad and flat, with noses that
protrude little; this with the often "oblique" eyes give them a mongolloid
aspect. The hair is black, rather coarse and lank, and abundant; there is
usually not much beard. The eyes are dark brown, the complexion yellow brown
or light olive.
What is said here about the physical characteristics of the West Greenlanders

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refers to those of pure or nearly pure Eskimo origin; for the most part
it also applies to the East Greenlanders and to the Polar Eskimos.
The old culture of the West Greenlanders is known through reports
from the time of first colonization, most from Hans Egede and his mission–
ary successors, his son Poul Egede and his son-in-law Glahn; also the
missionaries Cranz and Fabricius, and Dr. H. Rink, who was director for
the government of Greenland in the middle of the 19th century. In later
years Birket-Smith made a thorough study of their material culture, Thal–
bitzer studied their spiritual culture, and Knud Rasmussen collected a
considerable number of old tales.
The following description of the material culture of the West Green–
landers treats of conditions before the modern development which the
great fisheries have brought in the 20th century.
The annual hunting cycle differs a good deal in different parts of
the country. Both in North and South Greenland seal hunting is the main
occupation. In North Greenland the sea ice breaks in June, and then the
big seals, the bladdernose and saddleback, are hunted from Kayaks, sometimes
also the fjord seal and white whale. Halibut and shark and large numbers of
the small capelins ( angmagssat ) are also caught. At certain places there is
in the late summer and early fall some caribou hunting; eiderducks, auks, and
other sea birds are caught throughout the summer, especially on the cliffs
where they nest in millions; there many eggs are also collected. Salmon
are caught in the rivers, now mostly by netting. In October-November, when
the sea ice has formed, seals are caught [: ] from the ice; in olden times this
was done mostly at the breathing holes, now it is mostly with nets fastened
under the ice. When the ice is too thick for net-hunting, halibut and shark are

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caught with hooks through the ice. In the winter foxes are trapped. In
the spring fjord seals are hunted while basking on the ice, and narwhal
and white whale are also hunted from the ice edge or through holes and
openings in the ice.
In South Greenland no regular sea ice is formed, and kayak hunting
can be carried on the whole year. On the other hand, in the farthest south,
especially in the Julianehaab District, there is much drift ice in summer;
this comes from the east coast around Cape Farewell, and following the ice
are many seals, mostly bladdernose and bearded seal, which from the basis
for the summer hunt here. At this time a large part of the population
moves from winter settlements to the camping places closer to the o ep pe n sea
and the drift ice, where the hunting is performed. In the northern part of
South Greenland the capelin catch in June plays an important role; saddle–
back seals are also hunted from kayaks. In July and August many families
move into the fjords for caribou hunting and salmon fishing. In September
the families return to their winter settlements, living on saddleback seal,
hunted from kayaks, and some salmon. In October hunting of sea birds,
especially eider ducks, is of some importance in many places. This seal–
and bird-hunting from kayaks continues throughout the winter, often under
difficult condition, in [: ] stormy weather and rough seas. In spring there
is in the North some hunting of basking seals, while in the South the
bladdernose hunting begins in April. In m M ay the removal to the tenting
places begins.
It is not difficult to understand that it is on the kayak and the
kayak implements that the West Greenlanders concentrate their skill and
craftsmanship. The kayak is slender and elegant; its shape varies slightly

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from district to district, with stems somewhat upturned here and there,
according to its use in more or less rough seas. Around the rim of the
hole the kayak frock can be lashed watertight, so man and m k ayak are one
and can turn over without the man being soaked. Every good kayak hunter
is able to turn over with his kayak by using his paddle in such a way that
a capsizing will not be catastrophic. The kayak rack, on wh ci ic h the harpoon
line lies rolled up, is raised above the deck, so the line does not become
tangled if the waves wash over the deck. To the right of the hole the
harpoon is placed; it is hurled with the throwing board, another clever
invention. The kayak harpoon has a movable foreshaft and a loose head,
fastened to the line which in turn is fastened to the f l oat, an inflated
sealskin which rests on the afterdeck and is kept in place by two curved
pieces of wood fastened under one of the many seal thongs that run from
side to side on the kayak deck. The shape of the harpoon head varies a
good deal, each hunter having his favorite type; all of them are flat, with
one or two basal spurs, with or without barbs on the sides. Other kayak
implements that are placed on the kayak deck are the lance, bird dart, and
throwing boards. [: ]
The lance has a movable foreshaft, but a fixed blade, and is often used with
a throwing board; its function is to kill the wounded seal. The bird dart,
with its throwing board, has a fixed point and three barbed side prongs to
catch the bird, if the end point misses. To the cross-thongs on the deck
are also attached a long, usually two-edged hunting knife, towing implements,
consisting of lines with toggles to hold the dead seal to the kayak, and
some wound plugs — wooden pieces to close the wound and prevent the blood
from running out. Today, the kayak outfit always includes a rifle, placed

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in a sealskin bag, and a shooting-screen of white linen cloth, which gives
the kayak the appearance of a small ice floe.
For caribou hunting bows of wood and baleen with sinew backing were
formerly used; now rifles are always used, and only during a few months are
caribou allowed to be killed.
Capelins are taken with big scoops. Most salmon are now caught with
nets, formerly made of baleen strips. Salmon leisters are still used.
During recent years a radical change in the hunting conditions and the
mode of living have taken place, mostly in South Greenland. The reason is
partly climatic change, which has raised the temperature of the sea water,
thus causing an enormous increase in the number of fish, especially cod, while
at the same time the seals in this area have become more scarce; reason for this is the promiscu–
ous seal-hunting on the ice along the East Coast of Greenland by some European,
mostly Norwegian, hunting expeditions. It has, then, become necessary to change
from seal hunting to fishing in the whole of South Greenland and also in some
of the southern parts of North Greenland. The cod fishing is mostly done by
jigging from small boats and kayaks, but some fishing is done from motorboats
that are large enough so that halibut and other fish can also be taken. This
has caused a concentration of the population at the larger settlements, where
the fish can be sold and treated.
Another activity which in recent years has been of importance in South
Greenland, is raising sheep, and most of the place d s suited for that purpose
have now been occupied by sheep breeders, who often are well-to-do compared
with the fishermen. At Igaliko, the Norsemen's old bishop's seat, a group
of cattle breeders has settled down. In addition, and increasing number of the
population are in the service of the Government as teachers, outpost managers

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and other officials, and as craftsmen, sailors, or workers. At the Qutligssat
coal mine large numbers of Greenlanders are engaged as miners, while the
Ivigtut cryolite mine is worked by Danish laborers. Because of these changes,
the old hunting technique in large parts of the country is now rapidly dis–
appearing. In North Greenland, however, especially in its northern part,
sea hunting is still the main occupation.
The old type of winter house, used during the eighteenth and part of
the nineteenth centuries, was the large rectangular common house, usually
built on doping terrain, so that the back part had to be dug a little into
the ground. The length used to be between 6 and 10 meters, according to the
number of families, the width about 5 meters. The walls were built of stones
and sod; the roof was flat, constructed of wooden planks, covered by skin and
sod. The entrance was through a long, narrow passageway, sunk deeper than the
floor and at right angles to the house. The front of the house had a number
of windows with gut-skin panes. The back part of the house was occupied
by a raised wooden platform; the floor was covered with flat s t ones, along
the sides and the front of the house were smaller platforms [: ] for unmarried
people and guests. The main platform was divided by skin curtains into as
many rooms as there were families in the house up to about ten. In front of
each platform-division there was a lamp table for the soapstone lamp, the
cooking pot, and other househol e d utensils; above the lamp was the drying rack.
Below the platform stood the urine container, a big wooden bowl in which skins
were soaked before being prepared for clothing. The roof was supported by a
number of strong, vertical poles, one at each platform-division. This type
of house has now gone out of use in West Greenland, but is still used in
Angmagssalik. At remote places it may still be possible to find houses of a

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similar construction, but smaller for only one or two families.
Another house type still in use is not sunk into the ground, has walls
of stones and sod, sometimes a wooden panel, and usually a wooden floor.
These houses have larger windows with glass panes, an iron stove, a flat
roof, and a little entry room. This is the type of house ordinarily used
by the poorer West Greenland population, especially in the farthest north
and south. At other places these dwellings have been more and more displaced
by wooden houses with thatched roofs. It is mostly the larger incomes, de–
rived from fishing which have enabled the Greenlanders to build these wooden
houses, but such houses, especially if badly built, require more heating and
are not as warm as were the old houses.
In the spring, mostly in May, the whole population formerly moved into
tents, and the roof was taken off the old winter houses. The tents had a
wooden frame and a covering of sealskin; they had a little raised platform,
covered with skins. Now the skin tents in most placed have been displaced
by canvas tents, and most of the fishing population do not move out of their
winter houses at all; a condition not good for their health.
The soapstone blubber lamp, the old, most important household utensil,
is not used much any more. It is a big, half-moon-shaped bowl, placed upon
a lamp stand of wood, with a hollow to receive the dripping blubber. Now
train oil or kerosene lamps are used.
The old means of communications were the dog sledge and the umiak, the
women's boat. The dog sledge is used from Holsteinborg to the North and is
still the only means of communication in winter. The sledge is rather short
and wide, with high uprights. The dogs are attached fanwise and the traces
are of the same length. The dogs are not tethered when at the settlement,

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and sledges, kayaks, skins, and meat have to be placed on wooden scaffolds
out of their reach.
The umiak, the 9 to 10 meters-long skin boat with wooden frame, is
usually rowed by women with short, broad-bladed oars; it can carry many
people and much goods and is mostly used when the family is moving to and
from the tent places, when they are catching capelins or are going caribou
hunting. Mostly due to the lack of big sealskins, the umiak has now nearly
disappeared in West Greenland, having been displaced by wooden boats.
Skis are used by many Greenlanders in the winter; they were introduced
by the Danes, but the Greenlanders make them in a style of their own, covered
with sealskin.
The old clothing had a birdskin shirt and coat, trousers and boots of
sealskin; in North Greenland caribou skin coats were used in the coldest
weather. The women wore short trousers and long boots, ornamented with skin
embroidery. They wore their hair in a knot or top. For kayak hunting the
men used coats of gutskin, lashed to the kayak hole, and tied around the face
and the wrists, so as to be entirely watertight.
Nowadays the dress is much modified. The skin boots and skin trousers
are still in common use, and the women's boots and trousers have skin embroidery
in bright colors; with the large bead collar this is a handsome dress. More
and more people, however, especially in South Greenland, are now clad in
European fashion.
The West Greenlanders are clever craftsmen and were especially so in
earlier times, when they had to make all their own implements. Their most
important tools were the long-handled whittling knife and the bow drill;
those of the women were the ulu — the woman's knife with a stem and a d c urved

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blade, used for flensing, cutting the food, and parting the skins; also
the needle and various scrapers for skin preparation. The women are clever
seamstresses, especially skilled in making fine watertight boots. Now the
Greenlanders buy many of their tools in the shops.
The old social culture of the West Greenlanders was very simple. There
was no real organization above the family, no clans, no tribes, no chiefs.
At each settlement there was usually an older, experienced man, who "thought"
for the settlement and whose advice was generally followed, although there
was no obligation to do so. In the family the father was the undisputable
head. Possession of land did not exist, but the house was regarded as the
possession of the family as long as it was inhabited. Other family possessions
were the umiak, tent, and different household utensils, while the kayak, hunt–
ing gear, dog sledge, dogs, tools, and clothing were possessed by individuals.
The killed game was not the property of the hunter alone, for he had to divide
it up according to certain rules among those who had taken part in the hunt,
and among other inhabitants of the settlement. Of the big game — walrus,
whale, bear — the hunter was allowed to keep for himself only a comparatively
small part of the animal. In time of famine everyone got some part of the
meat. When there was abundance, they could gorge enormous quantities of meat,
but they could also go without food for a long time if necessary. Hospitality
toward strangers was a matter of course. Altogether the old Greenland society
was one of mutual support, with no rich and no real poor.
It was necessary for a hunter to have a wife. When a young man wished
to marry, he simply took the desired woman into his house, and she was then
expected to make some resistance, even if she did not wish to. Marriages
were often at an early age. Thus there were few unmarried people, mostly

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widows whose men had perished in kayak hunting. Polygamy was not uncommon,
and wives were often changed after short periods. The position of the women was
quite good, especially if she had sons; but childless women were little
esteemed and were often divorced. Mothers suckled their children for long
periods, and children were brought up with no restraints. They were usually
named after another person, often a deceased relative; the name was regarded
as something independent of the person, which with the death of the person
could take its place in another living being. The dead were buried in a
stone cist accompanied by some of their implements.
The religious beliefs of the West Greenlanders were rather vague,
and were influenced by the mighty and unintelligible nature around them.
Everything in nature had a soul; everything has its inua, which in a mystical
way was attached to the person or the thing. The human being has a w s oul,
which can be seen only by specially gifted people, the shamans or angakut .
In dreams it was though that the w s oul quits body and travels to distant
countries; it can be stolen by another, and if it is not restored by an
angakok, its owner will die. According to these beliefs, the soul d leaves
the body forever at death, but it exists, either in another person or in a
certain place where the souls live. Men dying in kayaks and women dying in
childbed go to a wonderful land below the earth with much sun and many seals.
Other souls go to a place high above the earth, where there are many berries
and many ravens. Here it is rather cold; they dwell in tents, and at night
they play ball with a walrus head, from which games comes the Northern Lights.
Other important beings are tornat , the helping spirits of the shamans.
There they can call on for help if people are sick, or if the hunting is bad;
the most important is tornarsuk, the master of the souls of the dead. The

EA-Anthrop. Mathiassen: Greenland Eskimos

invocation of these spirts forms part of a seance during which shaman in
a trance is supposed to see supernatural things; the drum has an important
part in these seances.
One of the most important spirts was the mother of the sea, Arnarquagseaq,
the mistress of the sea animals. She dwells at the bottom of the sea, and a
visit to her is one of the most difficult problems for the angakok ; but such
a visit is often necessary if one of the many taboo rules has been broken and
as a consequence the hunting has been bad. Sila, the weather, is another
mystical power, permeating everything. Other mystical sprits are tornit ,
the inland dwellers, and erqigtlit, the Indians; the tales about them are no
doubt allusions to ancient quarrels with other Eskimos and Indians on the
American mainland. The many tales of the Greenlanders are handed down ver–
bally from generation to generation.
Most of the old spiritual culture of the West Greenlanders has now
vanished, even if some of the old tales still survive at remote places.
After the colonization, the missionaries worked hard to exterminate all the
old religious beliefs. The West Greenland population is now Christianized,
and nearly all can read and write; they are fond of going to church, even if
the Christianity they profess is often rather superficial; It is now the
intention to teach the whole population the Danish language. In Godthaab
is a high school, where young Greenlanders receive further education; the
cleverest students are sent to Denmark to continue their education. A
number ever of the higher officials are now of Greenland extraction.

EA-Anthrop. Mathiassen: Greenland Eskimos

The East Greenlanders
The East Greenlanders, numbering about 1,300, inhabit the east coast
of Greenland, most of them (about 1,100) in Angmagssalik District; in 1925
a group of Angmagssaliks was moved to Scoresby Sound, and in later years
another group settled at Skjoldungen on the stretch between Angmagssalik
and Cape Farewell.
Graah, the first white man to penetrate the east coast north of Lindenow
Fjord, in 1829, did not reach Angmagssalik, but had much intercourse with the
Eskimos, numbering about 500, who then inhabited this coast. It was Gustav
Holm, who on his famous umiak expedition of 1884 first reached Angmagssalik
and wintered there. Owing to the works of Holm and Thalbitzer, the Angmag–
ssaliks are one of the best known Eskimo tribes. A trading post was first
established among them in 1894 and they came under Danish government. The
main settlement is now the colony Angmagssalik with about 100 inhabitants;
they also inhabit about 20 smaller settlements, of which only there are
permanent, with school, the others changing from year to year.
The culture of the Angmagssalik Eskimos seems to have been derived from
that of the West Greenlanders, but from a rather old stage of it. From the
evidence of archaeology, the Angmagssalikers probably migrated from the
west coast in the 17th or 18th century. Since then they have lived a rather
isolated life, having had only a little communication with the West Greenlanders
at the "market place" at Aluk near Cape Farewell, where people from the two
coasts often met and exchanged goods. But this did not prevent a distinct
local cultural development in Angmagssalik.
When Holm arrived at Angmagssalik, the annual hunting cycle was as
follows: In the spring basking seals were hunted on the ice; in June nearly

EA-Anthrop. Mathiassen: Greenland Eskimos

the whole population gathered for capelin fishing at a place in Angmagssalik
Fjord, and then they moved to the tenting places, hunting bladdernose and
fjord seals from kayaks. When the ice was formed seals were caught at the
breathing holes. Often this hunt was made by two men, one of them lying
down, looking for the seal through the hole, the other holding a long harpoon
with a fixed but movable head, thrusting it when the other man called out.
The kayak and its implements also differ in some respects from those of West
Greenland; the kayak here is broader, the float consists of two small sealskins,
and the lance is thrown without a throwing board.
The large common house, used in West Greenland in the 18th century, is
still in use in Angmagssalik; usually there is a small entry instead of a
passageway, and the windows have glass panes. In recent years more and more
of the younger hunters are building smaller houses of West Greenland type.
The old household utensils were lamp and cooking pot of soapstone, water
pails and urine bowls of good coopery work, blubber and meat trays of wood.
Fire was made by drilling in wood, for driftwood is rather abundant on this
coast. Most of the old utensils are still in use, but are more and more
disappearing as the use of purchased manufactured articles increases.
The umiak is still used. The dog sledge is small, fitted for traveling
over mountainous land, as the sea ice is often unsuited for sledge travel.
The clothing is of sealskin. In the house men and women formerly went
almost naked, wearing only a small triangular piece of skin, called a n a â tit ,
between the legs. Out of doors the women wore visors, short trousers and
long boots. When kayak hunting the men wore caps with visors in European
fashion, made of foxskin or embroidered sealskin; they also wore a hair-band,
and crosswise on chest and back they had a sealskin thong carrying amulets.

EA-Anthrop. Mathiassen: Greenland Eskimos

Women wore their hair in a big knot on top of the head. The women were
very clever at skin embroidery, made of dark and light skins in different
patterns.
The most conspicuous thing about Angmagssalik implements is their
ornamentation. Small figures of bone and ivory are nailed on many wooden
object; throwing boards, water sails, meat trays, tool boxes, and the
beautiful eye-shades; the figures depicted are mostly seals, but there are
also whales, men, kayaks, or geometrical figures. Figures of men, animals,
and spirits are carved out of wood, often with great skill. Also maps are
sometimes cut out in wood.
The drum was of great importance; it was used not only as accompaniment
when they sang their old songs, but also in the drum dance, their way of
settling quarrels: two men (or women) take turns in singing lampoons about
each other to the accompaniment of the drum, while the whole population of
the settlement listens; the idea is to get the listeners to laugh and in this
way cast scorn upon the opponents. Such a drum fight can l a st for weeks,
until one of the contestants becomes tired and gives up, an effective and
bloodless way of settling disputes. Earlier, murder and violence were very
common, and blood vengeance feuds were often carried on from generation to
generation.
The religious beliefs of the Angmagssalik people are in the main the
same as the West Greenlanders', with local variations.
Altogether the Angmagssalikers live in a more old-fashioned way than
the West Greenlanders, and here are still often found old cultural elements
which elsewhere have disappeared. There have been no such economic changes as have
occurred in later years in West Greenland. There has been, however, a certain

EA-Anthrop. Mathiassen: Greenland Eskimos

influence from the West Greenlanders, who dwell in Angmagssalik as priests,
teachers, craftsmen, etc. This can be seen in house building, clothing,
and in many other ways. All the Angmagssalikers are now Christianized,
but the old people still remember much of their old beliefs and their old
tales. Seal hunting remains the principal occupation, and we can still see
in Angmagssalik a good deal of the old Greenland life among a nearly pure
Eskimo population.

EA-Anthrop. Mathiassen: Greenland Eskimos

BIBLIOGRAPHY

1. Birket-Smith, Kaj. "The Greenlanders of the Present Day." In
Greenland , Vol.II, Copenhagen, 1928.

2. ----. "Ethnography of the Egedesminde District." Medd. Om Grønland ,
vol. 66, 1924.

3. Cranz, D. Historie von Grönland, I-III, Barby, 1770.

4. Egede, Hans. Det gamle Gronlands nye Perlustration eller Naturel–
Historie
, Copenhagen, 1741.

5. Fabricius, O. "Nøiagtig Beskrivelse av alle Grønlendernes Fange–
Redskaber ved Selhunde-Fangsten." Kgl. Danske Videnskabernes
Saskab Skrivter , [: ] Vol. V. 1818.

6. ----. "Nøiagtig Beskrivelse over Grønlendernes Landdyr-, Fugle- og
Fiske-Fangst med dertil hørende Redskaber." Kgl.D.Vid.Selsk.
Skr., Vol.VI, 1818.

7. Hansen, Søren. "Bidrag til Vestgrønlendernes Anthropologi," M.O.G.
Vol. VII, 1893.

8. Holm, Gustav. "Ethnologisk Skizze af Angmagssalikerne." M.O.G. vol.10,
1887.

9. Holtved, Erik. Polareskimoer , Copenhagen, 1942.

10. Kroeber, A.L. "The Eskimo of Smith Sound." Bull . American Mus.Nat.Hist.,
Vol.12, 1900.

11. Mathiassen, Therkel. "Prehistory of the Angmagssalik Eskimos." M.O.G.,
Vol.92, Pt. 2, 1933.

12. Mikkelsen, Ejnar. De østgrønlandske Eskimoers Historie, Copenhagen, 1934.

13. Mylius-Erichsen, L., and Moltke, Earald. Grønland, Copenhagen, 1906.

14. Mansen, Fridtjof. Eskimoliv , Kristiania, 1891.

15. Porsild, M.P. "Studies of the Material Culture of the Eskimo in West
Greenland," M.O.G., vol.51, 1915.

16. Rasmussen, Kund. Nye Mennesker. Copenhagen, 1905.

17. ----. Grønland langs Polhavet , Copenhagen, 1919.

18. ----. Myter og Sagn fra Gronland , Vols. I-III, Copenhagen, 1921-25.

19. Rink, H. Eskimoiske Eventyr og Sagn , Vols. I-II, Copenhagen, 1866-71.

EA-Anthrop. Mathiassen: Greenland Eskimos

20. Steensby, H.P. "An Anthropogeographical Study of the Origin of the
Eskimo Culture," M.O.C. , vol.53, 1916.

21. ----. "Contribution to the Ethnology and Anthropogeography of the
Polar Eskimos," M.O.G., vol. 34, 1910.

22. ----. "Ethnografiske og antropogeografiske Rejsestudier i Nord–
grønland," M.O.G., vol.50, 1909.

23. Thalbitzer, W. "The Ammassalik Eskimo," M.O.G., vols. 39-40, 1914 and 1923.

24. ----. Grønlandske Sagn om Eskimoernes Fortid , Stockholm, 1913.
Eskimoernes kultiske Guddomme. Studier fra Sprog og Oldtidafor–
skning
, Copenhagen, 1926.

Therkel Mathiassen
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