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    The Copper Eskimos

    Encyclopedia Arctica 8: Anthropology and Archeology

    The Copper Eskimos

    001      |      Vol_VIII-0048                                                                                                                  

    [Diamond Jenness]


            In historical times the Copper Eskimos occupied the mainland coast of Arctic

    Canada between approximately longitudes 102° w. and 118° W., as well as the

    southern and western coasts of the adjacent Victoria Island and the southern

    end of Banks Island. Like the Indians immediately south of them, they re–

    ceived the appelation "Copper" because in many of their tools and weapons they

    substituted the natural copper they picked up on the surface of the ground for

    the stone that other Eskimos were using prior to the introduction of iron by

    Europeans. Another name, "Blond" Eskimos, given to them occasionally in former

    years, is now generally discarded. It arose from the belief of Vilhjalmur

    Stefansson that a certain percentage of them had lighter eyes and hair, and

    features more European-like, than the Eskimos he had encountered in the Mac–

    kenzie River Delta and in Alaska, traits which suggested to him the possi–

    bility of early Scandinavian (Viking) admisture. This theory, however, has

    not as yet been substantiated, and Stefansson himself in his writings has pre–

    ferred the more usual term "Copper Eskimos."

            Samuel Hearne was the first European to come in contact with this arctic

    group. In 1771 he journeyed with a party of Chipewyan Indians from Churchill

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    EA-Anthrop. Jenness: Copper Eskimos

    to the mouth of the Coppermine River, where his companions ruthlessly mas–

    sacred a small band of Copper Eskimos near a place now known as Bloody Fall.

    The next white man to fall in with them was Captain (afterwards Sir John)

    Franklin when he surveyed the southern shore of Coronation Gulf in 1821. After

    Franklin's day they were visited by several explorers, and even by two or three

    traders, but no one attempted to make a detailed study of their customs until

    Stefansson traveled through the western portion of their territory in 1910 and

    1911. Part of a Canadian expedition which he led to the Arctic again in 1913

    then wintered for two years in Dolphin and Union Strait, and in Volumes XII

    to XVI of the reports of that expedition its ethnologist, Jenness, greatly ampli–

    fied Stefansson's earlier description. Finally, Knud Rasmussen, leader of the

    Danish Fifth Thule Expedition to the west coast of Hudson Bay in 1921-24,

    lingered among the eastern Copper Eskimos during his long sled journey [ ?]

    across arctic America to Alaska, and he, too, has given us a most illuminat–

    ing account of their religion and folklore.

            The Copper Eskimos were not a very numerous group. Jenness estimated their

    number at between 700 and 800, scattered in groups of from 20 to 100 in dif–

    ferent districts. The census of 1941, just 25 years later, made it 682. Whether

    it ever exceeded this figure, which gives a ratio of about 1 person to every

    4 miles of coast line, is unknown. Certain bands had traditions of depopula–

    tion, and remains of Copper Eskimo habitations have been found beyond the limits

    of their a wanderings in recent times; but these clues are too faint to warrant

    any conclusion.

            To Stefansson and Jenness coming from the west, and, though to a lesser

    extent, to Rasmussen coming from Greenland and Hudson Bay, there were many

    peculiarities of life among the Copper Eskimos, in addition to their use of

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    EA-Anthrop. Jenness: Copper Eskimos

    copper, that set them off from Eskimos elsewhere. Thus they lacked the large

    open traveling boat or umiak , and they never used the smaller one-man kayak for

    hunting seals. Harpoon heads, fishhooks, knives, and other tools and weapons

    had unfamiliar shapes, pottery was unknown, and the soapstone cooking pots and

    lamps were unlike those made in other regions. The clothing, which, as usual,

    was tailored principally from caribou fur, followed a local style nearer,

    perhaps, to Hudson Bay styles than to Alaskan; and the only winter dwellings

    were the quickly perishable snowhouses. The latter were often grouped together

    in unusual patterns, never had cooking porches, and were never lined with skins

    as in parts of Hudson Bay.

            Environment could conceivably explains a few of these peculiariaties.

    The waters around Coronation Gulf are too sheltered to harbor the whales, wal–

    ruses, and belugas that are fairly abundant from the Mackenzie Delta westward,

    and again in Hudson Bay; hence, one would not [ ?] expect the Copper Eskimos

    to possess the special appliances, or to practice the special rites, associated

    with the hunting [ ?] of those sea mammals in other regions. Again, they could

    hardly build permanent houses of whale bones and sod, such as were common in

    the Hudson Bay region, since there were virtually no whales; nor could they

    build log cabins like those prevalent in the Mackenzie Delta and Alaska, because

    there are no trees along the arctic coast and only a negligible quantity of

    driftwood ever reached their shores. Environment, however, does not explain

    why they never hunted seals from kayaks during the summer months, nor why they

    failed to build houses of stone. There are some ruined stone houses in their

    territory, it is true, but archaeology has shown that these were left by an

    earlier people.

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    EA-Anthrop. Jeness: Copper Eskimos

            The most noticeable of their peculiarities, their replacing of stone by

    copper, was conditioned, of course, by the occurrence of float copper near the

    banks of the Coppermine River. It is interesting to observe that the Copper

    Eskimos of the 20th century never used stone for knife blades, or for spear and

    arrow points, nor did they recollect they forefathers had ever done so;

    yet Hearne noticed that half the arrow points of the Bloody Fall natives were

    of stone. It would seem, therefore, that the metal grew in popularity during

    the last two centuries. [ ?] The copper Eskimos can hardly have discovered for

    themselves that it could serve as a malleable stone, for their predecessors in

    southwest Victoria Island, a Thule-culture Eskimo group who apparently arrived

    there from the west, had used copper in one or two implements; and near Iglulik,

    in the north of Hudson Bay, Rowley discovered some fragments of copper in remains

    of the Dorset Eskimo culture that must date back eight or more centuries. Even

    these earlier Eskimos were probably not its discoverers, for the Indians of the

    Mackenzie River Basin have been familiar with copper for several centuries, and

    those around Lake Michigan were mining it during the first millenium A.D.

            It was the environment that limited the food resources of the region.

    Seals were not particularly plentiful, caribou and fish were seasonal and also

    not over-abundant, musk oxen scarce, and edible roots and berries almost non–

    existent. Life was an unbroken round of sealing on the frozen sea ice during

    the winter and spring months, fishing in late spring and again in the fall,

    and caribou hunting during the brief summer. In some districts every fifth winter

    or so was a time of scarcity, every fifteen th winter of famine.

            The limited food supply made the communities or bands small and unstable.

    Twenty or thirty families might build their snow huts side by side during the

    winter, but they dispersed during the spring and early summer to roam the land

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    EA-Anthrop. Jenness: Copper Eskimos

    as single units, or in tiny groups of two or three families together, and the

    composition of the next winter's community in that locality was generally rather

    different. Many communities in the western Arctic, and also in the eastern, were

    both larger and more enduring than any which existed among the Copper Eskimos,

    simply because the food resources were more abundant.

            The lack of any organization in these communities was characteristically

    Eskimo. There were no chiefs, no persons in authority. Individuals owned the

    things they could make for themselves, e.g., knives, cooking vessels, etc.; but

    the land was common property, and the food it yielded was shared by all alike.

    There were no ceremonies at funerals, and none at marriage. The latter took place

    at an early age, but the union was quite unstable until a child was born,

    when it generally lasted for life. Polygamy was uncommon, partly because males

    preponderated over females in the population, partly because it was not easty

    for a hunter to support more than one wife; and polyandry was discouraged because

    it invariably led to quarrels and murder, thereby instigating new blood feuds. A

    subdued tone of uneasiness pervaded every community because of these constantly

    recurring blood feuds, which, here as elsewhere, constituted the foulest blot on

    Eskimo social life. In conjunction with the practice of infanticide, especially

    of girl babies, and the hazards of life generally, it effectively counterbalanced

    a fairly high birth rate, the fecundity of the Copper Eskimos being no less,

    apparently, than that of other races.

            We remarked earlier that the Copper Eskimos lacked the beliefs and prac–

    tices associated with whaling that were current among the natives in both the

    eastern and western Arctic. Like all Eskimos, nevertheless, they denizened the

    universe with a multitude of spirits that were presumed to control the phenomena

    of nature and the abundance of game. Rasmussen thought that a few philosophers

    among them had attained to the conception of a supreme deity; but this is by no

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    EA-Anthrop. Jenness: Copper Eskimos

    means certain, since they may have derived the idea from missionaries and

    their converts who were active in the area for several years before Rasmussen's

    visit. They did, however, recognize a sky god, though they thought him too

    remote to interfere very actively in human affairs; and they possessed the

    Sedna myth of the eastern Arctic, the belief in a female deity at the bottom

    of the sea who regulated the supply of seals. Perhaps the most solemn ceremony

    in their [ ?] lives was their formal intoning of prayers to this deity during

    periods of winter famine. Any native, man or woman, might obtain a personal

    spirit helper and set up in practice as a shaman, but his influence and prestige

    depended entirely on his charater and his powers of leadership. Numerous

    taboos were prevalent, as one would expect in a primitive people. Some were

    permanent and handed down from generation to generation, others temporary,

    imposed by the shamans for a period only; but the personal taboos that were

    so marked a feature of life in the Mackenzie Delta and in northern Alaska were

    conspicuously absent. Closely associated with the taboos was a ritual dis–

    tinction, made also by the Hudson Bay natives though not by the western ones,

    between products that were derived from the sea and those that came from the land.

            The Alaskan natives often consumed one or two whole evenings in narrating

    a single folk tale; but the Copper S E skimos, who were less addicted to this

    form of entertainment, commonly clipped their tales, giving only the high

    lights and leaving most of the details to the imaginations of their listeners.

    In this respect, as well as in the contents of their tales, they resembled

    more closely the natives of Hudson Bay. Their dancing, too, the music of their

    songs, and the large tambourines that accomp a nied their singing and dancing,

    were eastern in style rather than western; and they indulged in the song contests

    that evoked such bitter rivalry in Greenland, but were unknown in the western

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    EA-Anthrop. Jenness: Copper Eskimos

    Arctic. Art, if we exclude the ornamentation of fur clothing, was little

    developed as compared with other regions; but this may not have been due to lack

    of talent, for one could find a few simple figures of fish and birds that were

    quite neatly carved in bone.

            The dialect spoken by the Copper Eskimos was, on the whole, intermediate

    between those of north Alaska and of Hudson Bay. It had the eastern tendency to

    nasalization, and to the substitution of the softer voiced consonants for the

    harder voiceless ones; but it lacked some of the eastern sound changes — e.g.,

    rn in place of nr ; and it retained the western too conjugation endings in many


            From the description given above it is evident that the Copper Eskimos

    were somewhat nearer akin to the natives of the eastern Arctic than to those

    of the western. Their own traditions were silent about their origin. They

    knew that they were not the first inhabitants of the area around Coronation

    Gulf, for here and there were traces of an earlier people, a people who had

    lived in stone houses, or in houses made of wood and sods, of which the ruins

    were visible in several places. Unlike the Copper Eskimos, these people

    occasionally hunted the whale in open skin boats, made many cooking vessels

    of pottery [ ?] in place of stone, and used so little copper in their tools and

    weapons that they could almost be said to have been ignorant of that metal.

    Jenness has shown that they were probably estern Eskimos, and has suggested

    that they may have retreated to the west again when the narriw waters of Coro–

    nation Gulf proved unsuitable for whales. He thinks the Copper Eskimos who

    displaced [ ?] or succeeded them came from the south, where they constituted the

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    EA-Anthrop. Jenness: Copper Eskimos

    outermost wing of a horde of inland Eskimos who, 500 to 600 years ago, streamed

    out of the barren lands east of Great Bear and Great Slave Lakes and took

    possession of the littoral of Hudson Bay, a few of them even reaching Greenland.

    This theory of their origin is now widely accepted, because it accounts more

    readily than any other for their lack of umiaks, their ignorance of the hunt–

    ing of seals from kayaks, and their rather close resemblance to the present–

    day Eskimos of Hudson Bay.

            In the days of Stefansson and Jenness the Copper Eskimos still wore the

    same style of clothing as their forefathers, and used the same tools and weapons.

    The quarter ce n tury that has elapsed since that time has brought many changes.

    Bows and arrows have disappeared, for every man now owns a high-powered [ ?]

    rifle. Iron and steel are so plentiful that copper has gone entirely out of

    use. The snow but still holds its own, but there are many frame houses also,

    while the cloth tent has largely displaced for summer use the former tent of

    seal or caribou skin. The old caribou-fur clothing is still much preferred

    for winter wear, but it has taken on a western [ ?] cut that is much less pic–

    turesque than the original, and in summer practically all the natives now wear

    garments of wool and cotton. Kayaks, always scarce, have vanished completely,

    but there are numerous canoes and even a few motorboats. Nearly all Copper

    Eskimo families now possess sewing machines, and many have radios and gramo–

    phones also.

            Nor is it only the material culture that has changed. The whole manner

    of life has been revolutionized since 1916, when the Hudson's Bay Company estab–

    lished the first permanent trading post in their midst and diverted their

    energies to the trapping of foxes and other fur-bearing animals. For trapping

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    EA-Anthrop. Jenness: Copper Eskimos

    is profitable only on land, and then only during the winter months when the

    furs of animals are in their prime. The Eskimos had therefore to modify the

    yearly cycle of their lives. Whereas in earlier times they used to spend the

    months from April to November on the land, hunting caribou and fishing for

    trout and salmon, then in winter erect their snow huts on the sea ice and

    hunt seals, today they shorten their stay on the sea ice in order to trap

    foxes along the shore, and some of them have given up sealing altogether,

    except during the summer season of open water [ ?] when they can shoot the animals

    from canoes. Furthermore, since foxes cannot replace seals for meat and oil,

    the Copper Eskimos, like their kinsmen elsewhere, are now consuming consider–

    able quantities of imported foods, particularly flour, sugar, and tea; and

    for cooking their meals they frequently use primus lamps that burn coal oil

    instead of the old saucer-shaped lamps that burned seal blubber. Since the

    construction of a small airplane landing field at the mouth of the Coppermine

    River, more than one sophisticated native has gazed on his ancestral hunting

    grounds from the level of the clouds.

            Hand in hand with these economic changes have gone a few changes in the

    social life. Intervention by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police has effectively

    discouraged murder (including infanticide) and the practice of the blood feud,

    thus increasing the security of life. The Copper Eskimos no longer fear to

    travel far afield, to visit distant places like the Mackenzie River Delta, or

    to associate with the once dreaded Indians of Great Bear Lake. The family —

    the man, his wife, and their children — has remained the fundamental unit of

    society, for such a unit does not readily change; but the old grouping into

    bands, each bearing a definite name and restricting itself to a definite district,

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    EA-Anthrop. Jenness: Copper Eskimos

    has gone out of existence now that every man feels free to hunt and set up

    his fox traps wherever he wishes, provided he does not encroach too closely

    on his neighbor's trap line. The compact winter villages of the bands, with

    their contiguous snow huts from which the hunters and their dogs marched out

    each morning to hunt seals, have been largely replaced by the single dwellings

    of trappers — some of them log cab i ns — spaced at intervals along the coast.

    The Copper Eskimo is becoming more individualistic now that he is confronted

    with new ideas of property that are not easily reconciled with his former

    communistic practices. Even the simple amenities of life have changed.

    Western Eskimos and half-breeds have brought in new pastimes and new dance

    forms, and the church services of the missionaries have replaced — publicly

    at least — the seances of the shamans. Many of the old religious beliefs

    and taboos still survive no doubt, but they have been largely submerged be–

    neath the newly accepted Christianity.

            In one respe c t, contact with the outside world has brought unqualified

    calamity. Prior to the 20th century the Copper Eskimos appear to havebeen

    free from all but two diseases, simple colds that attacked them when they

    moved from their drafty summer tents into the rather stuffy snow huts, and

    some internal malady that has [ ?] never been diagnosed, but may have been

    appendicitis. In 1926 influenza was introduced amongst them and carried off,

    according to one estimate, nearly 20% of the population. About the same

    time white traders were responsible for the appearance of a few cases of

    syphilis and gonorrhoea; fortunately[?], they did not persist. Tuberculosis,

    however, did take root, and in 1930-31 attained such virulence that of the

    100 or so natives who were then wintering around the mouth of the Coppermine

    River no less than 20 died within 8 months.

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    EA-Anthrop. Jenness: Copper Eskimos

            Tragic has been the history of the family with which Jenness wandered

    around southwestern Victoria Island in the summer of 1915. His adopted mother

    Icehouse was a victim of the influenza epidemic of 1926. Ikpuck, his father,

    was suffering from tuberculosis in 1930, but was able to remain active up to

    his disappearance during a hunting trip two years later. Of Icehouse's two

    children the elder, a male, was reported to be in good health as late as

    1940; but the younger, Jennie, wasted away with tuberculosis in 1931, at

    the age of about 27, after two of her three children had perished from the

    same disease and her husband had contracted it also. Jennie knew that her days

    were numbered, and only three months before herd death she radioed a message

    to her "brother" Jenness from the wireless station that had just been erected

    at Coppermine. Translated the message read" It would make me very happy if

    you would visit us next summer when the warm weather arrives. I will make

    you a fur coat if you come. But I may not live until then. I do not know."


    Diamond Jenness

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