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Eskimo, a littoral race occupying the entire Arctic coast and outlying islands of America from below Cook Inlet in Alaska to the mouth of the St. Lawrence, a distance of more than five thousand miles, including the coasts of Labrador, Baffin Land, and Ellesmere Land, with the west and southeast coasts of Greenland, the northern shores of Hudson Bay, and the Aleutian Islands, while one body, the Yuit, has even crossed Bering Strait, and is now permanently established on the extreme point of Siberia. Traditional and historical evidence go to show that the Eskimo formerly extended considerably farther south along Hudson Bay and the St. Lawrence, and perhaps even into New England. With the exception of the Aleut, who differ very considerably from the rest, the various small bands scattered throughout the vast stretch of territory are practically homogeneous, both linguistically and ethnologically, indicating long ages of slow development under similar and highly specialized conditions. In physique they are of medium stature, but strong and hardy, with yellow-brown skin and features, suggesting the Mongolian rather than the Indian, although there is no reason to suppose them of other than American origin. The only apparent admixture with the Indian occurs on their extreme southern frontier in Alaska. Owing to their constant exposure in the chilling waters, they are not long-lived. In character they are generally peaceable, cheerful, and honest, but with the common savage disregard of morality. The Aleut of the Alaskan peninsula and the Aleutian Islands speak a distinct language in two dialects, while all the others, including the Yuit of Siberia, speak practically but one language, in several dialects. The name by which they are commonly known is derived from an Algonkian term signifying "eaters of raw flesh". They call themselves Inuit, in various dialectic forms, meaning simply "people".
Living in a land of perpetual snow and ice, the Eskimo depend entirely upon hunting and fishing for a living, while the seafaring habit has made them perhaps the most expert and daring boatmen in the world. In summer they hunt the caribou and musk-ox on land; in winter they hunt the seal and polar bear in the water or on the ice floes. In travelling by sledge, and to some extent in hunting and sealing, they rely much upon an intelligent breed of dogs trained to harness. Their houses are grouped into little settlements never more than a day's journey from the ocean. Those for temporary summer use are generally simple tents of deer or seal-skin. Their winter homes are either subterranean excavations roofed over with sod and earth laid upon a framework of timber or whale ribs, or are dome-shaped structures built of blocks cut from the hardened snow, with passage-ways and smaller rooms of the same material, with sheets of clear ice for windows. The roof of the snowhouse is sometimes lined on the inside with skins to prevent dripping from the melting snow. Besides the bed platforms extending around the sides of the rooms, with the spears, harpoons, and other hunting equipment, the most important items of furniture are the stone lamps, fed with whale oil, for heating, lighting, and cooking purposes. The characteristic woman's tool is the ulu or skin-dressing knife.
Their clothing is of skins with the hair outside, or of the intestinal membranes of the larger sea animals, there being little difference between the costumes of men and women. Tattooing is common among the women, labrets are used in some tribes, but trinkets are seldom worn and the face is not painted. Their food consists of meat and fish, commonly boiled in a stone kettle, with an abundance of blubber and oil, together with berries gathered in the short summer season. From lack of running water, crowded quarters, and greasy environment, they are as a rule extremely filthy in person and habit. They are very ingenious and expert in the dressing of skins, the shaping of their fishing and hunting implements, and the construction of their skin canoes; they also display great artistic instinct and ability in the carving of designs in walrus ivory. The peculiar Eskimo kaiak or skin boat, made of dressed seal hides stretched around a framework of whale ribs or wood, with an opening in the top only large enough to accommodate the sitting body of one man, is one of the most perfect contrivances in the world for water travel, being light, swift, and practically unsinkable. It is propelled by means of a double paddle. The sledge is commonly a frame-work of drift-wood, but is sometimes made from the rib bones of whales, or even of a cigar-shaped mass of dried salmon wrapped in skins and frozen solid. The social organization is very simple, each little village community being usually distinct and independent from the others, with little of tribal cohesion or chiefly authority, the head man being rather an adviser than a ruler. Established custom, however, has all the force of law. The bond of affection between parent and children is very strong, children being seldom corrected or punished, and old people being held in respect. Monogamy is the rule, but polygamy and polyandry are sometimes found. Violations of law, including murder, are punished by the injured individual or his nearest relations.
Their religion, like that of most primitive peoples, is a simple animism, interpreted by the angakoks or medicine-men and enforced by numerous taboos. All the powers of nature, animate and inanimate, on sea and land, are invoked or propitiated as the occasion arises. A special deity in the central region is an old woman of the sea, who presides over storms and sea-animals, the latter having been created from her own fingers. Some tribes believe in two souls, one of which remains near the dead body until it can enter that of a little child, while the other goes to one of several soul lands, either above or below the earth. There are numerous hunting and eating taboos and ceremonial precautions. Singing, music, story-telling, hand-games, mask-dances, and athletic competitions make up a large part of the home life. A peculiar institution among the central and eastern tribes is that of the so-called "nith song" (Norse nith, contention), or duel of satire, in which two rivals exhaust upon each other their capacity for ridicule until one or the other is declared victor by the company.
The history of the Eskimo goes back beyond the Columbian period as far at least as their first contact with the Scandinavians about the year 1000, almost simultaneously in Greenland and on the coast of Labrador or New England. They do not seem to have approached the neighborhood of the Scandinavian settlements in South Greenland until about the end of the thirteenth century. In 1379 they made their first attack upon the Greenland colony, and a war began, of which all details are lost, but which ended in the complete destruction of the colony towards the close of the next century, so that even the way to Greenland was entirely forgotten, and on the second discovery of the island in 1585, by Davis, it was found occupied only by Eskimo, who remained in sole possession until the second colonization from Denmark in 1721, under the leadership of the missionary Hans Egede. Since then most of the Greenland Eskimo have been gradually civilized and Christianized under Lutheran and Moravian auspices.
In 1752 a Moravian missionary party made a landing on the Eskimo coast of Labrador, but was at once attacked by the natives, who killed six of them. In 1771, however, they attempted a mission settlement at Nain, this time with success, Nain now being the chief station on the Labrador coast, with five other subordinate stations, counting altogether some 1200 Christian Eskimo. Regular mission work in Alaska was begun among the Aleut by the Russian Orthodox church in 1794, resulting in a few years in the complete Christianization of the Aleut, who had already, however, been terribly reduced by the wanton cruelty of the fur traders. Russian mission work is still carried on successfully both on the islands and along the west coast of Alaska. Protestant workers entered the field about 1880, beginning with the Presbyterians, followed successively by the Moravians, Episcopalians, the Swedish Evangelical Union, Congregationalists, Lutherans, and Friends, numbering now altogether about fifteen stations along the Eskimo coast of Alaska, besides others among the neighboring Indians. Of special note in connection with this work is the successful introduction of Siberian reindeer by Rev. Sheldon Jackson, Presbyterian, under government patronage, to supplement the diminishing food supply of the natives. In 1865 the noted Oblate missionary explorer Father Emil Petitot, descending the Mackenzie, visited the Eskimo at the mouth of the Anderson River on the Arctic coast of the British North-West, preached to them, and afterwards to those at the mouths of Mackenzie and Peel Rivers, and crossed over in 1870 into Alaska. Among the ethnologic results of his work in this region are a grammar and vocabulary of the Tchighit Eskimo (Paris, 1876). In 1886 the Jesuits entered Alaska, establishing their first mission among the Indians at Nulato on the Yukon, and proceeding later to the Eskimo, among whom they have now a number of flourishing stations, the principal being those of Holy Cross (Koserefsky), St. Mary's (Akularak), and one at Nome. They are assisted by the Sisters of St. Anne and the Lamennais Brothers, and count some 1300 converts among the Eskimo, exclusive of Indians. The Eskimo grammar and dictionary of Father Francis Barnum, S.J. (1901) ranks as standard. No permanent mission work has ever been attempted by any denomination along the Arctic and Hudson Bay coast from Alaska to Labrador (see Alaska). The total number of Eskimo is estimated at about 29,000, viz. Greenland 11,000; Labrador 1400; Central Region 1100; Alaska Eskimo proper 13,000; Aleut 1000; Yuit of Siberia 1200.