21 NOVEMBER 1952, Page 15

Twilight of a People


THIS is the story of the twilight of a people*. The time is the present—the mid-twentieth century, that has seen the twilight of so many peoples. Their habitat is that vast area of the Canadian Arctic which runs from the Northern fringe of the forest-end to the shores of the Arctic Ocean. It is a tale told with real compassion, unsullied by any brittle sentiment, for the writer loves this land fiercely, and has taken up the cause of those who live in it as a crusade. People ask me wonderingly what attraction there can pos- sibly be in the barrens of sub-Arctic Canada. As I look back more than a decade, into my own recollection, on a year spent among the people of Baffin Land, the answer comes readily—the weird, vivid beauty or the Far North and the charm and mystery of its people. Time has its own alchemy which can efface the hard memories and leave only pleasant ones. The images may even suffer change, for the hand of time can mould as well as smooth. But my clearest memories are of the orb of a blood-red sun, without heat or kindness, poised above an undulating horizon of snow, with the breath of the husky dogs rising in orange clouds in the dawn. A sky of still pale gold, as daylight faded and the hollows filled with ,shadows, over a land wrapt in silence. That silence is not ;merely the absence of noise, but the absence of anything that can create noise. For it is a land where beasts are few and men are fewer. With it all was the feeling of being a tiny. spark of human life in that vast hyperborean waste, a spark so pitifully easy to extinguish as perhaps not to be worth the universe's trouble—where man is a plodding gnome whose footprints the next snowfall will obliterate as if they had never been, and which could obliterate him as easily, and with as little trace.

But the winter land is not dead, but sleeping. Spring comes like a miracle, and with it light and the return of sound to the world. And the land lives wildly and prodigally, know- ing that its waking hours will be short. Then the sea-ice rends and cracks and breaks off in pieces, like vast lily-pads, which rock and grind, backwards, and forwards, on the long tides of Hudson's Strait. The air is full of the noise of birds and of tumbling streams. You cast off winter clothes, and the sun is warm on your face, and there comes the faint but delec- table smell of moorland. For a handful of months the Prince of Darkness is banished and the Prince of Light reigns. The Lord of Flies unleashes mosquitos in tormenting myriads. Fish run up the steep white waters of the little rivers, and the clamour of the nesting birds never stills. ' From the earth, from the sea and from. the warm South living things have swarmed to this north land basking in its short summer.

But this high latitude could not, by itself, engrave so deep a memory were it not for its people. For, with the Eskimos, You feel that you are with men who are as all men were when the world was young—men who are so remote from us that they cannot comprehend many of our everyday acts of evil; men who never tell a lie, because a lie is an artificial thing and something which, to their minds, a sane man could not Contrive. They are a people who are meticulously polite, because it makes life more pleasurable; beings whose minds have remarkable depths, for a man does not write the things down on paper but must store them in his memory. And, moreover, they speak a language so rich and so varied that beside it English is a mere primitive dialect. They have their * People of the Deer, by Farley.Mowat. (Michael Joseph. 15s.) vices. But they are the vices on which we are wont to look leniently, as being the vices of the very young. They are deeply affectionate. Parents adore their children, and the young are thoughful of their elders. But, when the rigours of their harsh life demand that a choice must be made between .the interests of the strong and weak, the interests of the strong must prevail. For without the hands of the hunter, to wring a living from the land, all life would be lost, and its silence would become eternal.

They call themselves the Innuit, which some translate as " the people." Not the word that we have come to know that has been so pawed by the hands of unctuous politicians in search of votes; or tarnished by the tongues of tyrants who endlessly talk of " peoples' democracies " and " peoples' courts," as if a lick of paint could give a gloss to tyranny. But the Eskimo uses the word in all its eternal simplicity— meaning " mankind." • Into this world went Farley Mowat, short of stature but great of heart, and with eyes to see and a heart to feel. He is young, but just old enough to have served with great distinction in a Canadian battalion during the last war. For that I can vouch, for I commanded that Canadian Battalion. But the war had left its mark on him. He sought, by going into that distant world, to find fellowship with the whole world again. What he found he has put into writing of great beauty. Much of it is reminiscent of W. H. Hudson, and, in power of descrip- tion, it falls not far short of the incomparable R. L. S. His Eskimos were not, as were mine, dwellers on the shores of the Arctic seas, but men who lived so many days' travel from the coast that they could not know of the seas' existence.

In that great ocean of land, without track or tree, strewn with rock that has been splintered small by the frosts of cen- turies, and which shakes itself clear of snow for only a short few months of scorching fly-ridden summer, he came to the River of Men and all that remained of the People of the Deer —a dwindling handful of a once numerous and virile Eskimo race. Here they lived and hunted and wandered beside the rivers, and the little lost lakes that lie in the folds of rock and in the hollows of many-hued mosses. All the Eskimos are simple and forthcoming, but it was his genuine and unconde- scending sympathy that made him free of their secret thoughts, for it allowed him to see life through their eyes. But he was still human enough to fly into a white man's rage when an Eskimo borrowed his rifle without asking—the precious rifle that he carried since the battles of Sicily.

The great secret of his comprehension of this remote people was that he never saw himself as being superior to them. He threw himself into mastering their unbelievably profuse and tortuous language. It was only in their innermost secrets, their magic rites, that they showed even a trace of diffidence; as a child might be diffident in showing the most kindly stranger its special treasures. Above all, the author is free from that most tiresome of present-day mannerisms, the desire to compare incomparable things, with the idea of arriving at a sterile conclusion of which is better or worse, instead of accepting the fact of their difference. .This is probably the finest book ever written about the Eskimo peoples. All art is a mirror of life, and this mirror has few flaws. From them he learned the story of the dwindling of the deer and the dwindling of the people. He writes of what he saw in their own idiom. With them he saw a silent land come to life as, in a few thrilling days of cavalcade, the horde of caribou jostled their way on their annual march northwards in the spring to escape the flies and southwards in the autumn as they smelt the onset of winter. Then there flowed over the landscape a river of beasts, the noise of their hooves pounding the rocks being enough to banish sleep for nights on end. Behind them followed an escort of ravens, secure in the knowledge that the living stream would keep them fat, for death would march with the horde. But, great as was that stream, it was a trickle compared wi,th what it once was, when it supported the people of the deer in hun- dreds, where there is now a handful of human souls. A hand- ful of men, indeed. Does that sound insignificant ? For, if men are to be rated at more than the value pf beasts, mere numbers do not signify. And from what far greater numbers have this people dwindled ? If mankind counts only in the mass, mankind no longer counts at all.

In the story of Kakumee lies the whole sad saga—Kakumee, the medicine-man, who years ago penetrated south to the Indian country, of the forests and the trading-posts, and came back loaded with white men's goods, leaving three slain men behind him, bringing with him an epidemic from which the people died in scores. It is inevitable that there be one evil man even among those good-natured folk, like the single intentional flaw in the Persian carpet whose presence proves the article. is genuine. For our myopic human vision can only measure goodness by its direct relation to evil. Now Kakumee sat, as a crumpled dusty Satan surrounded by the, dross of his useless possessions, taking little pleasure even in harming the handful .that. remained of the people that he had ruined. He was not destiny, but its instrument. For had he been a good man, and done that same journey, he would still have brought the sick- ness, and as surely have brought the rifles. And the end would have been the same—the growing dependence on the wares pf the traders, the dwindling of the deer and more rifles growing rusty with no cartridges left and no means of getting them, for the tradeis had gone.

This book is written to fight the battle of a dying race. The sight of many a stone grave, and the traces of many a derelict camp, makes him lash out at the heedless white man whether Government, missionary or trader. He spares none of them. It is not surprising that, in laying about him, he deals some indiscriminate blows. But it is good that there are men who will fight a battle like this, for the cataclysms of the last few . decades have stunned our sensibility, and civilised man finds that he can bear the troubles of others with greater and greater fortitude. I take no sides : beyond remarking that he does far less than justice to the Hudson's Bay Company, though his remarks are profoundly true of the fly-by-night trader. It must be clearly understood that this book is about one Eskimo people, the People of the Deer. The vast majority of the rest of Canada's Eskimo-population are a maritime folk dwelling on the Northern seas, with a far wider range of beasts on which to live. The great majority of those peoples are maintaining their numbers, and live hard but happy and often very pros- perous lives. But that is not to say that the beasts they hunt are not dwindling too, and at a, rate that gives cause for great "'concern to anyone who looks into the future.

But the tragedy that inspired this book is as old as the world, a tale of wrong things being done for the right reasons. The rifle in the hands of the deer-hunter, whether Indian or Eskimo, has made him incomparably more efficient and so, for a time, an infinitely more prosperous hunter. But that rifle has des- troyed him, by allowing him to destroy his sole source of food, and it is late to go back to the old ways, for much of the old skill has departed. And, if that skill with bow and spear can be recaptured, would it provide a living from the herds of deer that the rifle has decimated ?

Two civilisations cannot live side by side. One will always borrow from the other, and almost certainly that which is least worth borrowing. And the People of the Deer, deserted by the civilisation that they had embraced, sat among the ruins of their world, mocked by the rusty rifles for which there were no longer cartridges. In a human society whose existence is based on hunting, life depends on whatever animal forms the base of the animal pyramid. When the lemming grow few, the foxes and the ermine weasels are brought low and the human hunter suffers with them. In a year or two the lemmings will come again, and the fur-bearing animals will multiply once more.

But the People of the Deer.are utterly dependent on the deer themselves, and fewer deer means fewer men. For they do not have the seal or the walrus to fallback on. The deer are their fount of life, and they cannot live on the white man's food. In Greenland, I am told, a man may not kill a walrus with a rifle but must harpoon him from a kayak. That is an eminently sane law. Only by careful conservation can the races of the North keep the proper balance between themselves and the resources on which they live. To some this would be considered sinful, as being " unprogressive "—a step backwards. What is the alternative ? A slow death in the holy name of progress. • Now the River of Men rises in the pine-shaded silence of the forest, and winds its way across the barrens, past the stone graves and the tent-rings seaward, and is lost in an icy sea. But a River of Men no longer.