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The Desperate People

by Farley Mowat

222 pages, paperback, Bantam-Seal, 1975

The Desperate People is the second of Mowat's books about the inland Eskimos of Keewatin District in the Northwest Territories of Canada. The first, People of the Deer, tells their story in a somewhat fictionalized fashion. All the major events described in The Desperate People, and most of the minor ones, have been documented from official sources.

Quotes from The Desperate People

"The physical disruptions which our society inflicted on the Eskimos during the first half of this century have been ameliorated to the extent that few Eskimos now die of physical neglect. Since about 1960 we have made considerable efforts to ensure that they will survive in the flesh; but at the same time we have pursued a policy which is very efficiently destroying them psychically. We have made a ruthless and concerted effort to dispossess them from their own age-old way of life and thought and to force them into the mold of our modern technological society. Assimilation has been our goal--and it has failed disastrously. In 1974 almost all Canadian Eskimos have been broken away from the support of their land (which is theirs no longer) and live clustered in modern slums . . . in not many more than a score of artificial settlements along the rim of the Canadian north. Here they exist for the most part on welfare payments of one kind or another--no longer taking sustenance from the land and the sea. Effectively they live in unguarded concentration camps, provided with the basic requirements for mere physical survival, but deprived of the freedom to shape and control their own lives. We have salved our national conscience by ensuring that they do not die anymore of outright starvation, but we have resolutely denied them the right to live according to their own inherent needs--the right to function as viable human beings according to their own desires and capabilities.

"Genocide can be practiced in a wide variety of ways."

From the Forward to the Revised Edition, March 1974

"The old framework of their life, already cracked, began to crumble and they began to build a new structure, a slipshod, jerry-build affair whose foundation rested uneasily upon a wildly fluctuating factor--the value and abundance of the white fox. They began to spend much of their time in the hunt for foxes. The locations of good trapping areas and proximity to the nearest trading posts came more and more to determine the places where they chose to live. They obtained rifles and almost limitless supplies of ammunition in exchange for foxes, and for a time this mighty increase in their ability to kill the deer--even at poor hunting places--compensated for their abandonment of the old camp sites at the main deer crossings, and of their old ways which had been determined by the ways of the deer. But the very efficacy of the rifle was also its most evil attribute. To a people who had known no other restrictions on their hunting than those imposed by the nature of their crude weapons, the thought that it might be possible to kill too many deer did not occur. Nor did any of the white strangers to the land attempt to introduce this idea into the People's minds. In truth, the white men themselves were the most pitiless butchers of the deer the land had ever seen, and by their example they greatly encouraged the People to the excessive slaughter which the rifle now made possible.

"The herds of deer, mighty as they were, were delicately balanced between the toll taken by their natural enemies and their ability to reproduce. As the toll suddenly grew heavier, there was no corresponding increase in the annual fawn crop. Slowly death gained the upper hand. What had been a river of life flowing through the Barrens began to shrink; the tributaries began to dry up altogether. Where once there had been a myriad of roads belonging to the deer, now there were fewer with each passing year. And in 1926 the consequence of the slaughter fell full upon the People."

. . .

"By 1951, Eskimos throughout the Canadian arctic were already dying of malnutrition and its attendant diseases at an unprecedented rate. In those few areas where the incidence of tuberculosis was known with any certainty, as many as 48 per cent of the population were afflicted. Outright starvation was known to have killed at least 120 Eskimos between January of 1950 and the middle of the following year. Except for some Eskimos in the Mackenzie delta who were able to trap muskrat, the average income of most Eskimo families had shrunk to a cash value of less than fifty dollars a year--a sum which had a purchasing power in northern trading posts equivalent to that of about twenty dollars in southern Canada.

"This was a situation which we had deliberately created by our destruction of the aboriginal Eskimo way of life in favor of the white-fox trapping economy, and which we had intensified by discouraging the Eskimos from turning in any direction other than toward the trapping of foxes, in their search for a substitute way of life. We, and not the Eskimos, were responsible for the decimation of the food resources--the caribou, walrus and even the seals--for we had put the means for massive destruction into the hands of the Innuit, and far from attempting to show the people how to use their new killing power wisely, we had encouraged the wholesale slaughter of game animals.

"There were no two ways about it. The hideous dilemma in which the Eskimos found themselves in 1951 was the direct result of the interference and intrusion of primarily selfish white interests into the arctic.

"Despite this obvious fact, and despite the full knowledge of it possessed by the officials of the Northwest Territories administration, no steps were being taken in 1951 to enable the Eskimos to escape their obvious fate. It does not seem to have occurred to the men whom we had elected, hired, or appointed, to deal with Eskimo affairs, that the Innuit deserved any better fate at our hands than would semi-domesticated animals which had outlived their usefulness."

. . .

"Yet there were still men amongst the People who blindly strove to find an avenue of hope, and of escape.

"There was Ohoto, who still believed with a kind of insensate stubbornness that he might yet become a white man and enter a new world. He was impervious to the inevitable and constant rebuffs that his attempts to cross the barrier elicited from the whites with whom he came in contact. He simply would not face the knowledge that there would be no acceptance of him in his new guise by those he sought to emulate. To them he remained a rather pathetic, but at the same time rather obnoxious, native, who clearly did not know his place. When his importunities became too much to bear, they suppressed his pitiful endeavors with a brutality of which they were totally unconscious."

"There was Owliktuk, too. His was perhaps the greatest struggle, for he alone of all the People seems to have had the ability to see clearly the certain shape of the future which awaited himself and them. He seems to have known, even then, that there was no way out for him; but he also seems to have been supported and impelled to struggle by a belief that his sons and daughters need not share the parents' fate. He and his wife Nutaralik, almost alone of the People, were resolute in their determination to preserve some of the substance of their pride. Owliktuk still hunted, and hunted hard. He sometimes refused the Family Allowance issues, or gave them away. He provided his wife with meat and skins, and she in turn provided food and clothing for her children. Between the two of them they preserved at least an outward semblance of a life which was not yet utterly bereft of meaning. And this they did for their children's sake. Owliktuk believed that someday there would be a bridge across the gulf which separated the Innuit from the white men, but, unlike Ohoto, he knew that the bridge was not yet built."

Table of Contents of The Desperate People

  1. People of the Deer
  2. Of Many Graves
  3. A Spring to Remember
  4. The Drums of Hope
  5. Two Visitations
  6. The Empires of the North
  7. Journey into Fear
  8. The Rusting Rifles
  9. People of the Dole
  10. Madness and Denial
  11. A Dawn Extinguished
  12. The Promised Land
  13. The Ordeals of Kikik
  14. For Us to Say

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