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People of the Deer

by Farley Mowat

Carroll & Graf Publishers, January 2005, Paperback, 287 pages

In 1886, the Ihalmiut people of northern Canada numbered 7,000. When Farley Mowat came to stay with them in 1946, their population had dwindled to forty. For two years, Mowat shared their lives and hard times. He tells their sobering story eloquently in People of the Deer.

Praise for People of the Deer

"The most powerful book to come out of the Arctic for some years. It traces with a beautiful clarity the material and spiritual bonds between land, deer and people."--Times Literary Supplement

"It is not often that a writer finds himself the sole chronicler of a whole human society . . . Mowat has done marvelously well at the job."--The New Yorker

"A beautifully written book . . . Mowat's challenge cannot be ignored."--Saturday Night

"A continuously stirring account of one of the least known regions of the North American continent."--The New York Times

"This is a fascinating and beautiful book."--St. Louis Dispatch

Quotes from People of the Deer

"In the camps of the People the child is king, for childhood is short and tragedy often comes after. As it is with the dogs, so the early years of a child are made free of compulsion and of hard labors, for these years must always remain in the child's memory to alleviate the agonies which come with mature years. . . . I expressed surprise that no Ihalmiut child knows corporal punishment even when the provocation is great. I spoke casually, but Ootek replied with vehemence, for it seemed he was honestly puzzled that I should not know why a child is never beat. 'Who but a madman would raise his hand against blood of his blood?' he asked me, 'Who but a madman would, in his man's strength, stoop to strike against the weakness of a child?' . . . There was something that might have been contempt in his voice as he spoke, and I never again raised that question.

"So the children live their lives free of all restraint except that which they themselves impose; and they are at least as well behaved as any child anywhere. For three years after birth a child is suckled and by the time it has been weaned it is already aware of the general pattern of its life. I told you of Kunee who, at the age of five, was already an accomplished woman of the People, yet Kunee had never been taught what she must do. She was simply observant and imitative, as most children are, and she saw what others did and longed to do as well by herself.

"The children's work is also their play. At night, when the adults are asleep or resting on the ledge, no voice is raised to chide the girl children, who remain active until the dawn, keeping the fire alive under the cooking pot and concocting broths and stews, not with toy things, but with the real equipment that will be theirs in maturity. No regimen or hard routine is laid upon them. When they are sleepy, they sleep. When they are hungry, they may always eat, if there is food. If they wish to play, no one will halt them and give them petty tasks to do, for in their play they learn more of life than can be taught by tongues and by training.

"Suppose a youth, a ten-year old boy, decides he will become a great hunter overnight. He is not scolded and sent sulkily to bed for his foolish presumption, nor do his parents condescend to his childish fantasy. Instead his father gravely spends the evening preparing a miniature bow which is not a toy, but an efficient weapon on a reduced scale. The bow is made with love and then it is given to the boy and he sets out to his distant hunting ground--a ridge, perhaps a hundred yards away--with the time-honored words of luck ringing in his ears, which are the same words spoken by the People to their mightiest hunter when he sets out on a two-month trip northward for musk ox. There is no distinction, and this lack of distinction is not a pretense, it is perfectly real. The boy will be a hunter? Very well then, he shall be a hunter--not a boy with a toy bow."

. . .

"I had been led to believe by 'old northern hands' that learning an Eskimo language entailed many years of hard labor, and I was loath to begin a task that could not come to anything in time to be of service to me. . . . The unadorned fact that I, a white man and a stranger, should voluntarily wish to step across the barriers of blood that lay between us, and ask the People to teach me their tongue, instead of expecting them to learn mine--this was the key to their hearts. When they saw that I was anxious to exert myself in trying to understand their way of life, their response was instant, enthusiastic, and almost overwhelming. Both Ootek and Ohoto, who was called in to assist in the task, abruptly ceased to treat me with the usual deference they extend to white strangers. They devoted themselves to the problem I had set them with the strength of fanatics. . . . I learned quickly, so quickly that I thought the tales I had heard of the difficulties of the Eskimo language were, like so many popular misconceptions about the Innuit, absolute nonsense. In a month's time I was able to make myself understood and I could understand most of what was said to me. I became pretty cocky, and started to consider myself something of a linguist. It was not until nearly a year had gone by that I discovered the true reason for my quick progress. The secret lay, of course, with Ootek and Ohoto, who, with the co-operation of the rest of the People, had devised a special method of teaching me a language that is, in reality, a most difficult one.

"A year after I became an Ihalmio, I had an opportunity to talk with a coastal Eskimo near Churchill. Nonchalantly and with perfect confidence I addressed a long-winded remark to him for the primary purpose of impressing some white friends who were present. And the blank stupefaction that swirled over the Eskimo's face was reflected in mine as it dawned on me that he hadn't the faintest idea of what I was saying. . . . It was a sad disillusionment, but it shed a revealing light on the character of the Ihalmiut. I wonder what other men in this world would have gone to the trouble of devising what amounted to a new language, simply for the convenience of a stranger who happened into their midst."

. . .

"Kakumee saw the knot of armed men, and so he cried, 'Ai! You on the bank! It is only Kakumee who comes! And I return from the lands of Kablunait, bearing gifts for the People!' It was to have been his great moment of triumph. He who had dared the indescribable terrors of that long journey was returning laden with much more wealth than even the white man who had visited the river had carried in his canoes. Again and again he called out, but the cluster of men stood silently on the bank and no one acknowledged the hail of Kakumee. Women peered furtively from holes melted in the igloos by the thaw. The huskies stood about, growling deep in their throats, for they had caught the unfamiliar scent of the Indian dogs and they too were alarmed.

"Then Kakut came from his igloo, which stood apart from the rest. Kakut, the shaman, was a wise man . . . He stood on the shore looking steadily at his brother, who had halted a few hundred feet from the shore. At last he turned to the men who watched from the cliff and chided them for their fears. 'This is the man, my brother, and not his spirit! When did you ever hear of a ghost who drove dog teams up the River of Men?" The tension dissolved. Women and children poured out of the igloos and their hurrying feet wrestled over the brown clumps of brittle, dead moss on the snow. The dogs broke into long wavering howls as the camp came alive. Kakumee reached the edge of the shore and a dozen men sprang down to untether his dogs as he stepped forward and solemnly touched noses with Kakut, his brother.

"People clustered about the man who had returned from the dead, and they cast curious glances at the long, skin-covered sled which held that balance of the wealth he had brought. Now he cut the thong lashings of the skins covering the load. It was his moment, and the cries of amazement as the People looked on the fabulous things on the sled were sweet in the ears of Kakumee. Five rifles, a case of black powder, a box of bar lead, a shotgun, three cases of tea, bags of flour, salt and white sugar, bolts of cloth, axes, snow knives, and kettles-- these were but a part of the load. It was wealth unbelievable. For a few moments fear returned to the hearts of the People. It was beyond comprehension how a mere man could have come by such things. . . . [Kakumee] fought his way into the center of the excited mob of his People and tried to restore his things to the sled. But as fast as something was returned, someone else would seize it and pass it about, and Kakumee, working at an impossible task, began to lose control. . . . He screamed imprecations into the unheeding ears of the People, and his face was set in the mask of rage which was never to leave it again.

"Then it happened. Kakut, who had been quietly watching from a few feet away, now stepped forward and picked up a rifle. He looked at it with pleasure and then with the nonchalance of a man who knows the law and respects it, he turned from the sled and began to walk off to his igloo with the rifle held in the crook of his arm. It was no more than his right. A rifle would be of great aid to him in supporting a family swollen by the addition of the wife and child of Kakumee. Kakumee himself had a rifle--five rifles, in fact--and a man has no need or desire for more things than he can use with his own hands. It was the creed of the People that what a man had he shared with his neighbors. Kakut had not taken more than a dozen steps when Kakumee saw what had happened. He acted with such speed that no one could have stopped him, had any dared to try. He seized one of the axes and, leaping after his brother, caught him a slashing blow on the shoulder with the keen edge of the ax. . . .Then he cried out in a great voice so all the People might hear, and these were his words: 'All this that I have is mine-- and mine only! Hear me well, Kakut, for if I must argue with you about this, then I shall argue with a man who is dead!'

"Now a sense of sacrilege possessed the watching People, for they were beholding the flagrant violation of a law as old as life. This thing was without precedent in the memory of the Ihalmiut. Yet not only was the law of material things being openly flouted but Kakumee had also broken other law, for he had struck a man in anger, and that man was his brother. This was madness! . . . Of all living things, the Ihalmiut most fear a madman, and it is the rule that such a one must die, and his name most never again be spoken by living lips. But in the camp of Kakut there could be no such easy release from the danger of one who was mad. Kakumee was a shaman who could not easily be harmed by human hands. Moreover he had gone from the camp and not even Kakut had the courage to follow and to face the evil spirits Kakumee would unleash against a pursuer. . . . A wave of uneasiness swept through those camps where there dwelt over a thousand men, women and children who now heard of Kakumee's return, and feared for the evil that he might do.

"It was barely two weeks before those fears were realized. A strange sickness broke out in the camp of Kakut. Three women sickened at once, complaining of a great Pain that sat on their chests and denied them air for their lungs. The magic of Kakut was helpless against this new evil and in a little time those women died. Then the Great Pain, as it was called, swept on up the river, into the hidden camps by the lakes, and all over the face of the land. Before the end of that spring more than a third of the People were dead. . . . The winter before the coming of the Great Pain had been a hard one, for it had been long protracted. But there had been no deaths from hunger that winter, though the Ihalmiut had been weak and lacking in strength, when the coming of spring, and Kakumee, brought the plague to their land. The killer which Kakumee had brought with him from the place of the white men, perhaps even from that little cabin where he had believed he looked on the frozen face of his devil, struck down the hungry folk of the Barrens. . . . Though men sickened and died in all the camps, Kakumee, who had brought the Great Pain, did not sicken, for he was well fed and lacked for nothing."

Table of Contents of People of the Deer

  1. The Why and Wherefore
  2. Into the Barrenlands
  3. The Intruders
  4. The Children
  5. The Lifeblood of the Land
  6. Under the Little Hills
  7. Feast and Famine
  8. Of Houses and Tongues
  9. Eskimo Spring
  10. These Are Their Days
  11. The Boy and the Black One
  12. The Shape of the Law
  13. Kakumee
  14. The Breaker of Law
  15. Stone Men and Dead Men
  16. From the Inland Sea
  17. Ghosts, Devils and Spirits
  18. Ohoto
  19. Days of His Father
  20. Last Days of the People
  21. The Days to Come

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The Desperate People
by Farley Mowat

The Desperate People is the second of Mowat's books about the inland Eskimos of Keewatin District in the Northwest Territories of Canada.
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