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Paul Sparkes: The way of the North

Gutted, head-off cod drying slowly in the fresh air of a Norwegian fishing village north of the Arctic Circle. At this stage, it is “stockkfisk” (stockfish). Photo Time-Life 1968, Howard Sochurek.
Gutted, head-off cod drying slowly in the fresh air of a Norwegian fishing village north of the Arctic Circle. At this stage, it is “stockkfisk” (stockfish). Photo Time-Life 1968, Howard Sochurek. - Contributed

“The sharing and communal eating of meat plays a significant part in the social life of the Naskapi. It is said that if some people are hungry, they must be given meat; and if they have no moccasins they must be given skins so that they can make some and go hunting. In effect, every hunter distributes his meat and skins to all the others in camp ... if a man finds that he is the only one who has shot any caribou in the whole camp, he will share it, regardless of the camp size. The result is that either all, or none will be hungry in a camp.”

Georg Henriksen’s “Hunter in the Barrens — The Naskapi on the Edge of the White Man’s World” is a scholarly paper, issued in 1973 by Memorial University’s Institute of Social & Economic Research but resulting from fieldwork done by the author in 1966 and 1968. In one respect, it is not quite the thing to lift an extract from what is, in fact a 130-page book. But in another respect, this is compelling reading throughout. I for one know too little about the Naskapi (Innu) people who inhabited the central barrens of Labrador in winter and migrated to the coast, especially around Davis Inlet, in summer.

Henriksen describes the ritual surrounding the handling and preparation of caribou meat, bones, marrow and fat. The reader gets a sense of the appreciation felt by these people for the bounty of nature; each morsel of fat, for example, is valued; and there is a social order in consuming the harvest from the animal. But he shows the details as well, such as the Naskapi man running his fork through his hair when his meal is done.

Sense of value

In another part, Henriksen tells of the Naskapi’s “carefree attitude toward material possessions”. He notes that they put no effort into handling their equipment carefully. “However,” he writes, “to compensate for damaged or lost items they are quick to put their material goods to alternative uses. For instances, the heel of a new rubber boot may be cut off to repair a rifle, a spoon may be filed into an awl, a file or steel trap may be made into a knife, and the family’s only blanket may lose a corner to replace a lost pair of mittens.”

The Institute at MUN (mentioned above) issued a series of “studies” and I have had reason to mention others in earlier columns. Equally good reading on other people (and customs and traditions) may be found in the likes of “Now, whose fault is that? The struggle for self-esteem in the face of chronic unemployment.” They are available on Amazon.

Patience and skill

Another keen observer of aboriginal people was Danish native Peter Freuchen. He first visited Greenland and other points of landing in 1906. In due course he set up a trading station and lived for extended periods with the Inuit. In 1960, three years after his death, one of the family drew together his material (he did fact and fiction) and published “Peter Freuchen’s Famous Book of the Eskimos.” As I read a paragraph about an Inuit hunter waiting with unbelievable patience for a seal to appear at a blowhole, I found myself being very quiet, even breathing guardedly:

Another keen observer of aboriginal people was Danish native Peter Freuchen. He first visited Greenland and other points of landing in 1906. In due course he set up a trading station and lived for extended periods with the Inuit.

“The blowhole is quite small at the surface of the ice and it expands dome-shaped down to the water, for since the ice is often three feet thick, the seal must be able to get its entire body into the opening and yet only show its snout to the outside world. When the hunter hears the seal come up in the hole, he must take care to wield a powerful thrust with his harpoon just as the seal is under the little opening.

“He cannot see the seal yet he must hit it directly in the head  and often he kills it with the first thrust. Seals are quite nervous and faint easily from just a light blow on the head. But it might happen, if it is a big seal, that the hunter has to fight with it for quite some time to hold it there. Once the seal is dead he chops a wider hole in the ice to get it up.” 

Fish in the far north

In his book about climate change (“The Great Warming”, 2008) University of California professor Brian Fagan discusses fish and drying and salting as an age-old practice in the north. Fagan says the Norse introduced a “much more palatable alternative (to the ubiquitous salted herring) and this was “dried and salted cod, often called stockfish.”  He writes that “every winter, fisher folk in the Lofoten Islands of northern Norway would catch and dry cod which the Norse used as staple on their voyages.”

Dale Brown in “The Cooking of Scandinavia”, (Time-Life, 1968) writes, “fine as their fresh cod are, Norwegians also persist in eating the dried variety. The habit is at least a thousand years old and the method of drying and cooking the cod has changed little in all that time. The fish are hung from wooden racks in the open air ... they slowly yield up their moisture and in six to 12 weeks they gradually become as stiff and hard as paddles. They can be stored like cord-wood for long periods, theoretically as many as 20 years. Such dried fish is known as ‘stokkfisk’ (stockfish); when it is salted, or without salt and spread out on cliffs to dry it is called “klippfisk”.

Fagan writes, “tightly packed stacks of cod fed Norse crews during the great voyages of the Medieval Warm Period.” He refers to “dried and salted cod, often called stockfish.” But it warn’t salted. That was the genius of it; it required only three things: fresh air, cold temperatures and patience.

Paul Sparkes is a long-time journalist intrigued by the history of Newfoundland and Labrador. E-mail:  paul.sparkes@thetelegram.com.

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