Kabloona: Among the Inuit

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One of my favorite leisure activities is taking long walks at night while listening to audio books. I read a lot of paper books too, but there’s something about walking outdoors with a million stars overhead that makes a good story that much more enjoyable. (And now that I no longer live near Los Angeles, I can actually see the million stars.) The images my mind calls up are more vivid when I listen to books at night. Perhaps walking in the dark puts me in a bit of a trance.

Over the weekend, I finished a gem of first-person story titled Kabloona: Among the Inuit, written by a French adventurer who lived and traveled with nomadic Eskimos (as he called them) for a 15-month span in 1938 and 1939.

Gontran de Poncins was an aristrocrat who became bored with the business world and remade himself as a traveling journalist-adventurer. In Kabloona he makes references to his other adventures in Tahiti and New Caledonia, but soon assures the reader that the Arctic is the toughest and most unforgiving place he’s ever seen … incredibly cold, with flat, snow-covered tundra that seems to go on forever in every direction. Without knowing the nearly-imperceptible landmarks, an explorer could easily become disoriented and wander in circles until he froze to death – which Poncins nearly did on one occasion, despite being within a few miles of the trading post where he’d been staying.

Not surprisingly, this tough landscape was inhabited by very tough people, which is the main reason the book caught my interest. Initially, Poncins spent several months with Eskimos who traded furs with whites and had adopted some of the white man’s ways. (They seemed particularly fond of tea and tobacco, for which they happily traded foxes.) But Poncins was determined to also meet the “real” Eskimos — those who rarely if ever saw a white man and still mostly lived as their ancestors had lived. So he hired Eskimo guides to take him hundreds of miles into the interior of the Arctic, where the “real” Eskimos lived. It was this glimpse into the life of an almost-Paleolithic people that I was anticipating.

Frankly, much of that glimpse isn’t pretty, at least as Poncins recounts it. As a journalist writing in the 1930s, he felt no need to let political correctness or racial sensitivity color his descriptions, and early in the narrative much of what he recalls is his general disgust for Eskimos and Eskimo ways. Disparaging remarks such as “The Eskimo has no ability to plan ahead” and “the Eskimo isn’t capable of logical thinking” pop up frequently. So do remarks about the Eskimo’s “savage” habits and their apparent preference for living in poverty.

To be honest, even though I like the benefits of Paleolithic eating, I’m pretty sure I’d be similarly annoyed if I were surrounded by dinner companions who grunted as they tore raw meat with their teeth, gulped and slurped their meat as blood and grease dripped down their faces, then finished by tossing the bloody remnants and bones into a corner of the small igloo where I’d soon be sleeping.

But as the adventure unfolds, Poncins becomes progressively less disgusted with the Eskimos and more disgusted with himself with being so judgmental when he first encountered them. As he travels with his Eskimo guides, he’s amazed by their ability to locate and catch fish swimming beneath the ice, to sneak up seals, to quickly and efficiently cut snow into bricks and construct an igloo. He likens one Eskimo to a gifted architect when it comes to making igloos, with each snow brick cut to exactly the right size and shape so all the bricks fit tightly together in a dome.

He soon realizes it’s not such a bad idea to toss bloody seal guts into the corner of an igloo when you’ll abandon that igloo in a couple of days and move on. He even begins to appreciate the simplicity of living in a shelter that’s basically an icebox: catch your fish, toss them into the corner, and they’re preserved by the cold. Wake up, warm the fish with your hands and breath, then enjoy cold sushi for breakfast.

He’s also amazed by the endurance of the Eskimos. The nutritionists who parrot their textbook knowledge that “you need carbohydrates for energy!” should read this book. Poncins recounts running along trails with Eskimos for hours – he was fatigued and panting, while they barely seemed to notice the effort. After a year in the Arctic, Poncins finds he is beginning to prefer their diet, even though he had supplies of “white man” food on the sled carrying his belongings. As he explains in one passage, boiled rice could warm him up temporarily, but then he’d feel colder an hour or two later. By contrast, raw meat or raw fish was cold going down, but then he felt warmer for the rest of the day.

In the far northwest Arctic, Poncins eventually meets up with a priest who’d been living among the Eskimos for six years. The priest was a fellow Frenchman, and Poncins had brought him some “civilized” food as a gift – a block of cheese being the real prize. But the priest, Father Henry, politely explains that he’s lost his taste for civilized foods. He no longer likes rice, biscuits, or cheese. As Poncins writes, “He’d been living on nothing but caribou, seal and fish for six years, yet he was none the worse for it.”

It was during his time with Father Henry that Poncins began to appreciate the depth of his own ignorance about Eskimos. In one passage, Father Henry explains that Eskimo words have many shadings and subtleties, and that the way Poncins speaks the language, it sounds like he’s barking orders. Yes and no don’t mean yes and no, the priest explains, because the Eskimos don’t think in either-or terms. Both words, depending on how they’re said, could mean some degree of “maybe.”

Soon after that conversation, Poncins spots a group of Eskimos doing impressions of him and laughing themselves silly. He can’t help but laugh as well, and he recounts how they reproduced his robotic gestures as he gave commands, his obvious impatience, even his voice. As he writes, “These people had only just met me, but they imitated me perfectly.” It’s an eye-opening moment for Poncins: the people he’d initially considered savages consider him a fool – a white man, a Kabloona, someone with no sense of what’s actually important in life.

At this point in the story, I realized Poncins included the many disparaging remarks about Eskimos in the early chapters primarily so his readers could fully appreciate this moment … Remember all those nasty things I said earlier, dear reader? Now you know what a fool I truly was. I was a Kabloona.

By the end, Poncins no longer sees the Eskimos as savages living in poverty. He sees them as they see themselves: people living in a land that gives them everything. They can build a shelter in a matter of hours using the snow that’s all around them. The frozen waterways are highways for their sleds. The land provides them with fish and seals and herds of caribou.

Poncins is (or was) a gifted storyteller and often quite witty – which is impressive, considering he was a Frenchman who wrote this book in English. In the epilogue, he explains that he wrote the book while living a small town in Connecticut, and that as soon as winter came and the snow fell, he began to pine for the Arctic.

Personally, I wouldn’t want to live there. But I thoroughly enjoyed visiting the place in my imagination as I walked beneath a million stars.

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82 thoughts on “Kabloona: Among the Inuit

  1. Ellex

    I spent three months in Outward Bound climbing mountains reading stuff like this always makes me “homesick” for sleeping under a tarp in the middle of nowhere. (Only the next time I go out I won’t be eating rice and granola).

    Reply
  2. Ellen

    Great post, Tom. Makes me think of Weston Price and his travels. Have you read Daniel Quinn’s Ishmael? He calls out the same sort of arrogance from the “civilized” in it, only from a gorilla’s point of view.

    No, I haven’t read it.

    Reply
  3. Anon.

    Have you seen this? Defintely worth a look.

    http://blogs.howstuffworks.com/2010/11/23/how-vegans-dont-work-an-amazing-look-behind-the-scenes-at-the-vegan-communitys-dirty-secret/

    The article discusses the obvious health detriments of veganism, but most surprising of all is that apparently, most vegans are actually not vegans. A lot of them secretly eat various animal foods.

    Sorry to see CNN repeating the b.s. about meat and the environment, but the article was good. Vegangelicals — love that term.

    Reply
  4. Hilary Kyro

    What an inspiring read that triggered a lot of memories for me. Nanook is on Top Doc. They edited out the part where the kid eats a salmon eyeball–too traumatic (exciting) for school children. Nanooks family is happy-go-lucky going through the hell of cold and life and death tug-o wars with walrus. A child gets a tummy ache after eating a sea-biscuit given to him at the trading post–no problemo you can buy curative castor oil in an alcohol emulsion for 20 arctic fox pelts.

    I need to see that film. Funny they would edit out the eyeball part. My girls have seen Bear Grylls eat eyeballs in Man vs. Wild.

    Reply
  5. Hilary Kyro

    “You’ve been fed a load of kabloona”–that will literary slay at least two unpopular wife-beating noodle-brained innu-kabloonas in any given Northern audience. You’ll be a hero!

    Reply
  6. Ellex

    I spent three months in Outward Bound climbing mountains reading stuff like this always makes me “homesick” for sleeping under a tarp in the middle of nowhere. (Only the next time I go out I won’t be eating rice and granola).

    Reply
  7. Anon.

    Have you seen this? Defintely worth a look.

    http://blogs.howstuffworks.com/2010/11/23/how-vegans-dont-work-an-amazing-look-behind-the-scenes-at-the-vegan-communitys-dirty-secret/

    The article discusses the obvious health detriments of veganism, but most surprising of all is that apparently, most vegans are actually not vegans. A lot of them secretly eat various animal foods.

    Sorry to see CNN repeating the b.s. about meat and the environment, but the article was good. Vegangelicals — love that term.

    Reply
  8. Hilary Kyro

    What an inspiring read that triggered a lot of memories for me. Nanook is on Top Doc. They edited out the part where the kid eats a salmon eyeball–too traumatic (exciting) for school children. Nanooks family is happy-go-lucky going through the hell of cold and life and death tug-o wars with walrus. A child gets a tummy ache after eating a sea-biscuit given to him at the trading post–no problemo you can buy curative castor oil in an alcohol emulsion for 20 arctic fox pelts.

    I need to see that film. Funny they would edit out the eyeball part. My girls have seen Bear Grylls eat eyeballs in Man vs. Wild.

    Reply
  9. Hilary Kyro

    “You’ve been fed a load of kabloona”–that will literary slay at least two unpopular wife-beating noodle-brained innu-kabloonas in any given Northern audience. You’ll be a hero!

    Reply
  10. Dana Carpender

    Sounds fascinating; I take it you’ve read Steffanson’s essays about living with the Inuit? And, of course, his experiments later at Bellevue?

    But, Tom, I’m worried about your walking while listening to audio books. I used to do that, too. Then my mom was out for a walk one day, listening to a book, and didn’t hear the car that jumped the curb, drove 120 feet up the sidewalk, and hit her doing 35 miles an hour.

    Your ears are one of your major warning systems. Just be really, really careful, ‘kay? I also worry about all the kids who never walk around without their earbuds in. I wonder how many girls have been jumped because they didn’t hear the guy coming up behind them?

    Sorry to be a downer.

    There’s close to zero traffic in our neighborhood late at night, but I’m able to hear cars coming over the sound of a voice reading. Now if I listened to heavy metal, that would be a different story.

    Reply
  11. Dana Carpender

    Sounds fascinating; I take it you’ve read Steffanson’s essays about living with the Inuit? And, of course, his experiments later at Bellevue?

    But, Tom, I’m worried about your walking while listening to audio books. I used to do that, too. Then my mom was out for a walk one day, listening to a book, and didn’t hear the car that jumped the curb, drove 120 feet up the sidewalk, and hit her doing 35 miles an hour.

    Your ears are one of your major warning systems. Just be really, really careful, ‘kay? I also worry about all the kids who never walk around without their earbuds in. I wonder how many girls have been jumped because they didn’t hear the guy coming up behind them?

    Sorry to be a downer.

    There’s close to zero traffic in our neighborhood late at night, but I’m able to hear cars coming over the sound of a voice reading. Now if I listened to heavy metal, that would be a different story.

    Reply
  12. Sarah

    Hey Tom,

    If you had to pick two books to get your Mom for Christmas, and your Mom is say… 50 years old, overweight, with high cholesterol, pre-diabetic, trying to build a good diet and exercise plan to avoid taking medication….. which would you get? 😉

    The New Atkins for a New You
    The Primal Blueprint

    Reply
  13. Sarah

    Hey Tom,

    If you had to pick two books to get your Mom for Christmas, and your Mom is say… 50 years old, overweight, with high cholesterol, pre-diabetic, trying to build a good diet and exercise plan to avoid taking medication….. which would you get? 😉

    The New Atkins for a New You
    The Primal Blueprint

    Reply
  14. WSB

    I am glad you can get to the gluten event. I learned a lot form his talk the last time he was here. Sorry I missed putting the time in there. I haven’t been able to find an event page, the local celiac group web site is under renovation.

    From Facebook – CSA Nashville-Middle Tennessee Celiac Chapter #76

    “Dec. 12th; 2-4pm; same meeting place as our meetings. See you there!”

    Thanks. See you there.

    Reply
  15. WSB

    I am glad you can get to the gluten event. I learned a lot form his talk the last time he was here. Sorry I missed putting the time in there. I haven’t been able to find an event page, the local celiac group web site is under renovation.

    From Facebook – CSA Nashville-Middle Tennessee Celiac Chapter #76

    “Dec. 12th; 2-4pm; same meeting place as our meetings. See you there!”

    Thanks. See you there.

    Reply
  16. Hilary Kyro

    beautiful writing Tom…any excuse to say Kabloona! Blubber from beached whales causes spontaneous and loving spawning behavior.:D 😀 😀

    Reply
  17. Hilary Kyro

    beautiful writing Tom…any excuse to say Kabloona! Blubber from beached whales causes spontaneous and loving spawning behavior.:D 😀 😀

    Reply
  18. Mary D

    Hi, Tom, thanks for recommending Kabloona – what a great book! My local library had a copy of it sitting on the shelf and I’ve been enjoying it all week. The subtleties of the landscape descriptions and of Poncin’s evolving perspectives regarding the Eskimo are fascinating. Poncin’s writing style is conversational and just sucks you right into the story. So much so, I’ve had a hard time putting down the book since I jumped into it a few days ago!

    Thanks again!

    Glad you’re enjoying it. I sure did.

    Reply
  19. Mary D

    Hi, Tom, thanks for recommending Kabloona – what a great book! My local library had a copy of it sitting on the shelf and I’ve been enjoying it all week. The subtleties of the landscape descriptions and of Poncin’s evolving perspectives regarding the Eskimo are fascinating. Poncin’s writing style is conversational and just sucks you right into the story. So much so, I’ve had a hard time putting down the book since I jumped into it a few days ago!

    Thanks again!

    Glad you’re enjoying it. I sure did.

    Reply
  20. Dana

    I’m kind of philosophical about the whole “technology and progress” thing. We’ve had technology for as long as we’ve been making tools, and what in the world does “progress” mean? I could get into a whole convoluted essay here about how something as simple as literacy has made us dumber (oral-tradition peoples have better long-term memories than literate people do), and how we’ve wrecked so much of the environment just to have the latest cool toys, whether you believe we’ve got anthropogenic global warming or not.

    I was born into this, and this is all I know, and as we are a social animal I could not leave it behind without some kind of tribe around me… but I know it’s not the best way for people to live. Number one, there IS no “the” best way for people to live and number two, I need only look at the health and ecological consequences of how we live to know the score. “By their fruits ye shall know them” and all that–Jesus was a smart guy even if you don’t buy the theological angle. (I don’t, not that it matters.)

    So I find myself in the unenviable position of not liking the way my people live but not being able to leave–and so many of the world’s people are domesticated now, and the wild people dying out. And domesticated people are the same everywhere, the differences between their cultures being superficial for the most part.

    Daniel Quinn’s definitely an interesting read. So’s Jason Godesky, who has not published a book so far as I know, but has written prolifically online.

    Oh and it’s interesting, whenever I bring up Inuit in a discussion of diets, some wag always brings up the fact that they have some of the highest rates of osteoporosis in the world. To which I always reply, “Yes, that’s probably true of the ones eating domesticated industrial foods. What about the ones on traditional foods? They’d have died out long ago.”

    I feel no need to try whale blubber, there are too many domesticated people hunting them already. I don’t object to traditional Inuit and other indigenous peoples familiar with the whale eating its blubber, but that description doesn’t apply to most of us. Maybe if the whale populations ever rebound, but I suspect that under circumstances which allowed for that, the rest of us will have walked away from our own domestication and industrial lifestyles and re-localized our food supplies. I dunno. Just guessing.

    Reply
  21. Dana

    I’m kind of philosophical about the whole “technology and progress” thing. We’ve had technology for as long as we’ve been making tools, and what in the world does “progress” mean? I could get into a whole convoluted essay here about how something as simple as literacy has made us dumber (oral-tradition peoples have better long-term memories than literate people do), and how we’ve wrecked so much of the environment just to have the latest cool toys, whether you believe we’ve got anthropogenic global warming or not.

    I was born into this, and this is all I know, and as we are a social animal I could not leave it behind without some kind of tribe around me… but I know it’s not the best way for people to live. Number one, there IS no “the” best way for people to live and number two, I need only look at the health and ecological consequences of how we live to know the score. “By their fruits ye shall know them” and all that–Jesus was a smart guy even if you don’t buy the theological angle. (I don’t, not that it matters.)

    So I find myself in the unenviable position of not liking the way my people live but not being able to leave–and so many of the world’s people are domesticated now, and the wild people dying out. And domesticated people are the same everywhere, the differences between their cultures being superficial for the most part.

    Daniel Quinn’s definitely an interesting read. So’s Jason Godesky, who has not published a book so far as I know, but has written prolifically online.

    Oh and it’s interesting, whenever I bring up Inuit in a discussion of diets, some wag always brings up the fact that they have some of the highest rates of osteoporosis in the world. To which I always reply, “Yes, that’s probably true of the ones eating domesticated industrial foods. What about the ones on traditional foods? They’d have died out long ago.”

    I feel no need to try whale blubber, there are too many domesticated people hunting them already. I don’t object to traditional Inuit and other indigenous peoples familiar with the whale eating its blubber, but that description doesn’t apply to most of us. Maybe if the whale populations ever rebound, but I suspect that under circumstances which allowed for that, the rest of us will have walked away from our own domestication and industrial lifestyles and re-localized our food supplies. I dunno. Just guessing.

    Reply
  22. William Boulanger

    If you enjoyed Kabloona, I suggest that you read “Inuk” by Roger Buliard, a Catholic missionary (briefly mentioned in Kabloona) who was there at the same time. He presents an open-minded, yet missionary point of view of the Inuits. He provides additional cultural insight to this kind of culture that is essentially extinct today, thanks to well-meaning but disastrous government intervention. The Inuit cultures go on but in an evolved form from that described. Some of what he reports may be unsettling to outsiders, but was sheer pragmatism for those living on the edge.

    Reply
  23. William Boulanger

    If you enjoyed Kabloona, I suggest that you read “Inuk” by Roger Buliard, a Catholic missionary (briefly mentioned in Kabloona) who was there at the same time. He presents an open-minded, yet missionary point of view of the Inuits. He provides additional cultural insight to this kind of culture that is essentially extinct today, thanks to well-meaning but disastrous government intervention. The Inuit cultures go on but in an evolved form from that described. Some of what he reports may be unsettling to outsiders, but was sheer pragmatism for those living on the edge.

    Reply
  24. Jake

    Remember all those nasty things I said earlier, dear reader? Now you know what a fool I truly was. I was a Kabloona.

    Do you happen to have a page number for this quote?

    Reply
  25. Jake

    Remember all those nasty things I said earlier, dear reader? Now you know what a fool I truly was. I was a Kabloona.

    Do you happen to have a page number for this quote?

    Reply

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