by Farley Mowat
People of the Deer by Farley Mowat is a very sobering book. It chronicles the author's explorations into the Barrens of Northern Canada, where he studied caribou and lived with a group of isolated inland Eskimo, the Ihalmiut. Entirely dependent upon the caribou, these people were almost wiped out by starvation in the 1940s. Attempts by the Canadian government, missionaries and other groups to help them only intensified their demise. This was mainly because aid was given in the form of food and supplies that were entirely inappropriate for the needs of the Eskimo, was doled out in sporadic amounts and failed to arrive when it was most needed. Even after the author had lived among them for two years and published detailed reports about their plight, they were largely ignored and forgotten.
The first several chapters outlining how Mowat became interested in visiting the Barrenlands and his struggle to reach the remote area make rather dry reading. But once he is among the Ihalmiut and learns the rudiments of their language the book springs to life. Mowat's account of his efforts to assimilate himself into a different culture and earn the people's trust are impressive and amusing. There are several chapters on the beliefs, customs, legends and the history of the Ihalmiut; with comparisons to the costal Eskimos who live off the sea, and Native Americans who are their historical enemies. The Ihalmiut have a way of life that is very peaceable and communistic. It becomes clear through Mowat's experiences that communism is a necessity in such a harsh environment; without cooperation and complete altruism in times of need, the people would perish.
This is made quite clear when the full story of Kakumee, the only man all the Ihalmiut fear and call evil, is finally revealed. He is a shaman- a role in Eskimo society which is explained in depth. Because this one single man did not follow the Law but coveted what the "white man" had, he helped to instigate a chain of suffering that brought his whole people down.
After I finished reading this book I did a little online research to see what happened after Mowat left the Ihalmiut. I was shocked and dismayed to find that they are gone: all their people perished, save a very few lone survivors. I felt like I was holding a book full of ghosts. I felt sickened at the ignorance and callousness that allowed this to happen. To quote the author:
"To give a dying man a cup of water may be laudable; but to let that man die, when it is in our power to prevent it, is despicable. In effect we have been doling out cups of water to a dying pepole in the arctic..."
In spite of how sad I felt with I finished it, this book is a great read! The story of Mowat's daily life with these gentle people in the bleak and forbidding Arctic is sprinkled with humor and full of vitality. It is an utterly fascinating account. Definitely staying on my bookshelf.
Rating: 4/5 Published 1952, 230 pages