CHAPTER V. NATIVE WITNESSES.
We left camp at half-past seven in the morning of the 15th, a sharp wind blowing in our faces. We had not gone far when the dogs began to prick up their ears, and finally started off on a brisk run, barking and manifesting great excitement. The Inuits at once attributed this unwonted energy on the part of the dogs to the fact that there were people not far distant, and, sure enough, we soon saw several igloos about three-quarters of a mile ahead, with poles sticking in the snow around them - an evidence that they were inhabited. The sleds were now halted, and preparations made to open communication with the strangers. The Inuits of our party, especially Ishnark and Joe, were very much frightened, and said the people we were about to meet were as warlike as the Netchilliks, and always wanted to fight when they met strangers. They were somewhat reassured when their attention was called to the immense advantage we had over them with our breech-loaders and magazine guns against their bows and spears. In accordance with the custom of the country, the Inuits armed themselves with snow-knives and spears, while the white men carried their rifles or revolvers. All the men and boys then advanced toward the igloos, but not a soul was to be seen. Two or three dogs ran out and barked and then ran to where the sleds were halted, the women and children cowering down behind them. When within about three hundred yards of the camp our party halted, while Equeesik and Ishnark went a few paces further and began shouting something, which I afterward learned was Equeesik's name, with which they were acquainted, and announcing the fact that there were white men with our party. Presently one man crawled timidly out of the doorway of an igloo and asked a question, which must have been satisfactorily answered, for others soon followed and arranged themselves alongside of him; then all of them shouted an invitation to advance, whereupon we approached, and conversation between the Inuits became general. We were objects of great curiosity to the strangers, most of whom now saw white men for the first time. It seems that when they first saw us they thought we were Netchilliks, and were in consequence very much frightened, so that while some of our people were dreading an encounter, these poor creatures were shaking in their shoes and afraid to come out of their igloos. They all carried knives in their hands, but as weapons they might as well have carried nothing. Most of them were bits of hoop-iron or copper, worked down to a blade, and fastened upon long handles of reindeer horn.
There were in the party nine men, nearly all belonging to the immediate family of an old man, who acted as spokesman. He said he was an Ookjoolik, but he and others had been driven from their country by their more numerous and warlike neighbors the Netchilliks. His family comprised nearly all that was left of the tribe which formerly occupied the western coast of Adelaide Peninsula and King William Land. We concluded to encamp with them, and get what information we could from them concerning our mate and the Franklin ships. We were fortunate in finding the old man, an interesting and important witness. "Esquimau Joe," Ishnark, and Equeesik acted as interpreters, and through them we learned that these people were in great distress for food. The musk-ox we saw cached was all the meat they had in hand, or had had for a long time. An old man of their tribe had starved to death about a month before our arrival. We gave them some reindeer meat, of which we fortunately had plenty on the sleds, and told them where they would find the carcass of a reindeer that one of our party had killed the day before and left on the field because the sleds were too far off to wait for it. Their clothing was in a dilapidated condition, though originally well made, and instead of reindeer gloves and shoes, they wore articles made of musk-ox skin, which had a most extraordinary effect. The hair of the musk-ox is several inches long, and it looked as if they had an old-fashioned muff on each hand. They were very good natured and friendly, however, and helped to build our igloos and make them comfortable. We obtained from them a few trifling relics of the 'Erebus' and 'Terror', in exchange for knives and needles, which made them happy. It seemed strange to me that they should be hungry in a country swarming with reindeer, but our people explained to me that in winter it is almost impossible to get near enough to reindeer; to kill them with arrows, which are their only weapons. In summer they kill a few reindeer from their kyacks, or skin canoes, while crossing the big lakes on their migrations. The Netchilliks also kill a few reindeer in this way. In the summer and fall these people catch great quantities of salmon and cow-e-sil-lik, a species of fish peculiar to this country, and in the neighboring hills kill a few musk-oxen. Their main dependence, however, is upon fish from Back's and Harris's rivers.