As a young man searching for adventure, James Houston quickly verified the one thing everyone has heard about Eskimos and their bedtime hospitality. Decades later, he is still digesting other lessons he learned during 14 years spent among the Inuit, as Eskimos call themselves.
”When I brought my wife up north for the first time,” Houston said,
”one of the Inuit I`d long hunted with looked her up and down. Then he turned to me and said: `Seems like you`ve been doing too much borrowing and not enough lending, old friend.` ”
As long as the subject had come up, Houston decided to deliver a full lecture on sexual mores in the Arctic.
It is true an Eskimo may offer to lend his wife to a guest, explained the Canadian-born artist and author, who was in town to publicize his 22nd book inspired by those years on Baffin Island, off the northeast coast of the Northwest Territories. But that custom has to be understood in terms of the peculiar forms that male bonding and female rights take in the frozen North.
Mentally strip away all the comfort and security that civilization provides, Houston suggested. Imagine that your hunting skills are all that separate you and your family from starvation.
”I arrived among the Eskimos in spring and, my first day there, fell in five times while trying to edge out across thin ice towards the open water where seals are to be found,” said Houston, 69. ”In that kind of unyielding environment, even experienced hunters can go on only because they trust that their companions will be there to save them in a moment of mortal danger.”
Dependent as they are on one another for mutual survival, Eskimos naturally cede a visitor a place of honor at the warmest spot in their home:
the center of the family bed, where a person is better insulated against subzero temperatures by the bodies flanking him. It is an Eskimo woman`s option, though, to share that place and herself with an overnight guest.
”An Eskimo and his wife will see a sled and dog team way out on the horizon and recognize them as a faithful hunting companion`s,” Houston said. ” `He is heading this way,` the husband will say. `Will you be sleeping with him tonight?` Sometimes the woman will reply yes. Other times, she won`t even look up from her sewing, and by her having ignored the question, as if she hadn`t even heard it, both understand the answer is no.”
Houston came by his anthropological discoveries because his mother was troubled by the thought of her son as a young man on the loose in Paris.
In 1947, recently discharged from a World War II hitch with the Canadian Army, Houston was an art student attracted to the City of Light. He studied painting and drawing by day and spent his evenings learning French with the aid of ”a sleeping dictionary.” That`s a 19th Century term, he explained, coined by Hudson`s Bay Company fur traders to describe their method for learning the Indians` languages. ”It`s a friendly girl who can teach you her native language at least as well as Berlitz can, and much more pleasantly,” Houston said.
To fill in the details of ”Running West” (Crown: $19.95), his most recent book, Houston drew upon those student-day memories. In the novel, an Indian maid becomes live-in tutor to a Scotsman explorer of the North American wilds.
Houston`s Parisian adventures somehow triggered at long distance his mother`s Calvinistic suspicions. ”My mother wrote me to come home, saying,
`I don`t know exactly what you`re up to over there, but it`s making me very nervous,` ” Houston said.
Back home in Canada, Toronto was far too tame for a man in his mid-20s who had seen Paris, so he took his wanderlust north.
With a half-formed idea that paintings of the Arctic might sell, he persuaded a bush pilot to fly him to an Eskimo encampment near the Arctic Circle, arriving without so much as the price of a ticket home and no idea of how long he would be there or how he might live.
Fortunately, as he discovered, everyone at hand is welcome to share in whatever an Eskimo family has. Without so much as batting an eye that a tall white man would show up among them, the Eskimos of Baffin Island made him part of their hunting parties and took him into their igloos.
Given his tenderfoot clumsiness, the Eskimos` generosity was a serious drain on their own precious efficiency. Having to repeatedly fish him out of freezing water took them away from finding enough game for their families to eat.
”When I finally learned the language,” Houston said, ”they told me that first year they never thought I`d live to see the `time of hard ice,`
their term for the winter season. Still, they never gave up on me or even indicated that I was a burden, which I certainly was.”
Eventually, Houston not only became an accomplished hunter but also found a way to repay his hosts for their patience. When he took out his sketch books, he quickly discovered that he wasn`t alone in his feeling for art. In Paris or Toronto, Houston noted, a handful of people might paint or draw, but virtually all Eskimos love to draw and carve.
In the 1950s, when Houston went to live among the Eskimos, the fur trade was already declining. It occurred to him that the Eskimos` artistic talent might be their economic salvation.
So whenever he went south, delivering his own work to Canadian galleries, he would also take along a few pieces his friends had done. On return trips, he brought paper and art supplies for the Eskimos. Over time, he developed an audience for Eskimo art and eventually formed an artists cooperative to market his friends` work, an important source of income for the Baffin Islanders today.
In 1955, when the Canadian government realized that Houston was determined to stay on among the Eskimos, he was appointed the first Civil Administrator for West Baffin Island. For seven years, he was the government. An icebreaker docked yearly, bringing in mail and taking out the ill and infirm. Beyond that, he was on his own to play roles from judge to doctor for the 341 people who wandered the 65,000 square miles of his administrative district.
In 1962, he announced that it was time for him to move on. His first marriage had failed, and Houston was beginning to doubt his ability to grow old in the Arctic.
To his Eskimo friends, it seemed as if the long arm of civilization had reached out to reclaim their hunting companion.
”As I was leaving, all the Eskimos lined up while the senior man among them presented me with an old paper bag as a going-away present,” Houston said. ”It was stuffed full of crumpled-up one- and five-dollar bills. They`d passed the hat among themselves, figuring the only reason I could be leaving was that I was so in love with money.”
Actually, Houston`s ticket out resulted from a chance meeting with Arthur Houghton, the president of Steuben Glass. An avid outdoorsman, Houghton had come to Baffin Island from New York with the first party of tourists to visit there. Shown Houston`s drawings, Houghton was convinced that Houston`s feeling for life in the frozen North would translate nicely into the decorative glass sculptures for which Steuben is known.
In fact, Houston`s designs quickly became the most popular of the company`s offerings.
Adjusting to life in New York was another matter. Houghton not only gave him work, but also took it upon himself to be Houston`s social mentor. The problem was that after years in the North, Houston found himself virtually excluded from smart-set table talk. Sometimes, though, dinner companions would express an interest in a way of life so distant, and that is how Houston belatedly found his literary voice.
Among the Eskimos, Houston said, storytelling is a much-valued skill. Lacking written histories, the Inuit maintain a sense of who they are by repeating, generation after generation, narratives about their ancestors and the gods.
To simply get a word in at Manhattan social gatherings, Houston began telling tales he had heard in the igloos. One evening, a book editor was among his listeners and insisted that he turn a story into a children`s book.
He graduated to adult fiction by a similar dinner-table encounter. Years before, he had heard the Eskimos talking about three shipwrecked whalers who, after living among them, had fallen afoul of Eskimo custom and been executed. At first, he tended to dismiss the story, but eventually he ran into an old Eskimo woman who still recalled the episode.
”She told me, `Yes, I remember them,` ” Houston said. ” `I slept with them, and they were real nice boys.` ”
When an editor heard that story, he commissioned Houston to set it down in print as ”The White Dawn.” That book went through 31 editions worldwide, was made into a motion picture and put Houston on the road to financial security. Now he and his second wife, Alice, divide their year between homes in Connecticut and in the Queen Charlotte Islands, British Columbia.
He also visits his Arctic friends as often as possible. For Houston, the Eskimo way of life is still an emotional gyroscope. Living in a bureaucratic society, it helps to recall that the Eskimos know only one honorific title:
”hunter,” the man who provides enough meat for his loved ones.
Recently, Houston said, he was introduced to some Eskimo artists who had been brought to New York for an exhibition. When asked what they thought of civilization, his new friends replied that the only thing that impressed them was an outing to the Bronx Zoo, where they had been wowed by the sight of a giraffe. With that long neck and those wonderful fleshy flanks, the Eskimos said, such an animal could feed their families for many weeks.
What does it taste like, they wanted to know. Houston replied that he had never eaten giraffe.
”They looked at each other, kind of funny, and then back to me,”
Houston said. ”Then they said: `We must have been misinformed. We had heard that you were a great hunter.` ”