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Netsilik Videos

The Netsilik Eskimo Series - National Film Board of Canada


By Education Development Center, Inc. in association with the National Film Board of Canada.

These films reveal the live reality of traditional Eskimo life before the European acculturation. The Netsilik Eskimos of the Pelly Bay region in the Canadian Arctic had long lived apart from other people and had depended entirely on the land and their own ingenuity to sustain life through the rigors of the Arctic year. The filming was done during the summers of 1963 and 1964 and in the late winter of 1965 under the ethnographic direction of Dr. Asen Balikci of the University of Montréal, assisted by Guy Mary-Rousseliere, O.M.I., both anthropologists of wide Arctic experience. Quentin Brown was Producer-Director, and Kevin Smith the Executive Producer for the series. A minimum of cultural reconstruction was required during the filming; the Netsilik families readily agreed to live in the old way once more and showed considerable aptitude in recalling and representing the earlier ways of life.

All videos are in color, with the natural sounds of the region and of the Eskimos' activities but with no voice other than those of the Eskimos. The films were originally released in 1967. The effect of this film series is that of a field trip where students can observe Eskimo ways at their leisure and form their own impressions. The pace is unhurried; many of the Eskimo activities are shown in close detail. The films are useful for courses in economic anthropology, development of technology and North American aboriginal cultures, in general studies of the circumpolar culture area, as well as for high school and upper elementary grades. This series is a part of the widely used elementary social studies curriculum, Man: A Course of Study (MACOS).

At the Caribou Crossing Place Part 1
 (color, 30 min): The time is early autumn. The woman wakes and dresses the boy. He practices with his sling while she spreads a caribou skin to dry. The boy picks berries and then the men come in their kayak with another caribou. This is skinned, and soon night falls. In the morning, one man leaves with his bow while the other makes a fishing mannick, a bait of caribou meat. The woman works at the skins, this time cleaning sinews and hanging them to dry. The man repairs his arrows and then sets a snare for a gull. The child stones the snared gull and then plays hunter, using some antlers for a target. His father makes him a spinning top.

At the Caribou Crossing Place Part 2 (color, 29 min): Two men arrive at the camp and the four build from stones a long row of manlike figures, inukshult, down toward the water. They wait for caribou and then chase them toward the stone figures and so into the water where other men in kayaks spear them. The dead animals are floated ashore and skinned. The boy plays with the visitors, the woman cooks the meat, the men crack the bones and eat the marrow, and then feast on the plentiful meat.

At the Autumn River Camp Part 1 (color, 26 min): It is late autumn and the Eskimos travel through soft snow and build karmaks, shelters with snow walls and a roof of skins, in the river valley. The geese are gone but some musk-ox are seen. The man makes a toy sleigh from the jawbones of a caribou and hitches it to a puppy. Next day the women gather stocks of moss for the lamp and the fire. The men fish through the ice with spears. The woman cooks fish while the men cache the surplus. Then the family eats in the karmak.

At the Autumn River Camp Part 2
 (color, 33 min): The men build an igloo and the household goods are moved in. They begin the complicated task of making a sleigh, using the skins from the tent, frozen fish, caribou antlers and sealskin thong. The woman works at a parka, using more caribou skin, and the children play. Now the sled is ready to load and soon the family is heading downriver to the coast.


At the Winter Sea Ice Camp Part 1 (color, 36 min): In late winter when the cold is severe, the people and dogs are glad to stop their trek and make camp. In the blue dusk the men probe the snow and then cut building blocks while the women shovel a site. Soon all are under cover, and in the wavering light of the stone lamp they sleep, their breath rising coldly. In the light of day the men test and refurbish their spears, harness dogs to the sled and strike out on the sea ice. Each man, with a dog or two, explores the white waste, seeking scent of a seal's breathing hole. When a dog noses the snow, the man probes for the hole and, when he finds it, suspends a single looped hair to signal when the seal rises to breathe. Then he waits, motionless, to make his strike. He kills, and the others gather to taste the warm liver of his catch. Then, as night comes, the vigil goes on.


At the Winter Sea Ice Camp Part 2 (color, 36 min): In the morning the women spread the furs over the igloos to air. The children play, striking a ball of fur with a bone bat. The men wait patiently for sign of seals and the women play with the babies, sew, repair the igloos, nurse a child; an old woman rocks as she chants. A woman shows an older girl how to shape and cut fur for clothing. Then the seals begin to arrive, towed by the hunters. The women dress the seals, eating between times, passing the knife along as needed. The men come in with their catch, and soon all are indoors.


At the Winter Sea Ice Camp Part 3 (color, 30 min): Work begins on a big community igloo, and all share in the building of it; one cuts, one carries, one builds, and so on. The children imitate. Women pile snow on the igloo, tossing it up from shovel to shovel. Ice sheets are installed for light. The men return to their sealing and the women to duties or play. In the large living space of the igloo, activities are easy to see. An infant uses the sharp ulu as confidently as any adult to cut bite-size meat or fish. A game of blind man's bluff begins between women and children. This is followed by spear-the-peg, where a toggle-sized peg is suspended and players with baton-sized spears attempt to strike the hole in the peg as it turns. Now fish is sliced and eaten. In the blue dusk, the snow smokes over the ice, and the men come home. A man drags in a seal and a woman sucks on ice and then drips the water into the mouth of a dead animal. The flesh is then divided, with each woman carrying away some in sealskin bags. The dogs enter to clean up, and the men then try their games of strength.


At the Winter Sea Ice Camp Part 4 (color, 35 min): A bitter wind blows and the dogs huddle in the snow. In the igloo, the children scratch in the rime on the ice window. A man takes out his tool-pouch and drills the stone trough he is making, using bow and spindle. Children play with a pup; a man coils his whip and warms his hands at the lamp. A naked infant toddles by. A woman presses blubber in the lamp to free the oil, and a child carries the sharpening rock to the man who saws at his stonework. Outside, the boys stand on their heads and roll in drifting snow. A woman has a speck of rock in her eye and the carver removes it by opening wide the eye and applying his lips. The men gamble at the spear-the-peg game. The women try another spear-the-peg game. Some men are still at the seal hunt, beards rimed by the cold. Day ends with a drum performance to which the women sing. The next day the big igloo is deserted and the people are again trekking over the broad expanse of the sea ice.


Jigging for Lake Trout (color, 32 min): More signs of winter's end as more wildlife returns. The family makes an excursion for fresh fish from a lake. They build a karmak and move in the furs, cooking troughs, etc. The woman sets up her lamp, spreads the furs and attends to the children. There are signs of returning wildlife. The man moves out on the lake ice and chips a hole for fishing. He baits his hook and lowers it jigging the line to attract the fish. Crouched by the hole, he persists with his purpose and takes some fish, as does his wife who has joined him. Both remain at the hole through a severe blizzard.


At the Spring Sea Ice Camp Part 1 (color, 27 min): Two Eskimo families travel across the wide sea ice. Before night falls they build small igloos and we see the construction in detail. The next day a polar bear is seen basking in the warming sun. A woman lights her seal oil lamp, carefully forming the wick from moss. The man repairs his snow goggles. Another man arrives dragging a polar bear skin. The boy has made a bear-shaped figure from snow and practices throwing his spear. Then he tries his bow. Now, with her teeth, the woman crimps the sole of a sealskin boot she is making.


At the Spring Sea Ice Camp Part 2 (color, 27 min): The men are hunting seal through the sea-ice in the bleak windy weather. The wind disturbs the "tell-tales," made of eider down or a hair loop on a bone, that signal when a seal rises to breathe. A hunter strikes, kills and drags his catch up and away. At the igloo the woman scrapes at a polar bear skin and a man repairs a sled. In the warming weather the igloo is topped with furs and a snow shelter is built to hide the sled from the sun. Now a seal is skinned, the polar bear skin pegged out to dry, and the people stop for a snack of good red fish from the cache.


At the Spring Sea Ice Camp Part 3 (color, 27 min): The hunter is traveling alone with sled and dogs. There is a sharp sound and he sees a ground squirrel, sets his snare and soon catches it. He kills it by crushing the skull with his foot, leaving the skin undamaged. Skirting bare ground, he comes to a fish cache and loads his sled, feeding the dogs some morsels. The sled appears to drag, even on the harder snow of the sea ice. In camp a woman sews, a girl hangs fish on a line, and all stop to eat. Now the disintegrating skin sled is dismantled and the polar bear skin serves for conveyance. They break camp, moving ashore to put up their tents for summer.


Group Hunting on the Spring Ice Part 1 (color, 34 min): Late June, and much of the land is bare. There are sounds of running water, and melt ponds shine everywhere. The woman carries heather and moss to camp and the man makes a whirling bullroarer for the boy. Another child pretends to drive a dog sled. A woman is working sinews into bowstrings, while another is busy with a seal skin. A woman prepares to cook a meal and a man makes a bow from bone and sinews. It is a demanding task to combine such materials into a strong supple weapon; the result is pleasing to the man. The next day the men move out on the sea ice with a dog to look for seal pups.


Group Hunting on the Spring Ice Part 2 (color, 28 min): The men are out on the sea ice and the women work at the tasks of camp. Seal skins are pegged to dry in the sun and a woman, baby on her back, picks over a pile of gulls. The birds are skinned and then go into the pot with water from a melt pond. A baby sucks on a bone. The people eat, and then the women visit an old man in his tent. Now the women are out gathering moss for the fires and we see the birds and flowers common to the area. A woman skins a seal pup while another sews skins for a tent. The children play at making camp, and some of the older girls pretend to nurse the fat pups. Then the adults join the fun, playing at juggling.


Group Hunting on the Spring Ice Part 3 (color, 33 min): The men are moving about on the sea ice, probing for unsafe ice and watching for seals. The snow cover is nearly gone now, and the breathing holes have widened. The men sit and wait. One makes a strike with his harpoon and others come to watch. They are ready to eat and relish the good warm blood and the liver. Another hunter succeeds, and then another but this one loses his catch when his thong breaks and the seal slides back into the water. But the party has three seals in tow when they return to camp, and soon the women have the meat exposed and all eat. Then the blubber is packed into the sealskin bags and the men haul it away to the cache.


Stalking Seal on the Spring Ice Part 1 (color, 25 min): The family is on the shore of Pelly Bay in May-June. A seal basks beside its hole under a warming sun. The hunter stalks the seal, kills it and drags it to the family camp on shore. Man and wife skin the seal, cutting the hide into rings that girdle the body. Stripped of blubber, the rings are then cut spirally into long thongs. The boy plays on the shingle imitating the circling gulls, while the man stretches his thongs between rocks and scrapes away the fur. The woman dresses the seal, wasting nothing, braiding the intestines.


Stalking Seal on the Spring Ice Part 2 (color, 34 min): A seal is seen nosing from a snow-melt pool. The hunter sits at the door of his tent shaping a new bone tip for his harpoon. The woman is in the tent sewing a fur mitten. They eat a little frozen fish; then the hunter finishes his harpoon and sets out after seal. After a long imitative stalk, the hunter moves too soon, alerting the seal, and his harpoon misses. In camp the woman skins a flipper and the boy plays. The hunter prepares for a night vigil at the breathing hole of the seal. Next morning the woman scrapes a seal skin, the boy plays on shore, and the hunter still waits for the seal. When again he fails, he turns to egg collecting on the cliff where the gulls nest. Finally the family packs its belongings on a bear skin and shifts along the coast to another area.


Building a Kayak Part 1 (color, 32 min): Now it is July - summer. The run-off is in full spate and open water shows offshore. Ice cakes melt on the shingle. On the bay are ducks. It is time to build a kayak, a task shared by two men. They gather materials: valuable scraps of wood, bone, seal skins and sinews. Now there is much cutting, fitting, joining and binding. The woman helps by cutting additional thongs, scraping skins, providing food. She must also amuse the child who seems left out by the single-minded work of the men. Then the work breaks and a man harpoons a fish in a tide pool; all share the pleasure of fresh food.


Building a Kayak Part 2 (color, 33 min): As the kayak takes shape there are more ribs to be split and shaped to fit, more soaking, bending and binding, more skins to soak and scrape and soak again before stretching them tightly on the frame and sewing them in place. Now the outer rim is put in position and, while the ice floats in the bay, the men launch and test their new kayak with evident pleasure in its able performance.


Fishing at the Stone Weir Part 1 (color, 30 min): Full summer, and the tundra is bare; skin tents are up and it is time to attend to the fishing as the fish move upstream. The men are in the river, lifting stones and placing them to form enclosures to trap the fish. A woman skins a duck and then braids her hair in the old way, stiffly around sticks. From a bladder she makes a balloon for the child. The men are fishing with the three-pronged leisters, spearing the fish and stringing them on a thong, until it is as much as a man can do to drag his catch from the water. The woman works quickly, cleaning the fish, and then all enjoy bits of the fresh raw fish.


Fishing at the Stone Weir Part 2 (color, 27 min): There are many men fishing now and even the children on shore imitate the motions of the men. Rain sweeps over the tundra but the work goes on, the men splashing through the weir, furs hitched high, seemingly little affected by the cold water. The haul is large. A man makes fire with a bowdrill and soon there is a blaze under the stone cooking pot. Fish are stewed and eaten, the men staying in their own group. There is a little play at cat's cradle while stories are told, and then the women return to cleaning fish and the men to building stone caches to store and protect the plentiful harvest for the leaner days to come.

An American elementary school program from the 1970s, Man: A Course of Study (MACOS), looked to the Inuit of the Canadian Arctic to help students see their own society in a new way. At its core was The Netsilik Film Series, an acclaimed benchmark of visual anthropology from the National Film Board that captured a year in the life of an Inuit family, reconstructing an ancient culture on the cusp of contact with the outside world. But the graphic images of the Netsilik people created a clash of values that tore rifts in communities across the U.S. and revealed a fragile relationship between politics and education. A fiery national debate ensued between academic and conservative forces.

Through These Eyes looks back at the high stakes of this controversial curriculum. Decades later, as American influence continues to affect cultures worldwide, the story of MACOS resonates strongly.