Religion is hardly an appropriate word for the Eskimo system of belief—there is no worship of God.

It was commercial interests that first turned European eyes toward the white wilderness of the Canadian Arctic. The trade routes between Europe and Asia, which took ships around the southern tips of the African and American continents, were long and hazardous. If a Northwest Passage above Canada could be found, it would almost halve the distance. After the failures of Christopher Columbus in 1492 and of John Cabot in 1497, a whole series of further expeditions was launched.

Now in the latter part of the twentieth century the possible commercial use of the Northwest Passage is again being canvassed. It was the discovery of oil in Alaska that led to the conversion of the Manhattan into a giant ice-breaking tanker of 150,000 tons, fitted with highly sophisticated, computerized equipment. The huge costs of construction and of antipollution insurance have led at present to pipelines as an alternative means of transporting oil and gas to the south. But we may yet hear more of the Northwest Passage before the century ends.

Nevertheless, Christian interest in the Arctic focuses less on fossil fuels and mineral deposits than on the people who for centuries have maintained their brave struggle for survival against cold and starvation. We tend to call them “Eskimos” (a corruption of a contemptuous Indian term meaning “raw flesh eaters”), but they call themselves “Inuit,” signifying just “the people,” the plural of “inuk,” a “person.” Although they are divided into numerous subcultures, speak different dialects and refer to themselves and each other by picturesque expressions like “people of the muskox,” “people of the rich fishing grounds,” ...

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