Autoimmune Thyroid Disease

An Unfortunate and Lengthy Adventure in Misdiagnosis

A sick Inuit woman

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I have a copy of Writing on Ice: The Ethnographic Notebooks of Vilhjalmur Stefansson. When Stefansson was studying the Eskimo, Inuit and Native Americans of the arctic, they were still largely in their natural state. Some areas had been affected by fur trade with the white man, or whaling, some white man’s food was eaten in some parts, but largely not preferred, and often when gifted was thrown away by the natives. Infectious diseases had spread into the arctic, and there are frequent complaints of individual natives becoming sick throughout the book:

March 28: […] Illness. Nanyavuk says that before the ships (whalers) came there were some epidemics, but between times few were ever sick; no prevalence of swellings and running sores as now and colds were less frequent and less severe at any rate. He thinks there “were no colds.” This corresponds pretty well with our present observations of the Eastern Eskimo. Stefansson-Anderson Expedition (1908-1912) p.303

Is this romantic yearning for better days, or an accurate portrayal of native life? The natives harbour all kinds of strange superstitions, some of which make sense, and some are completely nonsensical. Some tribes believe liver is poisonous and do not eat it, whilst others do. There are some extraordinarily complex superstitions about food:

July 3: […] Paniulak tells that formerly when a man killed a wolf he ate no warm food four days, if it was a male wolf and five if it was a female. When he got into the house after killing the wolf, he would take a stone hammer (an old one preferably or necessarily) and shout four times in the fireplace or near it, “O-ho!” Four times if wolf a male; strike five times and shout five times if a female. Stefansson-Anderson Expedition (1908-1912) p.167

February 20: […] Beliefs. Pannigabluk when small was forbidden to eat at the same meal, berries and seal meat, especially if fresh. They habitually ate berries with old seal oil, but must not use fresh. Grown people feared this prohibition less than children. Tannaumirk says he was forbidden to eat bowhead whale, meat, skin, or oil, while his labret holes were healing. Stefansson-Anderson Expedition (1908-1912) p.246

March 2: […] Beliefs. One of the lobes of a caribou liver is called “the thumb” (kublua). Mothers that are bringing up young sons should eat this […]. When the boy grows a man and hunts deer, the bands will circle about him in a curve shaped like the outside (margin) of this lobe. This will give him a chance to kill many at once, while if his mother had not taken the precaution to eat this lobe, the deer might have run straight away from him. Stefansson-Anderson Expedition (1908-1912) p.247

March 9: […] Beliefs. Pannigabluk says Nogatogmiut and Killirk women might not eat the inside membrane of the ribs (i.e., the membrane covering the side of the rib that is towards the intestines or lungs), of mountain sheep or brown bears. They might eat the meat of no part of a sheep that was front of the eighth rib, counted from behind, except as follows: the leg back of a plane bisecting each from leg from the middle of the shoulder blade to the middle of the hoof, and the meat above a horizontal plane bisecting the neck vertebrae from the head to the trunk, i.e. they must not eat the head, ventral halves of the front legs, ventral portion of neck, or any part of the back vertebrae behind the neck and front of the eighth rib counted from behind. They were forbidden also the heart, that part of the intestinal fat that is near the pelvis, and any part of the pelvis itself. They were, however, allowed the kidneys and kidney fat. When eating lungs they must be careful not to eat any of the bronchial tubes. They were not allowed to eat any sheep marrow. A man might eat any part of a sheep. Children of both sexes ate all parts; the first menses put a girl in a class with the women. Women were allowed to eat any part of a caribou, except during menses, when they must not eat caribou heads. […] Stefansson-Anderson Expedition (1908-1912) p.249

Why these complex superstitions about meat? The superstition above is followed only by two tribes. Is this because the meat contains something harmful for women, or that men want to eat it? Or is it pure fantasy, like some of the other native beliefs?

The natives largely eat meat, which is almost always boiled, but also a lot of fish, some of which is eaten raw, some boiled, and some rotten. Stefansson describes the “rotten” or fermented fish as having a flavour like cheese, and savours this flavour. He also describes the pleasant flavour of meat that has slightly “turned”. It is not unduly rotten – some fish that is apparently truly rotten is fed to the dogs. Most people in our society today don’t react to cheese, just the minority of us who are very sensitive. Remember in this landscape, everything is frozen or near-frozen. Their frozen caches of meat and fish are often stolen by the dogs or by wolverines. In some warmer parts fish is buried in the ground to ferment, but that does not do for the area Stefansson is in, since it would simply freeze. In these cold temperatures, histamine would not form quickly, though glutamates might. Failsafers usually tolerate meat that has been frozen for a month.

They have diseases of old age:

February 19: […] Theories of disease. Tannaumirk says either men or dogs may lose their gall. In that case they become ill and usually die; the symptoms are […] inability to close the mouth, unwillingness to eat, staggering gate and later inability to stand up. Stefansson-Anderson Expedition (1908-1912) p.246

To me, this sounds like Alzheimer’s.

Amongst the natives there are individuals who are different. One individual is beset by strange attacks of fear:

February 18: […] Tannaumirk visits traps, which are long ago snow covered. […] T. came home before sundown; did not visit farthest trap – one set by Billy at his deer kill of February 10. Gave fear of turnnurat as his reason but would not say he had special reason for fear – only that he “felt afraid.” Pannigabluk says he has had several such fear-spells this winter. After dark tonight refuses to go outdoors even for ca. moment alone. […] Stefansson-Anderson Expedition (1908-1912) p.246

One individual is restless, perhaps even hyperactive:

January 12: Takpuk is said to be going insane. He is so restless that he has to be traveling or moving all the time. Got tired of waiting for crowd of dancers (who hang around Wainwright four days) and came back to his deer herd. Behaving as he does would not be remarked among the whites, but is considered abnormal here. Stefansson-Anderson Expedition (1908-1912) p.157

This individual reminds me of my maternal grandfather, who cannot sit still either! Remember these are natives that are barely touched by white man’s food, who still eat a very nutritious native diet:

July 28: Diseases. Woman today complained of her heart being so bad it hurt her ribs, and said she got that way after most meals, first her heart would get bad, then her liver, and both “wanted to come up in her throat.” Stefansson-Anderson Expedition (1908-1912) p.169

Being master butchers, they seem aware of the difference between stomach and heart, so this would not be acid reflux. A woman whose heart pounds after she eats slightly fermented meat, perhaps? This woman somehow relates her symptoms to her liver. There is no context given for this woman. No evidence that she was raised on white man’s foods – she is amongst true natives and seems to be a true native like the rest.


Written by alienrobotgirl

21 February, 2007 at 11:26 am

Posted in Historical Diets

One Response

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  1. Your post is very interesting!


    22 February, 2007 at 5:23 am

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