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And so to the Frozen North

Meany, Dr Denis

5. And so to the Frozen North
And so to the Frozen North

A certain chain of events and sheer desperation eventually landed Denis on a Steamer that would take him to the Frozen Pribilof Islands. Destiny then decreed that this then would be his fate for the next five years. He writes little of the position he accepted, only to state that his employment with the "Alaska Fur Company" would bring him an income of $75.00 per month all found. And that if he became, "accustomed to the area and duties he should get an agency of some kind to make it worth his while to remain". We can only speculate as to what his feelings were on reaching the "Bering Sea". His simply notes that "he thought of the many thousands of miles he was away from home, but was not sorry for it so far".
However, towards the end of his five-year stint we learn that he became quite lonely and just could not wait to get off the Islands. Initially of course, the Doctor was full of optimism and clearly looking forward to the challenge ahead. His first great disappointment came sometime before March of 1873. His entry of the time illustrates his frustration and impatience with the inhabitants of the Islands, namely, the Aleut Indians. The passage, which was dealing with an ongoing incident, was written with great passion at the time. The Doctor was asked to take charge of the school, which he "cheerfully did". He goes on to write;"I was at first rather encouraged and thought there was a chance for the poor deluded people to advance them from the low ebb of ignorance in which they were in, and to gradually feel step by step their way on the road to civilisation. But soon a change came over the spirit of my dream as it were. After all kindness lavished on them in the shape of kind words, example, and no punishment. I saw it was going to be an uphill work. They soon made all possible excuses to stay away, come at irregular hours, untidy, unclean. The books that were given to them gradually disappeared with maps torn about. This last trick done so that they might not be sent to school". In another passage he writes."I have spoken over and over again to the parents and friends of the children.. but they always say "School no good! School no good!!" I have asked the children to come to school. They take up the tune from the parents, "School no good!! School no good!! Summing up his feelings on the unhappy situation, he dramatically puts pen to paper: "Should the question ever be asked of me when I again return to civilisation, "What else is the Island of St George Behring sea remarkable for besides its fur seals?" I would immediately answer, Its total isolation, the igornance of its inhabitants. Great aversion and extreme horror they have for education and knowledge. They love to be in the dismal swamp of ignorance. No amount of coaxing, example given, talking to them or such like will possibly make any impression on the mind of the Aleut. He loves to live in kind of semi wild and barbarous state. Untouched. Unsophisticated.

Another bone of contention with the good Doctor throughout his stay on the Islands was the drinking habits of the Aleuts. In his Journals he constantly berates them for their abuse of "Home Brew" which they called "Quash" some of his entries relating to their abuse of the home made liquid are quite humorous. On one occasion a new President was about to take his seat in the Whitehouse, the man in question would probably have been Rutherford B. Hayes. Dr Meany writes "The Aleuts up here, they keep talking about the new President, They think little of him for the reason that he did not give them a couple of barrels of Whiskey or some Brandy to drink and get drunk". On the 17th of March he amusingly enters the following. "The poor Aleuts up here say that St Patrick was as good a man as the 4th of July, that is if they got a drink of liquor". Earlier entries declare "The Aleuts make a home brew called Quash. This is made in great quantities apparently, and of course drank with relish", and "a great many Natives drunk and several fights and cuts". Referring to one incident in which he blames the abuse of drink being responsible for the death of a prematurely born child. "The parents of the child are much given to drinking this vile stuff they call Quash". Many more entries are made in the journals relating to the abuse of the home made brew.

As time, progressed Denis would come to a better understanding of these indigenous people. His initial judgement of them would - towards the end - be reversed and writing in his diaries during 1876 with some compassion, he records. "The Aleute is not altogether destitute of gratitude. They appreciate good done to them. Kindness in instructing them. They don't forget we white people (Americans) frequently say to one another "There is no gratitude in their people". I have said so myself but I think I have wronged them, the fault, perhaps was mine. I did not understand them properly.

Author: Eddie Cantwell

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