The indigenous Arctic peoples are the Yuit/Yup’ik of Siberia and Alaska, the Inupiat of Alaska, and Inuit of Canada, Greenland, and Iceland; they have also been generically called Inuit. The term Eskimo is a name derived from an Algonquin word meaning “to eat it raw” and has been considered by many Arctic people to be an uncomplimentary name, much like the term “Indian” for the indigenous peoples south of the Arctic Circle. From ancient times, these people of the north lived a nomadic to seminomadic lifestyle, which was close to nature, in harmony with their unique environment, and aware of the seasons and the subsistence that was available throughout the year. Survival-appropriate technology was the way of life, and whatever was hunted or gathered was completely utilized, and there was little if anything wasted; for example, walrus intestines were dried and made into waterproof clothing. Their religion was animistic; their belief is that all creation, whether animate or inanimate, has souls, and thus all creation is to be treated with respect and to share a good life.
When the Europeans arrived and exercised their more dominant technology, a disruptive acculturation was attempted to bring about the evisceration and absorption of the Inuit culture. Due to the remoteness and harsh winters, many of the Arctic people did not experience European “conversions” of their homeland until the 20th century. Whether the colonization of the “White men” came in the 1720s, as experienced of the Inuit in Greenland by the Danish, or in 1950s, by the Inuit of Alert Bay, the result has been similar to their culture and environment. The changes that occurred became forms of cultural genocide as the acculturation oppression of the gamut of cultural expression ensued as follows: Drum songs and festivities were outlawed and replaced by Christian music and holidays; the separate accommodations of men’s houses and the women and children’s houses ceased; the sharing of wives to create a kinship between families stopped; the nomadic lifestyle was replaced by permanent housing; the semi-submerged houses were replaced by drafty houses, requiring oil to heat and money to pay for the oil; “good Christians” didn’t have tattoos and labrets, and so they were prohibited; the hierarchies ceased as a result of the declining numbers due to infectious diseases, with which shamans were ill-prepared to deal. The respect of animals’ spirits was replaced with Christianity and the medical system, since the missionaries threatened eternal sanctions against all those who professed or practiced a faith in anything outside the religious confines of the church; the ravages of alcohol created ripples of pain and sorrow throughout the indigenous people’s lives and com-munities, as they struggled to adapt to these foreign ways while their world was constantly changing, on multiple levels at an incredible speed. The contacts and settlements of Euro-Americans and the enforcement of “civilization” tactics on the northern aboriginal people have come full circle as these indigenous people have learned to defend their aboriginal homeland and rights in the political arena, bringing about beneficial changes like the Alaska Native Land Claims and the Land Claims Agreement in Canada.
Their traditionally remote homeland has been exposed to the modern luxuries and conveniences of life that is much different than what is within reach in the Arctic regions, training them in the mercantile tradition of commerce, first by trade and trading posts, and then within the newly formed cities; as well as myriad catalogs and magazines, the radio and television brought the world to their living room; and finally the Internet is bringing the Inuit’s culture and products to the world. What will be the culmination of cultural ancestry and the impending conglomeration of a working-class identity for the Arctic peoples?
Religion Enforcement and Consequences
The missionaries, shocked by the lifestyle of the “Eskimos,” brought the greatest changes to the lives of these Arctic people, which attacked the very core of their lives: their spousal exchange, the practice of polyandry and polygyny, and the practice of families only living together when they were at camp and not at their villages. To remedy these situations, missionaries were known to arrive at a camp or village and quickly marry the couples who were together in bed, whether or not the couples were already traditionally married or intended to marry, and announce that these “Christian” marriages were binding. The next step was to abolish the gender-separate living quarters; their semi-submerged houses were abandoned as planks and shipped in to make houses the missionaries felt the “Eskimos” should live in. These turned out to be little one-room homes, occupied by usually more than one family. This sudden rearrangement brought much confusion and unhappiness to those who felt that their traditional way of life was better.
In the gender-separate living quarters, the young women shouldered many of the daily activities as they were being instructed by their female elders. Like many aboriginal communities, the children were tended to by all of the women, but especially instructed by the elder women. This system gave time for the younger women to learn the responsibilities and knowledge of all the survival skills prerequisite to living in the Arctic environment. The relocation of young Inuit families in Canada to work on the railroads and mines disrupted the traditionally honored training system. This degeneration of the societal fabric was observed and reported by David S. Stevenson in his study of the Problems of Eskimo Relocation for Industrial Employment, wherein he found heavy alcoholism occurred, as children were “left to themselves.” Compared to the various relocations Stevenson observed, there was one mining area that did experience some success, due to the presence of elder Inuit women who trained the younger women in a trade, which made the relocation bearable.
With the pressing onslaught of modern development, there were also simple pleasures and benefits that came to the Arctic people’s lives due to Christianity; for example, a young woman was allowed to marry a young man of her own age and her own choosing, instead of being bound to a prearranged marriage with someone who was usually older than she; also, both twins were now able to live, instead of one being chosen to ride in the mother’s hood; the infanticide of summer babies also ceased, who before would have slowed down the band during the busiest time. Another valuable contribution has been education, although it came at a heavy price in the beginning stages, empowering the indigenous people in their right to have their own culture and become innovators and leaders in this ever-changing world.
Schooling Among the People
Throughout Alaska and Canada, children were taxied out of their villages and camps by planes, to attend school from fall to spring. During this time, the spread of various diseases, such as measles, whooping cough, and the like, nearly decimated the Arctic people, wiping out nearly half of some villages. This prompted some families to move near the schools to be with their children and medical care; missionary boarding schools also turned into orphanages when the children’s families died and there was no one to go home to.
In the villages of Alaska, it had been a practice to send high school children to schools, such as the Presbyterian Affiliated Sheldon Jackson; but in the 1970s, a law passed to have high schools in the individual villages, because it was a hardship to have young people return to school during the hunting seasons, when they were most needed at home. Difficulties had also developed with the new environment, for example, coming from the wide-open spaces of the Arctic to the “suffocating” confines of being surrounded by the forests of southeast Alaska. Another contributing factor to some of the students’ failure was that the provincial curriculum taught in the village schools failed to adequately prepare them for the broader scope of the larger school’s curriculum. There was also a tendency for the students to leave school and return home due to loneliness.
Cognitive studies of Inuit children reported by Judith Kleinfeld found they have innately strong skills in the following: the ability to remember complex images, which facilitates a person’s mapmaking and drawing ability, as well as being a natural at mechanical skills. Through the years, as these young people have found their academic strengths and gone on to college, they have seldom returned to the villages, due to a shortage of jobs in their career fields and the modern advantages that they had become adapted to.
The Land and Its Subsistence
Family lifestyles shifted as the fur traders altered the hunters’ goals from subsistence to profit motive. Traditional subsistence foods such as seals, whales, and fish were also desired for commercial purposes. At first, these provided the Arctic peoples avenues to acquire the much-needed money that was becoming part of their lives. Transitions were made in the hunting and fishing gear from the poles and boats in fishing, to guns and snowmobiles for hunting. The transition from the dogsleds to snowmobile transportation was a difficult experience for some of the Inuit, when laws were imposed requiring their dogs be tied down and resulted in depriving them of essential exercise they needed to pull the sleds. For a time, there were no hunters in some villages, as the elders lamented over the lack of meat in their diet. When the snowmobiles arrived, they were a mixed blessing, because they were unreliable, broke down, required money for gas to and from the hunting grounds, and, unlike their faithful dogs, could not detect seal breathing holes.
Although modern food is increasingly consumed, subsistence has been a prevalent mainstay in the Inuit diet. The act of distribution to the families after a catch has seen these people through survival since ancient times. Today, there is a new element to hunting preparation, the pooling of resources acquired through the workforce, to afford the hunting trips. Another important factor negatively affecting their livelihood is the regulation of their fish and game. Prior to the Euro-American government creating these regulations, the Arctic people gathered what they needed, when they needed it, and this system worked, with no overharvesting. Respect was shown for the animals, which meant they only took what was needed. However, in today’s regulated society, should a person be apprehended for taking an animal or the herring spawn out of season, for example, there is not only a fine, but the much needed food is confiscated.
From after World War II to the 1960s, the Inuit people began assertively expressing themselves within the political system, due to their appearance in the political spotlight as they defended their aboriginal homeland against the encroachment of the powerful developers and tried to keep their right to subsistence, for example, to preserve their land from the devastation of oil-drilling exploration and exploitation, to control external wild life abuse and taking, to exercise the franchise to vote, and to continue to participate in whale and seal harvests. With the realization that all of the Inuit people were experiencing the same problems, various indigenous organizations began forming, like COPE (Committee for Original People’s Entitlement), Inuit Tapirisat (Inuit Brotherhood) in Canada, and the Inuit Circumpolar Conferences, to name a few.
Pollution is a growing concern for the hunters of today, as it falls upon the land and water in which the animals live and are nourished, to be consumed by the Inuit hunter’s families. When the Russians did nuclear testing during the cold war, it contaminated the land and reindeer populations from Russia to Scandinavia. There is also an “Arctic haze,” a smoke from the industrial plants of the southern regions, that accumulates in the Arctic, as well as the airborne radioactive waste from the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear meltdown. This has resulted in a drastic decline in the birthrate and a rise in cancer-related problems, as well as the increased mortality among the people. The Greenland Inuit breastmilk and muscle tissue, for example, has been analyzed, and the results were determined to be contaminated and equivalent to toxic waste. Considering the plight of our ecosystem and how it is adversely effecting a people who are not contributing to its demise, what would be the next step in healing this world that we all share, for all of the people concerned?
European Work Schedule
These traditional Arctic peoples were, and still are, in tune with the rhythm of the seasons and the hunting, fishing, and gathering subsistence lifestyle. Their semi-nomadic lifestyle slowly faded as they made way for whaling ships, fur trapping, and then the workforce. Some found it difficult to adapt and to acclimate to a way of life that required unreasonable rigid work schedules, which appeared to have little relevance to survival in their traditional milieu and were in conflict with the time and availability to prepare for the year-round subsistence that had once been their way of life. Those who have sought a career in carving, for example, have found a way to keep their own lifestyles and schedules and still acquire an inflow of cash funds.
An altered state of consciousness was an acceptable practice with many indigenous peoples. Many shamans throughout the world were able to connect with the spirit world via plants, such as peyote for the southern indigenous tribes. Tobacco was used by the Alaskan Inupiats prior to contact with Europeans, through trade with the Siberian Yup’iks. One explorer went into detail describing the various methods of uses for tobacco, for example, holding the smoke in the lungs for long periods of time, which was practiced by the adults and the children. It is surmised that tobacco was the first substance abused by the Inuits. When tobacco was first introduced, was it substance abuse, or was it a means of acquiring an altered state, which facilitated a feeling of connectedness with the spirit world? The tribes in North America cultivated this plant for ceremonies, as far north as the western coast of Canada and southeast Alaska by the Haida and Tlingit.
Alcoholism has been noted since the introduction of liquor among the indigenous people of North America and the Arctic regions. There were records by early sea captains of those who became incapacitated due to their inebriation. This resulted in their failure to make the traditional subsistence gathering, preparation, and preservation of supplies to meet the winter demands. There were disastrous results of starvation in not having enough food to last through the winter. Some villages could become dangerous, as fights, murders, suicide, and domestic violence escalated. Still later, many villages in Alaska became “dry,” yet cases of liquor were shipped in; some entrepreneurs would sell bottles at high prices to fund their own uses.
In Joe McGinniss’s documentation of his statewide trip to Alaska, he found alcoholism of both “White people” and “Natives,” as this land of the “last frontier” was dealing with the new “oil rush” of the 1970s. The various drinking populations who entered the northern regions—sailors, whalers, fur traders, gold prospectors, imported prostitutes, miners, fishermen, construction workers, oil drillers, and the like—have for the most part been models of heavy drinking to the indigenous people. This begs the question of the double standard: “Why was it okay for the ‘White man’ to drink unto excess, but not for them?” The continued heavy stereotyping of alcoholism among indigenous people fails to recognize the growing numbers of those who are not only abstaining, but are returning to their culture and reidentifying with their ancestral past, on their own power.
The Inuit language has three main dialects: Inupiaq for the western Yup’ik and Inupiat people of Siberia and Alaska, Inuktitut for the Canadian Inuits, and Kalaallisut for those in Greenland and Iceland. The missionaries tried to prohibit the Inuit language, yet unlike some of the tribes to the south, who had lost their language altogether, the Inuit retained their language. Although in Alaska, the younger generations speak more English than Inupiaq, with their elders, it is the opposite. For the Canadian Inuits, the language is evolving, and for the most part, only the elders speak and understand the old dialect. Books are written in all three dialects, and many are used in the schools for the new generations of Inuit people. In Canada, there are Inuktitut radio and television programs, as well as an Inuktitut production company from which came the movie Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner (2003), which became the unprecedented accomplishment as the first Inuit-written, -directed, and -acted movie in the spoken Inuit language of Inuktitut.
Ivory carvers were the first to start creating a new trade from their aboriginal lifestyle. During the gold rush in Nome, Angokwaghuk (aka “Happy Jack”) studied the sailors’ scrimshaw art as a member of a whaling crew and created the first commercial Eskimo art to meet the demands of the changing market. Although he died in the Nome epidemic in 1918, today, his legacy is continuing through the talented Arctic aboriginal carvers, sculptures, print-makers, painters, writers, musicians, and actors who are following in his footsteps and creating art for a new time, a new people, and yet one that still speaks of the northern aboriginal Arctic people.
Most of the drumming and singing occurred in the winter, during seal-hunting time. After a long day of hunting, the men returned to celebrate their accomplishments with their drumming, dancing, and singing. They sang hunting songs, reverting back to an ancient past and their connection with the spirit world. At times when the festivities were over, the intricately carved masks worn by the dancers were cast into a sacrificial fire. Explorer Roald E. G. Amundsen made reports in his travels of the Arctic (1908) of the “Eskimo” people singing whenever they worked and how their rhythm and tone were “strange” to him.
Not understanding the “savages,” the missionaries forbade these Arctic peoples to practice their winter festivals, and their traditional music underwent tremendous upheaval due to the “civilizing” of the population. The traditional music of drum songs and throat games (singing) within the celebrations that had been practiced since time immemorial were forbidden, and for a time ceased. The Monrovian missionaries had thought they had abolished the “masquerades” in the late 1800s, though they continued until the 1920s incognito in remote areas.
In time, new instruments were introduced, and songs were translated into the various Arctic dialects. Today’s drum songs have evolved and reflect the modern Inuit lifestyle: hunting songs have elements of a motor that gave out; a victory song may be about a sport game won; story songs reflect the modern-day parent’s pride and patriotism when their child returns safely home from military service. Mainstream music began to appear in the repertoire of the musicians as well, and there is an Inuit record label, Inukshuk Productions, Inc., which features many genres of music by Inuit musicians. Bjork, the internationally celebrated Inuit singer from Iceland, has become one of the most innovative musicians of her time, and her album Medulla (2004) features throat singing from Inuit Tanya Tagaq Gillis, of Nunavut.
Future of the Arctic Peoples
The elders have experienced dramatic changes in their lifetime, extending from the traditional survival lifestyle they were born into, mandated by their unique environment, to the culture eradicating actions of Euro-American newcomers into their lands. They have struggled to adapt to changing economic conditions as their subsistence gathering has changed from a full-time occupation to only certain foods and portions, enough to supplement store-bought foods. The hunting-and-gathering areas have diminished, and recently the summers have been longer and the winters shorter, resulting in not only less ice but also thinner ice, which is negatively impacting the wildlife. The elders have also witnessed the tragic breakdown of their family structure, as their children were removed from the camps and villages to attend the government and religiously affiliated schools, only to return and struggle with their identities. They have seen the destruction of their communities from the ravages of drug and alcohol abuse. Recently, they have watched their grandchildren and great-grandchildren; some are discovering the many facets of their culture; some are caught up in the new technology and living far away from home; and others are like a “lost people,” not listening to their elders, not knowing how they “fit in.”
Through all of the changes that have faced these aboriginal people of the Arctic, they have grown stronger by fighting for their rights as a people. Their cultural identity is growing stronger, and they are bringing their story to the world, in their own words, through the various media. Regardless of the modern homes and conveniences that surround today’s Yup’ik, Inupiat, and Inuit, there is a developing bond with the past, as well as a great intent to preserve and perpetuate their culture for posterity. They are courageously meeting the future, not as a people from a faraway place, but as a people known and respected by the world.
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