Monday, January 2, 2017
An Inuit Family
Once known as Eskimos, the Inuit inhabit the Arctic region, one of the most forbidding territories on earth. Occupying lands that stretch 12,000 miles from parts of Siberia, along the Alaskan coast, across Canada, and on to Greenland, the Inuit are one of the most widely dispersed people in the world, but number only about 60,000 in population. Between 25,000 and 35,000 reside in Alaska, with other smaller groups in Canada, Greenland, and Siberia. The name Eskimo was given to these people by neighboring Abnaki Indians and means "eaters of raw flesh." The name they call themselves is Inuit,or "the people." Culturally and linguistically distinct from Native Americans of the lower 48 states, as well as from the Athabaskan people of Alaska, the Inuit are closely related to the Mongoloid peoples of eastern Asia. It is estimated that the Inuit arrived some 4,000 years ago on the North American continent, thus coming much later than other indigenous peoples. The major language family for Arctic peoples is Eskaleut. While Aleut is considered a separate language, Eskimo branches into Inuit and Yup'ik. Yup'ik includes several languages, while Inuit is a separate tongue with several local dialects, including Inupiaq (Alaska), Inuktitut (Eastern Canada), and Kalaallisut (Greenland). Throughout their long history and vast migrations, the Inuit have not been greatly influenced by other Indian cultures. Their use and array of tools, their spoken language, and their physical type have changed little over large periods of time and space.
An Inuit Igloo
Alaskan Inuit inhabit the west, southwest, and the far north and northwest of Alaska, comprising the Alutiiq, Yup'ik (or Yupiat), and Inupiat tribes. As the first two tribes are dealt with separately, this essay will focus on that group regionally known as Inupiat, and formerly known as Bering Strait or Kotzebue Sound Eskimos, and even sometimes West Alaskan and North Alaskan Eskimos. Residing in some three dozen villages and towns including Kotzebue, Point Hope, Wainwright, Barrow, and Prudhoe Bay between the Bering Strait and the McKenzie Delta to the east, and occupying some 40,000 square miles above the Arctic Circle, this group has been divided differently by various anthropologists. Some classify the Inuit into two main groups, the inland people or Nuunamiut, and the coastal people, the Tagiugmiut. Some however divide the heartland, or original southerly Inupiat, who settled around Kotzebue Sound and the Chukchi Sea, into 12 distinct tribes or nations. This early "homeland" of the Inupiat, around Kotzebue Sound, was extended as the tribes eventually moved farther north. Over 40 percent of Alaskan Inuit now reside in urban areas, with Anchorage having the highest population, and Nome on the south of the Seward Peninsula also having a large group of Inupiat as well as Yup'ik. Within Inupiat territory, the main population centers are Barrow and Kotzebue.
Among the last Native groups to come into North America, the Inuit crossed the Bering land bridge sometime between 6000B.C.and 2000B.C., according to various sources. Anthropologists have discerned several different cultural epochs that began around the Bering Sea. The Denbigh, also known as the Small Tool culture, began some 5000 years ago, and over the course of the next millennia it spread westward though Arctic Alaska and Canada. Oriented to the sea and to living with snow, the Denbigh most likely originated the snow house. Characterized by the use of flint blades, skin-covered boats, and bows and arrows, the Denbigh was transformed further east into the Dorset Traditionby about 1000B.C.
Signs of both the Denbigh and Dorset cultures have been unearthed at the well-known Ipiutaksite, located near the Inuit settlement of Point Hope, approximately 125 miles north of the Arctic Circle. Point Hope, still a small Inuit village at the mouth of the Kukpuk River, appears to have been continuously inhabited for 2,000 years, making it the oldest known Inuit settlement. The population of the historical Ipiutak was probably larger than that of the modern village of Point Hope, with a population of about 2,000 people. Houses at Ipiutak were small, about 12 by 15 feet square, with sod-covered walls and roof. Benches against the walls were used for sleeping, while the fire was kept in a small central depression of the main room. Artifacts from the site indicate that the Ipiutak hunted sea and land mammals, as do modern Inuit. Seals, walruses, and caribou provided the basis of their diet. Though the tools of whale hunting, including harpoons, floats, and sleds, were missing from this site, bone and ivory carvings of a rare delicacy reminiscent of some ancient Siberian art were found.
Other Inuit settled in part-time villages during the same epoch. The continuous development of these peoples is demonstrated by the similarities in both ancient and modern Inuit cultures. Called by some the Old Bering Sea Cultures, these early inhabitants traveled by kayak andumiakskin boats in the warmer months, and by sled in the winter. Living near the coast, they hunted sea and land mammals, lived in tiny semi-subterranean dwellings, and developed a degree of artistic skill.
The Dorset culture was later superseded by the Norton culture, which was in turn followed by the Thule. The Thule already had characteristics of culture common to Inuit culture: the use of dogs, sleds, kayaks, and whale hunting with harpoons. They spread westward through Canada and ultimately on to Greenland. However, it appears that some of the Thule backtracked, returning to set up permanent villages in both Alaska and Siberia.
Anthropologically classified as central-based wanderers, the Inuit spent part of the year on the move, searching for food, and then part of the year at a central, more permanent camp. Anywhere from a dozen to fifty people traveled in a hunting group. The year was divided into three hunting seasons, revolving around one animal. The hunting seasons were seal, caribou, and whale. The yearly cycle began with the spring seal hunting, continued with caribou hunting in the summer, and fishing in the autumn. A caribou hunt was also mounted in the fall. In the far north, whales were hunted in the early spring. It was a relentless cycle, broken up with occasional feasts after the seal and caribou hunts, and with summer trade fairs to which groups from miles around attended.
Though most Arctic peoples were not organized into tribes, those of present-day Alaska are to a certain extent. One reason for such organization is the whaling occupation of the northwestern Alaska natives. These people settled north of the Brooks Range and along the coast from Kotzebue in the southwest, up to Point Hope and north and east to Barrow, the mouth of the Colville River, and on to the present-day Canadian border at Demarcation Point. These areas provided rich feeding grounds for bowhead whale. Strong leaders were needed for whaling expeditions; thus, older men with experience who knew how to handle an umiak, the large wooden-framed boat, used to hunt whales.
For thousands of years the Inuit lived lives unrecorded by history. This changed with their first contact with Europeans. The Vikings under Eric the Red encountered Inuit in Greenland in 984. Almost six hundred years later, the British explorer Martin Frobisher made contact with the Central Inuit of northern Canada. In 1741, the Russian explorer, Vitus Bering, met the Inuit of Alaska. It is estimated that there were about 40,000 Inuit living in Alaska at the time, with half of them living in the north, both in the interior and in the far northwest. The Inuit, Aleut, and Native Americans living below the Arctic Circle were the most heavily affected by this early contact, occasioned by Russian fur traders. However, northern Inuit were not greatly affected until the second round of European incursions in the area, brought on by an expanded whale trade.
Russian expeditions in the south led to the near destruction of Aleutian culture. This was the result of both the spread of disease by whites as well as outright murder. The first white explorers to reach Arctic Alaska were the Englishmen Sir John Franklin and Captain F. W. Beechey. Both noted the extensive trade carried on between Inuit and Indian groups. Other early explorers, including Alexander Kasherov, noted this intricate trading system as well, in which goods were moved from Siberia to Barrow and back again through a network of regularly held trade fairs. All of this changed, however, with the arrival of European whalers by the mid-nineteenth century. Formerly hunters of Pacific sperm whale, these whaling fleets came to Arctic regions following the bowhead whale migration to the Beaufort Sea for summer feeding. Unlike the Inuit, who used all parts of the whale for their subsistence, the whaling fleets from New England and California were interested primarily in baleen, the long and flexible strips of keratin that served as a filtering system for the bowhead whale. This material was used for the manufacture of both buttons and corset hooks, and fetched high prices. One bowhead could yield many pounds and was valued at $8000, a substantial amount of money for that time.
In 1867, the United States purchased Alaska, and whaling operations increased. The advent of steam-powered vessels further increased the number of ships in the region. Soon, whaling ships from the south were a regular feature in Arctic waters. Their immediate effect was the destruction of the intricate trading network built up over centuries. With the whalers to pick up and deliver goods, Inuit traders were no longer needed. A second effect, due to contact between the whalers and the Inuit, was the introduction of new diseases and alcohol. This, in conjunction with an obvious consequence of the whaling industry, the reduction of the whale population, made life difficult for the Inuit. Dependence on wage drew the Inuit out of their millennia-long hunting and trading existence as they signed on as deckhands or guides. Village life became demoralized because of the trade in whiskey. Small settlements disappeared entirely; others were greatly impacted by diseases brought by the whalers. Point Hope lost 12 percent of its population in one year. In 1900, 200 Inuit died in Point Barrow from a flu epidemic brought by a whaler, and in 1902, 100 more were lost to measles.
Although relatively unaffected by the whaling operations, the Inuit of the inland areas, known as Nuunamiut ,also saw a sharp decline in their population from the mid-nineteenth century. Their independence had not protected them from the declining caribou herds nor from increasing epidemics. As a result, these people almost totally disappeared from their inland settlements, moving instead to coastal areas.
A number of actions were undertaken in attempts to improve the conditions of the Inuit at the end of the nineteen century and the early years of the twentieth century. The U.S. government intervened, ostensibly, to ameliorate the situation with improved education. However, the motivations behind this strategy by the U.S. government are the subject of much debate by many Natives and scholars of Inuit culture and history. Schools were established at Barrow and Point Hope in the 1890s, and new communities were only recognized once they established schools. The government also tried to make up for depleted resources, as the whaling trade had died out in the early years of the twentieth century, due to depleted resources as well as the discovery of substitutes for baleen. The U.S. Bureau of Education, the office given responsibility for the Inuit at the time, imported reindeer from Siberia. They planned to turn the Inuit, traditionally semi-sedentary hunters, into nomadic herders. However, after an early peak in the reindeer population in 1932, their numbers dwindled, and the reindeer experiment ultimately proved a failure. Game was no longer plentiful, and the Inuit themselves changed, seeking more than a subsistence way of life. For a time, beginning in the 1920s, fox fur trading served as a supplement to subsistence. Yet, trapping led to an increased breakdown of traditional cooperative ways of life. Fox fur trading lasted only a decade, and by the 1930s, the U.S. government was pouring more money into the area, setting up post offices, and aid relief agencies. Christian missions were also establishing school in the region. Concurrent with these problems was an increase in mortality rates from tuberculosis.
The search for petroleum also greatly affected the region. Since the end of World War II, with the discovery of North Slope oil in 1968, the culture as well as the ecology of the region changed in ways never imagined by nineteenth-century Inuit. Other wage-economies developed in the region. The Cold War brought jobs to the far north, and native art work became an increasing form of income, especially for carvers. In the 1950s, the construction of a chain of radar sites such as the Distant Early Warning system (DEW) employed Inuit laborers, and many more were later employed to maintain the facilities. In 1959, Alaska became the forty-ninth state, thus extending U.S. citizenship rights and privileges to all of state's population. At the end of the twentieth century, a number of issues face the Inuit: the use of technology, urban flight by the young, and thus, the viability of their traditional culture. Caught between two worlds, the Inuit now use snowmobiles and the Internet in place of the umiak and the sled. Nonetheless, they have designed legislative and traditional ways to maintain and protect their subsistence lifestyle. Since 1978, this lifestyle has been given priority, and it is legally protected.
Subsistence food for the Inuit of Alaska included whale meat, caribou, moose, walrus, seal, fish, fowl, mountain sheep, bear, hares, squirrels, and foxes. Plant food included wild herbs and roots, as well as berries. Meat is dried or kept frozen in ice cellars dug into the tundra.
Traditionally, Inuit women tanned seal and caribou skins to make clothing, much of it with fur trim. Two suits of such fur clothing were worn in the colder months, the inner one with the fur turned inward. Waterproof jackets were also made from the intestines of various sea mammals, while shoes were constructed from seal and caribou hide that had been toughened by chewing. Such clothing, however, has been replaced by manufactured clothing. Down parkas have replaced the caribou-skins, and rubber, insulated boots have replaced chewed seal skin. However, such clothing has become a major source of income for some individuals and groups. Traditional clothing, from mukluks to fur parkas, has become valued as art and artifact outside the Inuit.
The Inuit communities of northern Alaska speak Inupiaq, part of the Eskaleut family of languages. All Inuit bands speak very closely related dialects of this language family. Its roots are in the Ural-Altaic languages of Finland, Hungary, and Turkey. Alaskan Eskaleut languages include Aleut, Yup'ik and Inupiaq.
Many Inuit words have become common in English and other languages of the world. Words such as kayak, husky, igloo, and parka all have come from the Inuit. The worldview of the Inuit is summed up in a popular and fatalistic expression, Ajurnamat, "it cannot be helped."
The future of Inuit-speaking Alaska is optimistic. Language instruction in school, as noted, was for many years solely in English, with native languages discouraged. Literacy projects have been started at Barrow schools to encourage the preservation of the language. However, English is the primary language of the region.
A central tenet of Inupiat religion was that the forces of nature were essentially malevolent. Inhabiting a ruthless climatological zone, the Inupiat believed that the spirits of the weather and of the animals must be placated to avoid harm. As a result, there was strict observance of various taboos as well as dances and ceremonies in honor of such spirits. These spirit entities found in nature included game animals in particular. Inupiat hunters would, for example, always open the skull of a freshly killed animal to release its spirit. Personal spirit songs were essential among whale hunters. Much of this religious tradition was directed and passed on by shamans, both male and female. These shamans could call upon a tuunsaq, or helping spirit, in times of trouble or crisis. This spirit often took the shape of a land animal, into whose shape the shaman would change him or herself. Traditional Native religious practices, as well as the power of the shamans, decreased with the Inuit's increased contact with Europeans.
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SAMPLES OF INUIT ART