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peoples of Alaska and their Eskimo Culture

Alaska is still the last frontier in the minds of many Americans. Interest in the “Great Land” has increased sharply since Alaska

The Native became a full fledged state in January o f 1959. In spite of this great interest, many Americans know very little of the Eskimos, Indians and Aleuts (Al-ee-oots) who live in the remote regions.

At the time Alaska was discovered in 1741 by Vitus Bering, Alaska Natives populated all parts of Alaska including the Bering Strait Region. Although there is still some disagreement among anthropologists concerning the origin of the American Indians and Eskimos, the great majority believe that these people migrated across the Bering Strait from Asia. Apparently this migration occurred in successive waves over thousands of years. The northern Eskimo groups appear to be the most recent immigrants and have settled along the coast of the Arctic Ocean from Little Diomede Island to Greenland.

In Alaska, the Natives lived within well defined regions and there was little mixing of ethnic groups. As in any culture, the way of life was dictated by the availability of renewable resources. In Southeast Alaska, the salmon, deer and other plentiful foods permitted the Tlingits, Tsimpshians and Haidas to settle in permanent villages and develop a culture rich in art. The Athapaskan Indians of the Alaskan Interior, on the other hand, became wanderers following the migrating caribou herds and taking advantage of seasonal abundance of fish, water fowl and other game. The Eskimo people, like the Tlingits, depended upon the sea for life. However, a more hostile climate and fewer resources required a far different adaptation resulting in their unique cultural traditions. The Eskimos call themselves Inuit or “Real People”.

The impact of the 20th Century culture has brought many changes among all the Native people, some good and some unfortunate. As a result, most Eskimos and Indians live in a dual cash based and traditional lifestyle.

Eskimo Culture

According to the Alaska Native Commission Final Report Volume II, pg. 91, in 1990 Alaska Natives numbered 85,698 and constitute just over 15 percent of the state’s total population. Of this number, 62 percent of Alaska Natives (about 52,000) live in rural Alaska.

The Bering Straits Region is located in Northwest Alaska, just south of the Arctic Circle. The regional boundaries extend 230 miles east to west and 230 miles north to south and encompass an area of over 26,000 square miles, roughly the size of the state of West Virginia.

There are three culturally distinct groups of Inuit people who inhabit the region. Inupiat reside on the Seward Peninsula and the King and Diomede Islands. The Central Yupik primarily reside in the villages south of Unalakleet, and Siberian Yupik live on St. Lawrence Island. The latter group is closely related culturally and linguistically to Chukotka people of the Russian Far East. The Eskimo people have lived in this region as an identifiable culture for at least 3,000 years; the earliest documented evidence of human habitation dates back I 0,000 to I 1,000 years. Settlements concentrate along the coast and river systems, for the sea was and is the principal focus of human activities.

The population of the Bering Straits Region is approximately 8,890. Eskimos comprise 78% of the population (6,962). There are 17 year-round village settlements in the region that range in population from 123 to 646. Nome is the largest community in the region and has roughly 3,900 people. Nome is the transportation, government and service hub for the region. The city of Nome has different ethnic, social and economic features than the villages. Only a little over a half of Nome’s residents are Natives, while in most villages, 90% to 95% of residents are Native.

Growing Up in an Inupiat Village

Infancy and Childhood

In the decades immediately following World War II, children continued to be a dominant feature of North Alaskan village life. An Inupiat child was considered a vital part of the family and enjoyed much love and affection from both parents. Families, most ranging in size from seven to twelve, were also much larger than in previous generations, due in large part to the more sedentary life style and the lowered infant mortality rate brought on by improved health care services. Few parents had knowledge of ways to effectively limit the number of offspring. No strong preference was expressed for one sex as opposed to the other. Some families hoped the first-born would be a girl who could assist in caring for those that followed. Others wanted a boy because he could eventually be of assistance in hunting. No matter what the parent’s preference, a baby of either sex was welcomed on arrival with great affection.

Occasionally a family had more children than it could adequately support. When this occurred, the infant was “offered” to another family with fewer than it desired; or perhaps to grandparents. This form of adoption has a long history and is still prevalent today. A child was also adopted because the adoptive parents were childless, the parents had died, they were close friends, or because the child was illegitimate and could be given a better upbringing in a home with a father. Illegitimacy itself, however, carried none of the stigma characteristic of middle class American society. Adoption was usually, though not necessarily, arranged between kin. An adopted child always used the terms “father” and “mother” for her or his foster parents even when closely related to them. The child’s origin was never concealed and in many instances it was considered as belonging to both families. The child might even call the two sets of parents by the same terms and maintain strong bonds with the real parents and siblings as with the foster ones. Whatever the reasons for adoption, parents treated the new child with as much warmth and affection as they did their own.

In earlier times numerous taboos relating to pregnancy had to be followed – for if broken, harm could easily befall the mother, child, or both. For instance, a pregnant woman who walked backward out of a house could have a breech delivery; putting a pot over her head could cause her extreme difficulty in delivering the placenta; and sleeping at odd hours might give her a lazy child. Births also took place in a special parturition lodge, known as the aanigutyak. In winter, it was a snow house built for the purpose by the father, and the woman entered it as soon as she began labor. She gave birth in a kneeling position with the help of an assistant, usually a female relative with some experience in delivering babies.

In the 1950s, women without access to the public health hospital at Barrow had their children at home helped by specially trained midwives of which there were six at Point Hope. At Wainwright and Kaktovik, mothers were more likely to go to the Barrow hospital for their delivery. Still, numerous stories were told of the hardiness of Inupiat women giving birth under difficult circumstances. In 1962, for example, the anthropologist James VanStone wrote of a woman traveling by small boat to Point Hope who at a particular moment asked to be put ashore. As the craft slowly moved on without her, she gave birth to her child. After cutting the cord and scraping sand over the afterbirth, she put the newborn in her parka and ran along the beach, eventually catching up with the boat.

By the time an Inupiat child was a month old, it was customarily baptized by a missionary and given a name. Every child received an English and at least one Inupiat name. Chosen by parents, they were almost always those of recently deceased relatives or highly respected individuals. When English names were introduced early in the 20th century, Inupiat ones often became family names. According to custom, the name given the child carried with it the qualities of the individual from whom it was taken. When an elderly living person’s name was used, the person would give the child gifts. This action was prompted by the belief that after the older person’s death, the doner’s spirit would survive in the namesake.

When the baby was two or three months old, the mother passed on some of the responsibility for its care to grandmothers, older siblings and unmarried sisters and cousins. In these circumstances, a child soon became accustomed to having a variety of tenders, a pattern which continued until it could care for itself.

Commonly, the baby was carried in the back of a parka by the mother or other female relative. If the mother was busy and no one else was available to carry it, she might put the child in a crib to play or sleep. If it cried, she would pick it up and play with it for several minutes. A few women, especially those strongly inculcated with middle class American values, might complain that the baby wanted to be held “too much” and was “spoiled.” Seldom, however, would any Inupiat mother disregard her child’s cries.

When outside, the mother customarily carried her baby until it was two years old or until another child was born. Strapped in place by a belt that went around the mother’s waist and under the child’s buttocks, it had little freedom of movement. Still, by the age of two, it had been given sufficient opportunity to move around that it was able to walk quite well. Sometimes a child older than two asked to be carried, and although the mother might fulfill the child’s wish, siblings and friends were likely to discourage such requests through good-natured teasing.

The Inupiat infant rarely had a set feeding or sleeping time – which was hardly surprising considering the similar lack of schedule of most adults. When the baby cried it was fed, whether by breast or bottle. Following World War II, bottle feeding was encouraged for those adults with sufficient cash income to obtain canned milk. By the age of one, all children were eating solid foods including homemade broths and premasticated meat. Weaning was a gradual process that might not be completed until the third or even fourth year. An older child rarely was rejected in favor of a younger one, and the transition occurred with little difficulty.

Toilet training, by contrast, was begun early, usually by the first birthday. The mother held the child on a pot or on her lap, blowing gently on its head. When the desired result had been achieved, she indicated her pleasure with a few kind words and playful movements. By the 1960s, the soft caribou skin and moss undergarments used by earlier Inupiat mothers to clothe their children had been replaced by cloth diapers; and as a baby grew older, it was given “training pants” – cast off clothing open at the crotch. Accidents and near misses were treated very lightly although they might bring a gentle rebuke. Even chronic bed-wetters were not punished, except among more acculturated families where the offender was made to stay in bed longer than usual. In general, there was no aura of shame or secrecy about excretory functions, and no reticence in discussing them. During the course of her field work, young girls might say to Jean Briggs “don’t look,” but girls under four and all boys urinated unconcernedly anywhere out of doors.

Given the combination of large families and small houses, Inupiat sleeping arrangements varied markedly from middle class American patterns. Formerly, infants slept with their parents; but by the early 1960s, the youngest slept in cribs, the next oldest child or children with their parents, and still older ones with each other. As many as four siblings of different sexes might sleep in the same bed, all covered by the same large blanket. Youths were given separate beds on reaching adolescence, and if the size of the room permitted, they might even have a cubbyhole or corner of a room to themselves. However, if the house was small and crowded, quite grown-up children slept in the same room with their parents. Only among the most affluent families would a child have a bed of its own.

Discipline was seldom imposed on the child before it was one year old. This was of little significance, however, since a child carried on the mother’s back most of the time presented few problems. Only when it had sufficient freedom of movement to pakak – get into things it shouldn’t – was it carefully observed.

Concepts of hygiene varied widely and appeared to be in direct proportion to the degree of association and identification with the outside world. But few if any mothers expressed serious concern about a baby putting a dirty object from the floor in its mouth, or passing a bottle from a sick child to a well one. In short, infant care consisted primarily of keeping the baby happy. For the baby this meant being cuddled, fed, rested, warmed, and kept dry.

Without question, the warmth and affection given infants by parents, siblings, and other relatives provided them with a deep sense of well-being and security. Young children also felt important because they learned early that they were expected to be useful, working members of the family. While this included a number of tedious chores, involvement in the daily round of activities nevertheless enhanced their feeling of family participation and cohesion. Parents rarely denied children their company or excluded them from the adult world.

This pattern reflected the parents’ views of child rearing. Adults felt that they had more experience in living and it was their responsibility to share this experience with their children, “to tell them how to live.” Children had to be told repeatedly because they tended to forget. Misbehavior was due to a child’s forgetfulness, or to improper teaching in the first place. There was rarely any thought that the child was basically nasty, willful, or sinful. Where many Americans applauded children for their good behavior, the Inupiat praised them for remembering. This attitude was reflected in many situations. In the early 1960s, for example, a father was observed lecturing in Inupiat to his children before they set out on a short camping trip. Asked to expand on his remarks, he said:

We stir them up a little to live right. Tell them to obey the parents; do what people tell them to do. And like now, when they go on a camping trip, not to take a new pillow. It get’s dirty on the trip. Take the old one. They young. They don’t know what to do. We tell them how to do things. Like our parents used to tell us. Same they used to talk to us. We used to talk a lot like that but we haven’t lately. We begin again. Stir them up. They forget.

Another man discussed his nephew’s helpless panic during a hunting trip when a severe storm threatened to wipe out the camp. Waking at night to find the tent blowing away and their boat temporarily lost, the boy had become frozen with fear. Never suggesting that he was cowardly or weak, the man was critical of the nephew’s behavior, but explained it in terms of his not having had sufficient experience to know what to do.

Fathers actively participated in the daily life of the family; and in disciplinary matters, appeared to fulfil a function similar to that existing in many other American homes. Thus, a mother might say to a recalcitrant child, “Wait till I tell your father!” or “Wait till your father comes home. You gonna get a licking!” Among families with limited outside contact, the father retained a more dominant, rather than equal-participant, role. Here, the child was expected to be restrained, quiet, and respectful in his or her father’s presence.

By the time children reached the age of three or four, the parents’ earlier demonstrativeness had become tempered with an increased interest in their activities and skill level. They watched them play with obvious pleasure, responded warmly to their conversation, and made jokes with them. Though children were given considerable autonomy and its whims and wishes were treated with respect, they were nevertheless taught to obey all older people. To an outsider unfamiliar with parent-child relations, the tone of Inupiat commands and admonitions sometimes sounded harsh and angry. Yet in few instances did a child respond as if he or she had been addressed with hostility. This was due to the fact admonitions that were given tended to be indirect and general rather than geared to the specific individual.

A youngster who wined, sulked, cried, or expressed some other unacceptable emotion, was told flatly, “Be nice!” If it appeared to be getting into mischief, it was warned, “Don’t pakak!” There were other frequently offered admonitions as well: “Don’t ipagak! meaning do not play in the water or on the beach; “shut the door,” to keep out the cold; “Put your parka on,” guaranteeing adequate dress for outside; “Don’t go in someone else’s house when no one is at home,” reflecting concern for others’ property. Most common was “Don’t fight!” which was directed not only against personal assaults and rock throwing, but also verbal quarrels.

Certain acts like “taking without asking” and those involving potential dangers did lead to punishment. If admonitions were unsuccessful, threats of such a fearsome creature as an inuqugauzat [little spirit people], a nanuq [polar bear], or tanik [White man] were brought in for support. Or the threat might be unspecified, as in “somebody out there, somebody gonna get you.” If this did not have the desired effect, the misbehaving child was dealt with more severely. The adult would shout, threaten, or actually strike the child, although physical punishment was relatively rare. More likely, the child would be isolated, a form of punishment reserved for serious breaches like fighting or playing with water in below-freezing temperatures. In keeping with the attitude that children were ignorant and forgetful, punishment was accompanied by explanation and reasoning. Seldom was anything more than mild humiliation or teasing used as a negative sanction.

A child’s reaction to any of these treatments ranged from compliance, temporary fears, or unhappy looks – all of which were usually ignored – to sulking, rebellious shrieks, or silent resistance. This latter took the form of ignoring orders or repeating the behavior to see if the adult would take notice. It was rare indeed to hear a child talk back, verbally refuse to perform the action, or say petulantly, “I don’t want to.” Sometimes a child did threaten vengence – when it was angry at another child or an outsider such as a tanik – but it was most unusual to hear threats directed at parents or adult relatives. By adolescence, discipline seemed to consist entirely of lectures, though still delivered in the harsh tone characterizing Inupiat cautions.

After the age of five, a child was less restricted in its activities in and around the village although walking on the beach or ice still required an adult. During the dark winter season, the child remained indoors or stayed close to the house to prevent it from getting lost and to protect it from polar bears which occasionally entered a village looking for food. In summer, children played at all hours of the day and “night,” or at least until their parents went to bed.

By the eighth year, some of the responsibility for a child’s socialization had been passed from adults to peers. Children frequently lectured each other using the same admonitions as told to them earlier: “Don’t fight,” “Don’t pakak,” “You supposed to knock,” and “Shut the door.” Rule-breaking might also be reported to a nearby adult: “Mom. Sammy ipagak.” Tattling was not depreciated to the extent that it had once been. Still, while older children regularly “played parent” in which they imposed adult rulings on younger ones, all children instructed each other irrespective of their age. Such instruction was generally taken in good spirit. Thus, when an younger child reminded an older one, “You supposed to knock,” the latter was likely to smile sheepishly, go out of the room, knock, and enter again.

Although not burdened with responsibility, boys and girls were both expected to take an active role in family activities. In the early years, these were shared, depending on who was available. Regardless of gender, it was important for a child to know how to perform a wide variety of tasks and give assistance when needed. Both sexes collected and chopped wood, got water, helped carry meat and other supplies, oversaw younger siblings, ran errands for adults, fed the dogs, and burned trash. As children grew older, more specific responsibilities were allocated according to gender. Boys as young as seven might be given an opportunity to shoot a .22 rifle, and at least a few boys in every village had taken their first caribou by the time they were ten or eleven.

Young girls, and to a lesser extent young boys, learned techniques of butchering while on hunting trips with older siblings and adults. In most instances, however, neither girls nor boys became at all proficient in this skill until their late-teens or early twenties. Prior to complusory school attendance and the hospitalization of large numbers of youths for tuberculosis, such knowledge was attained at an earlier age. A girl, especially, learned butchering as a young teenager since this skill was essential in attracting a good husband. But by the 1960s, it was more likely to be picked up after marriage – and not always then.

Still, while a gender division of labor among youths was clearly recognized by the Inupiat, it was far from rigid. Boys occasionally swept up the house and helped with cooking. Girls and their mothers went on fishing and duck hunting trips; and sometimes caribou hunting as well. Thus, among the youths, each gender learned that it could assume the reponsibilities of the other when the occasion arose, albeit in an auxilary role.

Siblings played together more happily than is often the case in American society, but sibling rivalry was not completely absent. Hostility was generally expressed by tattling or engaging in some form of minor physical abuse. However, anyone indulging in hard pushing, elbowing, pinching, or hitting was told immediately to stop. Rather than fight back, the injured party was more likely to request help from an older sibling or near adult. Verbal abuse was also rare.

By contrast, competiveness, derived from pride of achievement or skill attainment, characterized many children’s activities. In games involving athletic prowess, a child would say, “Look how far I can throw the stone,” rather than “I can throw the stone farther than you.” When rivalry was more direct, it was expected that the game be undertaken in good spirit and the skills of one participant not be flouted at the expense of the other. Aggressive competitiveness was explicitly condemned, as when a father childed his son, “Why you always wanting to win?”

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