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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.
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?”
Only very young children limited their play to those of like age. After reaching five or six, the age range of playmates widened considerably. Team games such as “Eskimo football,” were particularly popular and had as participants children of both sexes ranging in age from five to twelve. The game combined elements of soccer and `keepaway,’and when played by older boys, elements of rugby as well. It was not until adolescence that a young person actively set herself or himself apart from other children. Youths of this age group briefly watched youngsters play volleyball or some other game, but seldom participated. Adults encouraged this separation, and when they saw a teen-age boy or girl playing with younger children, they would say, “That person is a little slow in his [or her] development.”
Many other popular games were played as well. Some, involving feats of skill and strength such as hand wrestling, have had a long history among the Inupiat. Others such as kick-the-can, volleyball, and board games like monopoly and scrabble, were introduced by Whites. Still other games combined elements of both. Haku, an Inupiat team game in which the object was to make the members of the opposite team laugh, included the offering of amusing portraits of Hawaiian and Spanish dances, done, if possible, with a straight face. A few traditional Inupiat games like putigarok, a form of tag where the person who was “it” tried to touch another on the same spot on the body in which he or she was tagged, closely resembled the western game of tag. Some children occasionally played a fantasy game called “polar bear” in which one child took the role of an old woman who fell asleep. The polar bear then came and took away her child. She then woke up and attempted to discover where the bear had hidden it. At Barrow, Inupiat children played a slightly different version of the same game called “old woman.” A youth played the role of an old woman who pretended to be blind. When several of her posessions were stolen, she “accused” other children of taking them. This game required a fair amount of verbal exchange. The more able the talker, the more likely the winner. Story telling was one of the most popular forms of Inupiat entertainment, especially during the winter months when outside activity was sharply diminished. Typical stories involved autobiographical or biographical accounts of unusual incidents, accidents, hunting trips, or other events deemed interesting to the listener. Following the evening meal, a father might call all the children around him and recount his last whale hunt, or how he shot his first polar bear. A good storyteller acted out part of the tale, demonstrating how he threw the harpoon at the whale’s back, or how the bear scooped up the lead dog and sent him flying across the ice. Other stories told by other people described life long ago before the tanniks arrived. Myths and folk tales portrayed exploits of northern animals and birds endowed with supernatural qualities.
Children, too, liked to tell stories to each other. These short tales usually described some recent activity, real or imagined. Young Inupiat were passionately fond of horror stories, and a vivid description of raw heads and bloody bones quickly elicited delighted screams of fear from the throats of the listeners. If the teller acted out part of the story, so much the better.
The Inupiat child’s creative imagination was reflected in all the activities of story telling, imitating others, playing store, and inventing new games. Young girls turned a bolt of cloth into a regal gown which they wore to an imaginary ball. Boys of four or five climbed under a worn blanket with make-believe airplanes to practice night flying. Charging over the tundra with sharply pointed sticks, a pair of six year olds cornered their supposed furry opponent. This kind of spontaneity, supported by flexible routines and a minimum of rules, continued until the early teens when events of the real world began to offer greater challenges. Only in the confines of the classroom did these children find their psychic freedom curtailed.
All Inupiat children from six to sixteen were required to attend local Bureau of Indian Affairs [BIA] schools. Parents generally agreed that school was a necessary part of the modern child’s education, and children themselves enjoyed the contrast of school and home. Still, the themes addressed in the classroom differed markedly from those of everyday Inupiat life, and many a youth would have preferred lessons in hunting and skin sewing to those in arithmetic, geography, social studies, and English. Nor did they see much benefit in following newly arrived BIA teachers admonitions that they learn to “Be prompt,” Work hard to achieve success,” Learn the values of banking and budgeting,” and particularly “Keep clean,” for such middle class American values had little meaning for life at home.
The school term in North Slope Alaska villages began in late August and continued for 180 days, the number required by the government. Acknowledging the limitations placed on the student’s behavior, it was still possible to characterize Inupiat childhood at that time as one of relative independence. Participation in simple household tasks permitted boys and girls large amounts of free time. Only gradually did they have to assume the more adult responsibilities of cleaning house, caring for younger siblings, hunting and preparing food. Thus, apart from the school experience, there was no sharp break in the continuity of learning between infancy, childhood, and the beginning of adolescence.
In one special sense, there was an even greater blending of these age-grades than in the past. In aborginal times, changes in clothing delineated a distinct transition from childhood to adolescence. When a boy’s voice changed, he was given a different style of short trousers. Later, when a father or male guardian decided he was ready for marriage, a minor operation was performed by cutting two slits at the corners of his mouth. Once the wounds were cleansed, decorative labrets were placed in the openings, thereby signifying that the boy had become a man and was ready for marriage. A girl’s transition to adolescence came with her first menstruation, at which time she was placed in temporary isolation for up to a month or even longer. With further maturation, marked by the growth of her breasts, she exchanged the clothes of childhood for those of the adult woman. At this time, women were tattooed by making a series of closely drawn parallel lines extending from the center of the lower lip to the chin. In the early 1960s, a few women of sixty-five or more still carried these symbols of early womanhood; but by then the custom marking differences in age and gender had become obsolete.
Much of the Inupiat child’s upbringing was designed to prepare the young person to assume the skills and values of an adult. Children were made to feel that their contributions and participation were important to the overall life of the family. They were taught how to draw their subsistence from land and sea, what responsibilities needed to be undertaken in the home, and what cultural traditions they should follow. In spite of this background, and in part because of it, many adolescents felt quite unprepared to assume the responsibilities of life in a rapidly changing world only partially understood by their parents. Due to diverse models of adulthood offered by school teachers, missionaries, and their own family and kin, it was very difficult for a young man or woman to choose how best to structure their adult lives. As a result, the process of becoming an Inupiat adult at this time was frought with inner turmoil and insecurity.
Taught from childhood that an Inupiat male should be self-reliant and a good hunter, boys observed their fathers seeking wage labor at a government or military installation. After obtaining such a position, these men could hunt only on occasional days off or during short two or three week vacations. They were also more likely to take chances by having to hunt in bad weather since that was the only time they could obtain subsistence foods for their families. The frustration and abivalence felt by a father who was limited in his ability to provide this Native food quickly carried down to the son. So too, girls regularly observed their mothers’ confusion as they tried to comprehend the economic, educational, religious, and other changes occurring within their spheres of activity. In many respects, the difficulties faced by Inupiat women were at least as great if not greater than those of the men. In terms of the amount of energy that had to be expended, the larger families, a product of steadily improving health care, added significantly to the work required around the home. Furthermore, to this practical problem was added another having to do with ideological redefinitions of gender.
Prior to Alaska’s colonial period, Inupiat women and men made decisions about the activities for which they were largely responsible. Thus, Inupiat women maintained direct autonomy in many areas having to do with the production and distribution of food, skin sewing, and similar endeavors essential to the survival of the group. Men too, were dominant decision-makers in their important spheres of activity most of which centered around subsistence hunting. But men were not dominators in the sense that, as a group, they tried to subjugate, command, or control the actions of women. Thus, the social relations between Inupiat women and men prior to their colonial encounter with Europe and America was relatively egalitarian in nature. This, of course, was hardly in keeping with the definition of womanhood held by incoming colonizers. From their perspective, the position of women was clearly subordinate to that of men. Eventually, the undermining of women’s autonomy took hold, thereby seriously reducing their ability to cope with many new and complex problems which they had to face. Needless to say, the continuning stresses brought on by these changed social relations were closely watched by adolescent daughters seeking models in which to emulate.
In schools, too, adolescents of both sexes came to understand that the Inupiat were a small and relatively unimportant segment of the world’s population, and that much of what transpired in national and international affairs passed them by without a glance. This knowledge, contrasting sharply with the earlier Inupiat perception of themselves as a capable and self-reliant people, did little to enhance the students’ sense of pride and self-worth.
Though the village school was highly informative about the outside world, it did not prepare Inupiat youth to live with or in it. Primary school children learned to speak English and if they completed the elementary curriculum, they could read and write. But to enter a high school or technical school, youths had to leave their villages for up to four years and travel to Sitka, Anchorage, Fairbanks, or some other city in Kansas or Oregon about which they knew little. Young men who chose not to continue schooling – and the choice was almost always left up to the them – soon found that their lack of skills placed them at a distinct disadvantage when competing with Whites for northern jobs. For young Inupiat women, however, there were not any jobs in which they could compete even if they did obtain the necessary skills. At that time in the early 1960s, any secretarial or other service-oriented training offered women in high schools, could be utilized only in areas far removed from the villages in which they grew up. Thus, young Inupiat teenagers of both sexes were “trapped” by the economic, social and cultural environment in which they found themselves. There were few incentives to follow the ways of the past and little opportunity for skill training that could help in preparing for the future. It was hardly surprising, therefore, that most adolescents devoted their time and energy to matters of the present.
This problem was compounded by the freedom given the youths by their parents and other relatives. As noted earlier, Inupiat childhood became more peer centered with increasing age. With the sharp increase in number of living children [due to improvements in health care], older siblings were regularly called upon to assist their busy parents. They also took on greater responsibility for socialization of the young. Thus, by the time a child reached adolescence, most of her or his time was spent with those of similar age. This long standing cultural pattern, continuing right into the 1960s, meant that the parents’ knowledge of their adolescent children’s thoughts and behavior was often quite limited. Not surprisingly, when pressed to comment on a son and daughter’s plans for continuing school outside the village, a father would say, “I don’t know. They haven’t told us yet.” This lack of communication between parents and adolescent youth, coming at a time when the latter were searching for new models of behavior enabling them to “live in both worlds,” did little to resolve their feelings of insecurity and isolation.
Youth and Courtship
Given this insecurity about themselves and their place in the world, Inupiat teenagers derived their strongest emotional ties from one another, and in many respects formed a closed social group. Spending almost all of their time together, they wore western clothes, used western slang expressions and emulated mannerisms largely western in origin. The only Inupiat clothing regularly worn were fur parkas, and less often, kamiks [boots]. Boys wore slacks of denim or wool, sport shirts and sweaters, shoepacks and rubber boots, and even black leather jackets with names emblazoned on the back. Girls liked slacks or wool skirts, slips, brassieres, sweaters, and wool jackets or coats. For parties they enjoyed wearing nylon stockings, dresses, and high-heeled shoes. Jewelry and cosmetics, and sometimes even a home permanent, completed the picture.
Another major influence was the anti-tuberculosis campaign of the 1950s which sent many young North Slope Inupiat to sanitariums in Alaska and as far away as the state of Washington. This experience added greatly to their knowledge of popular American culture. By 1960, twelve of the fifty-odd adolescents in the northeastern North Slope village of Kaktovik had spent between nine months and two years in these sanitariums. Other North Slope villages had similar temporary emigrations. Although the effect of hospital life depended largely on the age of the patient, the severity of the illness, and the length of stay, all I?upiat returned with a greater awareness of the outside world, which was then passed on to others. Some Inuipat children who had spent several years in hospital returned no longer able to speak 1nupiaq. Others no longer cared.
In addition to school and hospital experiences, travel encouraged the spread of the new culture. Each year, youths took trips from their villages to Fairbanks, Anchorage, and farther south to visit friends and relatives who had migrated to these urban centers. When they came home, their less experienced peers served as avid audiences for stories of their travels. Barrow itself was an important center of American culture and influence, due particularly to the extensive medical, educational, church, military, and other governmental facilities present in the area. Barrow also had become large enough to have its own movie theatre which showed commercial films several times a week. Wainwright and other smaller villages were similarly affected. Newspapers, mail-order catalogs, teenage magazines, religous tracts, comics, radios, records, tape recordings, and even an occasional True Confessions or T.V. Guide found their way into Inupiat homes in North Slope villages and were thoroughly absorbed by the young
By the mid-1960s, strong emotional bonds between teenagers, enhanced by their common school experiences, stays in hospitals, and sharing of popular culture generated by the mass media, had seriously affected their ability and that of their parents to maintain effective channels of communication with one another. Seldom did Inupiat youths voluntarily engage in activities other than those associated with household chores or hunting, with their parents and older relatives. Adolescent participation in Sunday school and similar church activities dropped off significantly. By fourteen, they had considerable freedom in making their own decisions even though the rest of the household might suffer some hardship resulting from it. Those wishing to attend private schools such as Sheldon Jackson Junior College in Sitka, Alaska, were indulged, even when the family’s income could hardly cover the five hundred dollar tuition.
Because most Inupiat adolescents identified more with American ideas and concepts generated in the south than with local ones, they frequently found themselves with little to do, and as a result became bored. This restlessness was expressed in phrases such as “There is nothing to do,” or “The day goes so slowly at home.” Of course, definitions of boredom differed among individuals and locales. Adolescents living in more isolated villages like Anaktuvuk Pass wished for the more active life of Barrow. Barrow youths were restless because they didn’t have sufficient access to new movies, dancing, parties, and similar activities found in Fairbanks and Anchorage. Dissatisfied youths from isolated villages like Kaktovik were heard to comment: “I think I will go to Barrow. There, they have movies all the time and the streets are full of people.”
Still others were discontented with the seeming isolation of village life for quite a different reason. They felt left behind in the sweep of new trends. These youths were older, had limited schooling, and never lived or visited outside the village. Sitting on the sidelines at parties, they would say wistfully, “Gee. I feel lonely,” or “I wish they would play games I know how to play.” Though less identified with the outside world, neither were they committed to earlier Inupiat ways. Trying to bridge the gap, they too found few friends outside their own group.
When not occupied with home or school responsibilities, most teenagers at mid-century spent their time together playing cards, singing, or going for walks. Group singing, often with guitar accompanyment, was especially popular. Following an evening church service, eight or ten young people would get together to sing hymns and popular songs. Then they would go for a walk or join others at a local coffee shop.
Still, these new activities did not diminish interest in some of the more traditional pastimes such as hunting, fishing, camping, and boating. Groups of boys and girls often went on all-day outings. If they learned that a young married couple was camping along the coast, arrangements were made to visit them over night or for a weekend. Other young people staying at summer fish camps could also count in regular visits from these teenagers. Finally, there was the simple activity of “staying up all night.” Adolescent youths considered such an event as an entertainment in itself. When deciding how to spend an evening, the suggestion might be made, “Let’s stay up,” in the same manner as the proposal, “Let’s make a tape,” or “Let’s go for a walk.”
Boys and girls in their early teens rarely paired off, most social contacts being sought with the group rather than a given individual. Youths might tease each other with the comment, “You interested in him, right?” but it was not until the age of fifteen or sixteen that Inupiat young people developed a strong interest in members of the opposite sex. At this time, boys began to seek out a particular girl, pay special attention to her, talk with her more than with others, sit beside her in church, and in other ways let her know of his interest. However, except in the most sophisticated segment of the Barrow teenage world, physical demonstrativeness in front of others was deemed improper. And even in Barrow, putting an arm around a girl’s shoulder or giving her a squeeze was done in a joking manner – for any open evidence of affection would embarass both the girl and her friends.
Boys rarely visited girls in their homes unless older family members were there; and it was even less common for a girl to visit a boy’s home. But as male youths became older, they attempted to arrange clandestine meetings by passing notes at school suggesting a time and place. By the middle teens, girls were very much aware of boys’ attentions. Their conversations centered around boys and their activities; they dressed for them, giggled about them, and showed each other secret pictures of their favorite boy friends. The late teens brought more sexual experimentation. Girls did not regularly solicit such involvement, but once initiated, frequently continued. Finding a secluded meeting place presented problems, particularly in winter. Homes of young married couples were often available, although privacy was limited. Parents sometimes expressed concern over this kind of activity, but seldom voiced such opinions openly or directly. Religious precepts did not condone premarital sex, but this seemed to have little effect on the youth’s behavior. In earlier times, no clearly defined restrictions were imposed. At infancy, children soon became aware of others sexual activity. By puberty, young men and women occasionally traveled together away from the village, at which time they might contract a quasi-married relationship. Trial marriages were also common – although unbridled promiscuity was viewed with disapproval.
In summary, the youth of the early 1960s faced a difficult future for which they had few skills. On the surface they exhibited a markedly middle class American veneer. Underneath, they were unsure of themselves and what they wanted to become. Few planned realistically for the future. Some spoke of going away to school to become trained in professional or semi-professional work related to education, bookkeeping, cooking, and science. The desire to make money was a common goal of many regardless of the kind of position it entailed And there was a rather unrealistic assumption that jobs would be available when needed. Significantly, most young people wanted to remain permanently in Arctic Alaska. Even those who planned on going away to school, planned to return.
Marriage and Family
The bilateral extended family has always been the basic unit of Inupiat social structure. Recognition of kin through at least three generations on both the mother and father’s side of the family provided an interwoven pattern of kinship linking together family units. By means of economic partnerships, quasi-kin groups effectively extended cooperative ties to non-kin as well. Under this arrangement, all Inupiat who called each other by real or fictive kinship terms assumed a relation of sharing and cooperation; and were seen by outsiders as being responsible for the actions of the entire kin group.
By the 1960s, these extended family and economic partnerships had begun to decline in importance. Economic interdependence also lessened as opportunities for individual wage labor increased. As the desire for economic gain drew Inupiat away from their earlier settlements to more urbanized towns and cities, migrants felt less obligation to pass on the benefits of their newly obtained income to more distant relatives beyond the immediate kin network. However, cooperative kin ties were maintained in local secondary economic activities such as baby-tending, butchering meat, setting and checking of fish nets, loading and unloading boats, constructing ice cellars, painting houses, and sharing common household items. In each of these instances cooperation was not only expected, but if a request went unheeded, the individual quickly became an object of gossip.
Choice of marriage partner also changed. In smaller villages like Kaktovik, prior to World War II, marriage between cousins was fairly common. At Barrow, it was far less so. After the War, young people paid little attention to these earlier preference patterns. While possible deleterious effects of cousin marriage on future children were occasionally raised, such marriages were not considered immoral and in small villages with a limited number of eligible spouses, they were almost necessary.
Spouse exchange, on the other hand, which had earlier established long distance reciprocity and gave spouse-like recognition between two couples, had not been practiced for years. Female partners in spouse exchange called each other aipariik, “the second.” The four partners were collectively referred to as nuliaqatigiik, and their children used the reciprocal term qatangutigiik, for eachother. Significantly, those individuals who were qatang, had definite obligations toward one another similar to those between brothers and sisters. But by the early 1960s, those Inupiat using these terms were well into their forties or older.
Although formalized spouse-exchange disappeared, sexual mores of the time remained relatively free. As viewed by local missionaries, Inupiat attitudes were “halfway between the old and the new.” Although more conservative elders and other leaders of local churches in North Slope villages encouraged their young people to marry before they became sexually involved, the advice was largely disregarded and many young couples did not marry until they had a child. This pattern was closely linked to two factors: first, economic responsibilities of marriage as defined within the revised gender division of labor made demands which young Inupiat men found difficult to meet. And second, young men and women did not feel they needed a marriage bond to fulfil their sexual interests.
When a couple decided to marry, they made arrangements with the local missionary to hold the ceremony in the village church. Even in remote inland villages most couples were joined in marriage by a minister or priest. In North Alaska, the older custom where a young man and woman regularly moved into the household of one of their parents for some time before becoming legally married had largely disappeared by the late 1950s. Even older couples whose common-law arrangement was accepted by the missionaries and other Whites in the community, were encouraged to go through the legal process to ensure the inheritance rights of their children.
Changes in courtship and marriage patterns were closely related to opportunities for wage employment and the greater mobility of young people. In this rapidly changing economic environment, prestige and eligibility as a suitor were measured more by the young man’s wage-earning abilties than by his skill as a hunter. Thus, some young men left their communities for jobs in Barrow, Fairbanks, or Anchorage in order to enhance their suitability as potential spouses. Needless to say, this mobility seriously disturbed the sex ratio of smaller villages.
Following marriage, young couples often moved in with the family of the bride or groom. This arrangement eased the economic responsibilities of the new married pair and also helped them learn the techniques and skills necessary in supporting and maintaining a family. It was at this time that young couples came to appreciate the need to become competent in subsistence skills associated with hunting, fishing, and the butchering of meat.
In keeping with the new responsibilities of maintaining larger households, women spent much of their day-to-day lives tending babies, washing dishes and clothes, cleaning, cooking, getting water, chopping wood, and burning trash. In some of these tasks like obtaining wood and water, male household members also helped. In addition, men assisted in the heavy work of setting up tents and building drying racks, making windbreaks for butchering meat, filling fuel tanks, and starting recalcitrant washing machines. Women, however, spent far less time in skin sewing efforts; and given the reduced hunting activity of their employed spouses, in butchering and distributing meat as well. Still, the cultural expectations associated with the older Inupiat gender division of labor could be recognized in the comments of an elderly male from Barrow:
Women are supposed to take care of the house. A man does the hunting; a woman takes care of the kids and the food. She should know how much they got left, how much food there is for the kids. They always check the food. The man is always asking his wife “how much have you got left?” And the woman says, “we have so much to last us for so many days or weeks.” The woman always takes care of the food, and sews or patches clothes for the husband and the kids. She also scrapes all the caribou skin, seal, or what ever the skin is. But the man must help too once in a while. When we are a little short of food, the man spends most of his time hunting. The man never cooks or feeds the children because he hunts every day. Although the women are supposed to take care of the house and kids, they sometimes help the men too. Women go upriver to hunt the ptarmigan while the men are hunting the caribou. My wife was always known as a good shooter. She killed lots of patarmigan and even went seal hunting with me sometimes. Once in a while when women do not have a lot of children to take care of, they may even go out by themselves and hunt the caribou in summertime. In winter, when the children are inside, women don’t do much hunting.
Although economic considerations played a major role in consolidating the marriage relationship, the bond between spouses was not entirely limited to this sphere. In many instances, couples enjoyed one another’s companionship and held each other in mutual affection and respect. They also instructed one another in various activities. Young men taught their wives to how to shoot or flense a caribou while a wife might offer pointers on how to improve the butchering of a seal or ugruk. This cooperative teaching was found in all North Slope Inupiat villages irrespective of the degree of family acculturation.
Outside the economic sphere, separation of the sexes in village social life was more pronounced. Couples seldom went visiting together, although in the course of an evening social round, both husband and wife might find themselves in the same house. Nor did they entertain friends jointly. In gatherings which were predominately female, men were usually ignored except for an occasional comment or joke. If several women entered a home, the men often got up and left. In situations which were predominantly male, the women assumed a passive role and remained in the background. A woman whose husband was entertaining friends would serve tea or coffee, listen to the conversation, laugh at appropriate occasions, and perhaps ask a question; but she rarely became actively engaged in the discussion. If the group was more or less evenly mixed, as when people were invited to hear a recorded tape-letter from a friend or relative, companionable exchanges most commonly took place among members of the same sex.
Still, informal visiting was an important feature of day-to-day family life. A friend would drop in on a neighbor, perhaps stand around for a few minutes, and then leave with little or no announcement of her or his departure. Visitors might enter a house, and, after giving an initial greeting, ignore its occupants. Or they might sit and read a mail-order magazine or religious tract, or simply watch the activities of the household. Though efforts to entertain the guest were minimal, one could always expect the offer of a cup of tea, coffee, or crackers.
In conclusion, given the immense changes that had occurred in Arctic Alaska in the century leading up to the 1950s, Inupiat kin ties had remained surprisingly strong. Indeed, as the anthropologist Robert Spencer wrote following his study of North Slope villages in 1951-52, “It would appear that only if the family system is disrupted will community disorganization on a large scale occur. For despite the cash income, the social organization of the aboriginal Eskimo is still a significant force.”
Unfortunately, a little over a decade after his research was completed, that evaluation could no longer be made for Barrow. By the early 1960s, the ability of kin networks to cope with emerging social problems was strained to the limit. There were several contributing factors: One concerned the swelling of Barrow’s population brought on by the sharp increase in the birthrate and the desire of more distant Inupiat to take advantage of seasonal wage employment in construction and at the nearby military DEWLine radar site. Newcomers also wanted better access to the local Public Health Service hospital for themselves, and better education for their children. The influx of these new residents from as far away as western Canada, some of whom had few if any close relatives in the village, was an important factor limiting the ability of the once tight-knit kinship system to deal with its new-found stresses.
At this same time, Barrow was also faced with a steady increase of White male military personnel, construction workers, scientists, and other outsiders who were assigned to Air Force installations, weather stations, and the Naval Arctic Research Laboratory – all of which had been built only a short distance from the town. These outsiders, more than a few of whom had little interest in or respect for the Inupiat and their culture, simply saw the community as a place to unwind, seek bootleg liquor, “look at the Natives,” and perhaps establish a relationship with one of the local women. As these disparaging tanik stereotypes of the Inupiat became more widespread, earlier linkages based on mutual respect and common understanding diminished sharply. Eventually, interracial tensions reached the point where members of the two groups lived in their own separate worlds, each largely ignoring the other. While it is important not to overemphasize the negative quality of these relationships, nor to disregard those examples of positive ties that were maintained between Inupiat and Whites, the generally hostile atmosphere was nevertheless present in almost all spheres of local social life.
As Barrow’s internal problems multiplied, its community leaders sought new ways of dealing with them. By the late-1960s, it became clear to all that traditional kin relations were seriously weakened – along with the growth of inapplicable socialization practices. Nor was sufficient attention being given to larger questions having to do with cultural enrichment and political self-determination, both of which were essential to promoting a renewed feeling of pride, purpose, and worth. In fact, only by thoroughly addressing these latter problems could the basis be laid for a new Inupiat sense of well-being. The task was substantial; and so was the need.
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