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Inuit

Category: Indigenous people

Inuit is the name now given to a group of culturally similar indigenous peoples inhabiting the Arctic regions of Greenland, Canada, and the United States.  In this same northern region in the Arctic circle are a host of other peoples once given the group name ‘Eskimo’ – the Inupiat, the Yupik and even the northern peoples of the Yakut and Yukaghir.

The term "Eskimo" was commonly used to describe Inuit, and other Arctic peoples, because it includes both of Alaska's Yupik and Iñupiat peoples while "Inuit" is not proper or accepted as a term for the Yupik. No collective term exists for both peoples other than "Eskimo." However, the people of this region now view the term Eskimo as ‘pejorative’, so "Inuit" has become more common as a means of describing them all collectively. 

I hope they will forgive me for using Inuit as a means of grouping them for the purposes of describing their spiritual beliefs and the observations for them.  The map shows the tribes in the region.  I have decided to cover the Saami separately as there is a lot of information on the Saami culture and it appears this is where my roots lie, so I have a special selfish interest in looking at them separately!

People have been living in these regions for a surprisingly long time.  In excavations during the 1950s and '60s at sites like Onion Portage on the upper Kobuk River and Cape Krusenstern on the coast northwest of Noatak, an archaeologist named Louis Giddings found tiny scraps of arctic civilization going back 10,000 years.  But they were not Eskimos in their tool making technology. In strata dating around 1800 B.C., at Cape Krusenstern, Giddings found the first signs of Eskimo-like peoples.

It is not possible to provide a potted history of this entire region, so what I have done is select an extract from a wonderful book by Nick Jans, a teacher and writer who lives in Ambler Alaska, an Inupiat Eskimo village on the edge of the Western Brooks range.  He moved there in 1979 and stayed.  It gives a good overview of how change took place.............

The Last Night Breaking – Nick Jans

For at least 2,000 years, the Inupiat had managed to survive with a technology based on subsistence. The land provided virtually all of their needs: skins for clothing, footwear, tents, containers, and boat coverings; wood, bone, stone, and ivory for tools and weapons; birds, mammals, fish, and plants for food. They built ebruliks (houses) of sod and spruce poles, and warmed them with seal oil lamps or wood.  The Inupiat did trade to supplement what they had-with Siberian Eskimos, Koyukuk River Indians, and later, with explorers, miners, and whalers but they could usually do without................

For two thousand years they lived as seminomadic hunter-gatherers, moving back and forth along the coast or up and down river valleys with the natural rhythm of seasons and animal migrations. The climate was harsh-snow in September, breakup in late May, and temperatures of forty, even seventy below. All their energy and ingenuity went into perfecting a technology of survival. Education for boys meant learning to hunt, travel, and make tools; girls learned to sew skins, cook and store food, and raise families. All their needs came from the land..............

By necessity, they were a frugal people; amassing a pile of nonconsumables was pointless. With the land providing nearly everything, wealth was not a relevant concept, and the Inupiat focused on the practical. They had to travel quickly and lightly, long distances over rough terrain, often racing the weather, walking, paddling, and using dogs to pull boats and sleds. They hunted and gathered as they went, true opportunists. If they came across a needed resource berries, ptarmigan, a useful chunk of spruce-they utilized it and moved on.

Not surprisingly, the early Inupiat left little behind to mark their passing. They didn't even bury their dead, but left them on the tundra, covered with caribou skins, or inside a teepee of spruce poles. Everything they had, except for some ivory, stone, and the odd piece of bone, returned to the land within a few years: wood and hide rotted, and empty sod houses, unmaintained, soon wore away in the wind and rain, leaving only rounded depressions...............

They spoke a language almost Shakespearean in its elegance and precision, and kept a rich oral tradition of myths, tales, family histories, and exploits. There was, though, no written language, or the need for one. Shamans, healers, and expert storytellers in each clan served as living archives, passing along all they knew to apprentices. The rest of the world was so remote that the name the Eskimos gave themselves, Inupiat, means "The Real People," or simply "The People." There were no others.

 

There was little change in the northwest arctic, even after white explorers appeared in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.  Russian, English, or American, they stopped just long enough to trade and lend their names to places they passed.

Not until July 1897 did the first missionaries arrive-Robert and Carrie Samms and Edna Hunnicutt of the Friends (Quaker) Church.  They had been recruited by the Eskimos of Kotzebue, who had grown impatient waiting for a mission to establish itself and had taken matters into their own hands, sending a delegation two thousand miles to the south in search of candidates. A converted Selawik man named Uyagaq had seen the good things missionaries had brought to the Yukon settlement of Unalakleet, and he convinced The People that life would be better and richer with religious instruction, medical care, and schools.

With Uyagaq's help as interpreter, the Samms built a mission.  Sincere and energetic, they quickly won the respect and loyalty of many Eskimos-learning to speak Inupiaq, adopting local clothing and food, and immersing themselves in ministering to both the minds and bodies of their flock. Besides aiding Robert in his preaching and doctoring, the two women taught math and English, fed the children, and introduced the northwest arctic's first scholastic sport-ice skating.

Friends missions soon spread throughout the region, and there was a school at each. The Eskimos who had been living at scattered camps gravitated to these places, and villages were born-Kobuk, Shungnak, Kivalina, Deering, Buckland, Noatak, Noorvik. Trading posts followed, cementing the bond of place. Almost overnight, a nomadic people gave up one life for another.

Looking back, the willingness of The People to be shaped into something else is surprising, even disconcerting. Although they had their own unique culture firmly in place, they obviously wanted what the missionaries offered. One can only speculate whether knowledge, religious enlightenment, medical care, or trade was most important.

Schools, though, were certainly a major attraction. In Kobuk there were so many eager learners that missionary-teacher James Geary opened a night school to relieve the pressure on his crammed facility.  Naturally, the main text was the Bible, and instruction, both in school and out, was aimed toward producing ‘civilized Christians’.

What didn't fit in had to go. …. The missionaries broke the hold of the anjatkut (shamans) and did away with harsh, often brutal taboos. But Eskimo drum dancing, too, was soon banned; the raw pagan power of the dances seemed threatening …………..

It wasn't long before children were forbidden to speak their native tongue in school; English was the language of the Bible. Some elders recall being beaten for lapsing into Inupiaq, and school discipline in general was uncompromising. A piece of firewood was typical daily admission. Tardiness (a novel concept to a people without clocks or calendars) was punished, children judged too dirty were sometimes stripped and scrubbed on the spot. And yet they came of their own free will, to learn a strange new path and forget the only way they knew – a way remembered in a language they were forbidden to speak………….

In the first quarter of the new century, the Friends minister-teacher program was gradually supplanted by the federal government's Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA).At first the BIA gave just financial aid and supplies, but as the Friends found it harder and harder to find willing teachers, the government assumed more responsibility. Finally, in 1928 Superintendent of Education Sylvester Chance was forced out of office and replaced by non-Quaker George Morelander. He charged that the Friends had exerted an ideological stranglehold on the region's schools, regardless of the good they had done.

During the same period, the steady influx of white miners, missionaries, and traders led to the establishment of segregated schools-BIA or Friends schools for Natives, smaller, generally superior facilities for whites and children of mixed blood. Not until 1938 were local schools integrated, and even then, double standards lingered for thirty years. With whites in firm control of economy and government, and white culture the newly established norm, Eskimo schoolchildren found themselves on the outside looking in; after centuries spent curled in a cultural womb, success was suddenly redefined, and in terms they scarcely understood.  Wealth was no longer something one gathered from the land and shared freely; the skills and values of their parents had been replaced by the foreign notions of discipline, punctuality and frugality.

There is more and it makes very good reading, but a similar pattern can be found all over this region, and where oil, gas, or minerals have been found, the disruption has been immense. 

The Inuit people I have observations for here, therefore no longer exist, not in reality nor in memory. 

They exist only in the written records of those interested enough to capture the stories, myths, legends and practices of a people who once were, but no longer are.

We may bemoan the passing of a culture and spiritual awareness, but it would seem that in some ways the old shamanic days were not days of plenty or happiness in the Inupiat culture at least.  There was fear, the women were very badly treated and the shamans - all men - had degenerated into sorcerors, wielding too much power, as such change was needed. This is but one example, and the observations describing the wonderful work of Maniilaq show how bad ti had got........

Nick Jans - The Last Night Breaking
When a band was on the move, pushing upriver before the ice came or trying to find caribou, survival of the group came first. If an old woman was too weak to keep up, she expected the others to leave her. A daughter might stay behind, but if she did, it was her sacrifice and risk, a display of devotion. The others would push on. The spirits of the dead were powerful, and not even a shaman, an anjatkut, could safely tend to a dying person. If someone witnessed a death, he or she was contaminated, and had to stay away from the others for four days. It was the law of the shamans.

But it is still sad that so much spiritual awareness and connection with the land was lost. 

The land and its animals needs that connection perhaps more than the people, now that so called 'sport' shooting and fishing [often illegally] has increased so dramatically in the region.  People who are in connection with the spiritual world would never ever kill for 'fun' and it must be heart wrenching for those still spiritually minded to watch this.  Spiritually minded people only kill to eat, if they kill at all [and most do not], and they only ever kill what they need to survive.

Back then, too hard.  Always working.  People always dying.  Too much funeral.  Now I have 16 grandchildren and all living.  Aaariga that is good

References

Nick Jans website can be found via this LINK.

 

Observations

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