Ethnographic Portraits - The Inupiat Eskimo of Arctic Alaska

People and the Land: Early Years


Prior to the arrival of European explorers in the late 18th and early 19th century, Arctic Alaska, stretching from Norton Sound to the Canadian border, was the location of numerous distinct Inupiaq-speaking groups each associated with a particular territory. As described by Ernest Burch Jr., an anthropologist with extensive knowledge of northwest Alaskan Inupiat, some of these people remained close to their home districts while others were more mobile. All, however, tended to be endogamous. That is, along with spatial differentiation, marriages commonly occurred within rather than between groups. Clothing styles, personal adornment, and subdialect differences also served to distinguish the members of one group from another. Though each spoke I˝upiaq, regional variation was sufficiently distinctive to enable listeners to link accent with locality, thereby allowing individuals coming together to immediately determine the other's home district.

The major social entities comprising these differing districts or localities were networks of large, bilateral extended families tending toward patrilocality, each composed of three to four generations, and each containing numerous married siblings and often cousins. Burch uses the term "local family" to describe these social units. Since the size of the family was usually too large for a single dwelling, adjacent houses were utilized by "domestic families." In ecologically less favorable districts, local families might include a dozen or so members whereas in highly productive areas, local family size could reach as high as 50 or more. Major population centers such as Point Hope and Point Barrow, located along sea mammal migration routes, contained several large local families clustered in distinct locations or neighborhoods, each set linked together by various affinal and consanguineal kinship ties.

Politically, these families were autonomous, segmental groupings, roughly equal in status, with no external "chief," council, or other recognized form of government capable of exerting control over them. Internally, a well-defined hierarchy did prevail, based largely on relative age, sex, and a sufficient number of younger siblings and cousins to make the elder statuses meaningful. In most instances, these elders served as advisors rather than day-to-day decision-makers.

The male family head was an umialik, often translated into English as "boss" or "rich man." All umialiks and their wives were considered "bosses" within their own local families. But to become a "rich" umialik required a large local family composed of many active male and female hunters and skin sewers. As holders of considerable wealth and high social position, these successful umialiks were powerful leaders, a trait shared only with the religious shaman [angatquq]. Indeed, many umialiks were shamans as well. Though not accorded formally defined authority, they regularly won the right to lead through their personal attributes of hunting, trading, and human relations skills, energy and wisdom. These qualities were what gained them their following and their following was what provided them their wealth. Such qualities were requisite to keeping such a group intact since membership was voluntary and could change at any time. Among members of a given family, mutual aid was the norm.

In larger families, the food obtained from hunting, fishing and gathering was turned over to the umialik and his wife. She, particularly, kept track of what was available, what was needed, and what could be redistributed to others. Hence, the larger the family, the greater the redistribution process, and the more extensive the power of the umialik and his primary wife [nuliaqpak].

Following a successful whale hunt, present-day Inupiat families on Alaska's North Slope
continue the practice of distributing maktak [whale skin with blubber] to other community members.

Highly successful umiliaks could further expand their families, and therefore wealth, by obtaining one or more additional spouses. Thus, the only factor limiting the expansion of family size other than capability of its members, was the availability of local resources. Over several generations, some families were able to command far more goods and resources, while others, smaller in size, had less. Small families resulted from various factors such as accidental death, poor health, weak management, and limited hunting skills. But whatever the cause, fewer relatives meant less people to count on in time of need. In the larger settlements, such as the whaling communities of Point Hope and Barrow, this differentation culminated in a recognizable system of stratification whereby a small number of families were able to attain more wealth and power than those less well endowed. Such power was not hereditary, however. As climatic or other natural events brought about a significant reduction in the available food supply, or as less competent umialiks assumed leadership, the mantle would pass on to more fortunate or more capable families.

It is often thought that prior to the arrival of Europeans with their guns and whale bombs, the available land and sea mammal population could easily support small aboriginal groups residing more or less permanently in the area. In a few localities this was largely so. But for most, not only was seasonal mobility the norm, but the threat of disaster was ever present - whether caused by climatic alteration tidal wave, disease, or similar calamity. Climatic changes especially, could seriously reduce the availability of fish and game such as salmon, caribou, and ptarmigan. No matter where the locality, the result was famine. Indeed, there are recognizable periods in Arctic Alaska prior to the arrival of Europeans [for example, between 1838 and 1848] when several territories were completely depopulated through famine or disease. Eventually, a few ex-residents returned, or if they had died out, other marginal members of adjacent areas moved in to fill the vacuum, and life continued.

One important aboriginal Inupiat institution uniting family members was the qargi, a kind of family gathering place. Although an overturned boat placed downwind on the beach could serve as a simple qargi, the structure was usually a building of some permanence. Prior to the arrival of Christian missionaries in the 1890s, every Inupiat settlement had one or more of these ceremonial houses. Children joined the house of their father, and on marriage a woman transfered to that of her spouse. During the day, it was a common meeting place for boys and men; girls and women commonly spending their working hours in family houses. But in the evening, the qargi became the family social center where members and friends regularly played games, told stories, danced, and participated in various rituals. With the opening of the ceremonial season in the fall, men spent much of the day there in work and recreation. Wives brought them food and sometimes remained to join in games and dancing. Occasionally men and older boys slept in the qargi as well. Recreational activities reached their peak in mid-winter. Games of physical strength, gambling, storytelling, and string-figures were common. Friendly competition between different qargi groups was encouraged, and formalized in wrestling matches and contests in weight lifting, jumping, chinning a bar, minature bow and arrow shoots, and kickball.

Another regular wintertime activity of the qargi was dancing, which took several forms. Some dances, limited to men, portrayed a particular event such as the search for polar bear or a joke played on a friend. Women's dances were usually more static, consisting of rhythmical movements of hands and body performed in a given location. Sometimes couples danced in unison or as part of a larger group. Mimicry in a dance was also common, the target being anyone the dancer wished to make fun of. Accompaniment was provided by several drummers, beating tambourine-type drums and chanting. The blend of the beat and rhythmical rise and fall of voices, punctuated with shorts of auu yah iah quickly drew qargi members to the dance floor. In the larger villages, two or more local families occasionally joined together in an arranged feast, dance, or athletic contest. In these communities, poorer Inupiat households might be allowed to observe or participate in qargi events of more well-to-do families in return for their maintaining the building, running errands, or otherwise assisting the owners.

Traditional drumming and dancing have always been popular among the Inupiat - Barrow 1958.

The self-sufficiency characterizing the traditional Inupiat family units should not be taken to mean that economic relations between local families in a given locality were non-existent. In times of plenty when ice cellars were full, the need for inter-family cooperation was minimal. But one never knew whether a full cellar this year would be followed by an empty one next. When a local family had little food and a neighbor had more, a request for assistance would carry considerably more weight if the one without had been generous in the past. Thus, in times of need, sharing across family lines was common - each local family knowing it could count on another's offer of surplus food when the occasion arose. Only during periods of famine or plenty would the arrangement be likely to break down. In the former instance, families split up anyway, seeking relatives in other localities where food was more plentiful. In the latter, the need was simply not there.

Cooperative hunting also linked families together. Notably, in such endeavors, the individual recognized as being the most skilled hunter assumed leadership of the given enterprise, irrespective of family membership. Given the importance of maximizing success in hunting, choosing the most knowledgable individual within the larger group to lead the effort was a far more effective approach than limiting the selection to a member of one's own family. Once harvested, the game was then divided among the individual participants according to a precise set of rules overseen by the group leader [ataniq]. When returned to the hunter's family, the game would then enter the family redistribution system.

Along with sharing and cooperative hunting, inter-family ties in a given locality were strengthened by other linkages, such as those established through intermarriage. Since there were a limited number of potential partners within a local family [in addition to rules regarding incest], exogamy was the usual practice. Hence, affinal ties became widespread, further strengthening inter-family bonds. Relations between cousins of the same sex and approximate age were close, as were friendship groupings among those holding common interests. Larger villages with several local families had a shared playground where friends could play soccer or comparable athletic activity. In such villages an annual or semi-annual gathering of all the village members [qatizut] brought the whole community together for a week of feasting, entertaining, sporting events, and demonstrations of magical practices put on by a local shaman.

It should be noted, however, that since there was no political structure overseeing these various relations, parties involved in conflicts had no superordinate body to whom they could turn in seeking resolution of the particular issue. The only real security lay with one's kin; and secondarily, the hope that an adversary's kin would also act to keep the situation from getting out of hand - a gamble at best. In larger coastal settlements especially, conflicts often festered, leading eventually to blood feuds between families. Under these circumstances, one family member would be unlikely to stray into the other family's neighborhood for fear of being physically attacked; or if the feud was sufficiently serious, killed. While the circumstances of Arctic living in a given locality may well have encouraged cooperation among differing kin groups, strong ties with one's own kin comprised the essence of Inupiat social relations.

If inter-family cooperation was limited within given localities at this time, it was practically non-existent in relations between localities. Or put more precisely, it was frequently violent. Indeed, in the western part of Arctic Alaska, early explorers such as Beechey, Kashevarov, and Simpson reported that armed conflict and open warfare between members of differing localities was a normal occurrance. The Inupiat, it appears, were far more aggressive than might be surmised from reading a primary school text.

Small warring parties of equal size might meet one another, recognize the difficulty of achieving a satisfactory outcome, and go their separate ways. But if the two parties were unequal in strength, the weaker had reason to be fearful for their lives. Strangers, without kin in the area, had the most difficult time of all. The anthropologist Burch has described the classic case of a seal hunter, accidentally cast adrift on the ice as a result of shifting wind and current. Depending on the weather, the hunter might drift for weeks or more before being cast ashore. If he was unfortunate enough to land near village in which he had no kin, he was in deep trouble. If observed by local residents, he immediately had to identify himself - meaning, indicate whether he had kin in the locality. If the answer was in the negative, he could be fatally beaten. In most instances, therefore, a stranded hunter would try to hide from other people until he could orient himself as to his whereabouts and the location of his nearest relatives. There are even some reports of hunters returning to the ice when discovered in hostile territory - survival being more likely on the ice than in a region without kinsmen!

Nevertheless, just as blood feuds within settlements were moderated by kin-based and cooperative economic linkages, so too, were hostilities between settlements tempered by similar alliances. Two were of particularly importance: trading partners [niuviriik] and co-marriage or "spouse-exchange" [nuliaqatigiit]. By means of a trading partnership, an Inupiat could extend the process of cooperation to non-kin, thereby ensuring additional assistance in the form of protection, food, goods and other services. Co-marriage was a non-residential arrangement between two conjugal husband-wife couples united by shared sexual access. In each instance, the alliance served to connect single individuals across territorial boundaries. These were also highly institutionalized arrangements expected to last throughout the lifetime of the participants. In periods of war, such ties tempered the amount of killing. In periods of peace, partners and co-spouses were key linkages in the conduct of inter-territorial trade.

Inter-territorial hostilities closely followed the seasonal round of subsistence activities. By common agreement, from late spring through the fall, a truce was observed. This coincided with the period of greatest productivity and most extensive inter-territorial trading. Then, in late fall when darkness began setting in, hostilities commenced. Any stranger observed in a given territory at this time was assumed to be either a spy or a member of an opposing group of warriors unless proven otherwise. Exceptions included journeys to or from a Messenger Feast, a ceremonial gathering of local families from different localities whose leaders were either trading partners or linked by co-marriage; and visits to relatives in other territories brought on by problems of famine in the individual's home district. Strangers who could not provide such justification, were beaten or killed.

With the coming of spring, a general truce again went into effect. Inupiat men living in the Kotzebue area north of the Seward Peninsula put away their weapons and moved onto the ice for seal hunting, interspersed a little later on with the pursuit of schools of sheefish. Women took overall responsibility for processing these harvests. Farther north at Point Hope, Wainwright and Barrow, coastal Inupiat hunters spent a large part of April and May in search of the bowhead whale, enroute to summer feeding grounds in the Beaufort Sea. At this same time, hunters would occasionally search for caribou along the upper Utukok and Colville Rivers.

From June and early July when the ice left, some North Slope coastal Inupiat spent their time at seal and duck hunting camps - while others headed east for the trade fairs at the mouth of the Colville River and at Kaktovik on Barter Island. Most Inlanders also moved down to the coast just after breakup in late June or later. July called for another move to the fish camps although men spent much of their time hunting caribou. Later in the season, women turned to harvesting large quanties of berries and other vegetable products. Farther south, the residents of Kotzebue Sound spent their late spring hunting the beluga, a small white whale of 12 to 14 feet in length that frequented the area in large numbers. With the end of the beluga hunting season, and after the women had finished drying the whale skin and blubber [maktak] and storing it in pokes, the people could turn to less strenuous activities including participation in the large trade fair held at Sheshalik on the north shore of Kotzebue Sound.

Traditional Trading Routes, North Alaska [from Spencer 1959]

This fair involving two thousand or more participants, regularly included boatloads of people from Siberia as well as inland and coastal Inupiat. Local trade goods such as pokes of oil, seal, whale, and walrus meat and maktak, ugruk skins and rope, were exchanged for Russian tobacco, regional specialities such as jade, pottery and Siberian reindeer skins, beads, caribou skins and furs. Social activities included dances, athletic contests, feasts, and more serious negotiations between members of different localities concerning disputes of the recent past.

Farther north, the North Slope Inupiat held their major trade fair in June at Nigliq on the Colville River delta. An Inupiat elder from Barrow, who as a child participated in one of the last trading fairs at Nigliq in the 1880s, described the experience fondly in an interview with an oral historican:

Right after the nalukataq festival, people from Nuvuk [Barrow] start getting ready to go to Nirliq for the trade fair. I traveled with my parents, Akuvaaq and Qinaluqana, along with my brother...and his wife. We always traveled together with other families and stick together no matter what the problem may be. We never leave anybody behind when they have a mishap. Before leaving, each traveler makes sure they have enough food to travel with, like sugar, flour, tea, shells for the rifles, tobacco, and whatever else was necessary to carry. I don't remember exactly what year or how old I was due to the fact that we did not have any calendars to go by. The other thing, or rather the main thing the people traded with was seal pokes filled with maktak blubber, and whale meat, all put in separate pokes. They also had fox skins of different varieties to trade with the dried caribou skins that are used for bedding...Before reaching Nigliq you can start hearing Eskimo drums beating and it is such a joy to hear their beat knowing that you are expected and are welcomed by the people. Whenever the visitors are entering the mouth of the river they put up a flag to let them know that they are visitors. It was a custom for visitors to put up a flag so that they could become a part of that village. After the big Eskimo dance, they start the trading...

In summary, it is obvious that for hundreds of years, the Inupiat of Arctic Alaska lived in distinct territorially-based populations. Highly competent, they had an intimate knowledge of their environment. Their economic and social life was organized around interlocking bilateral kin ties, extending to other localities through co-marriage. Although rights and responsibilities of relatives differed according to the closeness of the relationship, the collective labor of the group was nevertheless seen as being mobilized by linkages between kin. Largely self-sufficient and politically autonomous, these kinship groups maintained active trading relations with other Inupiat, Siberian and Alaskan Yup'ik, and Athabascan Indians.

Given the scope of what was available to them, human material wants were largely met; and if the technological means for development were minimal, they were nevertheless adequate. Everyone had access to the principle means of production - the land - and could make or obtain the tools with which to tap its treasures. Natural disasters of one sort of another, usually due to changing climatic conditions, caused occasional demographic fluctuations. Slowly increasing population along with improved technology influenced the nature and productivity of these territorial units as well. But such changes, falling within the realm of past experience, were for the most part predictable. And since the growth of knowledge from one generation to the next was minimal, the concept of time was cyclical rather than chronological - linked to the structure of recurring seasons. For the Inupiat prior to their encounter with the West, people rather than things were the crucial resource.

[Adapted from Norman A. Chance, The Inupiat and Arctic Alaska (1990), Harcourt Brace.]


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