Ethnogrtaphic Portraits: Inupiat of Arctic Alaska

Beyond Kin: Social and Cultural Life

Although the core of aboriginal Inupiat life centered around the nuclear and extended family, the relationship was continually reinforced by patterns of mutual aid and reciprocal obligation. Beyond the immediate circle of kin, there existed additional social groups, some of which were kin-based and others which were not. Joking partners, for example were usually cross-cousins. Hunting partners were often related, though not always. The qargi club houses, primarily used by extended families for educational and ceremonial purposes, also served as socializing centers for unrelated others. In the large whaling community of Barrow, there were once three qargit, each linked with a whaling captain [umialik] and his crew, although additional family members and their wives were not excluded. It was through participation in institutions such as the qargi that the Inupiat developed a larger sense of identity with a particular locality or settlement.

At one time, the qargi was the meeting place of one of the most important aboriginal festivals held on the North Slope - the Messenger Feast. Usually organized in December, it was a ceremony with both social and economic significance. In early winter, an umialik of a given settlement sent messegers to a nearby locality to invite its residents to participate in an economic exchange. Because of the effort that had to be expended, no one group could afford to give such a feast each year. The choice of the invited settlement was based on the number of trading partners involved and the length of time lapsed since the previous invitation. Elaborate gift exchange between residents added to the development of inter-community solidarity, as did the opportunity for distant kin to re-establish social and economic ties while participating in the activities of the feast.

By the early 1960s, neither the qargi ceremonial centers nor the Messenger Feast were significant community institutions on the North Slope. No qargi remained at Barrow or Wainwright, and at Point Hope the two qargit were only meaningful in so far as they affected the patterning of the Christmas and spring whaling feasts. Similarly, only a vestige of the Messenger Feast was held between Christmas and New Year's Day.

The one important traditional ceremony still actively participated in through the 1960s [and continuing to the present] was the nalukatak, or spring whaling festival. Arrangements for this celebration, which took place at the end of the whaling season, were made by the successful umialiks and their families. If no whales were caught, there was no ceremony. Formerly, the festival took place in the qargi of the successful umialik. One of its purposes was to propitiate the spirits of the deceased whales and ensure through magical means the success of future hunting seasons. A modern adaptation of this religious belief is seen on those occasions when Christian prayers of thanksgiving are recited during the ceremony.

On the day chosen for the event, every boat crew that had killed one or more whales during the season hauled their umiaq out of the sea and dragged them to the ceremonial site. The boats were then turned on their side to serve as windbreaks and temporary shelter for the participants, and braced with paddles or forked sticks. Masts were erected at the bow and from the top were flown the small bright-colored flags of each umialik. Before Christian teaching changed the practice, the captain placed his hunting charms and amulets on these masts. When the site had been arranged completely and a prayer given, the families of the umialik cut off the flukes and other choice sections of a whale, and distributed them along with tea, buscuits, and other food to all invited guests.

Following a period of general relaxation, informal conversation, and further serving of meat and tea, the nalukatak skin ["skin for tossing"] was brought out. Of all the Inupiat ceremonial customs, the nalukatak or "blanket toss" is probably the most well known to Euro-Americans; and it was an exciting event to watch.

After bringing out a skin [made by sewing numerous walrus hides together], thirty or more Inupiat took their places in a circle, grasping firmly with both hands the rope handgrips or rolled edge. The object of the game was to toss a person into the air as high as possible - sometimes reaching more than twenty feet. Such people were expected to keep their balance and return upright to the blanket. Especially skilled individuals might do turns and flips. Usually the first to be tossed were the successful umialit. In earlier days, while high in the air, they were expected to throw out gifts of baleen, tobacco and other items to the crowd. More recently, candy has been used as a substitute. Once an individual lost her or his footing, another took a turn until all had a chance to participate.

In the late afternoon or evening, a dance was scheduled. When a permanent dance floor or temporary board platform had been made ready, five or ten male drummers, supported by a chorus of men and women, announced the beginning of the dance. The first dance, called the umialikit, was obligatory for the umialik, his wife and crew. All other crew members then danced in turn, followed by other men and women in the village. The affair usually lasted well into the night.

Christian and national holidays, including Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year's Day, Easter, and Independence Day, were actively celebrated by the Inupiat as well.

On the Fourth of July, for example, there were numerous foot races for the children, qayak and other boat races for the men, and tug-of-war pulls for those in all age groups. In those villages located near military, weather, or other government installations, local Whites were invited to participate. Winners received prizes of candy and canned fruit.

Thanksgiving was celebrated by a feast in the local village church, followed by group singing, drumming, and dancing. Between Christmas and the New Year, there was a continuous round of games, feasts, church services, drum dances, and dog races.

Religion and Health

At this time, contradictions between traditional Inupiat beliefs and those of Christianity were given little direct attention. Most adult villagers considered themselves to be staunch supporters of Christianity. But they also held other beliefs that they knew EuroAmericans didn't share - and thus were cautious about discussing them with outsiders.

One way to learn about earlier Inupiat religious beliefs was to ask the elders to relate legends that had passed down from generation to generation. A well-known story shared by an elderly Barrow resident illustrates the animistic nature of Inupiat religion:

Once there was a poor hunter. He always went out but never got anything. Finally, one day he saw a polar bear. As he crawled toward it over the ice, the bear said to him, "Don't shoot me. If you follow me and do what I say, I will make it so you will always be able to get whatever animals you think about." The bear told the man to climb on his back and close his eyes. "Do not open them until I tell you to." Then, the man and the bear went down into the sea a long way. "Do not open your eyes," the bear reminded him.

Finally, they came back up and the man saw an igloo along the edge of the ice pack. Then went inside and the man saw another bear with a spear in his haunch. The first bear said, "If you can take that spear out of the bear and make him well, you will become a good hunter." The man broke off the shaft, eased the spear point out of the bear's haunch, and the wound began to heal. Then the first bear took off his bearskin "parka" and became a man. After the wound was healed completely, the bear-man put back on his bearskin "parka," told the poor hunter to climb on his back and close his eyes, and together they went back into the sea. When the bear finally stopped, he asked the man to open his eyes. Looking around, the man realized he had been returned to the spot from which he began his journey. He thought he had only been gone a day, but on arriving home, he found that he had been away a month. From then on, the man was always a good hunter.

In this, as in many other myths, spirits of animals represented the controlling powers. Essentially, the Inupiat perception of the universe was one in which the various supernatural forces were largely hostile toward human beings. By means of ritual and magic, however, the Inupiat could influence the supernatural forces toward a desired end - be it influencing the weather and food supply, ensuring protection against illness, or curing illness when it struck. The power to influence these events came from the use of charms, amnulets, and magical formulas, observance of taboos, and the practice of sorcery.

Although all individuals had access to supernatural power, some were considered to be especially endowed. With proper training, these individuals could become a practicing shaman, or angatqaq. The Inupiat angatqaq was a dominant personality and powerful leader. Due to their great intimacy with the world of the supernatural they were considered particularly well qualified to cure the sick, control the forces of nature, and predict future events. At the same time, they were also believed to have the power to bring illness, either to avenge some actual or imagined wrong, or to profit materially from its subsequent cure.

The Inupiat of this region traditionally saw illness as resulting from one or two major causes: the loss of one's soul or the intrusion of a foreign object. A person's soul could wander away during one's sleep, be taken away by a malevolent shaman, or leave because the individual failed to follow certain restrictions placed on her or him by a shaman or the culture in general. Illness caused by intrusion was usually the work of a hostile shaman, but in either case, an effective cure for a serious illness could only be achieved through the services of a competent Native curer.

Although shamans had extensive powers, lay Inupiat were not without their own sources of supernatural influence. By means of various songs, charms, magical incantations, and even names, individuals could ensure the desired end. The acquisition of these instruments of supernatural power came through inheritance, purchase, or trade, with charms and songs changing hands most easily and often. The major difference between the shaman and the lay Inupiat was the greater degree of supernatural power assumed to be held by the former. The shaman did have one particular advantage, however - access to a tuungaq - or "helping spirit." Similar to the concept of guardian spirit found throughout many Native American groups, the tuungaq was commonly an animal spirit, often a land mammal that could be called upon at any time to assist the shaman. When it was to the shaman's advantage, it was believed that he might turn himself into the animal represented by the spirit.

The influence of the shaman began to decline following the arrival of White whalers who, without regard for the numerous taboos rigidly enforced by the Inupiat shamans, consistently killed large numbers of whales. Native converts to Christianity, holding the bible aloft, also flaunted traditional taboos without suffering, By the early 1960s, shamanism was rarely if ever practiced in northern Alaska. This does not mean, however, that individuals once known to be shamans, or capable of becoming shamans, were ignored. On the contrary, the Inupiat felt quite uneasy about such people.

At this time, the Presbyterian, Catholic, and Episcopal churches on the North Slope had been joined by several new denominations including the Assembly of God in Barrow and Kaktovik and, to a lesser extent, the Evangelical Friends in the area of Point Hope. All of these church groups stressed the efficacy of prayer - that is, the immediate intervention of God in daily affairs. This intervention was usually asked in two major areas: hunting and health. The churches preached that God could heal directly, although the evangelical churches put forward this doctrine more forcefully. Presbyterians, for example, used prayer as a supplement to medicine whereas the Assembly of God members frequently reversed the emphasis. In the Presbyterian church, the minister or congregation as a whole might be asked to pray for an ill member. In the Assembly of God church, any small group of members regardless of status were commonly called upon to help "lay on [healing] hands" when someone was sick.

Prior to the arrival of the evangelical missionaries, each village had one established church. There is little question that the homogeneity of religious belief arising from this arrangement encouraged a sense of identity within the village as well as with the Judeo-Christian world. Regular services brought together most village residents in a common ritual. The establishment of local church offices provided a structure for the emergence of new leaders. And a common doctrine set a standard by which Inupiat could measure their own religious and moral behavior. So too, resentment against others within our outside the community found expression in the act of refusing to attend church - an action that was quite effective since attendance at that time was one of the few activities expected of all village residents. Only salaried employees could be considered exempt, and even then, the more religious felt considerable qualms about working on the Sabbath.

Law and Social Control

Traditional Inupiat society has always characterized as having few social institutions beyond the family. Thus, in many respects, settlements and villages represented a community of interest rather than a corporate unit. Since there was no political organization, various social sanctions, customary law, common goals and norms had to provide the essential fabric of settled life. Individuals had great freedom of choice in their actions, but their security lay in cooperating and sharing with one another.

Nonconforming individuals, such as an aggressive bully or persistent womanizer, presented a continual problem in these localities. If nonconformists could not be curbed by the actions of kin or the force of public opinion, the one remaining alternative was to exclude them from participation in the community's economic and social life - a rather effective sanction given the unpredictable conditions of Arctic life. If severe interpersonal conflicts arose between one or more members of different kin groups, the villagers were faced with a serious dilemma, for there was no available technique for resolving feuds once they had begun. It was not until long after the government had assigned U.S. marshals to police this northern area that interfamily feuds resulting in bloodshed disappeared entirely.

As long as Inupiat economic and social security depended on the assistance and support of others, gossip, ridicule, and ostracism was quite effective in ensuring conformity to group norms. Inupiat socialization, emphasizing as it did rapid fulfillment of the child's needs and wants, freedom of action in many spheres, early participation in adult-like responsibilities with appropriate recognition for achievement, and the rejection of violence in any form, also encouraged the formation of a conforming rather than a rebellious personality type. However, this method of social control was considerably weakened when family groups became less cohesive, when greater opportunities for wage labor brought increased economic independence, and when substantial value conflicts began occurring between generations. All these trends had become fully developed by the early 1960s.

Given these changes, it was hardly surprising that traditional mechanisms of social control soon lost much of their effectiveness. One teenager from Barrow summed up this perspective in his comments on the strict curfew in effect at Wainwright in 1961:

When I visited the village, I didn't know about the midnight curfew for young people. I went out until about three in the morning with a local girl. I went out late the next night and on the following day a village council member spoke to me at the post office about the curfew. I told him I was a visitor from Barrow and I shouldn't have to obey the curfew. He said I did, but I kept going out late anyway. Finally, the whole council called me in and told me I could not go out after twelve o'clock anymore, and I said, "This is America, not Russia and I can go out as much as I like." The council didn't like that, but there was nothing they could do. I left soon afterwards, though. That Wainwright is a strict place.

After a similar visit to Kaktovik, this same youth gave further insight into the reasons behind his negative attitude toward the more isolated Inupiat villages:

After living in the States, I can't stand this place for very long. The people here, they don't know what it is like outside. Some of the boys brag about how good they are, but I just keep quiet, laughing inside. They haven't seen anything like I have. And another thing, they don't have any respect for privacy. Why, they just come into your house without being invited and drink your coffee, or anything. The people at Barrow don't do things like that. They have much better manners and aren't so backward.

While these comments reflect an especially strong alienation derived in large part from his acceptance of Euro-American stereotypes learned during his life in the "States," many youths in the 1960s showed lessened regard for old Inupiat ways; and after leaving home, simply ignored the traditional pressures to conform. When their actions disrupted village life, as was the case of individuals who became aggressive after drinking, they might be brought before the village council. But the effectiveness of the council as a deterrent depended largely on the prestige of the councilors, their previous experience, the type of problem brought before them, and the degree of support given by local Whites.

A few village councils such as the one at Point Hope were organized as early as the 1920s when they were encouraged by resident missionaries. But at best they were only nominally effective. The only significant legal authority they had was the ability to file a complaint with the U.S. Marshall. The major impetus for the development of local self-government - Euro-American style - on the North Slope came in the mid-1930s after governmental responsibility for the Inupiat had been placed under the jurisdiction of the Bureau of Indian Affairs; although one or more councils were organized as early as the teens farther south in the Kotzebue area. With the passing of the Indian Reorganization Act [IRA], the Inupiat and other Native Americans were urged to draft village constitutions and bylaws, ratify them by majority vote, and submit them for approval to the U. S. Secretary of the Interior.

By 1960, all Inupiat villages with a population of 100 or more had some form of self-government. Most were organized formally with an elected president, vice-president, secretary, treasurer, and several councilors. They met at regular intervals and took action on such common problems as supervising the operation of Native cooperative stores, spring village cleanup, promoting civic improvements, and making and enforcing local regulations. In every instance, elected officials were Inupiat men.

One difficult problem facing the councilors was that of coordinating community activity, such as village cleanup. Not only did these village leaders have to contend with lack of precedent, but they had to be careful not to identify themselves too closely with White power figures for fear that other village members would conclude they no longer represented Inupiat needs and interests. Leaders who ceased sharing the norms, objectives, and aspirations of the larger group ceased being leaders. Nor could they assume an authoritarian or aggressive stance in their actions for such behavior went directly against traditional Inupiat values.

An illustration of how these factors resulted in the replacement of a village leader at Point Hope is reflected in the efforts to build a community-wide electric power plant. Most local residents were in favor of obtaining a power plant, but they had little knowledge of how to implement such a plan. Nevertheless, with the urging of the council president, arrangements were made and the plant constructed. Problems arose immediately, most of them linked to monthly charges each family had to pay for electricity. Locally designated "bill collectors" refused to press for these payments, at which point the council president, faced with the possibility of backruptcy, aggresssively reminded the villagers of what happens to White Americans who refused to pay their bills. Although the installation of meters eventually resolved the immediate financial problem, this leader lost much of his influence and was not re-elected to the council. Similar problems emerged elsewhere at this time as the primary qualification for election to village councils began shifting from older prestigous community leaders who had the respect of the community to younger, more educated, individuals who had the ability to speak and write good English, but little other knowledge or experience.

But it was in the area of law enforcement that the councils faced their greatest dilemma. Having established regulations against the importation of intoxicating beverages, the members had no way of enforcing their rulings. The same problem occurred with gambling, curfews, and the confinement of dogs. With the exception of Barrow, by 1960, no community had obtained sufficient funds to hire an outside law enforcement officer - and few local local Whites, even if requested, had any interest in becoming involved in such a responsibility.

When an individual disregarded a local regulation, he or she was usually approached by a council member, reminded of the ruling, and told to conform. If the individual persisted, the person was brought before the council and asked to account for the behavior. This practice was most effective with village youths, but was pursued with adults as well. For more serious offenses like minor theft, a combination of council and family pressures would be applied to the offender who was usually a teenager. Before the 1960s, theft was uncommon among the Inupiat, and adults spoke of this misdemeanor with strong feelings of indignation. However, by this time the problem had become of sufficient concern that in most Arctic villages, householders locked their doors on leaving home for any length of time.

The issues which the councilors were the least able to resolve concerned drinking and the curfew. Although liquor was forbidden by local ordinances, the moderate drinkers were seldom criticized as long as they indulged in the quiet of their own homes. Beer and alcohol were obtained by air freight from Fairbanks, through a resident White, or from a friend recently returned from the "outside." Drinking was considered a problem when it resulted in such open hostility as destruction of property, picking a fight, or wife-beating. There were also instances of young Inupiat who under the influence of liquor, killed the lead dog of another hunter, destroyed furniture and other household items, and broke into government buildings for purposes of theft. Generally, under such circumstances, public opinion did not support taking firm sanctions against the offender. This was largely due the Inupiat perception that those who drank were not responsible for their actions - and thus, couldn't be held accountable. That is, "being drunk" was not only an explanation for damaging behavior, it was also a justifiable excuse.

Given this increase in social problems, the Inupiat remained committed to a common set of cooperative standards covering a wide range of behavior, and, with relatively few exceptions, actively conformed to these standards. In the villages, there was no overall sense of lawlessness, no rampant vandalism, delinquency, crime, sexual misconduct, or alcoholism.

Still, if cooperation remained an important value for most families in the 1950s and early 60s, the increased geographical mobility of village residents reduced the opportunity for its active expression. In families where traditional subsistence pursuits were regularly followed, expectations regarding labor exchange, borrowing, and sharing continued to be reinforced. Men hunted together and shared their catch. Women assisted each other with baby tending, carrying water, and similar household-related responsibilities. Members of related families helped each other too, constructing, repairing, and painting houses, borrowing another's boat, sled or dogs, and sharing the use of electric generators. However, as more individuals left their communities for seasonal or year-round employment elsewhere, this cooperative pattern became steadily harder to follow.

By the mid-1960s, seasonal migration was evident in all Arctic villages. Men left home for summer jobs as soon as spring seal hunting was over in early June. Many sought jobs in central and southern Alaska, or at one of the numerous military sites scattered throughout the newly-formed State. Often they were hired as common laborers or cannery workers, although a few became skilled carpenters, heavy equipment operators, fire fighters, and mechanics. Those joining a union found summer jobs through the employment office in Fairbanks, thereby enabling them to leave directly for their work site. Working "outside" also brought expections that at least part of the wages would be sent home, an arrangement that was upheld by older married men far more often than by younger single adults.

In other villages like Barrow and Kaktovik, jobs were available locally. But even here, the nature of the work left men inadequate amounts of time to engage in subsistence hunting and fishing. Working a six-day week, few individuals could give more than minimal assistance to others and therefore, could expect little in return. With sufficient cash income to purchase most of their food and other required goods, it might have been possible to share these items with the fulltime hunter in exchange for fresh meat, fish, and other traditional food products. But this modern version of reciprocal exchange was unusual, and the transaction most often occurred through the medium of the village Native store.

Many Inupiat expressed great concern over this turn of events; on the one hand wanting the material advantages of a good cash income, and on the other, disliking the penalty that it seemed to require. As the importance of the extended family continued to decline, further reductions in the traditional patterns of cooperation occurred. Could the expression of this value find another institutional base outside the extended family? Non-kin based institutions carrying the greatest meaning for the majority of adult Inupiat were the Christian churches. Here, members contributed freely of their time and energy in support of numerous religious activities ranging from weekday services and mother's club meetings to summer bible schools. Similar efforts were put into the maintainance of church buildings, missionary residences, and the like. But few thought such collective endeavors could replace the deteriorating cooperative ties linking families and generations together.

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

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