Ethnographic Portraits

Ethnographic Portraits of Northern Peoples
An Introduction

Norman Chance


I am an anthropologist. My intellectual forebearers, educated in the universities of western Europe and North America from the early-1800s through the initial decades of the 20th century, were among the first to study the life ways of Arctic and Subarctic peoples. At that time European and American governments and industries were actively competing for control over much of this northern territory - followed by the exportation of capital and new technology to those areas in which they had achieved dominance. Cultural anthropologists, more experienced than most regarding the nomadic and pastoral residents of these regions, soon found that their knowledge assured them of an audience by the colonizing governments. And with that recognition came financial support for further research.

Eventually, numerous reports highlighting the customs, laws and beliefs of culturally distinct northern peoples began appearing in government documents, books, journals and magazines. Some are now classics in the field. But whether by circumstance or design, much of this early ethnographic reporting supported the popular ideology of the time which placed the economic and cultural development of white Anglo-Saxon society at the pinnacle of civilization, followed by the 'others,' the subjects of investigation, most of whom were red or brown. As the discipline's premier historian, George Stocking, wrote in his book Race, Culture, and Evolution: Essays in the History of Anthropology [1968], "By the middle of the 19th century, a rough sort of hierarchy of human races had become an accepted conventional anthropological wisdom."

Nor has the ghost of this intellectual past been completely laid to rest. The Canadian anthropologist, Michael Asch, succinctly states in his critique of development theory that once hunting and gathering peoples - such as those found in northern North America - come in contact with industrial societies, they tend to be perceived as evolving "...slowly but inexorablyy toward that more complex form." Furthermore, in keeping with western liberal tradition, this transformation process is commonly seen as being voluntary. Thus, for example, the Inupiat of Arctic Alaska are supposedly free to choose whether they wish to adopt newly available technology and Euro-American lifestyles. However, once such choices are embraced - and it is almost always assumed that they will be - this will eventually culminate in the abandonment of their existing way of life. By implication, if traditional culture is doomed, these people must further choose whether to become integrated into the dominant society with its wage-based, commodity-oriented economy, or find themselves relegated to a marginalized form of dependency. Correspondingly, for development experts and applied social scientists holding this view, the task becomes one of determining what factors are most likely to assist in furthering this adjustment in as harmonious a manner as possible.

However, many Alaskan Eskimo, Canadian and Greenlandic Inuit, and other indigenous groups living in the Circumpolar North, look at the situation quite differently. While acknowledging interest in and appreciation of western technology, goods, services, schooling, and religion, they strongly disagree with the notion that such an acceptance automatically results in the loss of their cultural way of life. Nor are many desirous of completely giving up their subsistence activities for the supposed security of wage employment. Thus, for example, the most appealing type of full-time wage employment actively sought by Inupiat men in North Alaska that is that which enables them to have regular time off to pursue subsistence hunting and fishing. In so doing, these Inupiat disavow the premise commonly held among non-Natives that wage labor is the ideal form of economic enterprise to be sought whenever possible. They are, to be precise, quite selective in what they want to adopt and what they don't.

Nevertheless, on Alaska's North Slope where a borough form of city government has been functioning since 1972, striking changes have occurred that has set this indigenous population on quite a different course from Native peoples in most other regions of the Arctic. Due to the borough's ability to tax oil revenues from Prudhoe Bay which lies within its borders, as well as draw on state funds for city services, millions of revenue dollars have become available to build modern high schools, provide housing with heating systems and running water, and offer similar accoutrements of a modern lifestyle once limited to comunities far to the south. Such a dramatic change occurring over a few short years seems almost unbelievable to those who once hauled ice for water and used dog sleds for travel. Yet young children growing up on the North Slope today have little understanding of these traditions; and so recent advantages are quickly taken for granted.

Present day Barrow, Alaska

Will these new forces - technological, economic and social - so overwhelm the Inupiat that they will be unable to find new ways to assist in their self-determination? Even if protective political entities are developed, will the next generation of Native Alaskans actively support them? Today, Inupiat elders express considerable concern over such matters.

By contrast, younger Inupiat, while encouraged to respect their elders views, often have different agendas. Is an Inupiat youth who speaks English with friends, has little interest in traditional dances, and prefers Big Mac's to seal meat no longer an Inupiat? Are Inupiat university graduates whose knowledge of finance and management enable them to take responsible positions in village and regional corporations, not Inupiat? Of course they are. While such activities may not characterize the Inupiat of the past, neither do they necessarily lessen their cultural participation in the future. Culture is never something static, composed only of isolated activities. The systems of meaning that social scientists refer to as culture contain an immense range of flexibility while at the same time offering a blueprint for shared behavior.

Such a perspective is clearly reflected in the statement of an young Inupiat woman spoken at an Alaska Native Women's Statewide Organization conference held in Barrow in 1982:

Just what is being an Inupiaq? "Are we Inupiat because we live in this land with a cold climate? If this is so, why then am I still an Inupiaq when I travel to other far away places which are cold too? Thus, I do not think that my living here makes me an Inupiaq. Or, am I an Inupiaq because of my diet, the food I eat? Am I an Inupiaq just because I eat Inupiat food? And if this is so, should I eat more and more Inupiat food so that I can become a good Inupiaq? This is probably not so because earlier today I saw a White man eating dried Eskimo meat and seal oil although he is not an Inupiaq. So I do not think my food makes me an Inupiaq..."But I want you all to think this over. What is an Inupiaq? If I am an Inupiaq, how am I so?

Along with questions of cultural identity, the Inupiat of Alaska's North Slope are having to address additional problems common to all circumpolar peoples impacted by the economic, social and political realities of southern-based industrial societies. Of these problems, the one often producing the greatest apprehension is the fear of losing their land. Every culture needs a material foundation for its continuity. For indigenous peoples of the North, it is the tundra, tiaga, and sea. This issue is not simply one of subsistence, as crucial as that economic endeavor is. Ties to the land and sea also entail special responsibilities including the sharing of its resources with others. Nor is the environment viewed only in natural terms. It is also endowed with cultural attributes that enrich nature.

In the ethnographic portraits that follow, we will learn how the Inupiat have addressed these issues: beginning with the years before the large influx of Non-Native peoples to the North, and culminating with the arrival of statehood and the discovery of oil in North Alaska. We will explore the efforts of several of Canada's indigenous populations to enhance their cultural viability and political self-determination following the introduction of large scale hydroelectric and other forms of natural resource development in that country's northern regions. Later on, we will address similar indigenous responses to rapid economic, political, and environmental changes in northern Scandanavia, Northwest Siberia, and the Russian Far East. In each of these instances, special attention will be given to analyzing polarizing issues and policies pertaining to competition and cooperation; economic growth and conservation; wage labor and subsistence; dependence and self-reliance; assimilation and cultural viability. In so doing, we will come to understand how the indigenous peoples of the Arctic and Subarctic have have made their own history and shaped their own lives from deep in the past right up to the present.


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