In Pursuit of Progress

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In Pursuit of Progress: A Colonial Narrative

Norman Chance

For millenia the Arctic has served as a natural laboratory, testing the ability of human beings to survive in a severe environment. And given their specialized way of life, the Inuit and other northern peoples have met this challenge with ingenuity and skill. Not so the Norse, whose settlements died out two hundred years after they arrived in the eastern Arctic around 1000 AD. It took another five centuries before explorers, this time from Russia and England, renewed contact with the Arctic's aboriginal Americans.

At this time, clusters of small family groups lived in the Arctic, each associated with a specific territory. In harsh settings these gatherings included a dozen or so members. In highly productive areas such as those along sea mammal routes, family groups reached 50 or more. Politically, they were autonomous entities, roughly equal in status, with no "chief," council, or other recognized form of government. Much of their economic life centered around the sea although regular inland forays at certain seasons of the year did provide important food staples including caribou and mountain sheep. Drawing sustenance from the land and sea also entailed special responsibilities including the sharing of these resources with others. Nor was the environment viewed only in natural terms. It was endowed as well with cultural attributes that enriched nature. Thus, in the mind of these aboriginal peoples, they saw themselves as part of the natural world rather than separate from it.

In the early 1800s, Europeans began arriving in the western Arctic - led by British explorers such as F. W. Beechey, John Franklin, and the Russian, A. F. Kashevarov. For these early envoys of European society, the North was something to be conquered rather than shared with nature's creatures. Driven by capitalist-derived economic values, first mercantile and later industrialist backers of these colonial explorers, perceived the land and sea as a frozen wasteland to be traversed in search of greater riches to the east and west. As for its isolated inhabitants, they remained on the outer fringe of culture - and perhaps even beyond it. Thus, after making contact with the Inupiat at several northwest Alaskan coastal settlements, Kashevarov wrote in 1838:

The life of the Eskimo, like that of other savages, proceeds regularly, monotonously, like a wound-up machine. He stays within bounds, within the cycle he follows; here now, tomorrow there, and for all the same reasons, for one and the same goal: to live like an animal, as his forefathers existed.

For explorers like Kashevarov, as well as other Europeans of that era, nature was perceived as containing certain qualities which were in opposition to human virtues. Thus, the moral world of human sympathy was distinguished from the amoral, unfeeling world of nature. Comparisons were also drawn between the tamed and untamed, cultivated and uncultivated. This distinction between humanity and other forms of life served to accentuate the uniqueness of 'man.' Not only could humans speak and engage in rational thought, they had a conscience and their soul was immortal. Animals, by contrast, had no conscience, no soul, and, therefore, no afterlife. Hence, holding such beliefs offered the best possible justification for exploiting animals as beasts of burden and as food to be eaten. Although Judao-Christian beliefs stressed as well the responsibility of humans to be kind toward all of God's creatures, the ambivalence of this time was clearly not so significant as to suggest that domination should be replaced by protection.

First western illustration of the Inupiat of Point Barrow, Alaska (from Beechey's Narrative of a Voyage to the Pacific (1831)

By means of such pronouncements, European, English, and North American intellectual and religious elites lay the moral underpinnings for the ascendency of human beings over nature as an essential step in the development of civilization. This is not to suggest that religious belief was seen as the motivating force behind this development. That responsibility was reserved for those applying newly accumulated capital toward increased industrialization in order to achieve greater profit. Nevertheless, in most respects, progress was considered as being virtually synonymous with the conquest of nature.

The distinction drawn between civilized humans and uncivilized animals stimulated an additional form of stereotyping as well: the attribution of 'animality' to humans. By definition, if humanity carries with it certain qualities, then those human beings not exhibiting such qualities are considered sub-human or semi-animal. In each instance, the effort to dehumanize set the stage for their maltreatment, domestication, or enslavement. It is in this light that Kashevarov's commentary about Eskimo "savages" who "live like an animal," should be understood.

Thus, under the banner of Social Darwinism, Europeans and Americans were quick to disparage the ways of northern peoples. Given this belief, the U.S. government, for example, had little difficulty defending its commitment to changing Alaska Native behavior by instituting educational programs that promoted assimilationist goals and actively denigrated Native language and culture. Nor did North American missionaries doubt their right to ban various indigenous rituals and customs as symbols of paganism - oblivious to their centrality in Native social life. Thus, both government officials and religious representatives undertook these actions in the belief that Euro-American progress, with its technological advances, industrial growth, capitalist infrastructure, and cultivated knowledge, had reached the zenith of civilization - and by implication, such benefits should be passed on to those less fortunate than themselves.

Underlying this paternalistic attitude, and partly hidden by it, was a political relation characteristic of all colonial encounters - one in which the colonizer has an excess of power and the colonized a lack of it. It was not the benefits of improved hunting technology or the introduction of western-based scientific concepts in the classroom that was dehumanizing to northern Natives, but the way they were forced to modify their ways of thinking and acting.

It should be noted, of course, that during these early contact years, given the expansiveness of the region, reliance on the subsistence economy, and the small number of resident outsiders, northern peoples throughout the North had considerable autonomy in their actions. Wishing to exploit the region's natural resources, whalers, traders, and others drawn economically to the Arctic saw the land itself and its people as largely secondary to their interests. But by the 20th century, northern peoples increasingly were having to act in ways defined for them by others. Following the introduction of education, came the gradual enforcement of federal and territorial laws which seriously eroded indigenous forms of social control.

Northwest Alaska Eskimos seeking trade with an arriving ship [from Beechey's Narrative of a Voyage to the Pacific (1831)]

Eventually, in many parts of the Arctic, even subsistence hunting and fishing activities came under government scrutiny - with accompanying threats of fines and court action. Today, for example, in Alaska and Greenland, the government has placed severe limits on the number of whales that can be caught by local indigenous hunters. It is in this manner that northern peoples became a people burdened by colonialism. It was not an oppression of economic exploitation common to many such encounters, for with the exception of fur trapping, their labor wasn't a significant issue. But living in their own land, they still had lost much of their autonomy.

Only by engaging in active struggles over land claims and subsistence rights have Native peoples of the Circumpolar North been able to obtain redress for these earlier colonial forays. The fact that these struggles are finally bearing fruit, suggests that at least in the western Arctic, the older colonial thinking has lost much of its earlier forcefulness. Today, in this region, the focus of attention is finally shifting away from land claims to that of greater political and cultural self-determination.


[Adapted from The Inupiat and Arctic Alaska: An Ethnography of Development, by Norman A. Chance, Harcourt, Brace, 1990]


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