The latest group to become native to North America came too late to cross the Bering Land Bridge, sailing instead in small boats from east Asia, and forming what anthropologists call the Thule culture in western Alaska around 1000 CE. Their legends preserved memory of the Dorset culture they displaced as giants called Tuniit. By 1300, they had reached Greenland, where Norse colonists called them, the Tuniit and the Beothuks skrælingar—”wretches” in their language. They called themselves “Inuit,” or “the people” in their own Inuktitut language. English speakers came to call them by a name of Algonquian origin of ambiguous meaning (often presumed to be “eaters of raw meat,” though this seems incorrect): “Eskimo.”
The Inuit have not lived long in the arctic reaches of North America, but their adaptations to such a harsh environment are impressive, nonetheless. The Arctic is actually a desert, due to its low precipitation. It is not just the biting cold or the driving winds that make the Arctic such an incredibly difficult environment, but the low precipitation and sudden storms one finds in a desert, as well. Little can grow there but small grasses, mosses and lichens, but these form the basis of an Arctic ecosystem nonetheless. Caribou dig through the snow to find those lichens and grasses that spring up in the short summer growing season, and these constitute a major source of food for the region’s predators—primarily polar bears, and the Inuit themselves. The Inuit are unique in many ways; one of them being that their diet is nearly 100% meat. Inuit will scrape the stomachs of caribou for undigested greens, which can make up the main source of vegetable matter in Inuit diet. Many Inuit, however, have relied more heavily on seal hunting than caribou, and some have even occasionally hunted polar bears—some of the most powerful, most dangerous animals in the world.
|Nanook of the North is one of the most famous ethnographic films ever made and the first feature-length documentary, following the life of “Nanook” for one year. “Nanook” was in fact named Allakariallak, and Flaherty was later forced to admit that much of the film had been staged, to recreate what Flaherty imagined to be a more “authentic,” pre-European condition. The scenes at the end, with “Nanook” and his family starving to death, is a complete farce—if nothing else, there were several nearby French-Canadian and Inuit settlements.|
The Inuit innovated incredibly elegant and ingenious technologies to deal with the harsh environment. Kayaks were invented by the Inuit for water transport and hunting. The igloo is a marvel of architecture, built from the one material the Inuit had in abundance—snow. It is a structure that effectively maintains heat, can be built in a few hours by a skilled Inuit, and can last for weeks or even months if that is needed.
The principle behind an igloo is hidden in the material it’s constructed out of. Igloos are normally built from compressed snow, which is sawn into blocks, and then these blocks are stacked around a hole, which is dug out after the blocks have been set. Solid ice is a poor insulator, when compared to compressed snow. The snow has many many more air pockets per cubic foot, and is also lighter. Also, igloos do not have flat bottoms. The inside of the igloo is tiered, or terraced, the uppermost level being where the people sleep, the middle is where the fire is and the work takes place, and the bottom level actually is a “cold sump”. The principle is that all the coldest air from inside the igloo runs downward off the terraces and collects in the bottom, thus allowing the upper portions to stay warmer.
The entrance for the igloo is usually at the bottom, and includes at least one right angle, which keeps the high winds from blowing straight into the igloo and chilling the residents or blowing out the fire. They also all have a small hole on the top that keeps the smoke from building up inside the igloo. All of these factors take advantage of underlying physics, and the temperature inside an igloo is likely to be 20 degrees or so, while the outside temperature in northern regions can drop down to -50 degree Fahrenheit during the daytime. 20 degrees may not be what some consider to be comfortable, but a 70 degree difference is certainly welcome somewhere so cold.1
Yet even their ingeniously elegant technology could not completely cope with the harsh ecology of the Arctic all on its own. With so few material resources, the greatest resources available to the Inuit were one another. The division of labor in Inuit society helped deal with the problems of Arctic life.
Life on these precarious margins meant that every member of an Inuit band played an essential role. While her husband hunted, an Inuit wife spent much of her time making clothes-scraping hides, chewing the leather to soften it, and sewing the pieces with sinew. Every seam had to be windproof and watertight; a leaky boot could lead to crippling frostbite. Children and grandparents helped as they could-preparing food, packing sleds, harnessing dogs, setting up tents.2
Inuit beliefs adapted to their ecology, and helped also to support their society on such a difficult environment.
Inuit religion was closely tied to a system of rituals that were integrated into the daily life of the people. These rituals were not terribly complicated, but they were held to be absolutely necessary. According to a customary Inuit saying, “The great peril of our existence lies in the fact that our diet consists entirely of souls.” By believing that all things—including animals—have souls like those of humans, any hunt that fails to show appropriate respect and customary supplication would only give the liberated spirits cause to avenge themselves.
The harshness and randomness of life in the Arctic ensured that Inuit lived constantly in fear of the uncontrollable, where a streak of bad luck could destroy an entire community. To offend a spirit was to run the risk of having them interfere with an already marginal existence. The Inuit plead with supernatural powers to provide them with the necessities of day-to-day survival. As Knud Rasmussen’s Inuit guide told him when asked about Inuit religious beliefs, “We don’t believe. We fear!”3
Western anthropologists have tried to shoe-horn the Inuit into a model of hierarchy, though the umialik or “rich man” is a head of his family, whose attained power comes through personal skill and charisma, and the wealth of a large family.
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. … For the Inupiat prior to their encounter with the West, people rather than things were the crucial resource.4
This is a heart-warming sentiment, but we must remember that the Inuit lived in an ecology so marginal that they are unique among hunter-gatherers in that their existence was genuinely difficult. Protecting that resource—one’s family—led to tactics as violent as any modern civilization employs to protect material assets.
In War Before Civilization, Keeley relies almost exclusively on horticultural peoples, so while he might provide a strong critique of the “Noble Savage,” he nonetheless helps to underline th connection between war and food production. The major exception are the Inuit. Keeley readily admits that with the Inuit, we are dealing primarily with homicide, rather than anything we would appreciate as “warfare,” but he also points to the lower population of the Inuit, and argues that as a percentage of population, the Inuit lost more people to escalating blood feuds than most industrialized states lost in the wars of the 20th century. Rachel Attituq Qitsualik, an Igloolik Inuit who has worked in Inuit sociopolitical issues for the last 25 years, writes about Inuit culture often for Nunatsiaq News. She details how a blood feud develops:
Where warfare occurred among Inuit, it represents an escalation of murderous reprisals, an alternating series of vendetta killings, each side displaying more savagery and ferocity in response to the latest attack by the other.
The murder—even accidental killing—of a loved one was thought by many Inuit peoples to be a just reason to demand vengeance. It was the avenger’s right and duty.5
In the same series, she underscores the point with how conflict can arise not just from out-and-out killing, but even from wounded egos, and how this leads to a humility eerily reminiscent of the San, and the tradition of “cursing the meat” that Richard Lee discussed in “Eating Christmas in the Kalahari.”
The most common cause for revenge was being made to feel insignificant. Personal ego was of extreme importance to traditional Inuit, which in part explains the strong respect dynamic in Inuit culture. The recognition of one’s isuma—personal and untouchable thoughts and opinions—was of paramount importance.
Additionally, Inuit worthiness was always relative to personal competence, with one’s worth directly measured by one’s ability to survive, and the ability to survive measured by one’s skills.
With these facts in mind, it becomes easier to understand why even the slightest attack upon one’s ego was considered tantamount to physical maiming, and cause for bloody retribution. The most common slight occurred not in the form of verbal abuse, but instead in the form of actions that diminished another’s significance. A hunter, for example, might flaunt his superior knowledge, a bold attack upon other hunters’ egos.
Even in Inuit culture today, there remains a tradition of playing down one’s own skills in public, saying for example, “Ah, I’m no good.” This derives not from true humility, but rather from a tradition of preserving oneself from the retribution of others.6
Qitsualik goes on to describe how anthropologists would often unwittingly set off feuds by focusing on one given contact and naturally praising his skill—leading to the sorts of inequality that stoke Inuit cycles of revenge. To some extent, we might conclude from this that Keeley’s numbers for Inuit violence may be inflated by the very same processes that recorded them, but there is also little doubt that blood feuds and revenge were major elements of Inuit life long before anthropologists came onto the scene.
We can see in these two forms a common thread beginning to emerge, suggesting what we might inuit as the underlying reason why the Inuit would be so exceptional among foragers in their propensity for violence: the Arctic is a very harsh place to live. Resources are few and far between; the most important resource for survival is one’s community, one’s family. If a member of your family is killed, reprisal is usually necessary—in order to maintain balance between competing families, but most of all, in order to establish that destruction of one’s most important resource is a dangerous and costly thing. Failing to avenge a fallen family member sends a signal that a competitor can be eliminated without fear of reprisal: it invites further destruction of one’s most essential resource—one’s family. This point is further underscored by the importance placed on self-worth and ego. Confidence in one’s self, and trust in one’s family, were the bonds that made this approach possible. If people and relationships are the most important resources of Inuit life, then confidence and trust are as vital to that economy as banking, interest and loans are to a monetary economy. This view is supported by the fact that Inuit violence was seasonal.
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.7
In that case, the Inuit fight for the same reason anyone else fights—to protect and to expand their resources. The Inuit represent a unique case in that the resource they protect and try to expand is the family. As such, blood feuds and revenge are not allowed to escalate out of control. The Inuit have developed ways of ending the loss of so many precious resources, and concluding escalating blood feuds.
Song-duels seem to have been especially popular among Eastern Arctic peoples, who used them as a way to resolve interpersonal conflict in a non-violent (at least, non-physically violent) fashion. The tradition was encouraged, not only because of its non-violent nature, but because it was great entertainment for the listeners.
The idea was very simple: each contestant would have a turn at inventing a song (sort of the Inuit equivalent of an evening at the improv) with lyrics that would humble, belittle, satirize, denigrate, revile, and generally humiliate the opponent.
The song was made up off the top of the singer’s head, its dual purpose to poke fun at the subject while also amusing listeners. The subject himself could do nothing but sit and stew while the gibes were sung out, and listeners laughed aloud. And laughter was the critical factor in the contest, since it would determine the winner. The rule was “anything goes”—as long as it was funny.
In a song-duel, laughter on the part of listeners indicates approval of the lyrics. Conversely, silence indicates disapproval. The loser is essentially laughed out of the contest.
Song-duelling is an ancient tradition that has dwindled in the face of modernity. Even in the 1950s, I never personally witnessed a song-duel, not even among the Netsilingmiut (among whom it is said to have been popular) with whom my family settled.
The written accounts we have of song-duels seem to indicate that it was primarily a male tradition, perhaps due to the fact that contestants typically liked to drum along with their respective songs. Drumming traditionally lies in the masculine sphere. But this is not to say that women were not participants. In fact, some peoples used a variation in which each contestant would secretly teach his song to his wife, who would sing it for him at the contest.
One way or another, song-duelling was a formal event, carried out in a common area, with allies of either contestant present. Neither contestant enjoyed a “home court” advantage. It was presided over by some neutral authority, generally an elder.8
Violence and war are functions of scarcty (though, as Kelly demonstrates,9 the relationship is not as simple as “scarcity causes warfare”—rather, scarcity provides the impetus, and following abundance the means, for warfare). Foragers are typically not bound by scarcity,10 but the Inuit live in an exceptionally difficult ecology. For them, scarcity is a genuine part of life; we should not be surprised that conflict and violence are thus also part of Inuit life.
The Inuit propensity to violence is almost certainly a direct result of the fact that the Inuit make their living in the most harsh, unforgiving, and marginal ecology in the world—an ecology where agriculture has absolutely no chance of survival. In such an environment, the Inuit have necessarily created one of the most unique foraging cultures, an outlier on the foraging spectrum in many regards, including the prevalence of violence. Though some Inuit have spent nearly half their total time in North America in contact with European cultures, for others, European ways of life are relatively new, and for the elders, the “old ways” are still in living memory. Though often dismissed as nostalgic by the younger generation, the elders insist that even living on the edge of the world, their quality of life has suffered greatly with the introduction of European technologies, culture, and patterns of thought and speech. Perhaps they are simply being nostalgic, or perhaps we should take them at their word—that even the poorest, most marginal foragers have it better than the most “advanced” civilizations of the First World.