Before 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 many Inupiaq-speaking groups. Some of these people stayed close to their homes while others were more mobile. All, however, tended to have marriages within rather than between groups. Clothing styles, personal adornment, and sub-language differences also served to separate the members of one group from another. Though each spoke Inupiaq, regional variation was sufficient enough 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 that made up these differing districts or localities were networks of large, extended families, 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 used by “domestic families.” In ecologically less favorable districts, local families might include a dozen or so members whereas in better 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 in distinct ‘neighborhoods.’
Politically, these families were self-governing groupings, roughly equal in status, with no external “chief.” Internally, there was a system 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]. Many umialiks were shamans as well. Though not given formally defined authority, they usually won the right to lead through their personal qualities 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 required 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 kept track of what was available, what was needed, and what could be given to others. So, the larger the family, the greater the redistribution process, and the more extensive the power of the umialik and his wife [nuliaqpak].
Highly successful umiliaks could further expand their families, and 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 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 culminated in a recognizable system of layering 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 reduction in the available food supply, or as less competent umialiks assumed leadership, the responsibility 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 native groups living 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 members of adjacent areas moved in to fill the space, and life continued.
One important 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. Before 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 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. Sometimes 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. There was friendly competition between different qargi groups, 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. 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 spot. Sometimes couples danced together 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. Several drummers, beating tambourine-type drums and chanting provided accompaniment. The blend of the beat and rhythmical rise and fall of voices, accented with shouts of auu yah iah, drew qargi members to the dance floor. In the larger villages, two or more local families sometimes 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.
The self-sufficiency of 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, asking for help would carry considerably more weight if the one without had been generous in the past. In times of need, sharing across family lines was common. Only during periods of famine or plenty would the arrangement be likely to break down. In the former instance, families split up anyway, looking for relatives in other places where food was more plentiful. In the latter, the need wasn’t there.
Cooperative hunting also joined families together. Notably, in such endeavors, the person recognized as being the most skilled hunter assumed leadership of the given enterprise, irrespective of family membership. Once harvested, the game was then divided among the individual participants according to a set of rules overseen by the group leader [ataniq]. When given to the hunter’s family, the game would then enter the family redistribution system.
Along with sharing and cooperative hunting, other linkages, such as those established through intermarriage, strengthened inter-family ties in a given place. Since there were a limited number of potential partners within a local family [in addition to rules regarding incest], marriage outside of the tribe was the usual practice. Relations between cousins of the same sex and approximate age were close, as were friendship groupings with those who had common interests. Larger villages with several families had a shared playground where friends could play soccer or any other 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.
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 occurrence.
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 kin-based and cooperative economic linkages moderated blood feuds within settlements, 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 sometimes 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.
The culture and lifestyle of the Arctic Alaskan people was very much dependant on the climate, more so than any other natives in the Americas. The frigid temperatures affected everything. But they still have one of the more shadowed existences almost because of their location. Its amazing what one does not know about the peoples of the Arctic.