Inuit and Amish, Cultural Diversity or Cultural Destruction?The Inuit and the Amish, the differences between them are as great as the distance which separates them. Yet these two groups of people do share one distinct commonality: they each represent a very unique society. Why is it then, that the Amish have been able to almost completely withstand the influences of the vast North American culture which surrounds them while the Inuit way of life has been forever changed by its contact with the inhabitants from south of the Arctic Circle?The Inuit are people of Arctic Mongoloid ancestry inhabiting small enclaves in the coastal areas of Greenland, Arctic North America and extreme northeastern Siberia. Their name for themselves is Inuit (in Siberian and some Alaskan speech, Yuit), meaning “the people.” Traditional Inuit beliefs are a form of animism, according to which all objects and living beings have a spirit. All phenomena occur through the agency of some spirit. Intrinsically neither good nor evil, spirits have the ability to affect people s lives and, although not influenced by prayers, can be controlled by magical charms and talismans. The person most effective in controlling spirits is the shaman, but anyone with the appropriate charms or amulets can exercise such control. Shamans are usually consulted to heal illnesses and resolve serious problems. Communal and individual taboos are observed to avoid offending animal spirits, and animals killed for food must be handled with prescribed rituals. Inuit rituals and myths reflect preoccupation with survival in a hostile environment. Vague beliefs of an afterlife or reincarnation exist, but these receive little emphasis. Most communal rites center on preparation for the hunt, and myths tend to deal with the relationships that exist between humans, animals, and the environment. While none of these beliefs is grounded in any scientific theory or explanation that we (western-based science society) would find acceptable, nearly all Inuit held fast to them – until recently. As we continue to approach the twenty-first century these Inuit beliefs are fading away. Inuit youth attend schools who s curriculum has been developed by non-Inuit people (i.e. North American policy makers). Historically, the Canadian government s attitude to education was characterized by the same reluctance to make a policy that informed its other dealings with the Inuit. It did not start building schools in the North West Territories until the late 1940s. Before that time it was happy to turn over the responsibility for education to the various missions, mainly Anglican and Catholic which got a government subsidy for building schools and residences. However, the missions did not reach many of the Inuit (in 1944 it was established that over 80 per cent of Inuit children were not being taught in schools), and were a mixed blessing for those whom they did reach. As the Minority Rights Group state in their book Polar Peoples Self-determination and Development, “they [the mission schools] took the children away from their families, taught them in foreign ways and in foreign languages, and in many cases forbade them to speak their mother tongue. ” The book also cites examples of the brutality with which native children were treated at these schools. Severe corporal punishment was accepted as normal and sexual abuse by priests and teacher occurred regularly in some places. Much has changed in the last five decades. Schools in the arctic have become places where children go to learn and have fun (as they should have always been). School systems have evolved from the once sporadic settlement schools and a great deal of Inuit input is used in creating the curriculum for the schools. Despite these considerable strides, a large number of the teachers in the Inuit school system are non-Inuit and much of the curriculum is taught in English. This forces students to learn how to speak english. While there is always great benefit in being fluent in another language (particularly english), this parallels a scenario where a French teacher is placed into a classroom filled with English-speaking students and expecting the student to learn the language in order to obtain their education. Quite simply, most of us would find that unacceptable! In the 1970s a cultural inclusion program was established in some schools. This meant that the older Inuit would come into the schools regularly to teach the boys how to build qamutit (wooden sleds), and the girls how to sew kamit (sealskin boots). However, this program had only limited success. Other modifications have been made to the educational system since then, though. Since it has long been the case that in the lengthy days of spring, children would spend most of their time outdoors and would also go camping on the land with their parents, some schools have incorporated the camp cycle into the last two weeks of school, allowing pupils and teachers to learn from the older Inuit. Also, a teacher education program has been in place since 1980 in Frobisher Bay training Inuit to be teachers. Thirty-seven of the 359 teachers in Inuit schools have graduated from the program (Minority Rights Group, 1994). The number of native students going on to post-secondary education has jumped from 16 in 1978-79 to 154 in 1983-84 (ibid.). High schools in the North West Territories function much as they do around Canada. Moreover, included in the latest revision to the curriculum are some fairly good ideas. The following is an excerpt from The Implications In Action a document published by the Department of Education, Culture, and Employment in Yellowknife , North West Territories and reproduced on the Internet (http://siksik.learnnet.nt.ca/docs/juniorHandbook/titlePage.html):” Students experiences within the family and community prior
to coming to school shape their world view and their learning Ourprograms and priorities must be governed, to some degree, by ourenvironment “In order to make school more relevant to children, the guidance of Elders and other key people in children s lives is sought out and their knowledge and visions are incorporated into the schools programs. Despite these strides made to the educational system, the Inuit are slowly becoming more “westernized” (or, more accurately, “southernized”). Inuit students do not seem too concerned with learning about their past or maintaining tradition. Today, they are at school to learn about the rest of the world with the hopes of one day joining the global economic community and entering the workforce. Inuit girls, for example, are no longer interested in keeping with traditional the traditional ways where women stay home to cook and make clothing. Instead, they are concerned about their education and the lack of success girls have had compared to boys in the subjects of math and science. These girls have even conducted a survey of the North West Territories school system and posted their results on a web site (http://siksik.learnnet.nt.ca/Girls&Science/grades.html). While their efforts should be applauded as a sign of advancement in their culture, it is also another indication of how far Inuit society has progressed since encountering the settlers of North America. What has happened to the extensive honorary customs and taboos that were so important to the Inuit before an animal was consumed? All Inuit once feared the hostility of animal souls if the animals were mistreated. However, after observing other North Americans and their wanton disregard for animal life, these fears began to diminish as it became apparent that no retribution was handed down to the offenders. Could it be that influences like television, radio, and other media, combined with the dreadful job the educational system in the north has done until recently, have succeeded in erasing thousands of years of beliefs and rituals? The Inuit have always seem eager to embrace the ways of the “white man” and we have been only too obliging, especially since there has been money to make from such activities, but in the process have we destroyed the essence of who they once were?This, therefore, brings us back to our original question: how have the Amish, who are surrounded by the rest of North American culture, been able to withstand its influences to the degree that they have? To answer this, one must look at their deep-rooted Christian beliefs. “These people believe God has called them to a life of faith, dedication, humility and service ” (Good, 1985, p.9). According to Good, it is the Amish s belief in God s personal interest in their lives and their communities which holds them together. Good is, in fact, fervent in his opinion that without a strong Christian conviction about the sacredness and seriousness of life, the Amish, as a people would have disappeared long ago.These same Christian beliefs are what have helped make the Amish wary of outsiders. Though the Amish are typically involved with many volunteer and relief organizations, they choose to distance themselves from the government. Of course, this is understandable considering the degree of persecution the Amish once faced by governments in Europe. Unlike the Inuit, the Amish have not allowed the government to teach their children in public schools. Instead, nearly every Amish community has at least one school of its own. These schools have one room and one teacher. Teachers are often young Amish women who have not yet married, though it is not unusual to find single women who have taught for many years and sometimes a married Amish man will teach. Rarely does an outsider teach Amish children. In maintaining these convictions, the Amish schools are a reflection of Amish society. Even though their religion is what holds their community together, no religion is taught in schools. Since their Christianity demands the Amish lead a simple existence, they have managed to avoid the influences of television, radio, and most technology in general. The Inuit, however, embraced nearly all aspects of their southern neighbors culture and today find themselves living in a society that is radically different from the last century. Does this mean that the Inuit have progressed positively into the modern world while the Amish s refusal to accept most modern ways symbolizes the backwardness of their society? I don t think so. Change is important for any community and culture, it is necessary for survival. However, change at the cost of one s culture is a fairly hefty price to pay. Even the Amish are willing to make changes, yet they are careful to make them gradually so as not to lose their identity in today s world. Literature CitedDepartment of Education, Culture, and Employment, Yellowknife, NWT,Junior Secondary School Handbook [On-line]. Available:http://siksik.learnnet.nt.ca/docs/juniorHandbook/titlePage.htmlGingerich, Orland (1972). The Amish of Canada(pp. 161-165). Waterloo, Ontario: Conrad PressGood, Merle (1985). Who Are the Amish?(pp. 8-9, 28-29, 68-69). Intercourse, Pennsylvania: Good BooksMicrosoft Encarta 96 Encyclopedia (1993-1995). InuitMinority Rights Group (Ed.), 1994. Polar Peoples Self-determination and Development(pp. 131-133). United Kingdom: Minority Rights Publications”Our Education, our Future, What NWT Girls Said” [On-line]. Available:http://siksik.learnnet.nt.ca/Girls&Science/grades.htmlPurich, Donald, (1992). The Inuit and Their Land The Story of Nunavut(pp. 40-41). Toronto: James Lorimer & Company, Publishers.