Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Eskimos

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Although these people of the north are widely called Eskimos, the name they use for themselves is Inuit, which means simply the people. It was apparently the Cree Indians of Canada who gave the Inuit the name Eskimo, which means eaters of raw meat. If so, it was a mislead, because the Inuit care no more for meat that has not been cured or otherwise prepared than does anyone. By the late 20th century the term Eskimo came to be viewed as pejorative and was widely replaced by the term Inuit. There are about 110,000 Inuit living in the Arctic region, in a belt stretching from Greenland in the east, across northern Canada and Alaska, to eastern Siberia.

Through the centuries during which they lived without much contact with outsiders, the Inuit developed a fairly static way of life that suited their environment. Now the traditional life is fading as more and more Inuit become integrated into the economic and political structures of the countries in which they live. Only a person of great ingenuity and endurance could have survived in a region that is frozen under ice and snow for six to nine months a year, an area in which most vegetable foods were unobtainable and where trees exist in only a few marginal areas. The Inuit relied for their food supply on fish, sea mammals, and the few land animals of the Arctic. In the winter a dozen or more families congregated in a small community, and each morning the men would set out to harpoon any seals that appeared coming up for air in the few open lanes of water. But in the spring the communities would break up. Some families pursued seals over the open water in kayaks, skin-covered, one-person boats much like canoes. Other families hunted whales or fish. In the summer most families hunted caribou and other land animals. Then, as winter drew on, the families would congregate together again, and the cycle of the year continued. It was never a completely uniform cycle, for it varied from region to region. When hunting land animals, the Inuit used the bow and arrow, replaced later by the rifle. Against sea mammals the weapon was the harpoon. Some groups of Inuit used rawhide nets to capture seals, but the nets were never adapted for fishing.

Traditional Inuit religion was quite similar to animism, a belief system frequently found among aboriginal populations. Inuit saw a spiritual force in every natural phenomenon including in beast, bird, and fish, in wind and snow and in stones and sticks. Each of these was viewed as having human characteristics. These spiritual forces were neither friendly nor hostile, but they could become dangerous if they were not respected. The souls of the Inuit dead went to join this world of spirits, and they could become hostile to their surviving relatives or to other Inuit. It was especially necessary never to offend the spirits of game animals, since they could bring on sickness or famine.

There was a fairly sharp division of labor between men and women. Men were the hunters and homebuilders, while women prepared the food, worked on skins, and made the clothing. Men and women, therefore, were so dependent on each other that no Inuit remained single. Some men occasionally took a second or even a third wife, especially if the first had no children. Some women occasionally had two husbands. Inuit were fond of children, and orphans normally found homes with relatives and were well treated. In a land where there were no vegetable foods or roads, a mother nursed her children and carried them everywhere on her back until they were about years old.

The only small example that the Inuit life has been adapting to the cultures that made contact with it over the centuries, is that Snowmobiles are replacing dogsleds.



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