Sunday, September 26, 2004


The Inupiat of Northern Alaska Part B

Commonly, the baby was carried in the back of a parka by the mother or other female relative. If the mother was busy and no one else was available to carry it, she might put the child in a crib to play or sleep. If it cried, she would pick it up and play with it for several minutes. A few women, especially those strongly inculcated with middle class American values, might complain that the baby wanted to be held "too much" and was "spoiled." Seldom, however, would any Inupiat mother disregard her child's cries.

When outside, the mother customarily carried her baby until it was two years old or until another child was born. Strapped in place by a belt that went around the mother's waist and under the child's buttocks, it had little freedom of movement. Still, by the age of two, it had been given sufficient opportunity to move around that it was able to walk quite well. Sometimes a child older than two asked to be carried, and although the mother might fulfill the child's wish, siblings and friends were likely to discourage such requests through good-natured teasing.

The Inupiat infant rarely had a set feeding or sleeping time - which was hardly surprising considering the similar lack of schedule of most adults. When the baby cried it was fed, whether by breast or bottle. Following World War II, bottle feeding was encouraged for those adults with sufficient cash income to obtain canned milk. By the age of one, all children were eating solid foods including homemade broths and premasticated meat. Weaning was a gradual process that might not be completed until the third or even fourth year. An older child rarely was rejected in favor of a younger one, and the transition occurred with little difficulty.

Toilet training, by contrast, was begun early, usually by the first birthday. The mother held the child on a pot or on her lap, blowing gently on its head. When the desired result had been achieved, she indicated her pleasure with a few kind words and playful movements. By the 1960s, the soft caribou skin and moss undergarments used by earlier Inupiat mothers to clothe their children had been replaced by cloth diapers; and as a baby grew older, it was given "training pants" - cast off clothing open at the crotch. Accidents and near misses were treated very lightly although they might bring a gentle rebuke. Even chronic bed-wetters were not punished, except among more acculturated families where the offender was made to stay in bed longer than usual. In general, there was no aura of shame or secrecy about excretory functions, and no reticence in discussing them. During the course of her field work, young girls might say to Jean Briggs "don't look," but girls under four and all boys urinated unconcernedly anywhere out of doors.

Given the combination of large families and small houses, Inupiat sleeping arrangements varied markedly from middle class American patterns. Formerly, infants slept with their parents; but by the early 1960s, the youngest slept in cribs, the next oldest child or children with their parents, and still older ones with each other. As many as four siblings of different sexes might sleep in the same bed, all covered by the same large blanket. Youths were given separate beds on reaching adolescence, and if the size of the room permitted, they might even have a cubbyhole or corner of a room to themselves. However, if the house was small and crowded, quite grown-up children slept in the same room with their parents. Only among the most affluent families would a child have a bed of its own.

Discipline was seldom imposed on the child before it was one year old. This was of little significance, however, since a child carried on the mother's back most of the time presented few problems. Only when it had sufficient freedom of movement to pakak - get into things it shouldn't - was it carefully observed.

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