Sunday, September 26, 2004


The Inupiat of Northern Alaska Part C

Concepts of hygiene varied widely and appeared to be in direct proportion to the degree of association and identification with the outside world. But few if any mothers expressed serious concern about a baby putting a dirty object from the floor in its mouth, or passing a bottle from a sick child to a well one. In short, infant care consisted primarily of keeping the baby happy. For the baby this meant being cuddled, fed, rested, warmed, and kept dry.

Without question, the warmth and affection given infants by parents, siblings, and other relatives provided them with a deep sense of well-being and security. Young children also felt important because they learned early that they were expected to be useful, working members of the family. While this included a number of tedious chores, involvement in the daily round of activities nevertheless enhanced their feeling of family participation and cohesion. Parents rarely denied children their company or excluded them from the adult world.

This pattern reflected the parents' views of child rearing. Adults felt that they had more experience in living and it was their responsibility to share this experience with their children, "to tell them how to live." Children had to be told repeatedly because they tended to forget. Misbehavior was due to a child's forgetfulness, or to improper teaching in the first place. There was rarely any thought that the child was basically nasty, willful, or sinful. Where many Americans applauded children for their good behavior, the Inupiat praised them for remembering. This attitude was reflected in many situations. In the early 1960s, for example, a father was observed lecturing in Inupiat to his children before they set out on a short camping trip. Asked to expand on his remarks, he said:

We stir them up a little to live right. Tell them to obey the parents; do what people tell them to do. And like now, when they go on a camping trip, not to take a new pillow. It get's dirty on the trip. Take the old one. They young. They don't know what to do. We tell them how to do things. Like our parents used to tell us. Same they used to talk to us. We used to talk a lot like that but we haven't lately. We begin again. Stir them up. They forget.

Another man discussed his nephew's helpless panic during a hunting trip when a severe storm threatened to wipe out the camp. Waking at night to find the tent blowing away and their boat temporarily lost, the boy had become frozen with fear. Never suggesting that he was cowardly or weak, the man was critical of the nephew's behavior, but explained it in terms of his not having had sufficient experience to know what to do.

Fathers actively participated in the daily life of the family; and in disciplinary matters, appeared to fulfil a function similar to that existing in many other American homes. Thus, a mother might say to a recalcitrant child, "Wait till I tell your father!" or "Wait till your father comes home. You gonna get a licking!" Among families with limited outside contact, the father retained a more dominant, rather than equal-participant, role. Here, the child was expected to be restrained, quiet, and respectful in his or her father's presence.

By the time children reached the age of three or four, the parents' earlier demonstrativeness had become tempered with an increased interest in their activities and skill level. They watched them play with obvious pleasure, responded warmly to their conversation, and made jokes with them. Though children were given considerable autonomy and its whims and wishes were treated with respect, they were nevertheless taught to obey all older people. To an outsider unfamiliar with parent-child relations, the tone of Inupiat commands and admonitions sometimes sounded harsh and angry. Yet in few instances did a child respond as if he or she had been addressed with hostility. This was due to the fact admonitions that were given tended to be indirect and general rather than geared to the specific individual.

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