Sunday, September 26, 2004


The Inupiat of Northern Alaska Part E

Young girls, and to a lesser extent young boys, learned techniques of butchering while on hunting trips with older siblings and adults. In most instances, however, neither girls nor boys became at all proficient in this skill until their late-teens or early twenties. Prior to complusory school attendance and the hospitalization of large numbers of youths for tuberculosis, such knowledge was attained at an earlier age. A girl, especially, learned butchering as a young teenager since this skill was essential in attracting a good husband. But by the 1960s, it was more likely to be picked up after marriage - and not always then.

Still, while a gender division of labor among youths was clearly recognized by the Inupiat, it was far from rigid. Boys occasionally swept up the house and helped with cooking. Girls and their mothers went on fishing and duck hunting trips; and sometimes caribou hunting as well. Thus, among the youths, each gender learned that it could assume the reponsibilities of the other when the occasion arose, albeit in an auxilary role.

Siblings played together more happily than is often the case in American society, but sibling rivalry was not completely absent. Hostility was generally expressed by tattling or engaging in some form of minor physical abuse. However, anyone indulging in hard pushing, elbowing, pinching, or hitting was told immediately to stop. Rather than fight back, the injured party was more likely to request help from an older sibling or near adult. Verbal abuse was also rare.

By contrast, competiveness, derived from pride of achievement or skill attainment, characterized many children's activities. In games involving athletic prowess, a child would say, "Look how far I can throw the stone," rather than "I can throw the stone farther than you." When rivalry was more direct, it was expected that the game be undertaken in good spirit and the skills of one participant not be flouted at the expense of the other. Aggressive competitiveness was explicitly condemned, as when a father childed his son, "Why you always wanting to win?"

Only very young children limited their play to those of like age. After reaching five or six, the age range of playmates widened considerably. Team games such as "Eskimo football," were particularly popular and had as participants children of both sexes ranging in age from five to twelve. The game combined elements of soccer and `keepaway,'and when played by older boys, elements of rugby as well. It was not until adolescence that a young person actively set herself or himself apart from other children. Youths of this age group briefly watched youngsters play volleyball or some other game, but seldom participated. Adults encouraged this separation, and when they saw a teen-age boy or girl playing with younger children, they would say, "That person is a little slow in his [or her] development."

Many other popular games were played as well. Some, involving feats of skill and strength such as hand wrestling, have had a long history among the Inupiat. Others such as kick-the-can, volleyball, and board games like monopoly and scrabble, were introduced by Whites. Still other games combined elements of both. Haku, an Inupiat team game in which the object was to make the members of the opposite team laugh, included the offering of amusing portraits of Hawaiian and Spanish dances, done, if possible, with a straight face. A few traditional Inupiat games like putigarok, a form of tag where the person who was "it" tried to touch another on the same spot on the body in which he or she was tagged, closely resembled the western game of tag. Some children occasionally played a fantasy game called "polar bear" in which one child took the role of an old woman who fell asleep. The polar bear then came and took away her child. She then woke up and attempted to discover where the bear had hidden it. At Barrow, Inupiat children played a slightly different version of the same game called "old woman." A youth played the role of an old woman who pretended to be blind. When several of her posessions were stolen, she "accused" other children of taking them. This game required a fair amount of verbal exchange. The more able the talker, the more likely the winner. Story telling was one of the most popular forms of Inupiat entertainment, especially during the winter months when outside activity was sharply diminished. Typical stories involved autobiographical or biographical accounts of unusual incidents, accidents, hunting trips, or other events deemed interesting to the listener. Following the evening meal, a father might call all the children around him and recount his last whale hunt, or how he shot his first polar bear. A good storyteller acted out part of the tale, demonstrating how he threw the harpoon at the whale's back, or how the bear scooped up the lead dog and sent him flying across the ice. Other stories told by other people described life long ago before the tanniks arrived. Myths and folk tales portrayed exploits of northern animals and birds endowed with supernatural qualities.

Children, too, liked to tell stories to each other. These short tales usually described some recent activity, real or imagined. Young Inupiat were passionately fond of horror stories, and a vivid description of raw heads and bloody bones quickly elicited delighted screams of fear from the throats of the listeners. If the teller acted out part of the story, so much the better.

The Inupiat child's creative imagination was reflected in all the activities of story telling, imitating others, playing store, and inventing new games. Young girls turned a bolt of cloth into a regal gown which they wore to an imaginary ball. Boys of four or five climbed under a worn blanket with make-believe airplanes to practice night flying. Charging over the tundra with sharply pointed sticks, a pair of six year olds cornered their supposed furry opponent. This kind of spontaneity, supported by flexible routines and a minimum of rules, continued until the early teens when events of the real world began to offer greater challenges. Only in the confines of the classroom did these children find their psychic freedom curtailed.

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