Sunday, September 26, 2004


The Inupiat of Northern Alaska Part F

All Inupiat children from six to sixteen were required to attend local Bureau of Indian Affairs [BIA] schools. Parents generally agreed that school was a necessary part of the modern child's education, and children themselves enjoyed the contrast of school and home. Still, the themes addressed in the classroom differed markedly from those of everyday Inupiat life, and many a youth would have preferred lessons in hunting and skin sewing to those in arithmetic, geography, social studies, and English. Nor did they see much benefit in following newly arrived BIA teachers admonitions that they learn to "Be prompt," Work hard to achieve success," Learn the values of banking and budgeting," and particularly "Keep clean," for such middle class American values had little meaning for life at home.

Beyond Kin: Social and Cultural Life

Although the core of aboriginal Inupiat life centered around the nuclear and extended family, the relationship was continually reinforced by patterns of mutual aid and reciprocal obligation. Beyond the immediate circle of kin, there existed additional social groups, some of which were kin-based and others which were not. Joking partners, for example were usually cross-cousins. Hunting partners were often related, though not always. The qargi club houses, primarily used by extended families for educational and ceremonial purposes, also served as socializing centers for unrelated others. In the large whaling community of Barrow, there were once three qargit, each linked with a whaling captain [umialik] and his crew, although additional family members and their wives were not excluded. It was through participation in institutions such as the qargi that the Inupiat developed a larger sense of identity with a particular locality or settlement.

At one time, the qargi was the meeting place of one of the most important aboriginal festivals held on the North Slope - the Messenger Feast. Usually organized in December, it was a ceremony with both social and economic significance. In early winter, an umialik of a given settlement sent messegers to a nearby locality to invite its residents to participate in an economic exchange. Because of the effort that had to be expended, no one group could afford to give such a feast each year. The choice of the invited settlement was based on the number of trading partners involved and the length of time lapsed since the previous invitation. Elaborate gift exchange between residents added to the development of inter-community solidarity, as did the opportunity for distant kin to re-establish social and economic ties while participating in the activities of the feast.

By the early 1960s, neither the qargi ceremonial centers nor the Messenger Feast were significant community institutions on the North Slope. No qargi remained at Barrow or Wainwright, and at Point Hope the two qargit were only meaningful in so far as they affected the patterning of the Christmas and spring whaling feasts. Similarly, only a vestige of the Messenger Feast was held between Christmas and New Year's Day.

The one important traditional ceremony still actively participated in through the 1960s [and continuing to the present] was the nalukatak, or spring whaling festival. Arrangements for this celebration, which took place at the end of the whaling season, were made by the successful umialiks and their families. If no whales were caught, there was no ceremony. Formerly, the festival took place in the qargi of the successful umialik. One of its purposes was to propitiate the spirits of the deceased whales and ensure through magical means the success of future hunting seasons. A modern adaptation of this religious belief is seen on those occasions when Christian prayers of thanksgiving are recited during the ceremony.

On the day chosen for the event, every boat crew that had killed one or more whales during the season hauled their umiaq out of the sea and dragged them to the ceremonial site. The boats were then turned on their side to serve as windbreaks and temporary shelter for the participants, and braced with paddles or forked sticks. Masts were erected at the bow and from the top were flown the small bright-colored flags of each umialik. Before Christian teaching changed the practice, the captain placed his hunting charms and amulets on these masts. When the site had been arranged completely and a prayer given, the families of the umialik cut off the flukes and other choice sections of a whale, and distributed them along with tea, buscuits, and other food to all invited guests.

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