Sunday, September 26, 2004
The Inupiat of Northern Alaska Part G
Following a period of general relaxation, informal conversation, and further serving of meat and tea, the nalukatak skin ["skin for tossing"] was brought out. Of all the Inupiat ceremonial customs, the nalukatak or "blanket toss" is probably the most well known to Euro-Americans; and it was an exciting event to watch.
After bringing out a skin [made by sewing numerous walrus hides together], thirty or more Inupiat took their places in a circle, grasping firmly with both hands the rope handgrips or rolled edge. The object of the game was to toss a person into the air as high as possible - sometimes reaching more than twenty feet. Such people were expected to keep their balance and return upright to the blanket. Especially skilled individuals might do turns and flips. Usually the first to be tossed were the successful umialit. In earlier days, while high in the air, they were expected to throw out gifts of baleen, tobacco and other items to the crowd. More recently, candy has been used as a substitute. Once an individual lost her or his footing, another took a turn until all had a chance to participate.
In the late afternoon or evening, a dance was scheduled. When a permanent dance floor or temporary board platform had been made ready, five or ten male drummers, supported by a chorus of men and women, announced the beginning of the dance. The first dance, called the umialikit, was obligatory for the umialik, his wife and crew. All other crew members then danced in turn, followed by other men and women in the village. The affair usually lasted well into the night.
Christian and national holidays, including Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year's Day, Easter, and Independence Day, were actively celebrated by the Inupiat as well.
At this time, contradictions between traditional Inupiat beliefs and those of Christianity were given little direct attention. Most adult villagers considered themselves to be staunch supporters of Christianity. But they also held other beliefs that they knew EuroAmericans didn't share - and thus were cautious about discussing them with outsiders.
One way to learn about earlier Inupiat religious beliefs was to ask the elders to relate legends that had passed down from generation to generation. A well-known story shared by an elderly Barrow resident illustrates the animistic nature of Inupiat religion:
Once there was a poor hunter. He always went out but never got anything. Finally, one day he saw a polar bear. As he crawled toward it over the ice, the bear said to him, "Don't shoot me. If you follow me and do what I say, I will make it so you will always be able to get whatever animals you think about." The bear told the man to climb on his back and close his eyes. "Do not open them until I tell you to." Then, the man and the bear went down into the sea a long way. "Do not open your eyes," the bear reminded him.