Sunday, September 26, 2004


The Inupiat of Northern Alaska Part I

Law and Social Control

Traditional Inupiat society has always characterized as having few social institutions beyond the family. Thus, in many respects, settlements and villages represented a community of interest rather than a corporate unit. Since there was no political organization, various social sanctions, customary law, common goals and norms had to provide the essential fabric of settled life. Individuals had great freedom of choice in their actions, but their security lay in cooperating and sharing with one another.

Nonconforming individuals, such as an aggressive bully or persistent womanizer, presented a continual problem in these localities. If nonconformists could not be curbed by the actions of kin or the force of public opinion, the one remaining alternative was to exclude them from participation in the community's economic and social life - a rather effective sanction given the unpredictable conditions of Arctic life. If severe interpersonal conflicts arose between one or more members of different kin groups, the villagers were faced with a serious dilemma, for there was no available technique for resolving feuds once they had begun. It was not until long after the government had assigned U.S. marshals to police this northern area that interfamily feuds resulting in bloodshed disappeared entirely.

As long as Inupiat economic and social security depended on the assistance and support of others, gossip, ridicule, and ostracism was quite effective in ensuring conformity to group norms. Inupiat socialization, emphasizing as it did rapid fulfillment of the child's needs and wants, freedom of action in many spheres, early participation in adult-like responsibilities with appropriate recognition for achievement, and the rejection of violence in any form, also encouraged the formation of a conforming rather than a rebellious personality type. However, this method of social control was considerably weakened when family groups became less cohesive, when greater opportunities for wage labor brought increased economic independence, and when substantial value conflicts began occurring between generations. All these trends had become fully developed by the early 1960s.

Given these changes, it was hardly surprising that traditional mechanisms of social control soon lost much of their effectiveness. One teenager from Barrow summed up this perspective in his comments on the strict curfew in effect at Wainwright in 1961:

When I visited the village, I didn't know about the midnight curfew for young people. I went out until about three in the morning with a local girl. I went out late the next night and on the following day a village council member spoke to me at the post office about the curfew. I told him I was a visitor from Barrow and I shouldn't have to obey the curfew. He said I did, but I kept going out late anyway. Finally, the whole council called me in and told me I could not go out after twelve o'clock anymore, and I said, "This is America, not Russia and I can go out as much as I like." The council didn't like that, but there was nothing they could do. I left soon afterwards, though. That Wainwright is a strict place.

After a similar visit to Kaktovik, this same youth gave further insight into the reasons behind his negative attitude toward the more isolated Inupiat villages:

After living in the States, I can't stand this place for very long. The people here, they don't know what it is like outside. Some of the boys brag about how good they are, but I just keep quiet, laughing inside. They haven't seen anything like I have. And another thing, they don't have any respect for privacy. Why, they just come into your house without being invited and drink your coffee, or anything. The people at Barrow don't do things like that. They have much better manners and aren't so backward.

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