Sunday, September 26, 2004


The Inupiat of Northern Alaska Part J

While these comments reflect an especially strong alienation derived in large part from his acceptance of Euro-American stereotypes learned during his life in the "States," many youths in the 1960s showed lessened regard for old Inupiat ways; and after leaving home, simply ignored the traditional pressures to conform. When their actions disrupted village life, as was the case of individuals who became aggressive after drinking, they might be brought before the village council. But the effectiveness of the council as a deterrent depended largely on the prestige of the councilors, their previous experience, the type of problem brought before them, and the degree of support given by local Whites.

A few village councils such as the one at Point Hope were organized as early as the 1920s when they were encouraged by resident missionaries. But at best they were only nominally effective. The only significant legal authority they had was the ability to file a complaint with the U.S. Marshall. The major impetus for the development of local self-government - Euro-American style - on the North Slope came in the mid-1930s after governmental responsibility for the Inupiat had been placed under the jurisdiction of the Bureau of Indian Affairs; although one or more councils were organized as early as the teens farther south in the Kotzebue area. With the passing of the Indian Reorganization Act [IRA], the Inupiat and other Native Americans were urged to draft village constitutions and bylaws, ratify them by majority vote, and submit them for approval to the U. S. Secretary of the Interior.

By 1960, all Inupiat villages with a population of 100 or more had some form of self-government. Most were organized formally with an elected president, vice-president, secretary, treasurer, and several councilors. They met at regular intervals and took action on such common problems as supervising the operation of Native cooperative stores, spring village cleanup, promoting civic improvements, and making and enforcing local regulations. In every instance, elected officials were Inupiat men.

One difficult problem facing the councilors was that of coordinating community activity, such as village cleanup. Not only did these village leaders have to contend with lack of precedent, but they had to be careful not to identify themselves too closely with White power figures for fear that other village members would conclude they no longer represented Inupiat needs and interests. Leaders who ceased sharing the norms, objectives, and aspirations of the larger group ceased being leaders. Nor could they assume an authoritarian or aggressive stance in their actions for such behavior went directly against traditional Inupiat values.

An illustration of how these factors resulted in the replacement of a village leader at Point Hope is reflected in the efforts to build a community-wide electric power plant. Most local residents were in favor of obtaining a power plant, but they had little knowledge of how to implement such a plan. Nevertheless, with the urging of the council president, arrangements were made and the plant constructed. Problems arose immediately, most of them linked to monthly charges each family had to pay for electricity. Locally designated "bill collectors" refused to press for these payments, at which point the council president, faced with the possibility of backruptcy, aggresssively reminded the villagers of what happens to White Americans who refused to pay their bills. Although the installation of meters eventually resolved the immediate financial problem, this leader lost much of his influence and was not re-elected to the council. Similar problems emerged elsewhere at this time as the primary qualification for election to village councils began shifting from older prestigous community leaders who had the respect of the community to younger, more educated, individuals who had the ability to speak and write good English, but little other knowledge or experience.

But it was in the area of law enforcement that the councils faced their greatest dilemma. Having established regulations against the importation of intoxicating beverages, the members had no way of enforcing their rulings. The same problem occurred with gambling, curfews, and the confinement of dogs. With the exception of Barrow, by 1960, no community had obtained sufficient funds to hire an outside law enforcement officer - and few local local Whites, even if requested, had any interest in becoming involved in such a responsibility.

When an individual disregarded a local regulation, he or she was usually approached by a council member, reminded of the ruling, and told to conform. If the individual persisted, the person was brought before the council and asked to account for the behavior. This practice was most effective with village youths, but was pursued with adults as well. For more serious offenses like minor theft, a combination of council and family pressures would be applied to the offender who was usually a teenager. Before the 1960s, theft was uncommon among the Inupiat, and adults spoke of this misdemeanor with strong feelings of indignation. However, by this time the problem had become of sufficient concern that in most Arctic villages, householders locked their doors on leaving home for any length of time.

The issues which the councilors were the least able to resolve concerned drinking and the curfew. Although liquor was forbidden by local ordinances, the moderate drinkers were seldom criticized as long as they indulged in the quiet of their own homes. Beer and alcohol were obtained by air freight from Fairbanks, through a resident White, or from a friend recently returned from the "outside." Drinking was considered a problem when it resulted in such open hostility as destruction of property, picking a fight, or wife-beating. There were also instances of young Inupiat who under the influence of liquor, killed the lead dog of another hunter, destroyed furniture and other household items, and broke into government buildings for purposes of theft. Generally, under such circumstances, public opinion did not support taking firm sanctions against the offender. This was largely due the Inupiat perception that those who drank were not responsible for their actions - and thus, couldn't be held accountable. That is, "being drunk" was not only an explanation for damaging behavior, it was also a justifiable excuse.

Given this increase in social problems, the Inupiat remained committed to a common set of cooperative standards covering a wide range of behavior, and, with relatively few exceptions, actively conformed to these standards. In the villages, there was no overall sense of lawlessness, no rampant vandalism, delinquency, crime, sexual misconduct, or alcoholism.

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