Sunday, September 26, 2004


The Inupiat of Northern Alaska Part A

Alaskan Native Knowledge Network
Part 2 of 2

Growing Up in an Inupiat Village

Infancy and Childhood

In the decades immediately following World War II, children continued to be a dominant feature of North Alaskan village life. An Inupiat child was considered a vital part of the family and enjoyed much love and affection from both parents. Families, most ranging in size from seven to twelve, were also much larger than in previous generations, due in large part to the more sedentary life style and the lowered infant mortality rate brought on by improved health care services. Few parents had knowledge of ways to effectively limit the number of offspring. No strong preference was expressed for one sex as opposed to the other. Some families hoped the first-born would be a girl who could assist in caring for those that followed. Others wanted a boy because he could eventually be of assistance in hunting. No matter what the parent's preference, a baby of either sex was welcomed on arrival with great affection.

Occasionally a family had more children than it could adequately support. When this occurred, the infant was "offered" to another family with fewer than it desired; or perhaps to grandparents. This form of adoption has a long history and is still prevalent today. A child was also adopted because the adoptive parents were childless, the parents had died, they were close friends, or because the child was illegitimate and could be given a better upbringing in a home with a father. Illegitimacy itself, however, carried none of the stigma characteristic of middle class American society. Adoption was usually, though not necessarily, arranged between kin. An adopted child always used the terms "father" and "mother" for her or his foster parents even when closely related to them. The child's origin was never concealed and in many instances it was considered as belonging to both families. The child might even call the two sets of parents by the same terms and maintain strong bonds with the real parents and siblings as with the foster ones. Whatever the reasons for adoption, parents treated the new child with as much warmth and affection as they did their own.

In earlier times numerous taboos relating to pregnancy had to be followed - for if broken, harm could easily befall the mother, child, or both. For instance, a pregnant woman who walked backward out of a house could have a breech delivery; putting a pot over her head could cause her extreme difficulty in delivering the placenta; and sleeping at odd hours might give her a lazy child. Births also took place in a special parturition lodge, known as the aanigutyak. In winter, it was a snow house built for the purpose by the father, and the woman entered it as soon as she began labor. She gave birth in a kneeling position with the help of an assistant, usually a female relative with some experience in delivering babies.

In the 1950s, women without access to the public health hospital at Barrow had their children at home helped by specially trained midwives of which there were six at Point Hope. At Wainwright and Kaktovik, mothers were more likely to go to the Barrow hospital for their delivery. Still, numerous stories were told of the hardiness of Inupiat women giving birth under difficult circumstances. In 1962, for example, the anthropologist James VanStone wrote of a woman traveling by small boat to Point Hope who at a particular moment asked to be put ashore. As the craft slowly moved on without her, she gave birth to her child. After cutting the cord and scraping sand over the afterbirth, she put the newborn in her parka and ran along the beach, eventually catching up with the boat.

By the time an Inupiat child was a month old, it was customarily baptized by a missionary and given a name. Every child received an English and at least one Inupiat name. Chosen by parents, they were almost always those of recently deceased relatives or highly respected individuals. When English names were introduced early in the 20th century, Inupiat ones often became family names. According to custom, the name given the child carried with it the qualities of the individual from whom it was taken. When an elderly living person's name was used, the person would give the child gifts. This action was prompted by the belief that after the older person's death, the doner's spirit would survive in the namesake.

When the baby was two or three months old, the mother passed on some of the responsibility for its care to grandmothers, older siblings and unmarried sisters and cousins. In these circumstances, a child soon became accustomed to having a variety of tenders, a pattern which continued until it could care for itself.

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