- Historic Sites
A Far-flung People
The unique, durable culture of the Eskimo included settling arguments with song and sharimong friends
October 1968 | Volume 19, Issue 6
Anyone who has seen the tools and weapons of the Eskimo in a museum knows how carefully they are made. Often these objects are also beautiful, a fact that has interesting implications for theories about the beginnings of art. In the far North, where man had to face the constant threat of starvation, where life was reduced to the bare essentials, it turns out that one of these essentials was art. Samuel Hearne, an eighteenth-century Hudson’s Bay Company trader, in midwinter in the desolate Canadian tundra came upon the tracks of a snowshoe with an unfamiliar shape. He followed the trail to a little hut; inside he found a lone woman who explained that she had been kidnapped by another band but had escaped seven months previously. Since that time she had lived alone, supporting herself by snaring what small game she could. Hearne wrote: It is scarcely possible to conceive that a person in her forlorn situation could be so composed as to contrive or execute anything not absolutely essential to her existence. Nevertheless, all her clothing, besides being calculated for real service, showed great taste, and no little variety of ornament. The materials, though rude, were very curiously wrought, and so judiciously placed as to make the whole of her garb have a very pleasing, though rather romantic appearance.
An inventory of Eskimo technology could be extended for pages, but such a catalogue would not convey the meaning of Eskimo inventiveness. One can measure, describe, photograph, and make a diagram of a kayak, for instance, and he can even transport it to a museum. But no matter how perfect his kayak specimen is, he still has not captured the reality of kayak-ness. To grasp this reality one must understand that every bit as important as the wooden frames and skin cover of the canoe are other essentials: who owned it, who was allowed to ride in it, what taboos were connected with it, what rituals governed its launching and its use, and so on. The same principle applies to all other aspects of Eskimo material culture.
The Eskimo were once considered a classic example of a people molded by their physical environment. Although now rejected as fallacious by almost all anthropologists, this old theory of “environmental determinism” nevertheless has subtly entered our way of thinking. One still hears some educated people maintain that Massachusetts has produced more scholars than Alabama because the long, snowbound winters afford New Englanders greater opportunity for uninterrupted study. It is true that Massachusetts has produced many more scholars than Alabama, but not because of the climate or any other aspect of the physical environment. Other factors—the superior educational system in Massachusetts, the earlier founding of its schools, the intellectual receptivity of its settlers, and so forth—are much more important than the long winters. If any connection did exist between long winters and scholarship, then the Eskimo surely should have produced even more scholars than the people of Massachusetts.
Of course, natural surroundings do influence the broad outlines of a culture: an Eskimo inhabitant of the Arctic could no more become an agriculturist than a Pueblo Indian of the Arizona or New Mexican desert could base his economy on harpooning walruses. But the environment did not determine the Eskimo’s culture; it merely set the outer limits and at the same time offered opportunities. Such limits and opportunities of physical environment are felt in varying ways by different peoples, depending upon their level of culture. Drought represented a disaster to a Shoshone band of the Great Basin in Utah or Nevada. But inhabiting an equally arid environment in Mexico were the Mixtec, a culturally advanced people who had largely liberated themselves from their environment by the construction of irrigation works. To the Mixtec, drought was simply a hardship which they soon overcame.
The Arctic demonstrates with almost textbook clarity the fallacy of environmental determinism—for if man has been able to make different kinds of adjustments there, then it is clear that environment influences cultures only in the most general way. The North American Eskimo exploited the arctic environment with ingenuity, as his igloo, sled, harpoon, and snow goggles attest. In the Siberian Arctic, just across the Bering Strait, the environment is exactly the same and the land was inhabited by close relatives of the Eskimo known as the Chukchi—yet the Chukchi evolved quite a different kind of culture. The Chukchi did not make igloos; instead, they built dwellings by attaching skins to wooden frameworks, even though wood was as scarce in the land of the Chukchi as it was in the land of the Eskimo. Nor were the Chukchi very proficient hunters. Before the coming of whites, the Eskimo hunted caribou (reindeer), whereas the Chukchi herded them. In fact, the Chukchi adapted to the arctic environment just as successfully as the Eskimo—but they did so in almost opposite ways.
Interest in the harsh envrionment of the Eskimo and the drama of his response to it has blinded us to other important things that the Eskimo can reveal about man. The material technology of the Eskimo, sophisticated as it was within its narrow limits, may obscure the primitive reality of the Eskimo’s life. Less dramatic, but ultimately more important, were the Eskimo’s social adaptations, his customs and laws and religion.