A Far-flung People

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The Eskimo’s precarious existence placed certain demands upon him. The primary one was to find a way to survive in small and isolated groups and at the same time preserve his mobility. Because the Eskimo fed mostly on migratory animals rather than stationary plants, every morsel that entered his mouth had to be sought out, often over great distances. (He was able to dispense with plant food because he ate at least half of his meat raw, and that half included the fat and the internal organs of the animal. With such a diet, he obtained from the meat every vitamin and mineral, as well as all the protein, necessary for human nutrition.) The Eskimo improved upon the lot of most primitive hunters by devising sleds, but even so, the amount that he could transport was small.

Because of the extremely low population density, contacts between families were rare; the local group that came together during the winter was usually composed of fewer than a dozen families, perhaps related, although actual kinship was not emphasized. The only leadership in these groups of families was that of a mentor, or headman (whose title in the Eskimo language means “he who knows best”). He obtained his position solely by achievement: he did not campaign for it, nor could he pass on the office to his sons or other relatives. In a republic of equals, he was only slightly more equal than others. The family group usually did not have definite marriage or residence rules. Among Eskimo groups, the older sons might have lived with the father and the younger sons might have lived with their wives’ families. Religious ceremonies were rarely concerned with the group as a whole, but rather with the rites of passage of the individual: birth, puberty, and death.

Yet certain factors tended to unite families. Among the Copper Eskimo of Canada, for example, the inhabitants of a settlement were all connected by blood or by marriage. Each owed special duties to the others: to care for them in sickness, to feed the aged and the infirm, to protect widows and orphans. In this way, a group of separate families took on a loose corporate unity. It eventually was referred to by a common name, which was usually the suffix mint added to the name of a prominent topographical feature in the region it inhabited. Kogluktokmiut , therefore, was the name of the group that frequented the Kogluktok, or Coppermine, River. Physical propinquity, a similarity in habits and dialect, and intermarriage gave them a sense of closeness that set them off from neighboring Eskimo groups.

Marriage was at the center of Eskimo life, even though some explorers have concluded that because of wife swapping and other sexual irregularities the Eskimo did not much revere the institution. But the Eskimo was enthusiastically in favor of marriage. A man married just as soon as he could hunt with sufficient skill to feed a wife, and girls often married before they reached puberty. A man was destitute without a wife. He had no one to make his clothes or to cook for him. A woman without a husband lived like a beggar, for she had no one to hunt game for her. Marriage was simply an economic necessity, and so there were no elaborate courtship displays or marriage celebrations among the Eskimo. A man and a woman arranged to live together, the agreement occasioning less pomp than a modern American displays when he hires a carpenter.

The thing that most bewildered the prudish white about the Eskimo’s connubial eccentricities—wife lending, wife swapping, polyandry, and polygyny—was the good nature with which the arrangements were made. Occasionally an Eskimo man would beat his wife for being unfaithful—not because she had had sexual intercourse with someone else, but because she had taken it upon herself to grant rights that were the husband’s privilege to bestow. The next week he himself might have lent her to the same man. Wife exchange existed to some extent in all Eskimo groups that have been studied; the explanation is that such an exchange was one of the best ways to formalize an economic partnership or a social alliance. With so few opportunities existing to create bonds between families, the Eskimo had to use ingenuity, and one of the best methods was exchanging sexual rights.

Wife lending and wife exchange must therefore be understood not as examples of sexual license but as clever social mechanisms that functioned to unify small groups. Further, wife lending was a wise investment for the future, because the lender knew that eventually he would be a borrower. Perhaps he had to go on a long journey and his wife could not accompany him because she was sick or pregnant; then he borrowed his friend’s wife. He was not a lecher who wanted a woman, but a man who needed such essential services as cooking and serving. While he was out hunting, his friend’s wife made the igloo habitable, laid out dry stockings for him, made fresh water from melted ice, and got ready to cook the game he brought back. Similarly, polyandry and polygyny were essential, for a lone Eskimo could not survive. He or she had to become attached to some family.