- 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
Wife exchange usually was an essential ritual in the formation of an economic partnership between hunters. When two men agreed to become partners, they symbolically extended the bonds of kinship to each other. They became in effect related by marriage by the act of exchanging wives for a while. In northern Alaska in particular, wives were exchanged as a sort of attestation to the formation of a partnership. The wives rarely objected, since, among other reasons, each stood to profit economically because of her husband’s new economic bond. The partnership arrangement also extended to the children. A child called his father’s partner by a special name, which freely translated means “the man who has had intercourse with my mother.” The child also used a special name- qatangun—for his father’s partner’s sons, who might, of course, be his half brothers. He knew that if he was ever in trouble he could call on his qatangun for help and his request would be honored.
Echange was a necessity of Eskimo life that applied to things as well as wives. The explorers of North America made much of what seemed to them an inordinate preoccupation by the Eskimo with gift giving. Over and over the explorers related their disillusionment when the Eskimo failed to have the “courtesy” to thank them for gifts. And the explorers also invariably expressed amazement that their unacknowledged gifts were later remembered and repaid in full. The explorers merely regarded gift giving as a quaint Eskimo custom and did not recognize it as a type of exchange.
When one Eskimo gave to another in his band, he was usually giving to a relative or to a partner. Such an exchange was not a gift, and that was why the receiver did not offer thanks. An Eskimo praised a hunter for the way he hurled the harpoon but not for the way he shared the meat from the seal the harpoon killed. Sharing was a kinsman’s due, and it was not in the category of a gift. The arctic explorer Peter Freuchen once made the mistake of thanking an Eskimo hunter, with whom he had been living, for some meat. Freuchen’s bad manners were promptly corrected: “You must not thank for your meat; it is your right to get parts. In this country, nobody wishes to be dependent upon others. … With gifts you make slaves just as with whips you make dogs!”
An important point about exchange in the life of the Eskimo was that he alternated between feast and famine. One Eskimo hunter might be successful in killing seal after seal while another hunter was having a long streak of bad luck. Anyone who has been molded by a capitalistic culture knows what he might do in similar circumstances; if he were the fortunate hunter and the others were in need, he might jack up prices. Such a thing never happened in Eskimo society—not because an Eskimo was innately nobler than you or I, but because an Eskimo knew that despite his plenty today, assuredly he would be in want tomorrow. He knew also that the best place for him to store his surplus was in someone else’s stomach, because sooner or later he would want his gift repaid. Pure selfishness gave the Eskimo a reputation for generosity and earned him the good opinion of missionaries and other observers who hunger after proof of the innate goodness of man.
The Eskimo male from time to time engaged in conflicts, often violent ones, and surprisingly enough, the usual cause was adultery. It was not considered adultery when a husband lent his wife to a friend. Nor was it considered adultery when a husband and wife joined other couples in the game known as “putting out the lamp”—during which period of darkness they picked at random a partner of the opposite sex. Adultery existed only when a woman had sexual intercourse without the express approval and prior knowledge of her husband. Since such approval could usually be had for the asking, adultery had a significance other than sexual gratification. It was one man’s unspoken challenge to another. And the offended husband had to respond to that challenge or else he would live out the rest of his years in shame.
Murder was almost always the outcome of such a challenge to status. When the arctic explorer Knud Rasmussen visited a community of fifteen Eskimo families in the early igao’s, he found that every one of the adult males had committed homicide at least once, and in every case the apparent motive had been a quarrel about a woman. It would, however, be a mistake to think that an Eskimo was more preoccupied with usurpation of sexual rights than other people are. The Eskimo’s problem lay in his society, which possessed no clear-cut laws governing marriage and divorce. Marriage was simply living together; divorce was simply ceasing to live together. In arrangements as informal as these, no way existed to determine when someone was trespassing on another’s rights. Since in Eskimo society things were always being borrowed, there was no definition of where borrowing of a wife ended and appropriation of her began. When a wife was borrowed, she did not leave the premises with a return date like a library book. Judgment and good taste alone determined how soon she would be returned.
The murder, either of the interloper or of the injured husband, had to be revenged by the kinsmen of the murdered man, and this in turn often resulted in further retaliation. There was no chivalry or bravery involved in blood revenge: in all Eskimo communities except those of western Greenland, it was carried out by stealth. Since a murderer was required to care for the widow and the children of his victim, blood re- venge sometimes created a ludicrous situation. A murderer reared as his own stepson the son of his victim—and when this boy grew to manhood he might be the very one to exact delayed blood vengeance upon his foster father.