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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
Several mechanisms served as checks on the proliferation of killings and revenge. The Eskimo realized that feuds were potentially dangerous to their existence, and families were quick to punish the wrongdoers in their own ranks. Every attempt was made to prevent a quarrel from leading to murder. As soon as a quarrel became public knowledge, other people in the group sought out a kinsman common to both parties to adjudicate. A man who had murdered several times became an object of concern to the entire group. An executioner obtained in advance the community’s approval—including that of the family of the inveterate murderer—for doing away with this social menace. No revenge could be taken on the executioner, for he was acting in the name of all the people.
There were other outlets for ending quarrels short of actual murder: buffeting, butting, wrestling, and song duels. In buffeting, the opponents faced each other and in turn gave forceful blows until one was felled. In butting, the opponents struck at each other with their foreheads, and the one who was knocked down was derided by the onlookers. Wrestling might seem safe enough, but it occasionally had a deadly outcome, and it was one of the subtler ways of carrying out blood revenge. Such contests were announced in advance, and they took place before the whole group, which regarded them as festive occasions. Regardless of the underlying justice of the case in dispute, the winner was the one who possessed the greater strength. Justice was irrelevant to the outcome, and the victor won not only the case but also social esteem.
In Alaska and in Greenland all except lethal disputes were settled by a song duel. In these areas an Eskimo male was often as acclaimed for his ability to sing insults as for his hunting prowess. The song duel consisted of lampoons, insults, and obscenities that the disputants sang to each other and, of course, to their delighted audience. The verses were earthy and very much to the point; they were intended to humiliate, and no physical deformity, personal shame, or family trouble was exempt. As verse after verse was sung in turn by the opponents, the audience began to take sides; it applauded one singer a bit longer and laughed a bit louder at his lampoons. Finally, he was the only one to get applause, and he thereby became the winner of a bloodless contest. The loser suffered a great punishment, for disapproval of the community was very difficult to bear in a group as small as that of the Eskimo. Prestige is a precious thing to an Eskimo, as the following incident emphasizes. Among the Chugach Eskimo, a thief once entered a house in which an old woman was eating. She began to sing:
Old Turd, Old Turd. He makes me ashamed. He was looking at me when I was eating. Old Turd, Old Turd.
This song may not appear particularly clever, but it was sufficient to make the thief leave the house without taking anything. Soon the children in the band sang the song whenever they saw him. The result was that he was cured of stealing.
The absence among the Eskimo and other primitive peoples of our conventional concepts of property has been the source of some theories that communism is a basic condition of mankind. But do the facts really warrant such a conclusion? The Eskimo had two kinds of property: communal and personal—but they lacked private property. The natural resources on which the band depended—the rivers filled with fish, the tundra where the caribou fed, the shores of the sea in which seals lived—were communal and open to use by all members of the band. Personal property consisted of things made by individuals: weapons, tools, ornaments, fetishes, and so forth. These items were not really private property, because they belonged not to the individual himself but to his role in Eskimo society. It was preposterous that an Eskimo woman, who had a specific role, should own a harpoon, even though she may have been foolish enough to devote her energies to making one. Nor was the concept of personal ownership very far-reaching: it was unthinkable that one Eskimo should possess two harpoons while a less fortunate kinsman lacked even one.
Since no private property existed among the Eskimo, it would appear that they were communistic. But to believe so would be to miss an important point about primitive society. Communism, as the word is understood in modern society, refers to ownership by all the citizens of the means of production and an absence of exploitive relations. In modern communism, the “all” refers to the entire population, related or not. But who were the “all” in Eskimo society? Almost everyone was related by blood or by marriage or as an economic partner. The Eskimo group was really one big family that included also close friends (in the same way that an American child might call his parents’ friend “aunt,” even though she is not a relative). Even in the capitalistic United States, most families practice this same sort of “communism” of the family: they are generous to children, indulgent to nephews and nieces, hospitable to cousins.