October 1968 | Volume 19, Issue 6
The unique, durable culture of the Eskimo included settling arguments with song and sharimong friends
The Eskimo were the first inhabitants of the New World to be seen by Europeans, for the Vikings encountered them at least as early as 1005, probably on the southeast coast of Labrador. Surprisingly, the numerous Norse sagas made little mention of them at first. But within another two centuries the Eskimo were already being described with the exaggeration and lack of understanding that later came to typify the European’s view of the natives of the New World. The anonymous author of the thirteenth-century Historia Norvegiae wrote: “Hunters have found some very little people, whom they call Skraelings, and who, when they are wounded with weapons while still alive, die without loss of blood, but whose blood, when they are dead, will not cease to flow.”
Nor does much reliable information exist about the numbers of Eskimo. The population probably was never very high, perhaps 100,000 or so at its maximum, but soon after contact with whites the number of Eskimo plummeted because of epidemics of measles, smallpox, and other European diseases that they had not previously encountered and to which they therefore had no immunity. The Eskimo population is believed to have risen again in this century to an estimated 73,000, living from extreme northeastern Siberia across Alaska and Canada to Greenland.
The Eskimo today inhabit the broadest stretch of land of any primitive people on earth. They circle nearly half the globe along the Arctic coast, a distance of some six thousand twisting and turning miles. This is a considerably smaller area than they inhabited in aboriginal times, however, for in the seventeenth century the Eskimo were reported as far south as the Gulf of St. Lawrence, and there is archeological evidence of their having once inhabited a large part of eastern Siberia (about fifteen hundred or so Eskimo still live in Soviet Russia). No other primitive people spread out over such a wide area has ever shown an equal uniformity in physical type, language, and culture. They everywhere refer to themselves as inuit , which is simply the plural of inuk , “man,” and in that way they emphasize their own identity in contrast to the Indians around them, who differ in physical type, language, and culture. The white man’s name, Eskimo, was coined in 1611 by a Jesuit who heard them called eskimantsik , which means “eaters of raw meat,” by neighboring Indians. No matter where they live, most Eskimo are readily identifiable by their stocky build, long heads and short faces, and narrow slanting eyelids with the Mongoloid fold. Their dialects, with the exception of a few in Siberia and in Alaska, are mutually intelligible; a new song or joke introduced into Alaska makes its way from one scattered camp to another and may turn up in Greenland a year or so later. Those few Eskimo who have not yet entered the white man’s economy still base their subsistence, in the traditional way, on hunting.
A common thread running through all Eskimo cultures was adaptation to the stern arctic environment. The latitudes inhabited by the Eskimo are marked by enormous differences between summer and winter. During the winter the sun does not shine for weeks; during the summer it never sets. Summer is the only time when the mean daily temperatures rise above freezing, but it is also the season of biting flies and of melted water lying over the tundra without draining away, forming an impenetrable morass. Tree growth is impossible under such conditions, and only in a few places occupied by the Eskimo do even low tangles of willow and alder grow. For his supply of wood, the Eskimo had to rely on the drift brought into the Arctic Ocean by rivers that drain the interiors of Northern America and Asia.
Despite these unpromising conditions, the material culture of the Eskimo has always shown a more complex development than that of any other primitive people living on such a simple level as the family. They take advantage of almost one hundred per cent of the potential of their forbidding environment. Everyone has heard of at least some of their adaptations. The igloo, or snow house, was the best possible structure that could be built with the materials available; it was strong, easily constructed, and durable. Some Eskimo used the dog sled and the kayak, and they tailored their clothes so that the seams were waterproof. Slit goggles were made from ivory to protect against the blinding sun reflected from the snow. Deprived of wood for heating and light, they invented the smokeless stone lamp that burned seal oil. They even devised a beater for removing snow, and thus prevented fur clothing from deteriorating in the humid atmosphere of the igloo.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Someone reared in the context of Western civilization will also find the spiritual beliefs of the Eskimo considerably different from the religions he is used to. Eskimo belief was among the simplest known, and it incorporated the two common denominators of all religions everywhere—spirits and magic. It completely lacked all the other ideas of religion found in advanced societies: revelation, a redeemer, a priesthood, orthodox rituals, articles of faith, and so on. Probably the Eskimo spiritual beliefs did not differ much from man’s earliest gropings toward religion, but that will never be known for sure.
The debate as to where “magic” ends and “religion” begins is an old one that seemed settled some decades ago when scholars concluded that there was no discernible boundary between them. As a result, the two were often lumped together as “magico-religious,” in much the same way that the compromise word “sociocultural” originated. Nevertheless, at least one distinction must be made between magic and religion. In magic, the practitioner believes that he can directly affect other humans and nature, either for good or for ill, by performing certain steps. Magic is therefore instrumental—and some of these instruments are witchcraft, sorcery, oracles, divination, and various kinds of curing. Although many “religious” people do use religion for instrumental ends, the primary emphasis in religion is on broad social and cosmological relationships.
Eskimo magic differed from Christianity, Judaism, Mohammedanism, and Buddhism in that it did not attempt to regulate behavior in the society as a whole or to propagate a code of conduct and belief. It was not interested in the totality of the invisible world, but was instead limited to the individual’s relationship to his food supply and to his physical environment. The Eskimo’s magic operated through an elaborate system of hundreds of taboos that constrained his every action. Knud Rasmussen once asked a wise Igulik Eskimo, “What do you believe?” “We don’t believe,” he answered. “We only fear.” This sums up the attitude of the Eskimo as well as of other peoples in simple societies. They lived in a world of anxiety, frustration, inadequacy, and vulnerability, in which the spirits controlled everything that could not be explained rationally. The modern American, of course, does not suffer the same kind of anxiety, since he has exerted technological control over many of the things that make the Eskimo fearful. In place of science, the Eskimo had only magic to bridge the gap between what he could and could not understand. Without magic, his life would have been one long panic.
The taboos had to be scrupulously observed. To violate one was a sin. However, the Eskimo feeling about sin was notable in that it lacked any holier-than-thou attitude. The group did not revel in an upwelling of indignation; there were no righteous lectures, no public stonings of miscreants. Instead, the community united in compassion and tolerance around the sinner. He was encouraged to purge his sin, and he did so by hiring a part-time religious practitioner known as a shaman, who drew forth from the sinner’s mouth the details of each taboo violation. The villagers sat in the background, chanting cries of forgiveness.
Illness in the soul of the wrongdoer was usually the result of sin—but the Eskimo also believed that illness might result from the witchcraft of a malevolent shaman. Witchcraft was not head-to-head butting or even murder by stealth, but evil worked in the privacy of one’s own igloo. Social scientists used to think that witchcraft was correlated with the food supply: the more precarious a group’s food supply, the more prevalent the fear of sorcery. But this is not true. Compared with the Eskimo, the Navaho of Arizona and New Mexico lived in luxury, yet they were even more haunted by witchcraft. When an Eskimo fell sick and attributed his sickness to witchcraft by a hostile shaman, he felt that he had probably done something to the shaman that could not be settled publicly by a song duel or even by murder. In such a case, the ill person had to fight poison with poison, so he hired a friendly shaman to locate the secret attacker and nullify his power.
Eskimo belief provides an explanation of what witchcraft is really all about: it is aggression for which a society has not provided channels. In fact, an examination of witchcraft in primitive societies around the world shows that it appears when people attempt to handle their vital problems in the absence of legitimate social controls. What is surprising about witchcraft in Eskimo society is not that it existed, but that it was not much more prevalent. This was due to the various social constraints mentioned earlier: public ridicule, prestige, the use of kinsmen in settling quarrels, a public executioner, and so forth. Although these are not our familiar social controls of law, courts, and the police, they served somewhat the same function.
The only division of labor in many Eskimo bands was by age or by sex—except for the role of shaman. The word shaman comes from the Tungus language of Siberia, but the shaman was important among all the Eskimo bands and among many American Indian groups, particularly in the West (where he was usually called a “medicine man” by whites). Wherever he existed, the shaman moved with ease in the supernatural realm. He was in the business of going to the invisible world and contending with the spirits on their own ground. An Eskimo believed that spirits must be coerced; a widespread myth told how the sea spirit Sedna had to be harpooned to force her to release sea mammals for the hunt.
There is a vast difference between a shaman and a priest. A priest is a legally constituted specialist; he belongs to a special group set apart from the rest of the social organization. An Eskimo shaman, on the other hand, dressed no differently from anyone else, and he lived like the rest of the community. He hunted, or he joined a whaling crew; he could marry and sire children. He had no special privileges or insignia, except the tambourine, a skin drum open on one side, that all Eskimo shamans used while singing.
There were, however, ways to recognize him. Search out the least skilled hunter in the group, one who was also physically or mentally handicapped and who made nervous movements with his hands or feet. This was undoubtedly the man. The shaman actually was different from everybody else, and the Eskimo was smart enough to recognize this and put it to work in his society. Some Eskimo maintained that they could identify a future shaman, even while he was still a child, by certain signs. He was meditative and introverted; he might have been subject to fits or fainting spells; he was disturbed by dreams and he suffered from hallucinations and hysteria. The shaman was a psychological type known as the neurotic, borderline schizoid—which was perfectly all right with the Eskimo, who believed the shaman needed extraordinary abilities in his traffic with the supernatural. The shaman came to the fore because Eskimo culture encouraged his hallucinations, created such situations as the curing ceremonies in which he could flourish, and even rewarded him when his symptoms appeared.
Some anthropologists have stated that the shaman filled an important function by draining off the potential “arctic hysteria” of the group. But it was not so simple as that, and the shaman may have actually represented the element of hostility in Eskimo culture. The person who became a shaman was almost always more misanthropic, more covertly aggressive, and less physically skilled than the ordinary man. The things the shaman himself hated—the successful hunter, the virile man with many women, the boatowner with his prestige—were things the rest of the group envied also. Unlike the ordinary Eskimo, the shaman could do something about his malevolence: he could call down sickness upon the envied one. If a skilled hunter suddenly was unable to find game, he might attribute his misfortune not to chance but to the malefic influence of some shaman or other. He then employed his local shaman to perform an emotional ceremony that removed the evil influence. The hunter emerged from the experience a more humble man; he was careful to stop boasting of his hunting skill, to leave game for others, to share more. The shaman and the rest of the Eskimo group had the satisfaction of seeing the mighty brought low.
Were the shamans frauds? Shamans used many tricks to heighten the effects of their performances: ventriloquism, hypnosis, legerdemain, and general stage magic. Houdini-like escapes were a specialty. A shaman often impressed his audience by vomiting blood; he did this by previously swallowing a bladder filled with animal blood, then breaking it with his stomach muscles at the appropriate moment. Although the shaman was perfectly aware that he was at times merely performing tricks, he nevertheless was firmly convinced of his power to deal with spirits. When he fell into a trance, it was a real trance; when he had a fit, it was a real fit. He regarded his ultimate purpose as an honest one, and if he could intensify the supernatural experience by slightly hoodwinking his audience, then he went ahead and hoodwinked them. So convinced of their own efficacy were the shamans that when they themselves were sick in spirit they called in a fellow practitioner to administer treatment.
The life of the Eskimo was hedged an by numerous taboos that appear ridiculous to us and that would seem to have handicapped the Eskimo in his struggle for survival. One taboo, for instance, prohibited any work during a time of mourning; so if someone died during the long winter of privation, hunger invariably resulted. Another taboo prohibited using whaling tools for more than one season, despite the scarcity of raw materials. Such prohibitions appear to run counter to the best interests of the Eskimo. Was there some hidden value in these ridiculous taboos, or did the Eskimo manage to survive despite them?
No doubt many of the Eskimo’s religious observances worked to his detriment. Yet they continued to be observed because they afforded certain social benefits that could not be achieved by other methods, although the Eskimo himself undoubtedly had no conscious understanding of these benefits. Note that all the taboos were concerned with rather ridiculous matters, and they were all very demanding, just as the hazing of freshmen on some college campuses demands careful observance of trivial customs. Actually taboos had much the same result as hazing. They promoted cooperation because all the people were made to suffer together. In the simple society of the Eskimo, the sharing of fears and the scrupulous attention to details of conduct created a social bond. The Eskimo’s compliance with folkways, no matter how seemingly foolish, afforded him a better unifying social mechanism than he probably could have devised rationally.
Today the primeval life of the Eskimo has changed, for the whites brought him a technology that resulted in new relationships to the environment and to other bands. Commercial fishing encouraged small Eskimo groups to merge into large villages. The Eskimo now imports canned and preserved foods from the temperate and tropic zones to help him through the winter. He has switched to a cash-and-credit economy: nowadays he earns money by working at a fish-canning factory or by turning out soapstone carvings for tourists. Yet despite these changes in his way of life, the Eskimo, the first of the native Americans to encounter whites, has managed to salvage more of his culture than any other aboriginal group in North America.