January 28, 2000
RACHEL ATTITUQ QITSUALIK
Where warfare occurred among Inuit, it represents an escalation of murderous reprisals, an alternating series of vendetta killings, each side displaying more savagery and ferocity in response to the latest attack by the other.
The murder - even accidental killing - of a loved one was thought by many Inuit peoples to be a just reason to demand vengeance. It was the avenger's right and duty.
Make no mistake, however. The family of the victim, the males of which were invariably the avengers, would seek vengeance with or without the larger society's approval. Having no actual laws, but instead a series of traditions and taboos, the recognition of an avenger's right to avenge his dead relative was more like a sort of societal nod than an actual way of enforcing law.
The society itself - as an institution - would not move to avenge the dead, but neither would any of its members interfere if relatives "justly" insisted upon retribution. The vengeful impulse was, in such a situation, considered to be a natural one.
I personally remember the time when my "Big Sleeve" (a kind of cultural partner, of which I've written in past articles) experienced the death of his son. He was overwrought with grief, naturally, although the death was a completely accidental one. The son had been shot by a friend.
Even though my Big Sleeve knew that the friend had not killed his son intentionally, he was - for a time - extremely tempted to kill the friend. His tendency to want to exorcise his grief through vengeance was aggravated by the fact that, by Inuit tradition, such was his right.
Additionally, his desire was considered by others to be understandable rather than abominable. Among his people, this was known as akigiaq, "to win back" - meaning the right to win back the piece of himself that had been taken from him with the death of his son.
To his credit, my Big Sleeve realized that he was merely blinded by grief, and thus chose not to exercise his right.
Nevertheless, akigiaq was very common in old times. The death of one individual, intentional or not, demanded immediate reprisal. P would kill Q. Q's family would avenge him by killing P, and perhaps a couple of P's relatives for good measure.
P's family would avenge these murders by forming a party to slaughter even more of Q's family. Q's family would retaliate by attempting to completely wipe out P's family. And et cetera.
Geert Van Den Steenhoven recorded a good example, which I'll relate below without use of specific names and locations. I don't want individuals today to feel accountable for the actions of their ancestors.
Once there was the "Red" group, whose members included U. There was also the "Green" group, whose headman was X.
A feud began with the murder of Y by some of X's Green people. The family of Y was determined to avenge his death. Armed with bows (with which they were quite skilled), the Red revenge party soon reached X's hunting grounds. One of X's sons spotted them and ran off to warn X and the Greens of the approaching Red party.
X realized the carnage that was about to result, and sent his sons far away to safety. X hid himself away. When the Red group approached, they began to insist that X and his Green allies take up their fighting weapons (of different manufacture than hunting implements), and face them.
Those among the Green group, especially the women, tried to defuse the situation by insisting that X and the other Greens did not want to fight. Nevertheless, the Reds insisted until X (who did not possess any fighting weapons) took up his hunting gear. He and some other Greens eventually assembled to face the Reds. Some of the Greens even recognized in-laws among the Reds, but this did nothing to abate the Reds' fury.
The Reds massacred the Greens. Dying, X admonished the Reds, claiming that the Red reaction was extremist - that they had slaughtered more men than was their due.
The Reds remained unmoved, in return pointing out to X that the Greens had originally overwhelmed poor Y ten to one.
X seemed to agree with this, and his dying wish was that Y's widow be repaid in precious iron objects.
(Continued next week.)
January 21, 2000
War: Part Three
RACHEL ATTITUQ QITSUALIK
Any Inuit escalation to the level of organized violence has always been humble in beginnings, originating with one motive: revenge.
The most common cause for revenge was being made to feel insignificant. Personal ego was of extreme importance to traditional Inuit, which in part explains the strong respect dynamic in Inuit culture. The recognition of one's isuma - personal and untouchable thoughts and opinions - was of paramount importance.
Additionally, Inuit worthiness was always relative to personal competence, with one's worth directly measured by one's ability to survive, and the ability to survive measured by one's skills.
With these facts in mind, it becomes easier to understand why even the slightest attack upon one's ego was considered tantamount to physical maiming, and cause for bloody retribution. The most common slight occurred not in the form of verbal abuse, but instead in the form of actions that diminished another's significance. A hunter, for example, might flaunt his superior knowledge, a bold attack upon other hunters' egos.
Even in Inuit culture today, there remains a tradition of playing down one's own skills in public, saying for example, "Ah, I'm no good." This derives not from true humility, but rather from a tradition of preserving oneself from the retribution of others.
In traditional culture, one had to constantly take care not to accidentally offend others by openly parading one's ego. The dynamic has been mistakenly labelled as "envy" by observers, but it is actually one of assault and revenge.
Where care has not been taken to avoid this dynamic, the results have often been bloody, setting the stage for ongoing feuds. Thus has Inuit culture established a system where relative peace is maintained through the observation of tradition a sort of balance where every individual's isuma is respected, yet no individual is to be considered "greater" than another, lest all hell break loose.
Nevertheless, this was not a perfect system, for in a culture where no one was allowed to dictate the behaviour of another, it also became impossible to prevent conflict between two individuals who insisted upon antagonizing each other. Since Inuit culture is traditionally quite sensitive to the feelings that kindle an act of violence, rather than focusing upon the act itself, Inuit societies tended to recognize that controlled expression of ill feelings had the best chance of exorcising violent tendencies from people.
For this reason, many Inuit societies developed safe forums, such as song duels or punching contests, where the aggressors could publicly express their pent-up feelings towards one another, and thus achieve a kind of catharsis.
Such devices denote an understanding among traditional societies of just how delicate the balance of peace could be, of how hard a society might work to keep the peace within a small group. And it is interesting to note just how easily this balance is disrupted by rapid change, such as the presence of southern observers.
Observers - through no fault of their own - naturally tended to praise the skills of a given hunter that they had come to focus their studies upon. By attaching themselves to a specific Inuk, making him the "star of the show", so to speak, they had inadvertently caused others in the group to feel small, and thus had made their "star" a target.
Asen Balikci, for example, tells with bewilderment of a sudden conflict between two fishermen who had always been good friends. Fisherman A had formerly been studied and filmed as the "exemplary" Inuit hunter, while his friend B had not.
While fishing, A stopped to cut up two fish for them to eat, one from his own catch, the other from B's. B mistakenly thought that both fish were from his own catch, and angrily rebuked A, who treated the whole matter as a joke.
Suddenly, B attacked A, so that a third nearby fisherman had to step in and separate the two men. This is a clear case of ill feelings derived from the placement of one individual above others, thus upsetting the cultural balance of ego.
Yet there was not always a third person to step in and separate two aggressors, so that the ultimate result was murder - an event that often sparked a conflagration of vengeance killings between families, at times escalating without limit. While revenge precipitated murder, murder precipitated warfare.
(Continued next week.)
January 14, 2000
War: Part Two
RACHEL ATTITUQ QITSUALIK
Where conflict occurred among Inuit, it mainly originated with passion.
The Inuit exterior, one of respectful quietude, might, over time give non-Inuit observers the idea that Inuit are entirely non-violent. Seeing the lack of public displays of aggression, a lack of fist-fighting or open combat, for example, observers might get the idea that Inuit have always found ways to get along with each other peacefully.
This illusion, where it occurs, belies the reality of human nature: violence will always find expression in one form or another.
Traditionally, Inuit violence has typically been internalized, like most of the Inuit passions. In an unforgiving environment, it has been of benefit to learn how to suppress individual emotions in the face of larger concerns for example, famine, storms, cold, and so on.
It is not that Inuit were unemotional, but rather that they had decided for themselves when it was appropriate to express certain emotions - such as in the safety of the home, for example.
Due to necessity, emotional displays became selective, often finding unconscious expression in dances, gaming, and song. Because survival was a constant challenge, the group could not afford to let an individual's random displays of emotion disrupt their lifestyle.
Aggressive displays, in particular, were reviled by Inuit as a sign of madness, chaos that could not be tolerated. Invariably, such displays were not worth one's trouble, since they could cause a person to be ostracized, and perhaps even physically removed from the group.
Yet the emotions themselves remained, and often popped out at the strangest times. Non-Inuit observers, given enough time, have nearly all recorded a similar phenomenon: Inuit at first seem stolid, highly disciplined, and unaffected by any emotion whatsoever. Faced with a crisis or failure, the response - so popularly recorded by explorers as being typical of Inuit - is invariably the traditional expression, "It can't be helped."
Yet, just as the explorer resigns himself to what he perceives as Inuit stoicism, he is shocked to witness or hear of an Inuk exploding into sudden violence.
Geert Van Den Steenhoven, for example, has related in Legal Concepts Among the Netsilik Eskimos of Pelly Bay, N.W.T. a story that was told to him as follows (1959:73):
I. traveled on Kellett River together with A., S., and some others, who on their sleds had been visiting their caches. The weather was beautiful and we walked to and from each other's sleds, while the sleds were moving all the time. A. was seated on the back of S.'s sled and the latter sat in front of him. A. was eating a fish. I was driving my sled behind his. One moment when S. was turning towards his dogs or so, I saw A. suddenly make a lightning stab with his knife at S.'s back a would-be stab, to be sure. Then he immediately looked around himself. But I looked already in another direction. S. is the son of I. And it was known that A. and I. did not get along well. It was my impression that this stab was prompted by an altogether subconscious impulse and that A. only became aware of it after he had done it. I believe he could just as well have really stabbed S. out of these feelings of resentment.
Knud Rasmussen, during his famous Fifth Thule Expedition, encountered this phenomenon first- hand. He wrote that he had come to consider one of his Inuit guides to be a close friend, a gentle and friendly soul.
He was surprised, then, when huddled together one evening with his guide in a snow- shelter, the guide suddenly attacked Rasmussen without warning. A struggle ensued, and Rasmussen repeatedly tried to calm the guide and remind him of their friendship, while the guide continually shrieked his disgust at Rasmussen's ego and displays of wealth.
Apparently, Rasmussen's access to southern technology, and his willingness to distribute it throughout his expedition, had gradually built up a deep envy and resentment within the guide.
The guide, however, had kept his feelings under control, so that Rasmussen had not even noticed. Finally, once he felt safe and away from public scrutiny, the guide let it all out.
It is this old Inuit tendency to repress, and thus pressurize, violent impulses that forms the basis of Inuit conflict.
Next week: Revenge.
January 7, 2000
War: Part One
RACHEL ATTITUQ QITSUALIK
As everyone knows, Inuit have always been the most gentle, peaceful people in the world. Right?
Well, as with most things, the truth regarding such a topic resides within some shade of gray. Just as there are no true absolutes in life, so there is no absolute truth to the idea that Inuit are strangers to violence, or even warfare.
The need for organized violence in any society is of course shaped by necessity, the environmental and social parameters within which varying forms of violence become options.
Violence is always in origin a "problem-solver." Whether effective or not, it is always intended to right a wrong, to address a lack whether deemed defensive (resisting assault, theft, or invasion), acquisitive (taking food, slaves, territory, etc.), retaliatory (avenging murder, rape, vandalism, or insult), or merely as a cathartic expression of frustrated rage.
The simple fact is that Inuit, over the broad range of peoples who lived from one end of North America to the other, actually engaged in a startling amount of violence, much of which was organized. In this series of articles, I'm going to be using my own definition of war, which is essentially that of organized violence. Webster's defines war as "armed conflict between nations, tribes, or other groups," which doesn't necessarily refute my own, so I'm sticking to my guns.
Also, I'm going to cite a lot of examples of Inuit violence tastefully, of course. The examples will derive from peoples ranging across the North. Naturally, I don't want to put a bee in anyone's bonnet by dredging up some unsavoury fact about their ancestry.
All of our ancestors this is addressed to non-Inuit out there as well have displayed some sort of depravity at one time or another. So, wherever possible, I intend to omit references to specific peoples, whether they be Igloolik, Netsilingmiut, Copper, or Aleutian. These articles are intended to inform and evoke thought, not to make some readers ashamed of their ancestry.
With all of that out, I'd first like to admit that you will have to look pretty hard among Inuit histories and folklore in order to find anything that obviously resembles war as it is fought today.
After all, Inuit have always been nomadic. In its most recognizable and organized form, war derives from stability. It is based upon the principles of land, territory, and cultural solidarity. It is necessarily launched from a base-point, a home ground, and most often involves the specific goals of seizing ground from an enemy, who also campaigns to do likewise from his own base.
Having had no permanent bases, and lacking even the concept of land as property to be held or defended, the culture of war took no root in any Inuit society. The very idea of territorial warfare might have been laughable to pre-colonial Inuit.
As I've pointed out before, the Land - Nuna - was always considered an environment within which animals and people resided, not as an object with distinct parts that could be divided up and actually owned. There were therefore no constant bases from which to launch campaigns, nor was there any ground to take even if there had been.
So what about resources? Again, resources such as food or slaves were no reasons for Inuit to go to war. Inuit tended to follow their food (caribou, for example) to wherever it was seasonally available. The caches and larders of other peoples were rarely worth stealing, since this sort of theft would invariably have taken up too much time, energy and risk for what amounted to a very small prize, especially when compared to the availability of animal prey.
Slaves, a very real reason for raiding among most cultures, were kept by Inuit only rarely. They were not highly valued, since they merely represented another mouth to feed. In the south, you can make a slave tend a crop for you, but you can't send him out hunting, since this is tantamount to setting him free.
Instead, the most common reasons for Inuit conflicts tend to derive from the most ancient and primal human characteristics, old like the culture itself: passion. In fact, the recognition of this fact by ancient Inuit offers us some clues as to why various traditions have come to exist.
We'll have a look next week.