Sunday, November 6, 2011

Book of the Eskimos

Peter Freuchen (1886-1957) was a Dane who set up a trading post in Greenland in 1910.  He spent 50 years among the Inuit, and knew them when they still lived in their traditional Stone Age manner.  He married an Inuit woman and had two children.  Freuchen’s Book of the Eskimos describes how these people lived, and provides us with a window into a world far different from our own. (Today, the word “Eskimo” is rude.)
The Arctic was the last region to be settled by humans.  It’s an extremely cold region, with just two frost-free months, and the sun doesn’t shine for four months of the year.  What’s for breakfast?  Meat.  What’s for lunch?  Meat.  Dinner?  Guess what!  They lived almost entirely on animal foods from birds, fish, and mammals of the sea and tundra.  These foods were processed and preserved in a variety of different ways, many of which would gag outsiders.  Blubber was their fuel for heat, cooking, and light.
Survival in this harsh land demanded cooperation and sharing.  Meat was community property, and no one was denied access to it (although regular freeloaders were not warmly regarded).  Spoken discourse was typically indirect, non-confrontational, and comically self-effacing.  Functional communities had no use for those who suffered from grandiose egos or other anti-social perversions.
Despite their harsh life, the Inuit had a tremendous zeal for living.  Sexually, they enjoyed great freedom.  Wife swapping was common and perfectly acceptable.  Young people (even children) were free to fully explore the mysteries of tender pleasures.  Orgies, singing, and storytelling sweetened the monotony of long winter nights.  Freuchen writes that “they always enjoy life with an enviable intensity, and they believe themselves to be the happiest people on earth living in the most beautiful country there is.”
Anthropologists have shown us that nomadic foraging cultures had a number of advantages, compared to agricultural societies.  Foraging societies in warmer regions typically had a number of aspects in common.  Inuit society did not neatly fit into the same pattern of characteristics.
The common pattern is that nomadic foragers did not domesticate animals — they lived in a reality where all animals were wild, sacred relatives, teachers, and equals.  But the Inuit sled dogs were owned, controlled, and exploited (it was perfectly acceptable to copulate with a dog when she was in heat, as long as it was done outdoors, in the open).  These sled dogs were maybe 80% wild.  They would ravage the settlement and eat everything if allowed to run loose, so they were kept tied.  Their teeth were filed down to keep them from biting apart their tethers.  Sled dogs did not in any way resemble the neurotic, infantilized canines of modern suburbia.  They only responded to instructions from the dog whip.
The common pattern believes that women enjoyed their highest levels of respect and equality in nomadic foraging societies.  Abuse was one of agriculture’s many hideous offspring.  But in numerous passages, Freuchen describes husbands fiercely beating their troublesome wives bloody (“He beat her like a dog.”).  He wrote that “a woman is after all born to be the victim of men.”  But in another section, he mentioned that Inuit women had “perpetual smiles,” and noted that “they seem to have more natural grace, more zest for life than their white sisters.”
The common pattern celebrates the notion that nomadic foragers enjoyed an easy life with abundant leisure time.  They only “worked” one or two days a week.  In warmer regions, there was an abundance of food, and starvation was rare.  In Inuit country, life was far more challenging, and starvation was a major threat.  Sewing needles were vital survival tools.  If they broke or wore out, clothing could not be mended, and ripped britches could be a death sentence.  There are many reasons why the Arctic was the last region to be settled.
On the other hand, the Inuit did fit into the common pattern with regard to active population management, which was essential to their survival.  Infanticide was common and normal, and daughters were not as desirable as sons (future meat producers).  When hunting was bad, children were killed to spare the group from the misery of starvation.  One woman survived a spell of bad hunting by eating her husband and three children.  Folks who could no longer keep up with the hunting party were abandoned.  Those who were too old to contribute to the wellbeing of the community committed suicide, or asked their children to hang them or stab them — and these requests were honored without hysteria or drama, often during a party when everyone was in high spirits.
A number of aspects of Inuit life are shocking to many in consumer society.  But the reverse is also true.  The Inuit were dumbfounded by the astonishing foolishness of the Danes: “Alas, you are a child in this country, and a child in your thoughts.”  When greed-crazed Norwegians moved in and made a quick fortune by massacring the fur seals, Inuit communities starved.  Every way of life has plusses and minuses.  Unlike consumer society, the Inuit hunters lived sustainably for several thousand years — until they met the white folks.  Is there anything more precious than a sustainable way of life?
Freuchen had great respect for the Inuit, while at the same time believing that Danish society was more advanced.  At his trading post he provided guns, bullets, knives, traps, pots, matches, and other things that the Inuit had happily lived without for thousands of years.  It made him feel good that he was helping them modernize.
When hunters used bows and arrows to hunt for reindeer in flat wide open tundra with no place to hide, they sometimes had to lay motionless in the snow for two days, waiting for the prey to move within range, which didn’t always happen.  Guns allowed them to kill from far away, which led to more meat, which led to more Inuit.  Freuchen eventually came to realize that modernization was not a free lunch: “these favorable living conditions brought about an increase in the population that began to overtax the resources of the country.”  Whoops!
Modernization is what had driven Freuchen to Greenland in the first place.  When he had been attending med school in Copenhagen, a seriously injured man arrived, and none of the doctors thought he’d survive.  After six months of careful treatment, the man fully healed — an absolute miracle!  The staff proudly watched as the man walked out of the hospital, stepped off the curb, and immediately got killed by a car.  There were almost no cars in Copenhagen in 1905.  Freuchen’s mind snapped. 
Today, the modernized Inuit have guns, televisions, phones, nice wooden houses, and motor boats.  Snowmobiles have temporarily replaced the sled dogs.  What they’ve lost is a sustainable way of life, and a healthy traditional future for their grandchildren.  When the cheap energy is gone, it will be rough sledding.

Peter Freuchen, Book of the Eskimos, World Publishing Company, Cleveland, 1961.

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