ARCTIC ALASKA AND ITS PEOPLE Essay Research

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ARCTIC ALASKA AND ITS PEOPLE Essay, Research Paper Before the arrival of European explorers in the late 18th and early 19th century, Arctic Alaska, stretching from Norton Sound to the Canadian border, was the location of many Inupiaq-speaking groups. Some of these people stayed close to their homes while others were more mobile. All, however, tended to have marriages within rather than between groups. Clothing styles, personal adornment, and sub-language differences also served to separate the members of one group from another. Though each spoke Inupiaq, regional variation was sufficient enough to enable listeners to link accent with locality, thereby allowing individuals coming together to immediately determine the other’s home district. The major social entities that made

up these differing districts or localities were networks of large, extended families, each composed of three to four generations, and each containing numerous married siblings and often cousins. Burch uses the term “local family” to describe these social units. Since the size of the family was usually too large for a single dwelling, adjacent houses were used by “domestic families.” In ecologically less favorable districts, local families might include a dozen or so members whereas in better areas, local family size could reach as high as 50 or more. Major population centers such as Point Hope and Point Barrow, located along sea mammal migration routes, contained several large local families in distinct ‘neighborhoods.’ Politically, these families were self-governing

groupings, roughly equal in status, with no external “chief.” Internally, there was a system based largely on relative age, sex, and a sufficient number of younger siblings and cousins to make the elder statuses meaningful. In most instances, these elders served as advisors rather than day-to-day decision-makers. The male family head was an umialik, often translated into English as “boss” or “rich man.” All umialiks and their wives were considered “bosses” within their own local families. But to become a “rich” umialik required a large local family composed of many active male and female hunters and skin sewers. As holders of considerable wealth and high social position, these successful umialiks were powerful leaders, a trait shared only with the religious

shaman [angatquq]. Many umialiks were shamans as well. Though not given formally defined authority, they usually won the right to lead through their personal qualities of hunting, trading, and human relations skills, energy and wisdom. These qualities were what gained them their following and their following was what provided them their wealth. Such qualities were required to keeping such a group intact since membership was voluntary and could change at any time. Among members of a given family, mutual aid was the norm. In larger families, the food obtained from hunting, fishing and gathering was turned over to the umialik and his wife. She kept track of what was available, what was needed, and what could be given to others. So, the larger the family, the greater the

redistribution process, and the more extensive the power of the umialik and his wife [nuliaqpak]. Following a successful whale hunt, present-day Inupiat families on Alaska’s North Slope continue the practice of distributing maktak [whale skin with blubber] to other community members. Highly successful umiliaks could further expand their families, and wealth, by obtaining one or more additional spouses. Thus, the only factor limiting the expansion of family size other than capability of its members, was the availability of local resources. Over several generations, some families were able to command far more goods and resources, while others, smaller in size, had less. Small families resulted from various factors such as death, poor health, weak management, and limited hunting