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During the Cold War in 1950s, the Inuit people were relocated by the Canadian government in the High Arctic part of the country in order to overcome the issue of overpopulated areas and poor hunting, to reduce their high dependence on welfare. Despite the lowered rate in illiteracy as Inuit children and adults were put to schools, there had been an importantly rising concern within the Inuit community of high suicides rates. In this essay, I discuss how Briggs’s ethnography of life in a nomadic Inuit camp can explain the reasons behind the challenges that Eskimo people had to face and why young Eskimo people increasingly committed suicide. Primarily, I define previous and recent definition of ‘suicides’ for the Inuit and explain the differences between these two concepts using a piece of evidence of an old Eskimo lady in an ethnographic film and Durkheim’s own definition of ‘egoistic suicide’. Secondly, I draw a discussion about how Briggs’s ethnographic work can be relevant when it comes to explain about the social detachment within Eskimo families once they are separated in terms of cross-generational teaching and mentoring, which have been dramatically altered due to government’s schools and new jobs in society other than hunting. Next, I introduce two complimentary features - ungayuq and naalaqtuq - in Inuit social relationships, which play important parts as they create a distinctive closeness among members in society. I also argue Briggs’s work can assist the understanding of these two concepts, which reflected the difference in Eskimo people’s mentality between the past and the days after the resettlement. Before the conclusion, I give my arguments regarding other unexplored causes of suicides, which are irrelevant if using Briggs’s research to explain.
Suicide is typically understood as the act of killing one’s own physical self, yet it could be varied in forms and reasons behind it are also diverse. The Inuit has been previously known for their distinctive type of suicide, where people either kill themselves or to be killed at their own requests due to aging or illness during hardships, such as famine or poor hunting (Kral 2012:310). Otherwise, suicide was considered to be a sin within the Inuit community as the meaning life was highly valued, especially by the elders. This point of view was suggested in the ‘Innuvunga - I am Inuk, I am Alive’ short film, shot by 8 Inuit teenagers in 2004, where the old lady in the film personally addressed that it was also extremely rare to hear about suicides in the past. Therefore, committing suicide were commonly used to be an act that deserved strong condemnation in Inuit society. Despite its unacceptable sense, suicides among the Inuit after the government relocation were found among the highest in the world with 83.9 per 100,000 (Nunavut Bureau of Statistics: 2012, cited in Kral: 2012:307). This trend occurs particularly among young Inuit males, which was reported to be provoked mainly by romantic relationship issues, for instance, jealousy or resentment, following with family problems. Thus, a major distinction in reasons behind the suicides between generations should be explored. Whilst the former type of suicides was viewed as ‘acceptable’ since the person whom committed the act was believed to be considerate for the sake of others in the community, the latter type is to be dealt with the rejected, angry or lonely feelings, in which one feels from within as they are formed through interactions with other people in the community. This falls into the ‘egoistic suicide’ category that was suggested by Durkheim: ‘Man seeks to learn and man kills himself because of the loss of cohesion in his religious society; he does not kill himself because of his learning’ (Durkheim 1951:169); ‘The more weakened the group to which he belongs, the less he depends on them, the more he consequently depends only on himself’ (Durkheim 2006:209). Durkheim characterises the new sort of suicides to be linked with social detachment.
After the resettlement, Inuit families were forced to split into smaller groups due to limited spaces in nuclear families houses (Damas 1996, cited in Kral 2012:312). ). In Inuit society, families within a kin stayed closed as they would not only do daily activities together, such as hunting or visiting, but also share food, go on trips for days. In Briggs’s ethnography work about an Eskimo family, she described that her Inuit family shared work with Pala’s household, for example, building iglus or cooking and eating together (Briggs 1970:87). The sense of closeness were felt immensely between these two households as they played major parts in each other’s daily life, reflecting a strong bond which developed not only their social circle in the community, but also created their self-identities. Provided that because of the breakdown in households, the segregation among generations began to take place with parents and children disagreed with each other, rather than approve and support of their choices in life. Parents were upset with teenagers for having multiple sex partners or sleeping all day long yet staying up all night; whilst on the other hand, children perceived their parents’ excessive drinking as negative, since domestic fights usually occurred after parties (Kral 2012:312). Children spent more time at school with teachers and peers; learning how to hunt or to sew with their family members became irrelevant in their lives since they were not in shortage of food or clothes. Thus, this change altered the intergenerational relationship in teaching and mentoring, which were considered to be crucial for the Inuit (O’Neil 1983, cited in Kral 2012:313). Additionally, in one of the short films in the Nunavut (Our land), there was one incident about children fighting about a toy, which led their mothers to argue with each other. Yet, the mothers were sister-in-laws, so the elder of the family gave them a talk about how not to argue over trivial conflicts in order to keep family together. This illustrates the importance of elders mentoring younger generations about family values. However after the resettlement, parents were afraid to educate their children as they feared that they would be arrested if they spanked their children (Kral 2012:315). Because of less time spending with family, there is a disruption in the continuity of social relationships for young generation. Teenagers started feeling lonely and withdrew themselves from family activities, unlike before when children were involved in helping parents with hunting or sewing. Loneliness potentially generated the loss in sense of self, which eventually made young Inuit seek for suicides as a solution; since the collectiveness sense within the community no longer served its purpose - to integrate everyone into the society. Briggs’s ethnography demonstrated the family’s closeness through how every member was engaged in even small activities such as playing card games (Briggs 1970:94) and having cross-generational conversations. As an illustration, Briggs quoted a conversation between Saarak (through her father Inuttiaq’s whispered words) and her uncle Mannik (Briggs 1970:96). Her ethnographic work helped enlighten the importance of family’s closeness and collectiveness play in the Inuit society, which was undermined after the Canadian government relocated them.
There are two main features in Inuit relationships: ungayuq or affection-closeness and naalaqtuq or respect-obedience (Damas 1963, cited in Kral 212: 313). Ungayuq is not commonly expressed in Western public sense, yet it is illustrated through compliments or smiling; small children are often exposed to ungayuk, in other words, adults expressing their affections toward them (Kral 2012:313). From Briggs’s ethnography, Saarak - Inuttiaq’s three-year-old daughter - was considered to be the ‘lodestone not only of her household but also of her whole kin group’ (Briggs 1970:110). People often visited Inuttiaq’s tent or iglu to express their affection for her. Ungayuq is also displayed through helping as for older Inuit relationships. According to Briggs, Inuit women did not resent their husbands if they took all the necessary tools on hunting trips and left them in the cold for days, as they rationalised that they would be willing to suffer from the cold as they wanted to help men hunt, so that men would take care of them in the sense of providing food resources and clothing materials (Briggs 1970:108). This evidence thus reflects the embedded significance of closeness in Inuit people’s ideology in social relations as it supports the meaning of Inuit adults’ demonstration of affection toward their family through helps and concerns. Naalaqtuq, on the other hand, was considered as respect and obedience for older Inuit. On one occasion, Briggs asked Allaq - her Inuit mother - about why men can boss women around (make tea, pull boots off) and make daily decisions (Briggs 1970:107). Allaq explained because that is what the Bible stated, that is ‘the way it should be’ since it becomes a natural order, which has always been obtained among the Eskimos (ibid). These features work as a complimentary combination, whose implication plays an essential role in the success, stableness of relationships in Inuit society and determines the strength of attachment between generations. However, this complimentary relation between these two notions ceased after the Eskimos were relocated by the government scheme as they were encouraged not to be obedient toward older generations. For instance, priests supported young teenagers to reject arranged marriage (Kral 2012:315), which was considered to be one of the distinctive and crucial characteristics in Inuit society. ‘Once you remove respect from its traditional form among hunter-gatherers, then everything will go wrong’ (Brody 2000, cited in Kral 2012:313). As a result, the harmonious symphony between two important features were left unused by the new Inuit generation, which might have led to excessive possessiveness, jealousy or resentment that one has over his or her partner, eventually made one decides to commit suicide since functions of these two features were not carried out respectfully.
From the above references to Briggs’s impressive detailed ethnography about the life of an Eskimo family, I agree that to some extent, Briggs’s work did shed lights on how the complexities within Inuit’s social values and their implications can be useful when it comes to understand the reasons behind the high rates of committing suicides among young Inuit people, especially after the sudden and dramatic change in their society due to government resettlement. However, I would like to argue that Briggs’s ethnography is outdated since it fails to explain the abuse of substances (drugs, alcohol, marijuana) among Inuit teenagers, which are also listed as causes of death. ‘If a young man is uneasy in the settlement, unwilling to work there or inexpert at the jobs he takes, he is characterised as stupid. […] Teenagers who are not interested in modern styles and fashion, who are retiring and prefer to spend most of their time at home, are also said to be stupid’ (Brody 1975:85). These false assumptions that white people made were imposed on Eskimo people, which may not only create emotional pressure but also detach young generations from the elders as they would fail to relate to each other. Therefore, not all suicides that linked with family problems are relevant to failure in cross-generational communication.
In this discussion, I have illustrated how Briggs’s ethnographic work on an Eskimo family can demonstrate the significance in family values and social relationships, which were upheld by the Eskimo society, can not only affect one’s mental state but also the community as a whole. I have examined Briggs’s relevant work about understanding the family values in Inuit society and how these can play important roles when explaining about the challenges that new generations are facing after the government resettlement. Nevertheless, I have argued that despite how rich in details Briggs’s ethnographic work was, it is now outdated as it cannot explore and explain all concerns that Inuit community needs to confront, for instance, the abuse of toxic substances or the ethnocentric assumptions from the white people, whom do not share the same value and ideological system with the Eskimos. Therefore, Briggs’s ethnography can only be used to a certain extent, yet, it did highlight the importance of kinship closeness and collectiveness in Inuit society from an in-depth anthropological perspective, which I believe to be tremendously helpful in order to understand the Eskimo people further.
Briggs, J.L., 1970. Never in anger: Portrait of an Eskimo family (Vol. 12). Harvard University Press.
Durkheim, E., 1951. Suicide: A study in sociology (JA Spaulding & G. Simpson, trans.). Glencoe, IL: Free Press.(Original work published 1897).
Kral, M.J., 2012. Postcolonial suicide among Inuit in arctic Canada. Culture, medicine, and psychiatry, 36 (2), pp.306-325.
Brody, H., 1975. The people's land: Eskimos and whites in the eastern Arctic. Penguin books.
Nunavut (Our land) - http://www.isuma.tv/isuma-productions/short
Bobby Echalook, Sarah Idlout, Laura Iqaluk, Linus Kasudluak, 2004. I Am Inuk, I Am Alive -
- Quote paper
- Vy Nguyen (Author), 2017, High Arctic Resettlement. How ‘Never In Anger’ shed lights on Inuit’s challenges after Canadian government’s relocation, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/366995