The Inuit people are the most spread out people in the world, living in Canada, the United States (more precisely in Alaska) and Greenland. With the movement for the First Nations’ recognition, their title as “Eskimo people” changed in 1970’s for “Inuit”. They don’t have common ancestors with Native populations like Cherokees or Apaches. Inuit people are not Native Americans.
The singular fact in Inuit civilization is that, like the Vikings, women had an important place. They’ve maintained the traditions of their people and sometimes, could have a high place in society’s hierarchy.
Who are the Inuit people ?
These hunters-gatherers settled for the first time in America around 8000 BC. They came from North East Siberia and reached Alaska by crossing the Bering Strait. Their survival in a very hostile environment depended on migration and hunting. They chase musk oxes, caribous, seals, whales, walruses and sometimes, polar bears and narwhals. Their houses depended on the season and their location. In Saqqaq village in Greenland, tents made of whale bones and covered by furs were the summer’s habitations. Rectangular half-underground houses are very useful to survive harsh winters. These habitations could welcome one to four families.
Between AD 500 and AD 1000, Inuit people were more adapted to their environment. They had invented the first oil lamps and had created a series of tools, like kayak. They also used hunting leftovers, like walrus tusks, to create skates for sledges. Norton’s culture created the harpoon to make whale hunting more efficient.
The settlement ended around AD 1600, in Northern Alaska. It is around this period that Inuit people invented a very peculiar habitation: the igloo. They also improved the construction of sledges and dog harnesses.
Inuit women and shamanism
Inuit people believed in “animism”, a belief that everything around them, animals and natural elements like rocks, water and wind, had a spirit. Animals, therefore, had a strong place in this spiritual world, like deceased persons, and could take action in the real world. Native Americans used totems to show their respect to these spirits. For instance, if an eagle was on a totem, the tribe members couldn’t hunt and kill it.
In order to communicate with these spirits, the Inuit community has among them a shaman, probably the most important person in the group, who could influence the council’s decisions. He knew rituals that could be useful to please the spirits and therefore, satisfy the tribe’s needs, like healing, rain or a good pregnancy. The shaman also had the ability to leave his body to join the spiritual world.
Becoming a shaman was hard. It requires great knowledge from the natural and spiritual world. But shaman women were preferred to shaman men. Their bodies were a better receptacle for the spirits’ energy. Shaman women were the symbols of harmony in their tribe.
The only voice for Inuit women
Women could be shamans. Amazing. But it was the only solution for an Inuit woman to be listened to. In Inuit community, regular councils were held to decide on the tribe’s survival. The council’s members were all male. Inuit women couldn’t make the most important decisions for the community or take part in the tribal council. Also, even if a woman could have survival responsibilities, they could be taken away from her if a man was unhappy with her way of doing it.
Women as part of Inuit society
In Inuit society, men had specific skills, like women. Therefore, society organized itself around this belief. Men were in charge of the hunt, while women were responsible for the process of clothes making, food preparation and house care. But women could join the hunt when extra hunters were needed. Men could also help with the housework.
But above all, the Inuit society can be recognized for their “team work”. Even if women couldn’t make decisions, they had an important role as clothes makers. It was an exclusive feminine skill. If women needed men to bring food from hunting, men needed women to get warm clothes for hunting. No work was better than another.
Armor creators for hunting
Among their numerous responsibilities, Inuit women had the responsibility to sew skins to make clothes. Nowadays, it can be seen as a chore, but at that time, the cold was strong and it was vital for Inuit people to have good clothes to keep them warm and alive. And how is it the greatest achievement of Inuit women? Because even modern clothing can’t equal the warmth of those clothes. Light and warm, they were vital against the bitter Arctic cold. But the process to make clothes was hard. The skin had to be stretched and tanned to be supple enough to be stitched.
Houses and buildings were also a woman’s matter. They had good knowledge of architecture and knew everything about weather-proofing. Another great thing about Inuit people: they didn’t see women as delicate little flowers. The activities for community survival were numerous. Women were as strong as men to accomplish their duties.
As a survival matter, most Inuit marriages were arranged. A married couple was a team: while the husband took care to maintain the tribe’s, and his family’s, food resources, the wife took care of the community and her family. The wife’s parents didn’t have to give a dowry and each spouse remained owner of their goods. The wife had the same right as her husband to ask for divorce. But the Inuit were not individualists. The notion of “sticking together” was vital. Therefore, even if it was allowed, divorce was a split among the community.
The kudlik (an oil lamp) was the responsibility of women. It brought warmth and light. Women had to make sure they never lacked petrol. They were responsible for the comfort and happiness of their household, to keep the community united. Most of the time, the husband and the wife always try to arrange their personal issues together before thinking of divorce.
A great respect for animals
While men were in charge of hunting, women had found other sources of food (like plants, berries and eggs). But when men, when they took back to their village a polar bear or a seal from hunting, men didn’t know how to cut the best parts of the animal. It was women’s job to take care of the preparation of meals for the community. Women had the greatest respect for animals and were more sensitive to animism beliefs. As they had the technique to butcher the animals’ carcass without slaughtering it,they were considered more able than men to prepare the meat. This sign of respect guaranteed successful hunts for the community.
Inuit women also had the great responsibility to take care of children and to guide other women through childbirth. As they had to participate in the community’s life at the age of 12, children’s education started very early, sometimes just after their birth. It created a strong factor of kinship. Children then didn’t really question their roles in Inuit society, as they were essential for the survival of the tribe.
Introduction to modern life
The empowerment of women
Inuit people encountered various cultures and it drastically changed their way of life. The most important encounter was the one with Europeans. At that moment, women became a precious value for good relations with newcomers. As a sign of hospitality, an Inuit woman was offered to the voyager. This tradition didn’t have a financial aim; interbreeding was the only interest in this process.
With Europeans came modernization, especially thanks to weapons like guns. The Inuit began to move into towns to find jobs in the 19th century. Men did their best to incorporate themselves into this new life, but their strong lack of education handicapped them. As a response, women wanted to make a difference. They had access to education and could find jobs as interpreters, school assistants and, if they were good in business management, owners of sewing shops. With time, Inuit women’s education gave them access to better jobs. A “role reversal” happened: women had to work to insure their family’s comfort, while men looked after children.
From empowerment to psychological and physical collapse
This change of life had grave consequences. Women became heads of the house and had the upper hand in decision making. Leaving their traditional way of life behind them and not finding a job, men sank in a strong consumption of alcohol and drugs. They are now trapped in a vicious circle, as this kind of consumption is another reason for their unemployment.
With this modernization came health issues. And beyond that, women are more vulnerable to diseases than men. With Europe’s arrival, the sanitary conditions changed, with diseases like the Spanish flu, but also with environmental deterioration. As agriculture was nearly impossible in Arctic regions, hunting was the main resource of nourishing food. But the lead in modern weapons has become a pollutant. It led to a silent poisoning pandemic through metals. Lead was even found in umbilical cords of Inuit women. And even if Inuit people adapted their diet to face this crisis, they’re still very vulnerable to it. Inuit women are also vulnerable to pesticides, present in seal and walrus meat, and cancers.
Their diet, poor in vegetables and fruits, did not really change like their way of life had. These ancient hunter-gatherers had good physical condition. But today, their sedentary lives do not fit a diet of fat meat. This diet, added to the consumption of alcohol and drugs, decreases even more the health of Inuit communities, who suffer from obesity, high cholesterol and cardiac diseases.
It is now certain that colonization led to powerful traumas in Inuit society. Suicides and depression are very frequent. Inuit people still don’t have a significant place in the modern world and a torn between this life and their ancestors’ traditions.
The disaster of domestic violence
The change in life brought by colonization led to men being unfit for proper jobs, generating severe depression and physical degradation. Domestic violence against Inuit women is a consequence of the community’s modernization, but also a major issue. Inuit women, and Native American women in general, tend to be victims of domestic violence much more than non-native women in Canada. 58% of Inuit women were beaten up in 2009. Only 41% of non-native women had to face domestic violence.
In Canada, domestic violence is 14 times higher than the national average. Shelters for battered women exist in Canada, as police officers can be too far away to intervene in time. But most of the time, women can’t reach it, as it is too far away from their home (sometimes around 100 kilometers away). And today, these shelters have cut their welcome capacity in half, due to COVID-19.
A fate still uncertain for Inuit women
What seems extraordinary to the Inuit people is that even if they had to face colonization, they succeeded in keeping their traditions. Indeed, a great number of them still survive through traditional fishing and hunting. And as women had an important place in Inuit society with their numerous responsibilities, they can be seen as the real keepers of Inuit traditions.
But unfortunately, the situation is not very bright for them today. Even if they succeed in gaining more and more influence in modern society, especially through politics, they have to face several issues, like domestic violence, health issues or even death. In Canada today, more than 18% of Inuit women are missing. Most of the time, they are never found again, but when they are, they are often dead. In North America, Inuit women are victims of racism, and most of the time, the culprit is set free, even if his crime was aggression, rape or murder.
Inuit social organization teaches us a great lesson : while in modern society, women are still considered inferior to men, Inuit women were once their equal. The history of Inuit society shows us how women can be strong and powerful, and keepers of soft power. The domestic violence they are suffering from can show how modern society is probably not the best society which ever existed. There are without a doubt great lessons to learn from these ancient populations.
Actions to preserve Inuit culture and protect women are still not enough. But the world tends to realize the importance of First Nations’ culture, as part of Canadian and American History. The fight is not over, but it is on the right track.