Five Facts about Alaskan Eskimo CultureExtras — By Mary on July 19, 2012 at 10:20 am
Native Alaskan Eskimos are probably one of the least understood groups of Americans. In the Lower 48 we still imagine Eskimos living in igloos and driving dog teams through endless darkness and constant blizzards. While that idea of an Eskimo isn’t correct, there are some traits that can be attributed to our friends in the far north. Expand your understanding and check out these five traits of real Eskimos.
Car: the Vehicle Less Chosen
Real Eskimo’s don’t need a car and many don’t own one. Those who do drive mix matched bits and pieces of every car that has ever been shipped in on the rare summer barges like a local moving car museum.
During the long winter months most cars can’t make it through the impenetrable snow and almost everyone opts for a snowmobile instead. Tall stakes in the snow show the way to other villages through paths trucks probably couldn’t get through in the summer, but are only a short ride for a snowmobile. In the summer snowmobiles are replaced by ATV’s which can barrel through the wet tundra or rocky beaches far easier than a car could. Some families have a boat to take them upriver to their hunting camps or for sea mammal hunting but even boats are only used in the precious ice free months.
2. “It isn’t hurt unless you’re lost”
With few recreation choices in isolated areas, Eskimos have realized that competition makes dark, cold winters bearable and midnight suns more interesting. Local celebrations often include traditional Eskimo games with categories like the one foot high kick, knee wrestling, and knuckle runs which harbor long standing village and family rivalries but Eskimos take all competition seriously.
Crowds gather on dilapidated bleachers to watch Rec Softball games that can easily include faked injuries, base coaches distracting the opposing team, and more than its fair share of pushing and shoving. Being an Ump in the Native Women’s league may actually be harder than calling a Yankees, Red Socks game, but a bit easier than refereeing the Native Women vs. White Men tug of war in Kotzebue every July 4th.
Eskimo culture is based on a tight knit village group struggling to survive extreme weather, so even today, if a man kills twelve caribou he will probably only keep one or two for his immediate family and give the rest away, especially to people who can’t hunt themselves. The concept of “personal property” is somewhat foreign, which makes Eskimos extremely generous people to befriend as long as you return the kindness.
This is the one Eskimo word non-natives will never struggle to remember after visiting native Eskimo areas. It comes out of the mouths of all Eskimos, from elders to young children, in a sing-songy voice so naturally that it begins to give you a glimpse into what an Eskimo village fifty or sixty years ago must have sounded like when people still spoke in the their native languages, untouched and protected for hundreds of years.
It’s also just really fun to say and a good way for nonnatives to show that they are trying to embrace the Eskimo culture. It’s typically used in place of any curse word but isn’t a bad word itself. So, if you stub your toe in front of an elder- “Adi!” If they laugh at you know that your one crucial step closer to making an Eskimo friend.
5. “Trees Mean Bears”
Complain that there’s no trees on the open tundra and this may be the answer you get, and even though it’s an unsatisfying answer to your complaint it does explain a lot about the Eskimo culture as it exists today. Eskimos don’t live in igloos and only move by dog sled like people in the Lower 48 imagine, but they have maintained their culture through the Twentieth Century and are struggling to maintain it through the Twenty First Century. Eskimo kids have electronics and listen to the same music every other American kid listens to but they also spend time out at camp learning to hunt and use caribou or whales like the generations before them have. For now at least, Eskimos still have a connection to the land and how it works, so for them an open field of barren tundra means no bears.
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