Northern Lights

Chauncey Loomis

  • Living Arctic: Hunters of the Canadian North by Hugh Brody
    Faber, 254 pp, £4.95, November 1987, ISBN 0 571 15096 9

Almost fifty years ago the French ethnologist Gontran de Poncins published his international best-seller Kabloona, an account of his year-long stay with the Netsilikmuit, the Seal Eskimos of Canada’s central Arctic. Early in the book he described a haunting scene. Wrapped warmly in a sleeping-bag, he had fallen asleep in an igloo that three Eskimo hunters were generously sharing with him. He awoke to see the hunters on their knees, weirdly illuminated by an oil lamp and casting grotesque shadows on the icy walls. After a few moments of nightmare between wake and sleep he remembered where he was, then he realised that they were gorging on seal meat: ‘The smell in the igloo was of seal and of savages hot and gulping. From where I lay their faces appeared to me in profile glistening with fat and running with blood; and with their flattened crania, their hair covering their foreheads, their moustaches hanging low over their mouths, their enormous jaws, they inspired in me so ineradicable a notion of the stone age that I think always of this scene when I read or hear of pre-historic man.’ Such a passage obviously could not be written today. We are far too self-conscious and guilty about our ethnocentrism ever to admit to such a reaction even if we had it. The word ‘savage’ alone would be beyond the pale, more embarrassing than any four-letter word. Under the severe tutelage of anthropologists and in the long shadow of Claude Lévi-Strauss, we are losing our cultural arrogance – or, perhaps the same thing, our cultural innocence. A good thing, too: the main point of innocence is to lose it, and this particular innocence deserves to be lost. Ethnocentrism has taken excessively disagreeable and destructive forms.

In their contacts with the world outside of the Arctic and Subarctic, the Inuit (the name preferred by ‘Eskimos’) and the Athapaskan and Algonquian tribes of northern Canada did not suffer the deliberate genocide that destroyed many other peoples: but some were murdered without cause, many were dispossessed of their lands, and all had their cultures radically subverted. In Living Arctic Hugh Brody concentrates his attention on the subversion of northern native cultures. His book is a corrective primer on contemporary native ways of life in the Arctic, written in the light of the new anthropology with the clear purpose of reforming our attitudes not only about northern peoples but also, implicitly, about all hunting peoples.

Brody argues early in the book that the main cause of our failure to understand Inuit and Subarctic Indians is the fact that they are hunters – whereas, says Brody, the peoples of Subarctic Europe and America are essentially peasants. With a stroke of the pen, he connects modern suburban and urban life to the life of ancient peasantry; he asserts that our present values come from that ancient world, pointing to our ‘peasant attachment to specific plots of land, the wish to have large numbers of children in short periods of time, emphasis on marriage, subordination of women to men, preoccupation with private ownership, and bodies of explicit law that are enforced by some form of police’. To claim that these qualities (if indeed they all still hold in our variegated and dynamic Western societies) find their roots in peasantry is at best simplistic. But he does have a point. In the crowded modern world, hunting societies – prodigal with space – are rare indeed: they have survived only in remote areas where they have the space they need, and they remain alien to all non-hunting societies, peasant or otherwise. Most of us would have to trace our ancestry back to the Cro-Magnon to find a true hunter. It’s been a long time since we had to feed ourselves by using spears, arrows or snares, and it is difficult for us to understand societies which until very recently were shaped almost entirely by hunting.

So we have created fantasies about them. Much of Brody’s short book (at least half of it taken up by photographs, maps, and brief quotations set aside from the main text) is aimed at correcting our fantasies and the stereotypes they have generated. The first chapter, entitled ‘Stereotypes’, begins with Jacques Cartier’s famous assessment of the Labrador coast – ‘I believe that this was the land that God allotted to Caine’ – followed by his further assessment of its inhabitants: ‘These men may very well and truely be called Wilde, because there is no poorer people in the world.’ The image of destitute savages living in a frigid wilderness is the first stereotype that Brody tries to correct. He counters quotations of explorers through the centuries (including Stefansson, who should have known better: ‘they thought their simple, primitive thoughts and lived their insecure and tense lives’) with quotations of present-day Inuit and Indians lyrically praising their lands and their ways of life. Then he proceeds in the rest of the book to describe those lands and ways of life in chapters entitled ‘Cold’, ‘Meat’, ‘Animals’, ‘Mobility’, ‘Authority’, ‘Children’, ‘Language’, ‘Tradition’, ‘Frontiers’, and, as a sort of postscript, ‘The Politics of Survival’.

Throughout this survey, Brody remains aware of the stereotypes; even if they are only in his mind’s eye, they are an implicit foil to much of what he describes. When he discusses cold, for example, he emphasises the fact that Arctic and Subarctic people depend on the cold more than they combat it: for them, in fact, warmth poses a greater problem than cold. Travel on thawed tundra is more difficult than travel on frozen tundra; hunting in boreal forests is easier in winter than in summer; open water is more dangerous than ice; seals are thinner in the summer, and the sea water is less saline, so they tend to sink when shot; a sudden thaw in winter can melt an igluviga (the proper name for an igloo), destroying it as surely as a fire destroys a frame house; dampness is a greater killer than dry cold – and so on. A curse to us, cold is a blessing to Arctic peoples. According to Brody, we have difficulty seeing through the stereotype of the frigid wilderness to perceive that. We continue to think of them living there in spite of the cold.

Sometimes Brody exaggerates our ignorance, and he tends to attack straw-soldier stereotypes. In recent years, books, magazines and television have inundated the public with facts about remote regions of the world, including the Arctic. In some cases, to be sure, this has meant simply switching from one stereotype to another: today the Arctic is stereotyped less as a frigid wilderness than as a pristine and delicate, if austere paradise threatened by exploitation, and Brody encourages that stereotype. But in general, the liter ate public is well-informed. Some of the information Brody offers in his book, in fact, would already be known by any alert and curious schoolchild, and that schoolchild probably would also recognise and agree with Brody’s main argument: aboriginal cultures, evolving over centuries and deeply shaped by their environments, have a beauty, vitality, integrity and validity of their own, and deserve understanding and respect rather than scorn or condescension. So far, so good: that argument clearly is intelligent and humane, and it deserves repetition. But problems arise when flesh is put on its bones.

Like many other writers intent on explaining and defending aboriginal cultures, Brody indulges in what can be called ‘antithetic al characterisation’, a technique often used in fiction to pair off characters (in his case, cultures) against one another in antithetical relationship. The advantage, of course, is that each defines the other by comparison and contrast; the disadvantage, of course, is that it inevitably leads to oversimplification. Rhetoric begins to distort truth. Like many anthropologists writing popular books, Brody cannot resist the temptation of ‘honkey-bashing’ – tearing down Western culture as he idealises Inuit and Indian culture. Not only are we peasants: we also are materialistic, arrogant, unimaginative, destructive, wasteful, clumsy and, generally speaking, gross. When we ponder the darker aspects of our history, we cannot deny the charges outright, but we can reasonably ask if all mankind, including Inuit and Indians, isn’t vulnerable to at least some of them. Our materialism is the anthropologists’ favourite bat to bash us with, and Brody is no exception: we (all of Subarctic Europe and North America) are materialistic while Inuit and Indians are essentially spiritual. What Brody means by ‘materialistic’ or ‘spiritual’ remains undefined. Discussing Inuit, he refers to ‘the hunters’ rejection of materialism’, but immediately thereafter mentions ‘their use of hunting technologies that are light, transportable and adaptable’. Apparently such technologies are immaterial. Later in the same paragraph, however, he notes that they use rifles: surely a Winchester or Remington is not immaterial. When you throw in the fact that many of those hunters now ride to their prey on ski-doos or in skiffs with outboard motors, then the phrase ‘rejection of materialism’ becomes questionable – if indeed it means anything at all. One suspects that Brody would not have written it if he had been less intent on contrasting our materialism with Inuit spirituality. Honkey-bashing can get a writer into unnecessary rhetorical binds.

One side of his rhetoric is close to satire; the other side is close to idealisation, although he tries to avoid that. In Living Arctic he wants to stress that Inuit and Indians are our contemporaries, not stuffed creatures in a museum. Indeed, much of his text does describe their life today as it has been modified by the outside world, and many of the photographs do show their contemporary living conditions, complete not only with rifles, ski-doos and outboards, but also with television-sets and computers. One of Brody’s most telling points, in fact, is his insistence that they have the right to be as modern as they wish – the right to use rifles, ski-doos, outboards, television-sets and computers to their hearts’ content. He asks with justification if we believe that we have to make a clearcut choice between tradition and modernity, not combining them in any way? In pursuing this valid argument, Brody exposes stereotypes cherished by many who are passionately concerned with the protection of aboriginal cultures. Often they do not allow them the human dignity of messy complexity and true dynamism; they might protest otherwise, but they want to freeze those cultures in time, and condescension lies beneath their concern.

Brody tries to avoid this trap by openly discussing Inuit and Indian use, not only of our gadgetry, but also of our medicine, our religion, and our methods of generating and using political and economic power. By stressing their modernity, he partly succeeds in avoiding nostalgic idealisation, but only partly. His problem lies in the fact that he seems to believe that they can pick and choose what they wish from Euro-American cultures and still leave the core of their own cultures untouched. He wants to have it both ways: he wants them to be our contemporaries, but he also wants them still to embody the values of their old way of life – the ‘spiritual’ values that make them different from the ‘materialistic’ Western society which, in a sense, surrounds and contains them.

According to Brody himself, the core of their cultures is hunting. Many Inuit and Indians still do hunt, but is hunting an absolute necessity for most of them now? Are they still truly dependent on it? Does it, more than anything else, shape their daily thought and activity? If hunting is not vitally necessary and central to their lives, then it can no longer be an authentic core to their culture. You can’t fake a culture. Brody’s general description of them, in spite of his insistence that they are modern, implies that as a whole they do indeed continue to lead the austere life of hunting, and that their values still are deeply informed by it. I wonder if that is true.

Take the subject of waste. The alert and curious schoolchild knows that hunting societies do not waste, that they kill only what they can use, that they respect and even love their prey, and so on. This image, even a hundred years ago, had to be taken with a grain of salt. Some plains Indians used to drive herds of buffalo off cliffs and use only a tiny proportion of what they had slaughtered. (Perhaps it was a method of animal population control, but there is no hard evidence of that.) But assuming that in the past hunting peoples did not waste, is it still true? Brody specifies the wondrous things Inuit can do with dead animals, and implies that they still commonly do them: sinews become threads, intestines become windows, brains become hide conditioner, hides become clothing, and virtually everything else is eaten. (Including duck’s feet. According to Brody, ‘boiled duck’s feet are fun to eat.’ He speaks for himself.) Do most Inuit still practise such frugality? Brody implies that they do, but, except for a few small groups who have deliberately isolated themselves from trade, they don’t: the influx of goods from the south has made it unnecessary. No real harm in that, but there are more significant signs that their attitude towards waste is changing.

Twenty years ago, I spent a summer travelling in a small Inuit boat on Frobisher Bay. At the mouth of the bay, then seldom visited by anyone, we came on a polar bear and some walrus, both very rare in the region at that time. Although its hide was not in prime season, the Inuit shot the polar bear; they skinned it, but left most of the meat as carrion. Then they shot two walrus. The small tusks were not worth the work of extracting them, so they left the animals (one still alive) floating in the water. I had to grab one of their rifles and administer the coup de grace. I have heard of other such incidents – enough to suggest that the hunting ethic is in trouble with many Inuit. Undoubtedly the effects of Euro-American cultures are largely responsible for the change, but, whatever the cause, the change has occurred, and it cuts deep into the core of native cultures.

The not-so-hidden agenda in Living Arctic is a defence of native peoples’ rights, particularly land rights – a worthy cause and a hot issue. The idea of setting aside large areas of land for the peoples who, in a special sense, ‘owned’ them at the outset is morally attractive. The issues involved, however, are complex, and almost all of them centre on the question of autonomy. How autonomous can or should any subgroups within a nation be? The easy answer is ‘as autonomous as they wish, especially if they are native’, but complex problems of language, education, religion, law, economics and politics lurk in the question. Brody does not entangle himself in the complexities; he hopes only to increase our understanding of northern peoples and to gain some admiration for their cultures. He does offer a good survey of their way of life in modern times, and he is right to insist that they should be as modern as they wish, but he errs in idealising their cultures as they now exist, and he errs even more in his facile criticisms of his own culture. At times, in fact, instead of looking forward his book seems to look backward – all the way back to the lovely conception of the ‘Noble Savage’, a conception satirists have often borrowed to use as a weapon against their own supposedly ignoble cultures.

To return to de Poncins’s Kabloona. If it were published today, it would probably be attacked by critics, including many anthropologists, for being ethnocentric and even racist. Such attacks would have little justification. The book is a splendid account of the experiences of a man who did not pretend to be other than what he was: an intelligent, educated and worldly Frenchman. It is a record, not of his sense of superiority to the Inuit with whom he lived, but of his conscious and thoughtful measuring of his values and abilities against theirs.