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.

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