The Inupiat and Arctic Alaska: Ethnography of Development

A Book Review by Larry P. Madden book cover

In 1990, Norman Chance published this detailed look at life on the Arctic Circle. Specifically, he studied the history of the Inupiat Eskimo of Alaska from pre-contact times to the penultimate decade of the twentieth century, focusing on the effects of an imposed wage earner economy on a subsistence society. As America’s Baby Boomers were coming into the world, the Inupiat were thrust into the modern era due to the discovery of petroleum in arctic wilderness. The effects of the oil boom on a society that was still practicing reciprocation and subsistence hunting and gathering offers an in-depth look into the successes and failures of the colonial system.

Prior to this boom, arctic life followed a set pattern developed by eons of traditional knowledge and acquired skills to live in what most would consider a harsh environment. As in the case of the 17th century woodland Indians of New England, a prevailing thought process of the new immigrants was that the original owners of the land did not know how to properly use it. Norman Chance’s first encounter occurred in the late fifties when the petroleum industry had yet to come to the area of Kaktovik. His early visits to earthen homes and total subsistence living of the Inupiat show a society that lived in cooperation and sharing was the main tenant in life. Life from the land and ocean was the total concern of the people and he quoted Harold Kaveolook (Inupiaq) as having said, “We always try to help each other. That is the Eskimo way.”

Yet the same sad cycles that played out in much of the Turtle Island fell upon the arctic dwellers. Assimilation through religion, boarding school heartbreak, and government greed all played their familiar roles. John Tetpon, Inupiaq (1988) related this story, “I’ll never forget my first day at school... I was 6 years old, and didn’t know a word of English. Excited, I jabbered away to all my friends in Inupiaq. From the front of the room, the teacher studied us closely…out of nowhere, his great big hand grabbed me around the neck. He shoved a big bar of soap into my mouth, right in front of all my friends. ‘No one here will speak Inupiaq.’ ”

Mr. Chance’s decades-long observations of the Inupiat and Yupik people allowed for a view of the changing landscape both physically and socially. He openly admits to tunnel vision moments in his career, but by review and open acceptance of help from residents and colleagues his eyes were opened to such things as gender role change and the effects of such. Still, his ability to look past his westernization worldview makes for an intriguing view of a people in social flux.

Larry P. Madden (Stockbridge-Munsee Band of Wisconsin) was born and raised in the Sturgeon Bay area. A recent graduate of CMN, he enjoys the Powwow trail and strives to maintain balance on the red road.