Monthly Archives: November 2020

Wisdom of the Inuit

Myna Ishulutak (upper right, in blue jacket) lived a seminomadic life as a child. Above: photos of the girl and her family in the hunting camp of Qipisa during the summer of 1974.
Jean Briggs Collection / American Philosophical Society

As I wrote previously, my brother has been posting entries based on hours’ of recorded interviews he made with my paternal grandmother, Dorothy Roth. They regale the reader with tales of the rough and rugged Alaska gold rush era in which she grew up in Fairbanks, AK. Four stories are available for free. To read them and others, visit my brother’s Patreon.

I was blessed to grow up next door to my grandparents, and their house was a veritable museum of gold rush and Inuit artifacts. Grandmother would give the tour, showing the gigantic woolly mammoth tusks, teeth and bones (unearthed by massive gold mining operations), animal pelts (rabbit, wolf, wolverine, polar bear), and all the Inuit artifacts (mukluks, mittens, carved ivory, and tools and toys fashioned from whale baleen).

My grandparents, Dorothy and Art, in front of the house he built in Coos Bay – the one in which I grew up

One story she told me about the first Christian missionaries to the Alaska territory always stuck with me.

When translating the Lord’s Prayer into the Inuit language, the missionaries got stuck on the line, “lead us not unto temptation.” Apparently there was no word for “temptation” in the native language.

So forbidding and demanding were the living conditions, one owned only what one needed and could easily transport. It was impractical to horde or amass anything beyond the essentials. If you had something I needed, you gave it to me.

Iqaluit, pictured in winter, is the capital of the Canadian territory of Nunavut.
Johan Hallberg-Campbell for NPR

With all due respect to the missionaries who did what they believed was for the best of the aboriginal peoples, is it not ironic that in doing so, they also had to teach about the darker sides of so-called civilized culture?

Just this last week I stumbled across an NPR story about the unusual way Inuit parents raise their children to control their anger.

NPR: How Inuit Parents Teach Kids To Control Their Anger

As a former student of psychology who seriously considered going into child development and/or child psychology, I was fascinated.

Some of the descriptions of extraordinary self control (e.g. no one reacting when a pot of boiling tea is spilled and damages the ice floor, etc.) reminded me of some of the stories I’ve heard about Japanese society.

In Japan, for example – I have heard but never seen this myself – a waiter might stumble and drop a tray of dishes, and no one will look up. The patrons would not wish to further embarrass the waiter. In most Western countries, nearly every head would turn and gawk.

Although the concept of shame and saving face permeates Japanese culture, the Inuit seem to go completely against shame or scolding:

“…it doesn’t help to raise your voice. It will just make your own heart rate go up.”
– Lisa Ipeelie

“Shouting, ‘Think about what you just did. Go to your room!’…I disagree with that. That’s not how we teach our children. Instead you are just teaching children to run away.”
– Goota Jaw

“With little kids, you often think they’re pushing your buttons, but that’s not what’s going on. They’re upset about something, and you have to figure out what it is.”
– Lisa Ipeelie

Instead, they wait for the moment of heat, upset, etc. to pass, then use storytelling to impart the lesson.

It is fascinating, and I want to investigate this further.

Jean Briggs, an anthropologist who lived with and studied the Inuit for decades, wrote two books on what she learned: Never in Anger: Portrait of an Eskimo Family, and Inuit Morality Play: The Emotional Education of a Three-Year-Old. I intend to read them both.