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Aleut/Inuit/Eskimo Religion : What | Who | GuL's Comment | Score | Forums | Books

Who are these people and what do they believe in?

      Looking down on the Earth from directly over the North Pole the casual observer would not be immediately aware of thick black lines marking out the boundaries of territories belonging to the various Eskimo groups.   Neither, of course, would the Eskimos.
      At the start of the year 2000 there were some 16 separate groups between Greenland and Alaska, and 19 groups between northern Europe and the former Soviet Union.   And a further six groups have their origins around the Aleutian Islands.
      The most common thing that all the ethnic groups share is the desire not to be called an ethnic group or indeed any group at all. Worst still for the Eskimo is the word tribe.   Within any of the Eskimo languages there may be over a hundred words for snow, but there is no word for tribe.
      Eskimos call themselves Inuit which means real people and this basic but effective title is something which they proudly use to differentiate between themselves and every other people - especially any other North American Indians or Mongoloid-Caucasoid genetic look-alikes.

      Next to the symbolic door of the Map Makers is the symbolic door of The History Department and the History Department found evidence of tools and artefacts that date the Inuit way of life to around 5000 years before the so called Christian Era gave that same History Department lots more to misinterpret.
      The Inuit had no choice but to live in harmony with the extremely demanding ecosystem that surrounded them.   There were just three factors in their world, the land - usually covered in an irritating and large amount of snow and ice, the animals - few and far between and extremely alert, and the Inuit themselves - usually hungry and always cold.
      This fragile but sustainable system demanded both a healthy respect and a deep understanding and to their eternal credit, and for some seven thousand years, both the land and the people got what they deserved.

      The Inuit had very little time for any rigidly structured religion.   The concept of a neat family tree for gods, the world and man’s place in it was neither appropriate, partly due to the lack of trees, nor necessary due to the lack of any real contender for the job of top god.   In any other religion gods would be expected to perform certain basic tasks.    Those gods should be able to hand out a few treats for good behaviour, guide ordinary mortals towards an understanding of philosophy and the arts and do their best to help out with the trickier bits when it came to inventing new technology.   And at the very least they should promise everlasting life when the present one comes to its natural conclusion.
      But this was the Artic and free food was not something the Arctic gave up willingly, philosophical discussions were not an everyday occurrence, the latest technology still relied on making sledge runners out of frozen fish and the promise of life-after-death meant more of the same old snow and ice with just one good sunset a year.

      The most productive natural resource was of course the ocean and naturally the ocean deserved a good god with a tale to tell. This was the Goddess Sedna, also known as Siitna, or further north, Nerrivik.   In Alaska she is known as Nulirahak and in the high artic of central Canada, Nuliaguk.
      One stormy dark night, when Sedna-of-the-many-names was occupying her mortal form, she took a boat trip with her lover.   Her father had come along for the ride which was just as well as the unpredictable lover suddenly took it into his head to became violently jealous and attack Sedna with everything he could lay his hands on.
      Bold Sedna decided to teach them both a lesson by jumping into the freezing sea and was momentarily pleased to see the expressions of shock and disbelief on the faces of her loved ones.
      Fully expecting her extreme action would quickly be resolved, Sedna started to climb back into the boat when without explanation her father lost what little sense he had and attacked the unfortunate girl with an axe!
      With no fingers (her fingers turning miraculously into seals and other large sea creatures) Sedna did what any god would do in the circumstances, she went off to the bottom of the sea and into a really really big sulk.
      Sedna is the seen as the creator and god of all sea creatures and although understandably grieved by her previous treatment she can be asked to give a little help in the fishing department if the boys on the surface are going a bit short.

      As all men and all animals were rich in souls it followed that a few more deities were needed to oversee the day-to-day running of things and to be approached, when needed, by the appropriate Shaman.
      The sun, bringer of light, warmth and hope took the godly title of Aningaaq, and the god of the life-giving air breathed by all things is called Sila.   The moon has a god, dogs have their own god, mountains have their resident deities and of course men have their souls. Often more than one.

      Animals were the only true continuity of life and death and since the Inuit had to depend on the animals for food, clothing, weapons and tools and just about everything that made life a little bit more bearable, a great deal of thought was given to the various ways of catching and killing the animals without giving offence to the souls of the particular animal or to disrupt the delicate balance of nature.
      This gave rise to much ritual before, during and after a hunt with magical songs promising beneficial effects on the weather, clothes, weapons, boats and the hunters themselves.   The dancers used animal masks and its soul was represented by a little face painted over the left eye.   The more magic there was, the better were the chances of the hunters - correspondingly less so for the animals.
      Fortunately for the animals anything non-human was considered by the Inuit to be on higher moral and intellectual ground than mere man due to the fact that all the animals seemed quite happy to spend one half of the year in perpetual darkness, the other half in perpetual, even if cold, sunshine and all their lives up to their respective backsides in freezing snow or icy water.   That the animals were not heard to complain about all this gave rise to the belief that animals were far better than men at getting along both with each other and their surroundings. This gave rise to the most profound of Eskimo / Inuit philosophy ‘Learn from the world that surrounds you’.

      The importance of preserving harmony between humans and animals was vital and any abuse or disruption of this balance was seen as the cause of illness or bad luck.   A bad illness or a bad decision on the part of a foolish human, especially if it managed to upset some animal, would cause a man’s soul to go wandering off on its own leaving the afflicted body behind.
      If this happened it was then the job of the shaman, the medicine-man, to coax the errant soul back to its rightful owner by the tried and tested method of getting himself into a magic trance then getting everyone else to start singing and chanting, and then getting the victim to roll about in the snow with the hope that the soul would return and he or she would come to their senses.
      If this worked the shaman had either produced real magic or he had managed to fool all the people into believing he had produced real magic.
      On the rare occasions that this trick did not work then the shaman would simply be killed.

      The first indication that things were about to radically change came in 1741 with the Russian explorers.   The Russians did not know too much about making skin boats and hunting seals with homemade harpoons but they did know a lot about exploiting minority groups.   The inevitable rebellion (in 1760) was violently quashed and the introduction of alcohol and disease went on to reduce the numbers of the indigenous population by about 80%.
      A hundred years later the United States gave Russia a few million dollars and added Alaska to its stately collection.   The new owners then further eroded the Inuit way of life by bringing in several versions of Christianity, introducing mechanisation to the fishing an canning industries, finding gold with its bloody and heart-breaking consequences and eventually discovering one of the largest natural oil and gas reserves in the world.

     By 1930 the shaman’s blessings and the ritual mask-dances were being replaced by missionary classes and a song about stars and stripes, the shaman’s cures were being replaced by multi-national drug companies delighted to find a new market and the traditional ways of hunting seals and caribou were being replaced by cheap sausages and canned beans.
     On the positive side, the differences between some of the Inuit groups that had led to occasional bloody confrontation became a thing of the past and the collective conscience of the exploiting classes is at least starting to talk about land-claims and the rights of what are still an exploited minority.


Location:Originated from the Aleutian Islands. Most Arctic and Sub-Arctic regions from Siberia through Greenland to Alaska (but long before they had names like Siberia, Greenland, Alaska and Aleutian). .
Top God:Unnecessary - life is tough enough. However, Sedna is acknowledged as the Goddess of the Sea.
Running Time:About 7,000 years.
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