Antarctic Polar Regions | The great saga of Arctic

The Arctic circumpolar People

In comparison with other regions of the world, the resources available to the people who live around the poles to eke out an existence may appear derisory. This explains the sparseness of the populations living in such a vast area. It is estimated that some two million live all year round above the Arctic Circle.

A world of winter, a variety of peoples
Although united by their durability and strength, these men and women nonetheless make up populations with many different languages and origins.

  • On the European side, the Lapps live on the Kola peninsula (in northern Karelia) and in the northern part of Scandinavia.
  • On the North American side, the ethnic divide is relatively straightforward, with just two language groups. On the one hand there are the Aleuts, who live in Alaska and in the archipelago formed by the Aleutian islands, which describe the arc of a circle that links the most isolated US state with the Russian peninsula of Kamtchatka. Also, 55% of the Esquimaux recorded by census in the world live in Alaska and Canada.
  • Greenland also accommodates Esquimaux. Forty-three per cent of Esquimaux have found refuge in this country, which has been a self-governed Danish dependency since 1979.
  • On the Eurasian side, there is a much more complex mosaic of peoples: Vogul (or Mansi) and Ostyak (or Khant) in the northern valleys of the Urals and in the forests of the Ob' basin; Chukchi, Koryak, Samoyed, Yukaghir, Kamchadal, Tungus, Buryat and Yakut in the peripheral areas, etc.

So many Arctic peoples yet, although they share the same territory, they do not have sufficient common characteristics to form a nation. Sometimes separated from one another by a matter of kilometres, these ethnic groups communicate so little between themselves that they often do not even know the language of their neighbours. Over the centuries, this isolation has even left them unable to join forces against the Russian invaders, who brutally took over the whole of Siberia between 1583 and 1642, subsequently forcing all of the local people to learn Russian.
Having said that, it would appear that the great political upheavals of the 20th century, beginning with the advent of the Soviet régime and ending with its downfall, have had no permanent effects on the people of Siberia. Certainly, Moscow has not stinted itself in taking advantage of the area's riches by exiling engineers and workers there from the west, although they have not embroiled themselves in the internal affairs of the indigenous peoples whose habits have therefore not been disrupted too much by the arrival of modern technology.
The USSR even granted independence to the local ethnic groups, which resulted politically in the constitution of republics whose representatives have seats in the parliament in Moscow.
The United States and Canada cannot say as much, because they have never granted any special status to the Esquimaux and only very recently returned part of the business profits generated by mining and energy operations in the Arctic region to the communities they took the land from in the first place.

Common traditions
Numerous and diversified as they are, the Arctic tribes nevertheless have a good number of common traditions. Culturally, socially and technically in particular, the similarities are very marked. Let us look at these three areas, point by point.

  • Their culture of customs is two-pronged, as it is based simultaneously on the material and the spiritual.
    - The first of these cultural pillars (material) has long been essential for triumphing over appalling weather conditions of the region; it has also prevented most of the groups from allowing their existence to depend on a single source of subsistence. The fact that they are involved in two or three different activities is the best guarantee of survival there is.
    - The second (spiritual) has been built on the foundation of animism, a religion based on a faith in the spirits that "animerate" all natural phenomena and the intervention of which is likely to alter the course of events. This system of beliefs leaves plenty of room for demonic powers and is likely to result in particularly intensive activity during the coldest and darkest season of the year. Responsible for eclipses and numerous calamities, these divinities fear but one enemy: thunder. The chasm between this supernatural universe and the human world is bridged by the shaman. The shaman is recognised as an intermediary and is responsible for the organisation of religion. Hence the unavoidable presence of this magus and healer within a community that has still not really granted him any great consideration or very high status.
  • Socially speaking, the Arctic people are invariably very flexible. Since time began, groups have tended to split up and re-form around a core of inter-related individuals who, when bonding with other non-related inviduals, only did so for a limited period of time, for reasons of efficiency or common interest and for a specific activity (such as hunting).
  • Finally, from a technical point of view, there have always been similarities at all levels: clothes made from sewn skins, half-buried cabins, tents covered with skin and bark, weapons and tools made from bone and horn, etc. There are, of course, certain features that are specific to this or that geographic location.
    As a first example, let us take the case of the reindeer: the Lapps, Samoyeds and a few Paleo-Siberian groups have domesticated the reindeer totally; the Tungus people from central northern Siberia use them mainly as a beast of burden and as a means of getting about for hunting; the Esquimaux of Arctic America were never bothered about them at all until the American government introduced them to Alaska in the noble aim of creating a replacement economic activity for those groups involved in hunting that endangered species, the whale.
    Another example: in the Tundra and the Taiga, the Esquimaux have always used skis, sledges and snowshoes, whereas along the coastline and the waterways, the Koryaks, Chukchi, north-eastern Siberians or Esquimaux have always gone for highly sophisticated boats made from skins for going fishing; we think immediately of the kayak, of course, but there are other craft, too, like the much bigger umiak (whaleboat), which - with whales becoming more scarce - is now used for seasonal trips taken by entire families, along with their domestic animals, stocks of provisions, tents and every kind of utensil.

However, tradition is increasingly giving way to modernity. Ancient animist beliefs are being replaced by Christianity. Sleds pulled by dogs are moving aside for skidoos, which are faster and more practical. Kayaks and umiaks have been replaced by craft made from wood and plastic. Buildings made from snow and peat are disappearing in favour of prefabricated structures. And spears are giving way to firearms. These many cultural and technical innovations have not been enough to convince the new generation to remain faithful to the "good old" subsistence activities. In the eyes of the young, the old way of life appears incredibly risky and excessively hazardous, not to mention completely anachronistic. It is true that throughout time, the victories won against the hostile environment have come at a high price and in recent years, the increasingly worrying disappearance of certain animals (such as the whale and the caribou) have done nothing to help.
To further aggravate the situation, the fur market has suffered from the opposition movement driven by international opinion with regard to hunting. There has also been the initiative taken by the Russians to breed certain fur-producing animals on a large scale so that more profit can be made from their pelts.
Is this the end of a particular world ?

The Esquimaux
Esquimaux call themselves Inuits, which means "real men". They prefer this name to the one that is more familiar to us and which is derived from the dialect created by Algonquins, who scornfully called them "eaters of raw meat".
Although there are many local dialects, the Esquimaux speak two main languages: yupik in Siberia and in south-western Alaska, and inupiaq - or inuktitut - everywhere else, including Greenland.

With population numbers currently estimated at a hundred thousand or so, the Esquimaux live mainly in Greenland (43%), Alaska (30%) and Canada (25%), with the remainder in Siberia. But make no mistake: whether near or far, most of them have well and truly distanced themselves with their ancestral traditions.

With population numbers currently estimated at a hundred thousand or so, the Esquimaux live mainly in Greenland (43%), Alaska (30%) and Canada (25%), with the remainder in Siberia

Everywhere you go, a large range of imported goods is now available to them. Even the formation of ice on the seas off Greenland in the winter is no longer a major problem as medicines and essential goods can now be brought in by air. So anyone who falls ill can obtain medical care. And if people are hungry, they can usually obtain stores, on credit if necessary. Many of the stores in the Arctic region today offer all types of common foodstuffs, including food that has always been the basic diet in most hunting communities: walrus, whale and polar bear meat, as well as and particularly seal (which is eaten raw, boiled, dried or hung).

Of course, to finance the purchase of these products, you need money. This simple fact is important because the cost of living is very high in the Arctic. With good reason: such as the problems associated with shipping goods to isolated northern communities, several of which cannot only be reached by supply boats except during the few weeks of the summer when the ice melts properly. Some obtain the cash they need by turning to the job market: the women usually work as teachers, secretaries, nurses or shop girls; as for the men, they go for jobs such as storemen, materials handlers, carpenters, bricklayers, mechanics, office employees and tourist guides or escorts (for hunting and fishing). Others trade the best skins from animals they have killed, retaining the remainder to make their own winter clothes.
Whatever the method used, the aim is always the same: to earn the money they need to toilet paper, ammunition and other non-essential items.
The arrival of civilisation has introduced commodities that no-one complains about. But it has also created real unease, which can be seen in a number of different ways: the young are becoming increasingly materialistic; the number of suicides is always on the rise; and as for the "water of life" that was brought in by whalers in the 19th century (who used to give some to the Esquimaux so that they could trade pelts and furs on better terms), this has led to alcoholism.

Like the good old days
So it is hardly surprising, given these conditions, that some Esquimaux have preferred to remain faithful to their ancestral way of life.
Of course, apart from a few rare exceptions (especially in the Far North of Canada), the Esquimaux no longer live all year round in hunting camps set up inland. But once the weather turns a little milder, many families leave their homes for this type of camp. So there are still plenty of indigenous people who continue to hunt cetaceans and pinnipeds using traditional methods. They are to be found mainly in the vicinity of Point Barrow in Alaska and especially in Greenland. Most of the 800 polar Esquimaux recorded in censuses today live in the north-west of Greenland, in the seven permanent encampments of the Far North Municipality (a district of Thule renamed Avanersuup Kommunia). Jeans and parkas can be seen in villages with modern houses, the largest of which, Qânâq, has electricity, television and even a video library. Further inland, there are still hunters who use a good number of traditional implements. Certainly lamps burning seal oil have disappeared in favour of camping stoves, and whips and harnesses are no longer made from the skin of seals, but from nylon, and modern rifles fitted with telescopic sights are now commonplace. But harpoons are still used. And traditional double-thickness clothes made from the skins of seals, polar bears, caribou and fox - with the undergarment worn with the fur facing in and the outer garment with the fur facing out - are still very much the norm. Even the dog-sled and the kayak are still with us. At the price, it has to be said, of an intervention by the community Hunting Council, which banned the snowmobiles that are common in the remainder of the Arctic, and which also placed restrictions on the use of the increasingly popular boats with outboard motors used for hunting and fishing, as well as fibreglass craft to replace the good old kayak.
The purpose of these measures? To preserve the culture of polar Esquimaux and, more prosaically, to spare wild animals from the widespread destruction that would sound the death knell for future generations of hunters.

A hunter who knows how to hunt...
The traditional Esquimaux hunt virtually all year round. The only exception being the period of the year when there is too much ice to go by boat, but not yet enough to use a sledge. This is a time when hunters are forced to stay at home. But they make good use of their time, spending this quiet period preparing their equipment for when autumn comes.
In Greenland for example, the inland lakes and sheltered bays along the coast start to freeze over from the beginning of September. This is generally a time when there is an abundance of seals. The hunters, of course, cannot allow this final opportunity of accumulating reserves of meat and skins to pass tem by before the relative hard times that come with the winter darkness.
In October, the falling temperatures mark the approach of winter. This is when the icefields re-form quickly. As soon as they are solid enough, the hunters are ready and eager to set their nets under the ice in locations where catches have been best in the past. The role played by experience is essential, because a well-placed net may catch several seals a week, whereas another hung just a few metres away may remain frustratingly empty. Those seals that are caught provide stocks of meat for the winter ahead. A few weeks later, it becomes much harder to find breathing holes and hence also to harpoon a seal. And in February, the icesheet close to the encampments becomes too thick to be able to set seal nets. But it takes a great deal to discourage the hunters, who get around the problem by setting out on expeditions that are as endless as they are exhausting. The hunters with the best qualities and the most effective teams go off on treks that can last over a month. The aim? If the occasion presents itself, the hunter will have a polar bear in his sights, because the bear's meat is highly prized and its skin can be used as a raw material for making trousers, leggings, boots or blankets that provide the best possible protection against the harsh climate of the Far North.
But the seals first have to be stalked. To do this, the Inuits poke the muzzle of their rifle through a hole in a screen of white cloth mounted on skates. As soon as a seal has been sighted, the hunter approaches by pushing the screen ahead of him. He avoids firing before he is in a position to kill the seal instantly, otherwise the wounded seal often succeeds in escaping through its breathing hole in the ice.
In the springtime, the arrival of the countless sea birds represents an additional source of food for the Esquimaux. While they may like gulls, little auks, guillemots, eiders and fulmars, it is their eggs they like the most. This is the period of the year when the Inuits go right to the edge of the ice. From there, they shoot or harpoon prey that they go and collect in their kayak. Or else they use their boats to go to places where narwhals have been spotted using binoculars. If one of these cetaceans surfaces close to a kayak and the hunter embarks on a frantic pursuit, trying to find an opportunity to throw a harpoon with good effect. When this happens, the hunter quickly throws the sealskin float into the water to which he previously attached his harpoon. When this float reappears on the surface of the water, it tells the hunter where his prey is located. The end is near for the narwhal whose demise is inevitable: the animal will be harpooned for a second time, then finished off with a spear or rifle.
And suddenly it's summer. It will not last long. Soon the autumn will be back. And the cycle will begin again...