American Indian Heritage Month: Commemoration vs. Exploitation
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Netsilik

"Netsilik" means "People of the Seal" or "there are seals." (See also Inuit, Copper.) Netsilik territory, entirely within the Arctic Circle, is north of Hudson Bay, especially from Committee Bay in the east to Victoria Strait in the west, north to Bellot Strait, and south to Garry Lake. The sea begins to freeze as early as September, and the thaw is generally not completed until the end of July. The summer tundra remains wet, because permafrost not far below the surface prevents drainage. Many Netsilik Inuits still live in this area of the central Arctic, known as Kitikmeot. The Netsilik population numbered roughly 500 in the late nineteenth century. The Native language is a dialect of Inuit-Inupiaq (Inuktitut), a member of the Eskaleut language family.

Overarching, generative, female-identified deities or spirits were associated with natural forces and cycles. Another level of spirit entities consisted of human and animal souls or spirits. Most religious activities were designed to propitiate the spirits of game animals specifically and potentially dangerous supernatural forces in general. Yet another group of supernatural beings was made up of numerous monsters and ghosts. Hunting and life cycle events, particularly childbirth and death, were the basis of most taboos.

Magic spells, generally applicable to a single subject, were personal and secret, and they could be purchased or transmitted between generations. Souls were considered to be immortal. Those of people who died violently, including by their own hand, as well as those of good hunters and beautifully tattooed women were able to inhabit a paradise. The souls of lazy hunters and women without tattoos went to a sad and hungry place.

Male and female shamans (angakok) provided religious leadership by virtue of their connection with personal guardian spirits. They led group religious activities. They could also cure disease, see into the future (including such things as the location of game), and harm people.

Nuclear families, loosely combined into extended families or local groups, were associated with geographical areas (- miuts). Local group leaders (isumataq) were usually older men with little formal authority and no power. Leaders embodied Inuit values, such as generosity, and were also good hunters. Older women played a leadership role in food distribution.

Local groups occasionally traveled together as fluid hunting regional bands. The bands were also geographically identified, and they included Arvertormiuts, Arviligjuarmiuts, Ilivilermiuts, Kitdlinermiuts, Kungmiuts, Netsilingmiuts, and Qegertarmiuts.

Although the nuclear family was the basic social unit, survival required the regular association of extended families and, in fact, the existence of numerous complex relationships. For instance, although the people were generally monogamous, wives were exchanged within various defined male partnerships, such as song partnerships; these relationships were considered a kind of marriage. The precise workings of wife (and husband) exchange were varied and ranged from short to long (or even permanent) and from willing to acrimonious.

Young women married around age fourteen or fifteen, boys around age twenty. People married simply by announcing their intentions, although infants and even fetuses were regularly betrothed. Women usually moved in with the husband's household. Men might have more than one wife, but most had only one. Divorce was easy to obtain. In general, the Netsiliks enjoyed a high degree of sexual freedom. There was some in-law avoidance.

Infanticide was usually practiced against females, but the high rate of adult male mortality somewhat evened the gender balance. Children were highly valued and loved, especially males, and adoption was common. The sick or aged were sometimes abandoned, especially in times of scarcity. Suicide for those and other reasons, such as a general sense of insecurity or perceived weakness, was a regular occurrence. Corpses were abandoned, because the camp generally moved after a death. No work, including hunting, could be done within several days following a death.

Food was generally shared within the extended family or local group. In cases of collaborative hunting, such as winter sealing, food was shared according to precise rules. Strangers or people without direct relatives were feared and might be summarily killed.

Villages of domed snow houses contained about fifty people but could hold up to 100. Entry to the houses was gained through a tunnel that kept the warm air inside. Windows were made of freshwater ice. Two related nuclear families generally occupied a snow house, which had more than one room and even a porch. The average house size was between nine and fifteen feet in diameter, although sizes varied widely. People slept on raised packed snow platforms covered with skins and furs.

Other structures included large ceremonial or dance snow houses, a platform for storing dog feed, and a toilet room or outhouse. Some groups built ice houses in the fall. In the spring, people used a combination snow house and skin tent, which were snow houses with a skin roof. Summer dwellings were conical sealskin tents held down by stones.

The Netsiliks were nomadic hunters. The most important game animals were seals, which were hunted communally at their breathing holes in the winter and stalked in the spring. A hunter might have to stand motionless next to a breathing hole for hours in the dark and bitter cold. The people also hunted caribou, polar bear, and musk ox (in the east). Smaller animals included fox and squirrel. Meat was eaten raw, frozen, or, preferably, cooked. Large animals' stomach contents were eaten as well.

Fishing, particularly for salmon trout (Arctic char) and lake trout, occurred mainly in the summer and autumn, individually or communally at inland weirs. Fish was mainly eaten raw, although it might be boiled or dried and cached for the winter. Other food resources included fowl, gulls, and some berries. In the winter, people drank melted old sea ice, which loses its salinity after a year or so. Blood was another common drink.

Womens' semilunar knives were used mainly for skin preparation and fish cleaning. Men used antler knives to cut snow blocks for houses and to butcher caribou. Hunting equipment included various harpoons, spears, the bow and arrow, breathing hole finders and protectors, down or horn seal motion indicators (also used for breathing hole sealing), and other hunting equipment. Fish were caught with hooks, spears, prongs, weirs, and traps.

Netsiliks engaged in some trade with Iglulik bands. Western groups traded with their neighbors for items such as pots and lamps. Some groups imported copper and driftwood from the Copper Inuits and wood from the Caribou Inuits. Some people carved fine wooden and ivory figurines. Men hunted seals and caribou from long, slender, one-person kayaks covered with sealskin. Umiaks were larger, skin-covered open boats. There were some wooden dogsleds, whose runners were covered with ice-coated peat or made of fish wrapped in sealskin. Polar bearskins were also used for sleds, especially in the east and in spring when the snow deteriorated.

Men skinned the caribou, and women did most of the hide preparation and sewed the clothing. They also prepared sealskins for summer clothing as well as boots and mittens. About twenty caribou skins were needed to outfit a family of four.

Mens' coats had short, fringed flaps, and womens' coats had long wide flaps. All were two-layered and had pointed hoods. The hair of the inner layer was turned in, and that of the outer layer was turned out. The outer coat had a sewn-in hood, although for women both layers had extra large shoulders and sewn-in hoods to fit over babies, who were carried in a pouch at the back of a coat.

Four layers of caribou fur socks protected people's feet in the winter. Men wore knee-length, two-layered pants; women made do with one layer. All outer coats (parkas) and womens' pants might be decorated with white fur. Women often braided their hair around two sticks. They also tattooed their faces and limbs. Childrens' clothing was often a one-piece suit.

Netsiliks are descended from the ancient Thule culture. In about 1830 they encountered non-Natives looking for the northwest passage. Still, contact with non-Natives remained only sporadic until the early twentieth century. About that time, the people obtained firearms from the neighboring Igluliks. More productive hunting enabled them to keep more dogs, changing their migration and subsistence patterns.

The establishment of trading posts in their territory around 1920 heralded the economic switch to white fox fur trapping and trade for additional items of non-Native manufacture, such as woolen clothing, tobacco, steel traps, fishing nets, canoes (which replaced kayaks), tea, and canvas tents. Game killed with rifles came to belong to the hunter, a practice that eroded and ultimately destroyed traditional exchange.

Missions established in the 1930s soon became permanent settlements. The Netsiliks quickly accepted Christianity (Anglicanism and Catholicism), ending the taboo system and shamanic practices, not to mention infanticide and other social practices. The authority of traders, missionaries, and eventually the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) undermined traditional leadership, such as it was.

The far north took on strategic importance during the Cold War, about the same time that vast mineral reserves became known and technologically possible to exploit. In 1954, the federal Department of Northern Affairs and Natural Resources began a program of population consolidation and acculturation. Coastal settlements were abandoned, and all people moved to one of three towns. The department oversaw the construction of housing developments, schools, and a general infrastructure. Local political decisions were made by a community council subject to non-Native approval and review. The Natives were offered generally unskilled employment. With radical diet changes, the adoption of a sedentary life, and the appearance of drugs and alcohol, their health declined markedly.

In 1993, the Tungavik Federation of Nunavut (TFN), an outgrowth of the Inuit Tapirisat of Canada (ITC), signed an agreement with Canada providing for the establishment in 1999 of the new, mostly Inuit, territory of Nunuvut on roughly 36,000 square kilometers of land, including Kitikmeot.

The people never abandoned their land, which is still central to their identity. Traditional and modern coexist, sometimes uneasily, for many Inuits. Although people use television (there is even radio and television programming in Inuktitut), snowmobiles, and manufactured items, women also carry babies in the traditional hooded parkas, chew caribou skin to make it soft, and use the semilunar knives to cut seal meat. Full-time doctors are rare in the communities. Housing is often of poor quality. Most people are Christians. Culturally, although many stabilizing patterns of traditional culture have been destroyed, many remain. Many people live as members of extended families.

Politically, community councils have gained considerably more autonomy over the past decade or two. There is also a significant Inuit presence in the Northwest Territories legislative assembly and some presence at the federal level. The disastrous effects of government-run schools have been mitigated to some degree by local control of education, including more culturally relevant curricula in schools. Many people still speak Inuktitut, which is also taught in most schools, especially in the earlier grades.

 

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