Wed, 31 Mar 1999

Arctic comeback reshapes history of the Inuit

By Gwynne Dyer

LONDON (JP): "I rebelled and didn't have any respect for the law. I got into alcohol and drugs and I got into trouble." It was an all too typical pattern for a young native man in Canada's high north: by the time he was 17, Paul Okalik was already serving a jail sentence for breaking into a post office. But only 17 years later, on Thursday, 1 April, he becomes the first premier of the new territory of Nunavut, the largest area of the planet to be under "native" rule.

In a territory ten times the size of Britain, taking in all the eastern Arctic of Canada, the official language is no longer English or French. It is Inuktitut, the language of the Inuit people (formerly known as Eskimos) who make up 85 percent of its population. "This is a test case of a public government where aboriginal people will be the majority," says Jack Anawak, the outgoing "interim commissioner" who has helped to shepherd Nunavut to self-government.

It's not a trend that's going to sweep the planet, because there aren't many places left where the aboriginal people are in the majority. If the land was any good for agriculture, people from some stronger and more numerous farming culture grabbed it long ago, leaving only shattered fragments of the old hunter- gatherer cultures to idle their lives away.

From the Bushmen of Namibia and the Veddahs of Sri Lanka to the Australian aborigines and the North American Indians, the surviving aboriginal societies have horrendous problems: the poverty and despair are so deeply rooted that an appallingly high proportion take refuge in alcohol and drug abuse, often followed by suicide. The Inuit of Nunavut are no exception to that, with a suicide rate six times higher than in southern, non-native Canada.

But living in the high north does carry one great advantage: nobody wants to steal your land. They may want to dig mines or build bases on tiny patches of it here and there, but nobody who does not know how to live off the land at 30 below has any use for the vast expanses of terrain that stretch between. No large- scale settlement from outside means that the native culture has at least the possibility of making a comeback.

That's what Nunavut is about, and the reason that the federal government in Ottawa collaborated in carving up the old North- West Territories to create an Inuit-majority region in the eastern half of the Canadian Arctic was precisely so that the Inuit would have a chance to modernize (or not, if they prefer) in their own language and on their own terms. By an extraordinary coincidence, the same possibility is coming into existence more or less spontaneously on the other side of the North Pole.

In the old Soviet Union the government, determined to demonstrate its mastery over nature, built towns and cities all over Russia's high north.

To fill them with people, it offered high wages and extra privileges to southerners, mostly Russians, who would go and live there. It would have made better economic sense to work the mines like offshore oil-wells, bringing in work-crews in shifts, but the Soviet mania for building things triumphed over rationality.

This reduced the native peoples of the north to minorities on their own land, and completely undermined the enlightened Soviet policy of giving each "native" people its own autonomous district or region. It's not much use for the Chukchis, for example, to have their own autonomous region if over 90 percent of the region's people are from outside -- as was the case only ten years ago. But now things are changing.

The Chukchis' home in the Chukotka peninsula, just across the Bering Straits from Alaska, is a good example of what is happening in post-Soviet Russia as the subsidies for living in the high north vanish and the desperate non-native residents flee southwards. In 1989, it contained 12,000 Chukchis and 165,000 non-natives. The Chukchi numbers have not changed, but non- natives are now down by more than half to 75,000 -- and their number will fall much further as Moscow encourages the mining industry to switch to shift-workers who fly in and out.

This creates an opportunity for the Chuckchis, portrayed as stupid yokels in a thousand Russian jokes, to revive their language and their fading culture. Or rather, to rebuild their cultural identity and try to find ways of modernizing that do not violate it further. "We need to find a middle way, so as not to forget the way our ancestors lived but not to abandon the things we've learned in Soviet times," explained Vere Girgina, a Chukchi folk singer in the village of Konergino.

Similar possibilities are coming into being all across the Russian north, but the Chukchi case is particularly resonant because they share common ancestors with the North American Eskimos and Inuit (two names for a single people).

The "Thule Eskimos" exploded out of Alaska around 800 AD, sweeping the previous inhabitants of North America's high Arctic aside, and were all the way across to Greenland by 1200. They had a technology extraordinarily well designed for Arctic conditions, they were very good warriors -- and since they were lucky enough to conquer what farming peoples see as a barren part of the world, they have not lost it all again.

The Alaskan Eskimos are not a majority in their own territories any more, nor are the native peoples in the western half of Canada's old North-West Territories. Greenland has an Inuit majority, but their language and culture have been heavily eroded by centuries of Danish colonial rule.

Nunavut is where the Inuit/Eskimo people are least damaged and most 'authentic', and where they have the best chance of building an independent cultural future for themselves.

Will it work? Large amounts of federal money in capital grants and annual subsidies will help, as will the fact that almost everybody in Nunavut (including many of the longer-resident whites) speaks Inuktitut.

There are lively print and broadcast media in Inuktitut, and now there is also an elected government.

There is, on the other hand, not much of an economy -- 40 percent of the population is unemployed -- and a birth rate that will double the present population of 25,000 in only 14 years. There are the dreadful cultural wounds that come from living with defeat and helplessness for so long, and the self-destructive behavior which that elicits in so many of the young. Nunavut could end up as a frozen rural slum.

But it could also become a beacon that encourages the other native peoples of the circumpolar regions to rediscover their own identities and rebuild their self-reliance. The circumstances throughout the high north are very favorable -- and, as Paul Okalik observes, it is certainly worth a try. "We'll be able to make our own mistakes and fix them up. That would make a nice change."