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Biblical Experience

Biblical experience relived by the Inuit I


In the following lines I would like to emphasize how the Inuit can easily find their own portrait and even their past, present and future history in the Bible. A. Giguere gives in his book Cri de Dieu - Espoir des Pauvres a rough sketch of patriarchal society before the installation in Canaan in these terms: “The social organization is essentially of a tribal nature and the life style semi - nomadic. In a tribal society the individuals counts less than the group: in the society whose frame of reference is the desert, cohesion is a condition of survival. What assures someone's survival is not the abundance of his rihes but the solidity of his ties of belonging to the group. In this context, the family occupies a central place. By family must be understood a fairly extended reality approximately corresponding to what we would call “relatives”. The father occupies a central position... Also, what is important during this time is the family (or the clan) from which springs the particular importance of offspring, since the strength of a clan depends, above all, on the number of which is composed.

These clans are semi-nomadic: shepherds moving according to the seasons to find water and pasture. These individuals families own the animals of the flocks, but the pastures belong to the clan as do the wells. Ultimately the property is really that of the clan. In this mode of social organization, it is the entire clan that is rich or poor and in its bosom no social distinction is evident because of the solidarity which unites the members f the society... the only people who run the risk of poverty and misery, who could become the objects of exploitation, were those whose life circumstances had left them isolated from those family ties which represented total security of the individual; the widow, the orphan, the resident alien.”

The quotation is certainly long, but it is justified by the desire to demonstrate the many similarities between biblical society as here described and the traditional Inuit society. For those familiar with Inuit society, it is obvious; but for the uninitiated I will simply indicate one or another point in passing to prove that Inuit can easily recognize themselves in that biblical society.

In a tribal type of society the individuals counts less than the group. Nothing has been more true in Inuit society until these last few years, even to the point that certain individual liberties were sacrificed for the good of the group; take for instance the matter in which marriages were decided, and the status of women. In such a society morality was of a much more social than individual nature, the truly serious fault was that which threatened the group (violation of taboos). Children, were belonging to a specific family, were somewhat the responsibility and property of the group (facility of adoption).

The snowy desert being not so different from the sandy desert, great adhesion to the group was demanded of the individual as a condition of survival. The isolated individual hasn't a chance there.

The Inuit have well understood the importance of belonging ties since they quickly weave a network of such relationships around the newborn by means of the name - which creates a real parental tie with the eponym and all the homonyms and which links the world of the still powerful dead with that of the living. And for good measure, each child is given three, five or seven names, thus, establishing a complex network of parental relationships; we poor white man have hard time finding our way through.

Among the Inuit, the family and the head of the family occupy the central place - extended family, of course, not restricted to the nuclear family as with us.

The importance of offspring is emphasized in the Inuit society by the place accorded to children, by their prevalent practice of adoption even by very old people, by the stigma attached to sterility which can easily be a cause of divorce and conversely by the high regard for maternity or rather fecundity. If male offspring are held in higher regard, this preference can no doubt be attributed to the fact that the boy is the future hunter and, therefore, it is first of all on him that the group and the family will count for their subsistence. After what we have said regarding the importance of offspring for a society of this type, it doesn't take a great thinker to realized that the governmental anti-conception propaganda is a flagrant attack on traditional society.

By very suggestive pictures they mean to make the Inuit understand that smaller families bring well being, and large families misery. On one side they show a family of two children with smiling parents, children surrounded by toys, a beautiful house with a car and a pet dog at the door. On the other side, distraught parents, children in rags, a shack of a house, and to emphasized it all the unequivocal caption: “The more [children] there are...the less there is for each one!” It would be hard to be more explicit, but it was surely difficult to go against the traditional Inuit vision and thought more openly or more coarsely - culture where children (especially males) are thought of as riches, not as burdens.

The fact that the semi nomadic Hebrews were herders, whereas the Inuit were semi nomadic hunters, makes little difference, for in general the same semi nomadic sources of strength are found in two societies.

Property of a somewhat community aspect, sense of solidarity and sharing, almost non existent social inequality; in all that the Inuit society hardly differed from Hebraic society, except in that the sense of private propriety was even less developed. The difference between the good and the bad or lazy hunter was distinguishable by the number of wives each had, but not but the accumulation of goods or riches. The pride of the good hunter was to often be able to invite the whole group to come and feast with him on the fruits of his hunting. There was no social differentiation marked by the gulf between rich and poor, but rather the solidarity that the daily fight for life rendered necessary.

Another point in common in numerous Inuit legends which feature orphans, the moral they tried to inculcate is quite obvious: evil to him who mistreats an orphan. The problem of widows was rarely posed since in a society where woman was a necessity, they did not long remained widows. There were no resident aliens in traditional society.

By digging a bit deeper it would not be difficult to find other similarities between the two societies, but what has been said is sufficient to know how the traditional Inuk found himself at ease in the Bible and did not have much difficulty in recognizing himself in Hebraic society before settling into Canaan - with the exception of the period of slavery in Egypt.

But the Hebrews of Abraham and Moses did not remain a patriarchal society. By installing themselves in Canaan, they went from semi-nomadic to a sedentary life. They became urbanized and entered into a more intense contact with the foreign culture all of which brought about considerable changes in their behavior. For the last twenty years the Inuit has also been engaged in the same process of sedentarization and urbanization. They are also confronted with another culture and, like they Hebrew ancestors in the Christian faith, Inuit can find the problems they face graphically described by the biblical prophets. I mention only three of those problems; the progressive loss of their independence; the weakening of the sense of solidarity and sharing, bringing about the beginnings of social equalities; the enslavement to the idols of the surrounding foreign culture.

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Biblical experience relived by the Inuit II


Nomadic or semi-nomadic life demands a very supple organization, a minimum of organization and hierarchization, leaving a great liberty of movement and initiative to each small group. Once established in Canaan, patriarchal society saw the progressive establishment over it of a power - the monarchy - a power which would quickly put a noticeable curb on its rights and liberty. The proud bedouins found the master and had to submit to work levies and heavier and heavier loads imposed by the right of the King opposed to their own right.

The prophet Samuel (I Sam 8, 11-17) does not err in trying to open their eyes when they ask for a king in order to be like the nations around them. He lists all the levies they will have to endure. In vain! But after only a few years under the monarchial rule the people fill heavily burdened by these intrusions into their life c.f. the plaints addressed to Roboam by the assembly of Israel and request for a lightening of “the harsh burden and heavy yoke” that his father Solomon had imposed to them. (I Kings 12,4)

Even if some day the Inuit managed to assume the direction of their affairs as they demand, for the common people it will only be a change of masters; the time of the great liberty of the children of nature is gone forever.

Upon becoming sedentary, the traditional Inuit society also knew a similar intrusion of hierarchy - even worse a bureaucracy, bringing about the almost total loss of the independence of the preceding era. It matters little that it is not a question of monarchy, the state is still the state. No matter under what aspect it presented itself, for the people it is always a power tending to expand its hegemony at the expense of the autonomy of those administered and to control and orient the lives of the citizens.

Just as with the Hebrews there was a seizure of power over the youth, a seizure not exercised through military service as in the time of Saul, but through the demands of school, so also, like the kings of old, the state has wanted to exercise its rights first over properties then over lands and finally over the whole country: taxes make their appearance and also the law bringing with it the representatives to enforce it.

Certainly, theoretically the state is at the service of the people, it offers its services and heaven knows Inuit society is subsidized to the point that, on all levels it is a veritable welfare society. To be sure there are many advantages in such a situation, in particular a greater security, but there is also in a welfare society, the fearful drawback of a quasi-total dependence with the loss of all initiative. Like the proud bedouins of old, the Inuit have met their master and though many openly proclaimed the desire to rid themselves of the yoke, few are those who are willing to forgo the benefits.

A second consequence of their change of lifestyle, no less painfully felt by the Hebrews, was the greater and greater loss of the sense of solidarity and sharing (very strong in ancient tribal society) with the unavoidable result of the appearance of social inequalities. The selfish and pitiless, sedentary, urban society has killed the old fraternal society... This is the interpretation some exegets give for the murder of Able the shepherd by his brother Cain, the sedentary cultivator of the land and builder of cities.

In this more organized and impersonal society, like Cain, men will not be slow to say “Am I my brothers keeper?” and that will be the beginning of the exploitation of man by man. In Israel as in Juda, royal officials and large land owners will become rich at the expense of the common people. The loss of the sense of family and tribal solidarity will leave individuals to fend for themselves and hence at the mercy of the more clever, the better educated, the more powerful, and the more rapacious. The relative equality of the beginnings has been destroyed and real poor people have appeared.

One after another, the prophets - often in pitiful tones - deplore this attacks on right and justice v.g. (The song of the vineyard, Is, 5,1-8), abuses contrary to the ideal God had set for his people - a fraternal community where there would be no truly misfortunes and where the rights of the weak would be protected. As J. Martucci quite rightly notes: “the concept of private property and the stamping out of the clan ties which is implied in sedentarization, easily beget the capitalism from which spring the rich people and the isolation from which come the poor”. It is thus that appear the exploited and weak that Job so vividly describes. (Job 24,2-11)

It is not necessary to live for a long in modern Inuit society to realize that we are also at that stage and on every side, particularly from the mouths of the elders, we hear a volley of complaints and recriminations against the more and more evident loss of that sense of solidarity and sharing - sometimes even within a family where materially well-off children, living away from the paternal hearth, unlike the traditional hunter, worry little about providing for the needs of the elderly parent. Now the state takes charge of them through old age pensions and the old people do not suffer that much because of the new attitude but there is however a value which is disappearing and a link becoming tenuous.

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