Asiatic Eskimos - Economy
Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The basic feature of the Eskimo system of subsistence is the complex use of resources. The basic way of providing for life is the hunting of marine mammals—pinnipeds (walrus [ lakhtak ], small seals [ sivukha ]) and cetaceans (Greenland, gray, white, and humpback whales)—supplemented by fishing and hunting for land animals and maritime birds. The Eskimos also collect eggs, sea products, and edible plants. The associated lexicon is highly evolved: dozens of names for maritime animals differentiate them according to appearance, age, behavior, direction of movement, etc.
In the past among the Asiatic Eskimos there existed at least two local variants of nature utilization. The basis of the first was the hunting of large sea mammals—whales and walrus—and of the second the hunting of small pinnipeds— nepra-akiba, lakhtak, and larga (all types of seals). Toward the end of the nineteenth century the commercial hunting of furbearing and sea animals began to play a large role in the economy.
The traditional economic year was divided into four seasons: winter (December until early April), spring (mid-April until June), summer (July and August), and autumn (September to November). In winter, the basic activity was the individual hunt for seals; in spring, the collective hunt on open water with large sea-going canoes ( angyapiks ; Russian: baydars ) for sea mammals and also transient birds; in summer, the hunt for birds and the collection of eggs and edible plants; in autumn, once again the collective hunt for sea mammals. The well-being of the settlement depended on two short periods of hunting, in spring and fall, when the amount obtained could exceed tenfold the results of efforts over the rest of the year. In addition, until the development in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries of the Chuckchee practice of keeping large reindeer herds, August was the optimum time for hunting wild reindeer.
The collectivization of the Asiatic Eskimos only began in the 1930s and in its first period involved the simplest forms of cooperation for production and distribution. The first kolkhozy somehow corresponded to old models of subsistence. In the 1950s the collective farms were amalgamated (their number decreased by 40 percent), which led to the emergence of large, diversified multiethnic economies in which the traditional types of work were crowded out by new ones such as animal trapping (Russian: kletochnoye zverolovstvo ). This consolidation led to a decline in employment of the native population and its exclusion from the more prestigious and highly paid social and economic spheres.
Industrial Arts. The sedentary form of life and the complex, highly specialized character of maritime hunting were conducive to the wealth of the traditional material culture of the Asiatic Eskimos, to the diversity of the objects of everyday life and of the implements of work. By the close of the nineteenth century, however, the livelihoods of the Asiatic Eskimos depended on finished, imported goods: firearms, wooden sailboats and then motorboats, metal tools, and so forth. All this equipment was brought by American (rarely Russian) trading and hunting ships in exchange for local products.
Until the middle of the nineteenth century the basic tools of the hunt were: for sea animals, spears, harpoons, and thong nets; for dry-land hunting, snares and bows and arrows with bone or stone tips; and for birds, slings and snares. During sea hunting, walrus and whales were struck by a "swing (rotating) harpoon"—a remarkable invention of Eskimo hunters that consisted of a harpoon, the blade of which turned to one side on entering the carcass of the animal in such a way that it was impossible to pull it out. Floats—the skins of harp seals inflated with air—were tied to the harpoon on a long thong. The hunters finished off the wounded animal with spears in the course of a chase that in some cases lasted several days. The presence of firearms notwithstanding, harpoons with floats are being used with success to this day. Between the 1950s and the 1970s sea hunting declined because the government forbade the Eskimos to go out to sea; officials feared that the proximity of the national boundary would provide an opportunity for a "provocation on the part of American imperialism." Some customs of the hunt have been preserved, however, primarily in the settlement of Sireniki (six animal-killing [i.e., hunting] brigades, as opposed to two in New Chaplino). Thus, in August of 1990 in New Chaplino they staged a grandiose "Walrus Day," with invitations to hundreds of guests, including some from Alaska. In the course of this festival it was proposed to arrange a "meeting" with a walrus who had just been killed; for the hunt the most experienced brigade was invited from Sireniki, which then, for the festival, killed two walrus.
Until the arrival of the Whites, the Asiatic Eskimos used two basic types of boat: the kayak, a one-seated leather boat with a hatch in the middle, the edges of which were hermetically bound around and to the belt of the boatman; and the angyapik, a multiseated boat of walrus skin, very light and durable, with a capacity of 4 tons. At the present time the art of making angyapik has not been lost; in Sireniki they make baydars for their own use and for sale. In the summer of 1990 there set forth out of Sireniki an international expedition of Soviet, Canadian, and American Eskimos and Russian, American, and Canadian Whites on three baydars that had been manufactured in Sireniki under the supervision of experienced master craftsmen. The goal of the expedition was to advertise traditional leather boats.
The basic means of land transport was the dog rig. A fan-shaped dog harness existed until the middle of the nineteenth century, when it was replaced by the general Siberian (Chukchee, Koryak, Itelmen) harness in which a pair of dogs is fastened to a central strap. At the present time few harnesses (or rigs) remain; the Asiatic Eskimos use mechanized transport (snowmobiles, including those of their own making, and trucks).
Clothing. The Asiatic Eskimos were very skillful at sewing clothes and footwear from the hides of reindeer and sea animals. The traditional clothing in the winter was of double-layered fur upper garment ( kukhlyanka ) for the men and overalls for the women; in summers, both men and women wore a single layer of winter clothing and a sleeveless mantle ( kamleika ) made from the intestines of sea animals (since the middle of the nineteenth century it has also been made from brightly colored, purchased textiles). Dress today is basically of the European type, with rare elements of the traditional costume (ornaments, sealskin pants combined with Russian quilting, the traditional hat, etc.). The traditional clothing corresponded beautifully to the needs of the sea hunt, a very arduous and dangerous activity: even if the hunter fell into icy water he could survive, because the traditional clothing was waterproof. The contemporary clothing of the sea hunter in a similar situation simply hastens his death. At this time the art of sewing traditional clothing among the Asiatic Eskimos is gradually being revived.
Trade. In the past the basic trade partners of the Asiatic Eskimos were the reindeer Chukchee, who fulfilled the role of middlemen between the inhabitants of the more western regions (Yukagir, Even, Yakut) and the litoral areas. At the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries there existed in the tundra regular places for meetings between the coastal hunters and the tundra reindeer herders for trade and exchange (for example, the middle course and mouth of the Kurupki River and the region of Penkigney Bay, among others). Products of maritime hunting were exchanged for those of reindeer breeding and imported goods. From the end of the nineteenth century onward trade developed first with Americans and then with Russian manufacturers and merchants. Eskimos delivered whalebone, walrus tusks, and furs in exchange for rifles, cartridges, iron products, tobacco, and foodstuffs—flour, tea, sugar. After the creation of collective farms—and, later, state farms—such private trade practically stopped and was replaced by state supply of provisions and wares from the eastern regions of the country. Today the settlements are supplied with gengruz (general freight) by ships of the merchant fleet during the short summer period when the water is navigable; they are also supplied by air.
Division of Labor. Men's traditional activities were the hunt, trade, and the construction of dwellings; women's were the collection and storage of berries and edible plants, the preparation of food, sewing, and other work around the house. The basic productive unit of the Asiatic Eskimo band was the hunting brigade, usually including four to six grown men and several adolescents related by blood or marriage. Within the band there was an assignment of roles for the hunt and for the division and allotment of game. At the present time more women than men have "qualified work"; qualified women's professions include teacher, doctor, worker in a kindergarten, and secretary; less qualified jobs include workers in animal farms, baths, and lavatories. The more qualified men's jobs are chauffeur, tractor driver, mechanic, hunter, and reindeer herder; the less qualified are handyman and stoker.
Land Tenure. The idea of "land tenure" was foreign to traditional Eskimos, but between neighboring communes there were hunting boundaries that were well known to both sides and, as a rule, strictly observed. For the turn of the nineteenth-twentieth centuries we have no information of conflicts between neighboring coastal settlements because of hunting territories. Under Soviet law, the land on which the Asiatic Eskimos live was the property of the state.