Asiatic Eskimos - History and Cultural Relations



The contemporary Asiatic Eskimos are the cultural inheritors (and possibly the direct heirs) of the people of this region who, several millennia ago, worked out a highly effective system of cultural adaptation of the maritime (coastal) type. The Asiatic Eskimos always had very close contacts with the Chukchee, who had a significant influence on their material culture, social organization, and spiritual life. There is much evidence in the folklore of the Eskimos and Chukchee of armed encounters between the two peoples—the attacking side, as a rule, being the Chukchee. In the folklore of the Eskimos and in their contemporary, everyday consciousness, there exists a definite ethnic stereotype of the reindeer-herding Chukchee as cunning, intelligent, and wealthy, with a character different from that of the Eskimos; the Eskimos regard the Chukchee as hot-tempered, grudge-bearing, and emotional, whereas they regard themselves as peaceful, well-wishing, and good-humored.

Contacts with European culture, mainly involving trade, began in the seventeenth century with the advent of the Russians and, later, the Americans. There were no attempts at Christianization in the region. After the establishment of Soviet power in the 1920s, rather contradictory processes began. There were efforts to introduce schools and medical aid and to supply the population with provisions, which were undoubtedly beneficial but which depended primarily on the enthusiasm of transient teachers, doctors, and Soviet workers. Many of them, such as E. S. Rubtsova and G. A. Menovshchik, subsequently became doctoral candidates and then associates of the Leningrad Institute of Linguistics and did much for the study of Eskimo, including the compilation of dictionaries and grammars. The transients, however, with the self-assurance typical of Europeans at that time, sometimes unconsciously and sometimes consciously denigrated the culture, customs, and language of the local population and pushed the Asiatic Eskimos toward a rapid transition to a culture of the European type. Within the framework of "the campaign for the struggle against religion," practically all the shamans—the spiritual leaders of the Eskimo population, the bearers of the people's knowledge, tradition, and customs—were arrested and shot. Apparently, the last shaman, Aglo, who practiced very little, died in the settlement of New Chaplino in 1975. The sedentary way of life of the Asiatic Eskimos left them vulnerable and exposed, thus rendering their language and culture less resistant to the processes of assimilation.


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