North Alaskan Eskimos - Sociopolitical Organization

Social and Political Organization. Aboriginally, there were no governments, tribal councils, chiefs, or other forms of centralized authority. The traditional societies were organized in terms of large extended families that were politically and economically self-sufficient to a high degree. The several families were linked to one another by various kinship, namesake, and partnership ties to form the society as a whole. Most settlements were occupied by the members of only a single extended family. Larger settlements, including each of the whaling villages, were occupied by the members of several families who lived in close proximity to one another, but who maintained a high level of autonomy nevertheless. Each extended family served as a redistribution network in which the family head and his wife served as foci. Men who demonstrated superior hunting, managerial, and leadership skills, and who were married to women of commensurate ability, attracted more and more relatives to join their family groups. The heads of large families were often wealthy, and they typically had at least two wives. At the opposite extreme, couples who were lazy or incompetent either had to shift for themselves or become affiliated with a large family in some kind of marginal and subservient capacity.

Social Control. Affiliation with a particular family head was voluntary; both individuals and conjugal families could strike out on their own whenever they wished. This served as a check on disruptive behavior by the family head. Life in isolation was precarious, however, and the only realistic option to belonging to one extended family was to belong to a Different one. These facts, which were well understood, served as important constraints on disruptive behavior by ordinary family members. Additional constraints took the form of admonition by family elders, ridicule, and gossip. In cases where these were ineffective, family members might shun an Individual or, in extreme cases, even kill the person. There were fewer controls on disruptive behavior between families, since there were no individuals or organizations with authority to mediate interfamily disputes. Over the decades a kind of balance of power seems to have developed among the families in a given society, with smaller units forming alliances to offset the dominance of larger ones. Interfamily relations in traditional times were often tense, especially in the whaling Villages, but only rarely erupted into violence.

Conflict. Within societies, interfamily feuds did Occasionally result in murder. When that occurred, the male relative closest to the deceased had the obligation to kill the assassin. If he was successful, the obligation for vengeance passed back to a man on the other side. At the intersocietal level, warfare was relatively common. It seems to have been undertaken solely for the purpose of avenging a wrong of some kind, and the objective was the death of as many people as possible on the enemy side—men, women, and children. War was not conducted for the purpose of acquiring territory, booty, or slaves. Nighttime raids were the preferred form of attack, although organized warfare, with battle lines, tactical maneuvers, and clearly developed fire and shock tactics, also occurred.

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