Yuit - Economy

Subsistence and Commercial Activities. Subsistence was based primarily upon sea mammals: seals, walruses, and whales. Flesh of polar bears was only infrequently eaten, the animal being valued more for its fur and the prestige accruing to the successful hunter. Fishing, bird hunting, and gathering plants and littoral edibles supplemented the meat diet. Today the bulk of food still comes from hunting, but there is also much use of store-purchased food. All edible parts of the animals are eaten—not only flesh but also internal organs (heart, lungs, liver, intestines) and, in the case of whales and male walruses, the skin and attached fat (blubber). Animals also provided other materials vital to subsistence: from seals and walruses, skins for clothing, housing, boat covers, and ropes; from walruses, ivory for harpoon heads and sled runners; from whales, baleen for hunting toboggans and jawbones for house frames. Driftwood and various types of stones provided other principal raw materials needed for tools and housing. Except for the dog, aboriginally there were no domesticated animals. Among the St. Lawrence Island Yuit dogs are no longer kept. Today, features of the emergent material culture—rifles, aluminum boats with high-powered motors, snowmobiles and all-terrain vehicles, electronic communication equipment, airplane service, the occasional calling in of helicopters and government vessels to aid in the search for lost hunters, offshore exploration for oil and other natural resources—illustrate the magnitude of change from former times.

Industrial Arts. Carving and shaping of stones and ivory were highly developed for use as harpoon, lance, and arrow heads and other tools, such as knives. Sewing animal skins for clothing was principally the task of women, who used ivory or bone needles and thread derived from animal sinews. In Modern times sewing and carving are done primarily for the tourist trade. The St. Lawrence Islanders, in particular, are renowned internationally for their ivory carving.

Trade. Aboriginally trade between the Siberian villages and St. Lawrence Island took the form of exchanges of Reindeer skins (from Siberia) for walrus hides and other animal products from the island. Because of distance, little contact occurred with Alaskan Eskimos. With the advent of European-American exploration and whaling in the North Pacific, the intensity of trade increased, the Eskimos wanting rifles and whaling gear (and, for wealthy boat captains, wooden whale boats), tools of various types, and food and liquor. The whaling and commercial ships bartered for baleen, walrus ivory, skin clothing, and the services of Eskimos during the summer whaling voyages. In the present day, trade patterns are predominantly those of a modern consumer culture based on monetary exchange and, to a limited extent, use of subsistence products.

Division of Labor. The division of labor was simple. Because of their greater physical strength, men were the hunters on the winter ice and in whaling and walrus open-boat hunting. Women contributed significantly by picking leaves, roots, and stalks of vegetal products, fishing through holes chopped in the ice, and collecting anything edible found along the beach. The man's job was to provide the bulk of food (primarily meat); the woman's, to distribute seal and walrus (and other) meat brought home. Once inside the house, it was the woman's right—and responsibility—to give some meat to whomever came asking, and such distribution was always in accordance with the Yuit ethos of communal sharing. Elders, both men and women, contributed to subsistence as long as they were able; and children began early on to emulate their parents' economic activities. In today's world, much the same pattern obtains, with the exception that children, school-bound for most of the year, cannot regularly participate in subsistence pursuits.

Land Tenure. Aboriginally land was not "owned" de juris by a person or family. "Use-ownership" is the best term to apply to the habitual use of a particular camping site or residential location in a village by a given family, and such proprietary interests were socially recognized and accepted. The sea and its faunal bounty, not the land and its products, were the key environmental features elaborated in the culture.

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