Yuit - Sociopolitical Organization

Social and Political Organization. No autonomous institutionalized political or legal system existed. There were no formal "chiefs" or communitywide leaders, and "legality" inhered in diffuse, established norms for conduct understood by all. Clans were the principal social mechanism by which interpersonal predictability and control of disruptive behavior were accomplished.

Social Control. If a dispute did not appear resolvable amicably by the disputants themselves, elders of the extended family or clan groups involved would adjudicate the issue in an effort to prevent its escalating into interclan violence. Great respect was accorded age and seniority. Sometimes, as in other Eskimo groups, an argument would be settled by a "song contest" (the famous "nith" contests), in which the plaintiffs, in front of an audience, performed newly composed songs insulting their opponents. The winner of the argument was decided by the relative plaudits of public acclaim. In addition to song duels, wrestling matches between two male disputants were also commonly used in the service of justice. Such controlled fighting was never allowed to lead to the death of the opponent. A less overt form of anticipatory behavior control was verbal. In any small community, gossip and innuendo critical of a person's actions always get to the ear of the offender. The basic value all such means of social control implemented was the overriding importance of maintaining intragroup harmony and ties of supportive social reciprocity—the stern challenges to survival presented by nature itself underscored the need for cooperation rather than conflict. The most tangible social value contributing to group cohesiveness was sharing food if another household was in need, no matter how small the animal. Clansmen customarily still share the goods of life with relatives without waiting to be asked. Such widespread sharing practices constituted a form of social insurance against the unpredictable fortunes of the morrow.

Conflict. Beyond relations among clans within a single settlement, there were occasional armed conflicts between Villages. In the past such conflicts periodically occurred between the St. Lawrence Islanders and Siberians from the nearest Villages (during lulls in the otherwise amicable trading relations). Informants' accounts still tell of raiding parties, walrus-hide armor, and special bow-and-arrow fighting techniques. In the years immediately following World War II, such animosities were inflamed by cold war politics on each side of the strait, and only recently have visits celebrating friendship and common cultural identity been possible. Since establishment of national political infrastructures in both the Soviet Union and the United States and the gaining of state-hood for Alaska, local legal and governmental structures reflect national policies and processes.

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