The North Alaskan Eskimo: A Study in Ecology and Society

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Author: Spencer, Robert F (1917-1992)

Year: 1959

Publisher: Government Printing Office

Place: Washington, DC


v+490 pages with 9 plates, 4 figures, 4 maps, bibliography and index. Royal octavo (9 1/2" x 6") bound in original publisher's olive green cloth with gilt lettering to spine. Smithsonian Institution, Bureau of American Ethnology, Bulletin 171. First edition.

No real ethnography has ever been done of the northwest Alaskan Eskimo. Robert F. Spencer’s book does more than fill a gap. It offers a rich picture of the culture of an intrinsically interesting Eskimo subarea. It may be the finest Eskimo ethnography ever published. Spencer’s ethnographic present embraces the last decades of the 1800’s. He intended to write primarily a problem-centered study of how each of two different modes for winning a livelihood suited its own ecological niche and conditioned other sectors of culture. The special advantage of applying the ecological approach between PointHope and Point Barrow is (or was) the presence here of coastal and inland people, each with a fundamentally similar cultural ground-plan, possessing different technological systems. The ethnography opens by considering houses and settlements. The chapter on family and kinship brings out the bilateral extension of kindred and the concept of collective responsibility. If I read page 71 and the next chapter on “Customary Law” correctly, Spencer considers the blood feud as well as blood vengeance to be examples of law. I find it puzzling when feuding is called law, preferring to see feuds as the absence of law or as outside the law. Marriage, divorce, wife-lending, and adoption are also treated in the chapter on the family. In connection with economy and society, theecological differences between the coastal and inland people are thoroughly examined. It occurred to me in reading, that ecological analysis offers a wonderful way out of theenvironmentalist dilemma that still stalks us. An ecological approach demands attention as to how man uses his environment, the resources he exploits or neglects, and how other aspects of culture hinge on the man-environment nexus. It does not raise questions of determinism. In the chapter on wealth and status we read that a rising preoccupation with wealth occurred in northwest Alaska just as it did farther south. Under the heading of voluntary associations Spencer looks at partnerships (men’s and women’s), hunting groups, and the ceremonial house (karigi). Then trade between the inland and coastal people is closely examined. As many as 600 people might be present at a tradingcenter but it is clear the inland people were more dependent on trade than the whale hunters. Chapters on the Messenger Feast and life cycle follow. The conception of the supernatural, at least as far as shamanism and man’s relationship to the animals are concerned, also adheres to fundamental northern Indian (and Siberian) patterns. There are 39 case studies of shamans in action. Then come a review of cults, an enlightening assessment of culture change (inland Eskimo culture has very much disappeared due to the people’s coastward migration), a series of folktales, and conclusions. There are also appendices dealing with tobacco, dogs, pottery, and time reckoning.


Small scar on front board, small edge chip at head, previous owner's stamp on end papers else a very good copy issued without dust jacket.

SOLD 2018

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