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Eskimos: friendship across the ocean

Dmitry Oparin on what distinguishes representatives of one people in Chukotka and Alaska

The Eskimos inhabit four countries, four parts of the vast circumpolar world. They live in Greenland, Canada, Alaska and Chukotka. In Russia, their number is only 1 people, mainly concentrated in three "national" villages in the southeastern part of the Chukotka Peninsula. Their relatives live 700 kilometers away, on the island of St. Lawrence, which can be seen from the shore in good weather. However, they are already citizens of another country. Dmitry Oparin, a candidate of historical sciences, an anthropologist with rich expeditionary experience and an expert on the Eskimos of Russia and Canada, tells EastRussia about the friendship of one people and two states.

Eskimos: friendship across the ocean
Photo: Photo: Dmitry Oparin
- One people, but two neighboring states. How in such a situation not to lose contact? 
- First of all, one must understand that direct relatives of the Eskimos of Chukotka live on the island of St. Lawrence - aunts, uncles, nephews. Their communication and interaction has been going on for several hundred years. It only ended with the beginning of the Cold War. Until 1948, the Eskimos were in constant contact with each other, went to visit each other, got married, and exchanged goods. The main time for travel was in May and June, when there are no storms and the ice has already melted. Moreover, in the middle of the 20th century, there was a severe famine on the island, from which two-thirds of the population of St. Lawrence became extinct, and the Chukchi Eskimos after this event began to populate that area again. As a result, the descendants of the Chukchi Eskimos became the population of the island. On the whole, the interaction of the Russian Eskimos and coastal Chukchi with the United States until the XNUMXs was much more intense and close than with the Russian administration, the Orthodox mission, or the Cossacks. For example, they served as harpooners on American whaling ships. Of the European languages, the Eskimos knew English.

- How did this affect the Eskimos of Alaska and Chukotka?
- As a result, an interesting socio-cultural situation emerged that took shape under the great influence of Protestantism, the English language, American culture and the Western economy - the so-called contact-traditional society. It combines two main factors: on the one hand, people are in contact with the industrial world, being somewhat dependent on the products of civilization - sugar, tobacco, gramophones, whiskey and gunpowder, and on the other hand, continue to engage in traditional nature management. At the same time, the structure of society remains traditional, like religious ideas. This situation persisted until 1920-30-ies, when the Soviet presence in Chukotka became more and more noticeable.

- Is there any evidence from the period that characterizes this type of organization of the Eskimo socium?
- There are memories of the Alaskan and our Eskimos, who in 1930-ies went to visit each other. I interviewed many elderly people who remember such visits. They say that when the Alaskan Eskimos arrived on the Asian shore, our Eskimos performed a ritual - pretending to throw stones at the approaching boats to leave the spirits of guests in the sea and not to go ashore. When guests went ashore, they had to cross the fire for a kind of mystical disinfection. During such visits, festivals, exchanges and feasts were held. 

I read the memoirs of an American Eskimo who came to Soviet Chukotka. He recalled the polite border guards, good medical care and a visit to the cinema. One of the strongest experiences of this Eskimo happened during a visit to the Providence regional center. There he was frightened of a huge dog that chased him through the whole village. Shouting requests for help, the hero of the story broke into the house to locals who had to calm down for a long time. As it turned out, a large dog turned out to be a horse with which the population of St. Lawrence Island was not yet familiar.

Thus, the USSR did not prevent an active cross-border communication with Alaska at first? 
- In 1948, the borders were closed and only opened in 1989. The Soviet Eskimos hid the presence of relatives in Alaska, but apparently sometimes met with them on boats in the border waters. In 1989, at the end of the restructuring, the borders were opened, and close interaction between Chukotka and Alaska began - economic, humanitarian, cultural. In the 1990s, there was a crisis in Chukotka, and it lived worse than all regions of Russia, with the exception of military Chechnya. 2/3 of the population left the region. There were cases when our Eskimos left for Alaska. First, she helped - she provided medicine, food, humanitarian aid, so now there are our compatriots in Alaska.

In 90-s, Russians often went to the island of St. Lawrence in boats. This method of transportation was the main one before 8 drowned the passengers of one boat, and the authorities prohibited the use of boats. Since then small aircrafts of the private American company BeringAir fly there, which carry out a charter service. However, contacts facilitate that the indigenous peoples of Chukotka do not need a visa to St. Lawrence Island. A year ago the boat report was restored, so that the Russian and American Eskimos resumed active cooperation.

- Eskimos communicate only within the border territories, as in Chukotka and Alaska, or do they have any associations or associations?
There is the ICC - Inuit Circumpolar Conference, the main Eskimo association that unites the inhabitants of Greenland, Canada, Russia and the United States. It has a political rather than a practical meaning. If you want a globalized Euro-American world to know about you and your interests - you should play by its rules, create an association and conduct some activities. Of course, the Eskimos of the vast circumpolar region communicate with each other, exchange experience and try to solve their problems together. But practical use, at least for ordinary Eskimos of Chukotka and Alaska, is not observed from ICC.

- How do the Eskimos of Chukotka and Alaska live? Are there differences in their economic activities, culture and religious beliefs?
Asian or Siberian or Chukchi Eskimos mainly live in three so-called "national" villages - Novoye Chaplino, Sireniki and Uelkal. Some live in the regional center of Provideniya, the village of Lavrentia, in the regional capital of Anadyr. Many study in St. Petersburg, some live in central Russia - for example, in Voronezh. The Eskimos living on the coast of Chukotka are engaged in traditional nature management, in particular - hunting for marine mammals: walruses, bearded seal, seal and whale. They have quotas for shooting animals. Although hunting in Russia requires being a member of an artel, many licenses and certificates must be obtained. On the island of St. Lawrence, this is easier - everyone can hunt, finding their own food. They are also engaged in gathering.

- Has any industry in Chukotka and Alaska been organized in recent times? Are there any changes in the employment model?
- Earlier on the Chukchi coast there were fat shops, fur farms where people worked. Now the main source of income has become state, budgetary organizations - schools, housing and communal services, etc. Hence the unemployment and the outflow of the young population who could get an education. The situation is similar on St. Lawrence Island. Young people leave "for the mainland" in the United States in search of a better life.

- What is the religious picture of the beliefs of the Eskimos?
- Russian Eskimos preserved traditional beliefs and animistic ideas about the world - they "feed spirits", observe many different rules, but among them there are Orthodox and Protestants - especially representatives of charismatic evangelical currents, Baptists and Pentecostals. On the island of St. Lawrence the vast majority of Eskimos are Protestants. On this basis, religious contradictions sometimes arise.

- Has the Eskimo language survived in modern times? Are there any programs to support it or revitalize it?
- A big problem in Russia has arisen in the field of the Eskimo language, since there are very few speakers left. Chukchi Eskimos are mostly mestizos, children of interethnic marriages who live in mixed Chukchi-Eskimo-Russian settlements. On the island of St. Lawrence, the situation is healthier than in Russia, since the Eskimos there are practically isolated from the outside world, and keep their distance from global culture. In this they were helped by the geography and features of the historical development of America and Alaska. On the island of St. Lawrence there are two settlements in which only Eskimos live - almost everyone there speaks the Eskimo language, there is a linguistic environment. Moreover, they publish computer games in the Eskimo language for children, make films and print books. We do not have such programs - only private and often weak initiatives. At one time in Novy Chaplino the language was not even taught at school - there were no resources and specialists.

- Are you trying to solve the problem with the Eskimo language in Russia?
There are attempts, but against the background of international experience they look uncertain. There is a group in What's up, where the Eskimos of Chukotka and the island of St. Lawrence are united in one chat, about 200 people in total. There they are constantly rewritten in equal proportions in Russian and Eskimo languages. The Internet creates a virtual space for communication. A positive example of the development of the Eskimo language and culture is the island of St. Lawrence, where there is no fear of innovation, and there is a basis for the development of aboriginal culture. In Alaska and Canada, Eskimos are actively using the modern possibilities of the media space to preserve their identity. Healthy and correct work is being carried out, which develops the Eskimo culture, adapting it to the modern world using information technology. In Russia, on the contrary, they rarely use virtual technologies to help indigenous peoples, trying to isolate their culture from the influence of the outside world. As practice shows, it is impossible to mothball peoples - they also want to have beautiful clothes, smartphones and the benefits of civilization. They need to help them adapt themselves and adapt their culture to the realities of our time, which only helps to preserve their identity, language and culture.

- How common is alcoholism in Chukotka and among the Eskimo Alaska? At the time of the USSR in those areas there was a severe “dry law”. Is it preserved?
- Limiting alcohol and alcohol is an extremely important measure for these regions. Alcoholism is a big problem for any Aboriginal population, no matter Siberian or North American. The uncontrolled import of alcohol and vodka is still prohibited in the national villages of Chukotka, but the prohibited products go to the Eskimos. There are corruption schemes, some private entrepreneurs sell alcohol around the clock and deliver it to hunting bases. Alcoholism among the Eskimos reaches insane, monstrous proportions. In Chukotka, it becomes the cause of violent deaths, accidents, suicides, early pregnancies, etc. In Alaska, the percentage of alcoholics is lower, but there is another problem - drugs, which are not available in Chukotka, since this is a more expensive object of addiction. On the island of St. Lawrence, there is also a dry law - if you want to drink alcohol, you go to the city, to Nome.

- Do the Eskimos have special privileges, rights, like the indigenous small people?
- Yes, absolutely. First of all, these are quotas - they have the right to hunt whales and kill from 3 to 5 individuals per year. There are quotas for shooting walruses, seals, bearded seals, etc. Eskimos are provided with a free road to the mainland, to Moscow, every two years, and in both directions. In the public sector, they are paid fairly high salaries due to allowances, there are quotas for admission to some St. Petersburg universities. Many people, only a quarter of the Eskimos or Chukchi, enroll in the indigenous population in order to receive privileges. In case of pregnancy or illness, each resident of a remote village can call an ambulance flight and he or she will be taken by helicopter to the district center. Of course, this service works not only for the Eskimos, but they actively use it. Every helicopter I flew carried at least one pregnant girl.

- What would you as an expert advise the state or private activists who want to help the Russian Eskimos?
- Firstly, I believe that there are no exclusively "Eskimo" problems. We need to create jobs, so people do not go to sleep and do not leave for the mainland - to develop traditional nature management, to form a sales market, to develop tourism, bone carving. Secondly, it is necessary to invest in the preservation of the language - to make computer games on the Eskimo, to produce a new textbook and other educational materials. Thirdly, in each village there should be groups of anonymous alcoholics, regular narcologists and staff psychologists who would not work with the population, but would help people throughout the year.

The Eskimos of Chukotka. Photos by Dmitry Oparin

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