Inuits & Alternative Family Structures

What if you lived in a culture where an alternative family structure was the norm?

Last week, we talked about modern family structures in the West.

We noted that the West’s norm of a nuclear family with father + mother + children is evolving.

While such a family is still the norm, same-sex couples can adopt, divorce is more common, leading to patchwork families, and family structures that were once considered “alternative” are becoming more mainstream.

But, as we also noted in last week’s post, alternative family structures aren’t really new or modern at all.

The Exchange

Anthropologist Arthur J. Rubel of the University of Alaska delved into the “alternative” lifestyles of the Inuit and Aleut peoples of Alaska and Greenland.

In 1961, he put forth a summary of his and others’ findings, the field research of which dated back to 1888.

In his published article, he tells about the relations between Komallik Eskimos, who researchers noted would exchange their wives usually for not more than one night at a time.

Moreover, regarding the Eskimos nearer the Bering Strait, he writes:

“It is a common custom for two men living in different villages to agree to become bond-fellows or brothers by adoption. Having made this arrangement, whenever one of the two men goes to the other’s village he is received as the bond brother’s guest and is given the use of his host’s bed with his wife during his stay.”

He further notes that, on St. Lawrence Island, the wife-exchange was considered a special ceremony with the tribe’s religious system incorporated into the exchange.

He writes:

“This ceremony, called the kaezivas, implicated the closest kinsmen and their wives.”

You can take this anthropological study with a grain of salt. Remember, Rubel was looking at it through his own cultural lens, which can often distort things.

Exaggerated Interpretations

When interpreting anthropological studies, it’s important to note that the researcher’s own culture  – with all the values and norms that accompany it – often drives the narrative.

This study, for instance, was proven to be exaggerated. Contrary to what was presented in the published study, the wife-exchange was not a widespread custom. And, although such behaviors did occur, they were often more complex and practical than described.

For example, when a man who lived near the river wanted to hunt game for a season, and another who lived in the woods wanted to fish for salmon, they might exchange places – and wives – because the hunter’s wife would be happier cleaning hides, while the fisherman’s wife would prefer preparing fish.

So, there was often practicality at play with this behavior.

Moreover, recent studies have suggested that these villages were so isolated that, without extra-marital relations, the genetic pool would have died off, thus threatening the population, altogether.

Comparing traditional societies with modern ones is not a fair comparison. After all, modern societies no longer survive off of hunting and gathering.

However, even modern cultures differ in their view of marriage, sex, and family structures, according to their cultural values and norms.

Next week, we’ll travel to Japan and dive into those differences between East and West.

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