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Story Publication logo August 27, 2013

Alaska: A View of Money and Material Possessions

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All around the Arctic Ocean, the impact of climate change is spectacular:Icecaps melt, glaciers...

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The view from Kotzebue, Alaska. © Guillaume Herbaut / INSTITUTE for Le Monde. United States, 2013.

Among the indigenous peoples of Alaska, the term "Eskimo" is enjoying renewed popularity, having fallen out of favor for some time. The residents of Kotzebue, a village close to the Bering Strait, say that the term "Eskimo" was originally an offensive word meaning "eaters of raw meat" that was invented by a Southern Algonquin tribe. The term is not exactly a misnomer, since across the far north, caribou, reindeer, whale and fish are frequently eaten raw. The word would have been subsequently adopted by the Quebec French and eventually picked up by all non-indigenous people in North America and elsewhere.

The indigenous peoples of the Arctic regions have long considered "Eskimo" to be a rather racist or colonial word, because it lumps together all the different ethnic groups like Yupiks, Inuit, Inupiaks, Aleuts, etc. Nevertheless, various groups of Alaska's indigenous people have been trying for several years to come together under one umbrella to better defend their rights. To demonstrate a sense of unity among themselves, they are aiming at minimizing the differences in their respective cultures and instead trying to maximize the importance of their shared heritage. Finding the need for an all encompassing, generic name, they settled on "Eskimo" for lack of a better option. However, some groups still object to the term. The Canadian Inuit say that the term Eskimo must always be boycotted.

Still today, many make sweeping assumptions about how the Eskimos live their lives. One observation you will frequently hear refers to the Eskimos' presumed inability to manage their money. According to the "People from the South," when an Eskimo receives a sum of money, he will immediately spend it on frivolous, unnecessary items and find himself penniless the very next day, instead of saving up for the future. Jeannette Koelsh, born of a white father and Eskimo mother, works for the Alaskan National Parks. She explains it thus:

"For thousands of years, our people have learned to hoard everything they owned, because things were scarce and difficult to replace in the far north. Conserving personal belongings and supplies became a basic feature of our lifestyle. At the same time, actual money is still an abstract, intangible entity without any real substance for many Eskimos. We have only been utilizing a monetary economy for a few decades, a system that has still not taken hold in our culture. So, when an Eskimo does have some cash, his first instinct is to convert it into a material commodity that he can keep cached away for as long as possible. This method is more reassuring to him than seeing columns of numbers on a bank statement."

The practice of regularly storing possessions in case of unforeseen shortages extends to keeping appliances and machines around past their useful life. Take for example Kotzebue, where many public areas and private lots are crammed with the hulks of old cars, piled one on top of the other, broken-down snowmobiles and ATVs, busted refrigerators and stoves, smashed furniture and even pieces of an airplane. Reggie Joule, the mayor of the Arctic North West district that includes Kotzebue, admits that, although the practice is lamentable, it is deeply embedded in the local mentality.

"The folks here think they can always reuse an old machine or they can take parts from one to repair another, just like they did long ago with traditional tools. Of course, this almost never happens, and ten years later the broken machinery is still there, rusting away in the garden."

Also, there's not much else residents can do with the junk: the region has neither a regular garbage pickup service for large, bulky items, nor a recycling program.

Translation by Anne Thurow

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