TOO MANY PEOPLE: CONTACT, DISORDER, CHANGE IN AN INUIT SOCIETY, 1822-2015.
Too Many People is an impressive achievement. Melding broad historical interpretations with astute, fine-grained ethnographic analysis, Willem Rasing's account of the development of the Nunavut community of Igloolik is a must-read for anyone seriously interested in the challenges and opportunities facing small Inuit communities and indeed the entire Nunavut project.
The original version of this study, privately published in 1994 as 'Too Many People': Order and Nonconformity in Iglulingmiut Social Process, was much admired by the relatively few fortunate enough to have access to a copy. The retitled, greatly expanded and updated 2017 version, handsomely produced by Nunavut Arctic College Media, benefits from extensive additional fieldwork, as well as new quantitative data and recently published research. The prose is clear and direct, if stylistically unremarkable, and mercifully jargon-free.
The author lived in Igloolik (2016 population: 1682) for extended periods in 1986-87, 1989, 2005, 2009, and 2014, taking part in all manner of local activities. He accompanied hunters, attended community meetings, played cards and basketball and (doubtless) drank endless cups of tea with elders. His efforts to learn Inuktitut were successful enough to impress the Iglulingmiut (the people of Igloolik), but not sufficient to conduct research in Inuktitut. He therefore relied on interpreters (some of whom subsequently became prominent political figures) for interview translation. The numerous interviews, primarily but not exclusively with elders, are used extensively to great effect. As well, the author's rendering of Inuit society reflects broad, careful reading of the secondary literature.
Rasing's aim in the book is to seek "better understanding of the origins of disorder in modern Inuit life" (p. 405). This he does in three intertwined analyses: chronicling the interaction of Iglulingmiut with outsiders--initially explorers and whalers, later police, missionaries, and government officials; examining the process and the implications of the move from the camps into the settlement of Igloolik in the 1950s and 1960s; and confronting the problems and prospects of contemporary Iglulingmiut, especially youth.
Early chapters paint a surprisingly complete (and according to Rasing, likely quite accurate) picture of traditional Inuit society in the camps of northern Foxe Basin. The author mines a rich vein of primary documents, including the published and unpublished journals of British explorer William Parry and his second-in-command G.F. Lyon, who visited Igloolik island in 1822-23; notes of American Charles Hall, who traveled to Igloolik in 1867 and 1868; the detailed accounts of Iglulingmiut from the Fifth Thule Expedition in the 1920s; and the correspondence of Oblate missionary Etienne Bazin about life around Foxe Basin in the 1930s and 1940s. Elders' recollections confirm and expand upon these portrayals.
Whereas traditional Iglulingmiut society was marked by order, with effective measures for maintaining social control, Rasing's account of settlement life highlights disorder, nonconformity, and the failure of both private and official state efforts to impose control. Two crosscutting divisions loom large in the disorder of settlement life. First, a deep divide emerged between the "camp generation" (those raised in the camps) and the "settlement generation" (those who grew up in Igloolik). The strong personal interdependence and the deference shown parents and elders by youth, so essential to camp life, seemed inappropriate and burdensome to many of the settlement generation: "life in a settlement meant a fundamental breach with the camp-dwelling lifestyle" (p. 205). To take but one crucial example, "settlement life enabled survival without hunting" (p. 206). Hunting remained a key element of Iglulingmiut culture, but became an expression of identity rather than a survival need. A second source of discord was animosity between Catholics and Anglicans. Both divisions were exacerbated by the experiences of those forced to attend residential schools.
A complication added to the inherent difficulties both for the camp generation in making the transition to settlement life, and for the settlement generation in finding purpose and success in their lives, was the domination of the small but powerful Qallunaat (white) population. Based on his interviews and observations, Rasing concludes "all contacts between Inuit and Qallunaat in the settlements were colonial in nature in these years [1960s-80s] ... this colonial paternalism, with its inherent hierarchical power imbalance, contrasted with and therefore poorly fitted the Inuit sense of individual freedom and equality" (p. 238).
Rasing does not shy away from the evident social pathologies of settlement life, from rootless teenagers beyond their parents' control, to widespread abuse of alcohol and drugs (not just among the younger generation), to criminal activity. An especially troubling section is entitled "Hidden Crimes: Drug Abuse, Domestic Violence, Catholic Priests" (p. 279-286). Other changes may not constitute the breakdown of order, but are notable for what they say about modern-day Inuit society. Rasing provides an insightful example: in 1986 he would hear hunters on the radio inviting people to come and share their meat, but by 2004, people were going on the radio to ask for meat, sometimes offering to pay for it. Elders, Rasing observes, "did not romanticize the past ... [but as one put it] 'life was harder then, but we were happier'" (p. 251-252).
Although the book focuses on disorder and social problems, it is far from uniformly negative about the state of culture and society in Igloolik. For Rasing, Inuit culture remains strong; he argues that most Iglulingmiut perceive changes "not as threats, but as a test of their adaptive abilities" (p. 394). His recounting of Igloolik's notable successes include an extended account of the youth circus group Artcirq and a surprisingly brief treatment of the work of well-known film maker Zacharias Kunuk. On the political front, he notes that Inuit activism means that "Inuit are more in control now and know it. [And] The churches have lost their powerful position" (p. 374).
Significantly, Rasing does not attribute these positive developments to the new political regime: "the creation of Nunavut, which may have entailed hopes of a better future, has not yet resulted in an improvement of socio-economic conditions. Indeed apart from the appearance in Igloolik of the Government of Nunavut building ... Nunavut has had little impact on (daily) life in Igloolik" (p. 442). One wishes that he had expanded on this noteworthy observation.
The book's (minor) flaws are more "longcomings" than shortcomings. Some of the repeated accounts of the admittedly profound consequences of the transition from the camps to the settlement could have been shortened or eliminated without loss. And Too Many People simply has too many notes. All of the nearly 400 explanatory endnotes (not references), taking up 53 small-type pages, are interesting, but many are tangential. Continually flipping to the back of the book interferes with following the main story.
Finally, the reader cannot help but wonder whether the experiences of the Iglulingmiut are to some extent unique--and if so, why? Or are they typical of small Nunavut communities? Clearly Rasing lacks the detailed data necessary to properly address this question, but given his expertise, some speculation would have been welcome.
Department of Political Science
University of Toronto Mississauga
3359 Mississauga Road
Mississauga, Ontario L5L 1C6, Canada
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|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Dec 1, 2018|
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