Nunatsiaq News
NEWS: Around the Arctic November 30, 2010 - 10:00 am

Article: urban Inuit identity riddled with stereotypes

Official ideology, social beliefs at odds with urban reality

NUNATSIAQ NEWS

Rigid views of Inuit identity spread by Inuit and non-Inuit alike may hamper the development of an “authentic” urban Inuit identity, a anthropologist said in a recently published paper.

“The possibility of an authentic urban Inuit identity continues, in many ways, to be frustrated by an unwillingness on the part of Inuit and Qallunaat alike to imagine the more densely populated, ethnically diverse towns… as places where Inuit culture and identity can prosper,” Edmund Searles, an anthropologist, said in a recent article.

Searles, a professor at Bruckner University in Pennsylvania who serves right now as visiting professor at Uppsala University in Sweden, visited Iqaluit and outpost camps near Iqaluit at various times between the mid-1990s and the early 2000s.

In his early visits, he said he met many people who told him that the only “real” or “authentic” Inuit are those who live on the land.

And as Inuit move from those specific places into big towns like Iqaluit, their claim to Inuit identity is imagined as being weaker, Searle said.

“‘There are no Inuit in Iqaluit’ was a phrase I heard from one senior colleague, who was quoting Inuit from north Baffin Island whom he’d been living with and researching off and on for the past 20 years,” he wrote in his article.

This, Searle said, is rooted in the belief that outpost camps and small communities are places of healing and rehabilitation.

On the other hand, big towns like Iqaluit are imagined as places of “depravity and marginalization,” Searle said.

“Despite a sincere attempt to reinvent the role of public government in the Arctic, many Inuit continued to imagine Iqaluit as a place where Qallunaat values and traditions triumphed and where Inuit values and traditions were severely attenuated or even non-existent.”

Searle quotes another anthropologist, W.C. E Rasing, who worked in the Igloolik area during the 1980s and 1990s and who found a system of social classification based on three categories: inummariit (real Inuit), qallunaamiut (Inuit who have contact with non-Inuit but who maintain contact with Inuit culture), and qallunaamariit (Inuit who have renounced their ties with the Inuit world.)

“It seems that a widely shared assumption of many north Baffin Inuit is that most, if not all, Inuit living in Iqaluit are qallunaamariit,” Searle said.

This, he said, means that the caste system that existed in the eastern Arctic in the 1950s and 1960s — Inuit on the bottom, non-Inuit at the top — was reversed in the 1990s.

“This time, however, it was not Inuit who were caste as the inferior class, but Inuit who had too much contact with Qallunaat,” Searle said.

And he said these stereotypes are reinforced by official statements from Nunavut politicians and the development of an ideology that idealizes life on the land and sees urban life as impure and inauthentic.

These stereotypes are propagated even by non-Inuit, Searle said, saying even he held those rigid views during his earlier years in Nunavut.

“I met a number of Qallunaat residents of Iqaluit who possessed even more negative stereotypes about urban Inuit than me and who regarded with suspicion those Inuit who never learned to hunt or live off the land like Inuit elders from a generation ago,” Searle said.

But in reality, Searle said he met numerous urbanized Inuit in Iqaluit who “were quite content and even proud to be living in Iqaluit.”

These included Inuit who have no interest in hunting and fishing, and other people who run businesses or hold professional jobs.

This means that despite the rhetoric that still flows from politicans, Inuit identity is actually becoming more urban, Searle said.

“With more job and educational opportunities available to Inuit young and old, and with more and more businesses owned and run by Inuit entrepreneurs, an urban Inuit identity is becoming less stigmatized even as the rhetoric used by Inuit politicians relies on cultural dichotomies that oppose Inuit culture with town-based lifestyles.”

Edmund Searles—Placing Identity: Town, Land, and Authenticity in Nunavut, Canada

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