Friday, January 2, 2015

Book Review: People of the Deer

Book Review: People of the Deer
Author: Farley Mowat
Date: 1952, 1984
Publisher: Seal / McClelland & Stewart / Bantam
ISBN: 0-7704-2021-4
Length: 287 pages
Illustrations: map
Quote: “When the first [W]hite men looked across the borders of this land, they named it ‘The Barrens’...never knowing that it held rivers of life.”
In Canada Farley Mowat may have been best known for his adult books about wildlife biology; in the United States he was best known for his children’s stories about pets. However, in “The Barrens” now called Nunivut, he found people whose way of life interested him even more than the wolves and ptarmigans. He made friends among these people, learned to speak a pidgin form of their richly complicated language, and became politically committed to the cause of the “People of the Deer.” He wrote about them with respect, but not without the dry humor for which he was already internationally known.
By now, Mowat and most of his friends are gone, and it may be hoped that some of the conditions he described are long gone too. He describes his introduction to these “Eskimos” or Ihalmiut (“Inuit” meant the ones closer to the ocean) by a trader who was half German and half Cree: “He had not learned to think of himself as Indian, or as half-breed—but as a [W]hite man...The inevitable rebuffs that he was forced to accept from the race-conscious...turned Franz in upon himself...He could not fit himself into the miserable borderline existence that is the best the ‘breeds’ can ever hope to know.” A generation for whom any trace of Native American ancestry is a boasting point can hope that that’s changed in Canada too.
Then again, I’m not altogether sure that it’s changed even in some of the United States. Cherokee ancestry is considered desirable, partly because the period when the Cherokee Nation encouraged intermarriage with European immigrants is remote enough that having a Cherokee ancestor is a way of proving that one’s family has been in the United States for a good long time, and partly because the western Cherokee reservation contained oil. Navajo or Dakota ancestry link a person to an ethnic group of comparable size and historical distinction, but without comparably lucrative mineral reserves (so far), and may not seem equally desirable. By now at least three Presidents of the United States have boasted of Cherokee ancestors (not that I’m inclined to take Bill Clinton’s word for anything). We may never have a President, or even a movie star, who will boast of Muskogean or Nez PercĂ© ancestors. Dakota people, whose look and customs are the ones the “western” genre have made into our cultural stereotype of “American Indians,” are still living in America’s poorest towns, and although both of the Dakota people I’ve met were within ten years of my age, both of them reported having encountered hostile bigotry among White people.
It’s possible that of all indigenous ethnic groups the “Eskimos” may be the most alien to everyone else. Cultural change is especially problematic for those whose culture, even physical traits, have been shaped by an environment radically different from that in which the majority cultures evolved. People of the Deer documents some of the ways in which the “Barrens” environment produced a unique nation for whom changes in diet and lifestyle have tended to be maladaptive. A sequel called The Desperate People documented the non-sustainability of cultural compromise. The recent renaming of Nunivut reflects the Canadian government’s response to the desperation, an attempt to preserve space for those who want to live as “Eskimos.”
Meanwhile, People of the Deer confronted misconceptions that are still extant today. For example, it was claimed that the Ihalmiut were, even more than most Native Americans, simply more vulnerable to many introduced diseases and incapable of surviving now that these diseases exist in North America. Mowat demonstrated how the food handouts the government supplied, circa 1950, would have made any people more vulnerable to diseases, regardless of inherited and acquired resistance.
It was claimed that the Ihalmiut were incapable of abstract thought. Mowat was able to document evidence that abstract thought was being communicated in their language, but that the difference between their language and French or English makes it extremely difficult to translate anything more abstract than simple greetings, bargaining terms, and commands.
It was claimed that the Ihalmiut routinely killed weaker members of the family to help the group survive. Mowat reported that, in desperate situations, parents had been known to euthanize starving children. “The old ones...often...die by their own hands,” but their “ a great and very heroic sacrifice.”
It was claimed that Ihalmiut and Inuit women were “expected to submit to violation by any passing male.” Mowat found evidence of “wife-sharing,” but “only... close friends would normally consider” such intimacies. “A stranger is not expected to leap into bed with the wife of his host. That is a stupid lie...Perhaps it has a basis in fact...because the Inuit will go to great lengths to meet the wishes of a guest,” while considering the White men who “demanded just such an arrangement” strange, rude, stupid people. Mate-sharing in the ordinary sense evolved because “when a man must make a prolonged would be foolish to risk either the wife or the children,” so when all the wives and husbands agreed two families might temporarily merge. To Mowat this seemed reasonable “since there is no...jealousy of paternity. To the Ihalmiut...a child from any source whatever is as welcome as any other child.”
About the worst slander of all, Mowat admitted, “Cannibalism does happen, though rarely. The wonder is that it does not happen more frequently.” He met one Ihalmio who had “survived a terrible winter by eating the flesh of her parents after they had died...she never recovered from the mental ordeal,” and was “cared for and helped by all.” 
On the good side, “No one...holds power in any other sense than the magical...the Ihalmiut may be said to live in an anarchistic state...Yet the People exist in amity together, and the endeavor.” Someone who violated the rules would be isolated. “There can be no more powerful punishment...A small dose of ostracism usually brings the culprit to an acute awareness of his defects,” after which he “almost invariably returns into the community.” More trivial offenses were dealt with by ridicule, but the offender would know that “when he returns to his duties, the songs about him will disappear.” The constant struggle to survive even weakened the Ihalmiut’s sense of personal property; if an Ihalmio could find or make what s/he needed, the person would do so, and if not the person would borrow someone else’s; returning a borrowed object seemed to Mowat to be optional. When Mowat scolded a friend who borrowed his rifle without asking, even though his friend returned the rifle, “he was never again fully at ease in my presence...he approached me as if I were a potentially dangerous animal,” and the whole community seemed to have decided, in their tactful way, that Mowat was “infantile” and “insanely jealous.”
It was easy for Mowat to understand how people whose alternative was not, after all, becoming extremely rich or powerful in mainstream society, might prefer their all-for-one-and-one-for-all, family-like culture to any changes in the direction of becoming a watered-down, poverty-ridden version of Anglo-Canadian culture. In the process of gathering this information, he also demonstrated that it is possible—although difficult—for a determined Caucasian to survive in “the Barrens” by doing what he observed the Ihalmiut doing. Visible differences between “Eskimos” and all other nations have evolved, undoubtedly shaped by the arctic environment, but they are not absolutely necessary to survival in the Arctic Zone, nor are are they absolutely a barrier to survival outside the Arctic Zone.

And, of course, while making all these anthropological/sociological/political observations, Mowat also recorded several songs and stories (a few of which he felt able to translate for this book), and observed many adventures. On the assumption that readers will prefer to read these sometimes suspenseful and often funny stories in Mowat’s own words, all I’ll say here is that there are plenty of them.

Somebody got a fabulous, never-to-be-repeated bargain on the battered paperback copy about which I originally wrote this review. You can still buy People of the Deer from me for $10 + $5 shipping, but since Mowat is no longer able to choose the charity to which we should send the $1.50, I recommend buying a Fair Trade Book instead. (And, yes, you pay only one shipping charge for as many books and other goodies as will fit into one package.)