While the Inuit now live in settlements, with groceries available in local markets, they still prize foods that have been hunted, fished, or gathered from the country. Gathering, hunting, and fishing activities give them a sense of place, time, meaning, and reality. Their relationship with nature—the land and other living things—allows them to understand themselves.
A recent journal article by Nicole Gombay describes the ways the Inuit of Northern Quebec identify with the land and the animals they hunt. The article explains how the Inuit connect with animals, which they see as willing to give their lives to the hunters so the humans can continue to live. In return, the humans must give their respect to the animals they kill. The hunter must never feel he has power over the animal; instead, he must realize that the animal is freely giving itself to him. The hunter should look the animal in the eyes before killing it—a respect relationship is critical.
However, the analysis goes farther. The sense of respect with animals carries over into the human social sphere. Sharing country foods, as Inuit refer to produce harvested from the land and water, is an essential aspect of human relations. When the hunter takes, with gratitude, the life of an animal, he must continue that relationship by sharing the meat with other humans—friends, relatives, other people. His identity as an Inuk demands that he share without question.
But identities are shifting. Foods from the country are now being made available through collective arrangements in large settlements, which also consist of many people who are not Inuit. Gombay relates a conflict that arose in one settlement when fish—large Arctic char—were being given away. Some non-Inuit women stopped at the place where the fish were being distributed and of course they were each handed a fish too.
Members of their community quickly expressed their alarm—there were only so many fish, and they were intended solely for the Inuit. They no longer lived in a traditional family camp; they lived in a large settlement with a population of 1290 people (as of 2001). The concerns led to a lock being installed on the door of a meat storage center, and to limits on who was entitled to the food. These reactions conflicted with the traditional norms of sharing all foods with everyone.
Gombay analyzes the conditions that produce these shifts in the Inuit senses of their own identity. In the permanent settlements, people are not as connected with one another as they were 50 yeas ago when they lived in small family camps. Furthermore, their identities are never completely clear. Sharing is not as automatic when people do not know one another well. In addition, the division of labor that characterizes the larger settlements was an unknown phenomenon 50 years ago. But traditional identities persist: Inuit do not hesitate to share food, they tell themselves.
Their concepts of identity, of course, are quite complex, multilayered, and not always without conflict. Gombay explains that their identity as beneficiaries of the fish handouts differ from their traditional identities as fishermen sharing their catches with the community. They have cultural identities as Inuit, but they live, in the one large settlement at least, with many non-Inuit. Settlement and community do not have the same identity. Their feeling that food must be shared is a holdover from their life on the land, but their lives in the settlement, as beneficiaries of food handouts, prompt them to distinguish between themselves and outsiders.
Thus, distinctions must be made not only between the Inuit and outsiders, but also between differing conceptions of who they are. They identify themselves as people of the land (an Inuk would not hesitate to share food) and as people of the settlement (we must protect our own rights to foods). These kinds of conflicts are not unique to the Inuit, of course—many communities and societies have complex and conflicting self-identities. The author concludes that although the Inuit self-identity is that they must share food, “the reality is that individual Inuit do not always share food (p.427).”
Gombay, Nicole. 2005. “Shifting Identities in a Shifting World: Food, Place, Community, and the Politics of Scale in an Inuit Settlement.” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 23: 415-433.