A recent study of Inuit feelings of identification describes significant differences between the ways scholars, politicians, and activists on the one hand, and individual Inuit on the other, understand their identity.
Louis-Jacques Dorais defines identity as “the way human beings relate to their surroundings and perceive their own position within this relation, either as individuals or as members of a group” (p.3). He feels that identity can be characterized in three fundamental ways: 1) people do not identify themselves intrinsically—instead, they identify themselves in the ways they relate to their surroundings; 2) when circumstances change, people’s sense of identity are likely to change; and 3) identity is a relationship to the surrounding environment, which may consist of nature, humanity, words, supernatural factors, or beliefs.
The first portion of the journal article focuses on the ways prominent scholars of Inuit and Polar studies analyze Inuit definitions of their identity. The author interviewed 12 well known, but unidentified, scholars to see how they define identity, how they appraise ethnic relations in the North, and their senses of the cultural, political, and linguistic situation among the Inuit. His sample included six women and six men, all senior scholars, of whom six are social or cultural anthropologists, one is a sociologist, one is a philosopher of science, two are scholars of religious studies, and two are linguists. All are still actively doing field research in the Arctic, and all but one focus primarily on the Inuit.
The scholars varied in their explanations of identity, though many emphasized the subjective nature of the concept. Half of the respondents spoke of identity in terms of levels, aspects, and dimensions of human experience. And of most interest, many of them believe that when a society has lost its original language and culture, it can still preserve its identity—or rebuild it from scratch.
One of the scholars felt that people can participate in the larger global culture and still preserve their own cultural identity. That person cited Inuit who “can perform in both worlds without feeling that their identity is in jeopardy,” according to Dorais (p.4). Some of the informants believe that Inuit can preserve their identity because of either their strong sense of place—their life in Nunavut, for instance—or the importance they place on their own personal background. Changes caused by the global culture do not necessarily diminish their sense of identity.
While the specific arguments made by the scholars varied—and this article does a fine job of presenting the many shades of opinions—the common conclusion is that the Inuit remain identified as Inuit when they so desire it. Some of them may appear to be indistinguishable from other non-Inuit, and they may only speak the national language of their country. But only they can determine who they really are.
However, this analysis of scholarly opinion does not necessarily reflect the thinking of the Inuit themselves. To balance his study of Inuit identity, the author consulted the published literature by the Inuit to get a sense of how they conceive of their own identity. He admits that since he did not interview Inuit people, his study is not really balanced, but he defends his choice of methodology because of the diversity of written materials available. While his information is probably representative of Inuit views, he admits that it is not exhaustive.
Reviewing ethnographies of the Inuit, the author concludes that they “share a dynamic perception of who they are” (p.7). Identity for the Inuit seems to be defined as a quality rather than an ascribed characteristic. It derives from personal experiences rather than from pre-selected criteria. The criteria for understanding Inuit identity that do appear in the ethnographic literature are broadly conceived—subsistence activities, genealogical constructions, and way of life concerns. And, critically, a sense of identity is an individual issue, something that must be worked out personally.
Works by the Inuit themselves reveal a variety of opinions about who they feel they are. Part of one Inuit dictionary definition indicates, “Inuit have black hair and their skin is brown, not white” (p.7). Another dictionary defines their identity as “Inuit are those residents of the Arctic who are not Qallunaat” (p.7), where Qallunaat means “big eyebrows,” their term for White people. These two factual definitions don’t go too far.
Several other ways of understanding Inuit identity show up in their literature. Authors refer to the importance of their naming systems which keep them connected to their social relationships. Some authors clearly think of religion, spirituality, and a specific sense of place as they describe their identity. The basic point of the Inuit literature is that personal identity is much more important than group definitions.
The collective self-definitions, which are often used in political discourses by Inuit politicians, contrast with the individual self-definitions. In sum, the politicians and activists, of necessity perhaps, identify with bureaucratic and academic categories that relate to political and territorial considerations, especially issues relating to autonomy. To individuals, the important issue is the how the individual relates to the place, the supernatural world, and the naming system.
Many Inuit individuals have no problems with their collective identities, but their personal identities may give them problems. Their individualistic views of identity formation differ from the views of the prominent scholars. The author concludes that the perceptions of the Inuit people themselves need to be kept in mind by all scholars who study conditions in the Arctic.
Dorais, Louis-Jacques. 2005. “Comparing Academic and Aboriginal Definitions of Arctic Identities.” Polar Record 41 (216): 1-10