Eskimo Civilizations Today

Rough Climate

Hard to Maintain a Sunny Disposition

If we could look down on the earth from straight above the North Pole, we would see the parts of Alaska, Canada, Greenland, and Siberia where the Eskimos live.

American Eskimos date back 4,000 years in their heritage from ancient lands now called Alaska. But we know of other Eskimo civilizations going back even farther to 5,000 years ago, while some archeologists even claim to have found evidence of Eskimo cultures in Siberia that are 18,000 years old.

Certain Eskimos prefer to be called Inuit because in the Eskimo language, the word "eskimo" refers to people who eat raw meat. In Alaska, another respectful way to refer to Eskimos is to call them Native Alaskans. But the word "Eskimo" is in common usage everywhere.

Most Eskimos don't live in igloos. Those were intended only to house hunters and fishers temporarily during certain seasons when they had to endure the frigid temperatures in order to catch enough fish and game to allow their families back home to survive.

Eskimos probably had it tough from the beginning, but recently some of them are becoming more vocal in their complaints about where they live, and wilder in their imaginative explanations for the phenomenon.

For example, the Inuit people in the arctic claim to have observed that the sun and certain stars are changing their positions compared to normal locations in past years, resulting in winters and darkness the likes of which never before existed.

Historically, there have been long periods without sufficient sunlight for those people who dwell in the arctic. But now Eskimos are telling of drastic changes that have caught the interest of environmentalists, mystical prophets, and astronomers.

Some Eskimos and earnest scientists have developed logical explanations for the observations concerning the sun and the stars, such as the possibility that the angle at which the earth tilts on its axis might be changing gradually so that the positions of the north and south poles just aren't the same anymore.

There is a mental disease known as seasonal affected disorder (SAD) which often results from too many consecutive days without sunlight. Naturally, Eskimos are prime targets for this type of sadness because there are times of the year when they will get no sunlight at all.

SAD happens when the daylight hours get extremely short. We notice this just before Christmas when we experience the shortest days of the year. We call it the winter equinox and endure very late dawns followed quickly by early dusk. But with holiday lights to cheer us and parties to attend, we usually don't mind too much until finally January and February drag on with still too much cold and darkness.

But our trials are trivial compared to those of the Eskimo. As days get shorter, it's typical every year that they will experience and fight against growing depression. For no logical reason, thoughts can become filled with anxiety. At these times, especially in the depth of this dangerous season when there is no sunlight at all for up to two months, abject hopelessness sometimes sets in.

Traditionally Eskimos throughout history have combated these feelings with natural diets especially designed to keep the body, including its appendage-like mental component, as healthy as possible under such threatening circumstances. One excellent ingredient that is available is fish oil. It is known to help with SAD. Milk contains the vitamin D that is missed when sunshine does not strike our bodies. Sun lamps now are used by Eskimos also to keep their spirits up.

Inuit and other Eskimos form an ancient society, unique for their ability to survive centuries in the arctic. How can they endure those long, endless nights?

Before modern sun lamps and fish oil capsules sold in local stores, there was a more natural way for the Eskimos to get through the tough seasons. But the natural way was a more difficult way. It involved ice-fishing, not for fun, but for winning a life-or-death struggle.

In addition to the fish, the Eskimos had to slaughter and cut to pieces large sea animals, especially seals. The were full of blood and bones inside the tough hides. But within the animals was also a very precious, life-saving ingredient--blubber.

We would not eat it ourselves, but for the Eskimos it has been their secret of survival for thousands of years, especially through the long, dark arctic winters.

Eskimos especially at risk for SAD are the ones with the lightest skin coloring. Others identified as vulnerable include those with greater access to so-called progressive cultures and influences from foreigners.

Although many types of Eskimos have been in existence throughout the known history of their people, going back at least 5,000 years into the past, our modern world has made a strong impact on them, requiring adaptations. This has made life easier in some ways but harder in others.

There have been dietary as well as cultural changes resulting from Eskimo contacts with American and European societies, for example. Drinking soda, eating potato chips, and having coffee and tea were things unknown to Eskimos in ancient times.

Today's Eskimo has had to evolve, struggling harder to maintain the vitality and strength to endure the climate and seasons. One reason for this increasing difficulty may stem from the changes brought about by mixing with diverse cultures. Ironically, this is something most of us consider enriching and educational. But we do not face the dire challenges of the arctic.

About 80% of Greenland's population is Inuit Eskimos. Their historical method of surviving through fish oil and blubber has given way to new foods imported from other countries. Being only human like the rest of us, the Eskimos will tend to like the taste and convenience of prepackaged foods. Also, they are consuming soft drinks now instead of vitamin-D-rich milk.

Whether the cause is dietary deficiency or change in stellar or polar position, the fact that Eskimos are struggling increasingly to combat SAD is a reality. They are having difficulty finding the capacity to resist SAD at those times of year when sunshine is rare.

The struggle of the Eskimo is a dramatization of lesser struggles each of us may have to maintain our mental and spiritual strength in times of hardship. The same solutions of good diet and wholesome living seem to apply to all people in these times. But very few of us, unless we are Eskimos, ever will experience the terrible rigor of arctic existence in our lifetimes.

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