From the personal stories and interviews he collected, he's weaving together a model of Inuit identity. Hunting camps, such as the one where Searles stayed, reflect an Inuit respect for silence and are a vital part of Inuit culture.
Associate professor of sociology and anthropology
Anthropologist Ned Searles is not always one to sit quietly. Thus, when he was living with an Inuit family in their remote outpost camp, it was all he could do to refrain from badgering 68-year-old Aksujuleak Pisuktie with questions. "I knew he was filled with incredible stories," Searles says. "He sometimes shared them, but too infrequently." One day, when Pisuktie was in the midst of his daily solitaire game, Searles sidled over and offered a tip. "Aksujuleak, did you see the red queen and the black jack?" Without a word, Pisuktie pulled another deck of cards off the shelf, handed it to Searles, and went back to playing his own game.
Out of thousands of pages of such stories and interview notes Searles collected over several seasons of field research in the Arctic, this is one of his favorites to tell his students. Pisuktie's silence, in a situation when most suburban Americans might expect chatty conversation, helps Searles illustrate the many ways different people can view the same thing.
Beyond learning to respect and be curious about other cultures, Searles hopes his students begin to understand that their own culture can also seem strange or bizarre. "I like to make them think that they, too, are bearers of an exotic culture that is worthy of study," he says. "One of the main points of anthropology is to find out more about ourselves by looking at the other."
Searles conducted his field research in Nunavut, an Inuit-run territory formed in 1999 in northern Canada. From the personal stories and interviews he collected, he's weaving together a model of Inuit identity. Hunting camps, such as the one where Searles stayed, reflect an Inuit respect for silence and are a vital part of Inuit culture.
"Outpost camps are seen as repositories of tradition, places where people still hunt, still learn how to deal with the environment; children learn how to be real Inuit people, as they call it, away from the influence of white people," he says. Today's Nunavut Inuit are piecing together this respect for tradition and living on the land with the reality of their modern lives. In the 1960s and '70s, government programs convinced most of them to leave their semi-nomadic lifestyle of following caribou and seal, and settle in towns and villages.
"It's easy to be Inuit in outpost camp," Searles observes. "How do you be Inuit in town when you can't go hunting, where your daily routines mimic the same routines you might find in any small town in North America - people are watching "The Price is Right," there is a grocery store, there are the usual people working 9 to 5, kids go to school. How do you maintain that boundary, that sense of Inuitness when your whole world seems to be assimilated?"
Searles plans to write a book on his findings this year during a sabbatical.
Posted Sept. 20, 2010