Lesson 2: Netsilik culture and modern Inuit identity formation

Today in class we discussed traditional Netsilik culture, their interaction with Euro-Americans and Euro-Canadians over the last 200 years, and modern Inuit identity formation. The first two topics were based on readings in Wendel Oswalt’s This Land Was Theirs. I have yet to find a good textbook that covers a range of American Indian societies in a good anthropological fashion. Oswalt’s is not bad, and is in fact the best of the bunch I’ve seen so far, but he does tend to dwell on the traditional too much. The modern discussions are feel a bit tacked-on in order to remedy the old practice of only caring about traditional societies and cultures. The modern discussions are actually good, but they just aren’t given enough space. As I’ve mentioned before, I design this course to present both traditional and modern cultures, as well as the the changes that occurred in between, so finding good information on modern cultures requires going beyond the textbook.

To explore modern Inuit culture, we read Keiichi Omura’s 2002 paper, Construction of Inninnaqtun (Real Inuit-way): Self-Image and Everyday Practices in Inuit Society. Omura lived with and studied in an Inuit community and focused on how modern Inuits form their personal and group identities in the face of past and present colonialism. He eschews post-modern and postcolonial approaches because they lose the individual in their focus on politics and social justice. The result is an interesting discussion of what Inuit feel is ‘real Inuit’. It is not found in things but in values and how one lives one’s life. I know Omura’s work has helped me to understand the relationship between traditional and modern American Indian cultures… and in fact, helped me to understand what “traditional” means. It is easy to think of it as things or actions, but those things and actions mean nothing if they are not done for the right reasons or with the right worldview and approach to life behind them. I think it’s difficult for people who grow up in a dominant society to understand identity construction in oppressed, colonized societies. Omura does a good job of explaining this process.

On a pedagogical note, I used to run this course as an interactive lecture. I had PowerPoints primarily with questions for the students about what they had read. It worked fine, but I was still in the role of THE source of knowledge. That gets boring because it focuses on outcomes and not the process of learning. I’m quickly realizing that focusing on the process of learning is more important in many ways than stressing the outcomes. As a result, this semester I’m trying something new… and today was the first go at it. I broke the students up into six groups of 3. Each group had to summarize what they learning about particular features of Netsilik society and culture. Each group presented and I asked some follow-up questions about how we explain particular features/behaviors. The discussion focused on what they got from the readings and how they can go further. I definitely made sure that their reading of particularly important points was correct, but I see my role in this course as being a facilitator not the source of knowledge. I want them to forge their own path of learning, not have me lead them. I’m hoping that this approach helps the students think about how we study cultures as anthropologists, organize and discuss the collected data, and apply theory to explain the behaviors we see. All of this in addition to important details about American Indian societies and cultures. I think these things are tough to foster a deep understanding of in a lecture format, no matter how interactive it is. Of course, with all things teaching, it’s always a work in progress.

Our next class will be a discussion of Dene culture and the Athapaskan way of knowing.


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