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Mia H. (moira) reviewed Never in Anger : Portrait of an Eskimo Family on
I will likely add to this brief commentary later (as there is much to say and also I will be writing a term paper about the book)... but this book might be alternatively titled: Misadventures in Anthropology.
When grad student Jean L. Briggs signed on for an extended stay in the Canadian arctic with the Inuit Utku (Utkuhikhalingmiut, in full), she brought entirely too much baggage with her, both literally and figuratively speaking. Her head filled with a strange combination of romanticized notions of the Inuit, horror stories of arctic cold and famine, and Western cultural predispositions, she found it increasingly hard to study, much less understand, what was going on in the camp around her. It was only after her 17 month sojourn as an adopted Utku daughter was over that she could look past her frazzled attempts to speak the horribly complicated language, learn necessary survival skills, eat frozen raw fish, scales and all, and type up field notes without the igloo (iklu) dripping on them, as well as past her burgeoning depression; and see how her inward refusal to actually adopt the role of daughter as the Utku saw it, her inability to conform (or even to see the need to conform) to the cultural expectation of calm, happy behavior, and her insistance on every bit of her overwhelming load of supplies being carried during every move, all played a part in making her a burden to the society that eventually ostracized her in response.
I think I need to put more clauses in that last sentence. it needs to be longer. :P brain not quite up to par today
To be sure, Briggs was working between 1963 and 1965, when there were no standards of ethics so to speak regarding being up front and honest with the people you want to studyâ¦ by telling them you want to study them. Briggs surely was more ethical than some of the kaplunas (the Utku word for, roughly, âwhiteyâ) they encountered during her stay; but when she said she wanted to learn the Utku skills, it lead to misunderstandings when she did not follow through, when she later said she only wanted to write about the skills and ways of life, instead of practicing the skills herself. (It is much different to adopt a grown daughter who will be another helper around the house and lighten the workload than it is to adopt a grown daughter who is as helpless and moody in many ways as a child.)
Also to be sure, she learned much about the Utku that had not previously been understood, and in some cases, she would have had no way of knowing the egregious mistakes she was committing beforehand. (In other cases, however, she was blinded by misconceptions and her own biases.) Her most fatal misunderstanding, and, later, insightful revelation, led to the title of the book.
In a small, isolated community surrounded by a merciless environment, being angry serves no good purpose. Life is full of hardships and sorrows, but taking it personally is childish and absurd. The blizzard did not descend upon you because it was trying to get you. The starving dogs did not break into your cache of fish to flout your authority. Your sibling did not get sick and die because of anything you did. Life just happens. Raging at life not only doesn't change anything for the better, but it makes your view of the world darker and less enjoyable. Also, anger at any of the few people who share your life can only drive them away from you, or cause hostilities between you, and cause you more grief and pain. In Utku society, where people depend on each other for life and death, disruption of society is an unacceptable risk. A person who cannot accept the ups and downs of life (including generously and happily doing the work that such hardships entail or incur, and laughing good naturedly at the disjointed humor of it all) is childish at best and a danger to other people at most.
The Utku way of gradually teaching children to control their emotions (so that nobody over the age of 10 would dare be caught crying even at a death or losing their temper over anything) and their way of dealing with aberrations (at least during the time the book was written) is impressive as well.
This is a fascinating book, both because of what went right and because of what didn't. Definitely worth reading.