A great deal has been written about how Inuit love their children. In an exceptionally harsh world, any culture becomes especially preoccupied with its youngest generation, which only makes sense if you think about it.

After all, the more unkind the times, the more the survival of the culture itself comes into question. And there were times, among pre-colonial Inuit, when raising a child to healthy adulthood was quite an accomplishment.

The consequent appreciation of their children is probably the reason why Inuit have traditionally fussed over them, indulging the very young to a degree that disgusted the first visiting Europeans.

In old Inuit tradition, it was every community member’s right to coddle and interact with the young. It was almost as though a child were communal property, raised by all. But, then, members of any particular camp were almost all related.

Out of necessity, this tradition has been modified over time. Inuit have taken up the southern, Occidental way of regarding a child as the property of its parents (or legal guardians) only. But let us not mourn the loss of tradition here.

In a settled, community existence, a child is surrounded by numerous strangers, many of whom are neither family nor friends. In this confusing, heterogeneous social environment, where all nearby families occupy the same area (instead of separate camps), people have to create artificial barriers.

Guardianship is one such barrier — invisible, but socially and legally concrete. Inuit can no longer afford to let their children mingle with all community members, at will, trusting that some close relative will be there to keep them safe.

Like any southern family, like any of those living within a state anywhere on Earth, Inuit parents need the legal right to dictate who their children are permitted or forbidden to keep company with. Tradition is great, but some traditions simply do not work within certain systems. Modern Inuit seem to have taken to this idea pretty readily; but they have always been an old culture ready to learn new tricks.

This is not to say, however, that traditional Inuit did not experience some anxiety over their children. Outwardly, traditional Inuit parents used to put on the public face of trusting everyone in the community, but they nevertheless watched what company their children were in.

This was part of the old Inuit way with personal feelings, the traditional ethic that one’s feelings — especially negative ones — should be kept to oneself. Such Inuit stoicism pervaded traditional society. In order to preserve social harmony within often cramped confines, in order to survive psychologically in a world where death continually struck healthy and sick alike, Inuit had to be disciplined.

This was true of all cultures that once lived as pre-colonial Inuit did, but Inuit practised it up until recent times. The truth is that, psychologically, our ancestors were much tougher than we. Today, when we push ourselves to our limits, it is often out of personal choice. Our ancestors had no alternative.

Discipline begins with the emotions, and so it was among traditional Inuit. So even if a parent disliked or failed to completely trust someone associating with their child, they kept it to themselves. They just subtly tried to make sure that their child and the suspicious party were never left alone together.

It is important to remember that it is impossible to place bounds upon a child’s socialization within a closely-knit group. If a parent refuses to let a child associate with a fellow member of a camp, the parent must be ready to confront that member about it. The ill feelings that invariably arise from such a confrontation are just the sort of thing that Inuit were trying to avoid. Camp members had to pretend to like one another, overlooking even the deepest enmity, since they had to co-operate in order to survive.

Nevertheless, as with most of the anxieties that Inuit had to repress, fears about the fate of children at the hands of aberrant individuals became expressed in traditional stories. Even while traditional Inuit praised and fussed over their little ones, they were telling each other stories of parents cannibalizing their children, babies accidentally having their heads ripped off, and mothers going insane or making children sick by feeding them incorrectly.

The fear above all, however, was that of kidnapping.

(Continued in Part two)