While overeating has become a mark of gluttony among most southern cultures, there was really no such thing as overeating among traditional Inuit.

In old culture, it was a good and healthy thing to eat as much as one wanted. Inuit did have the concept of gluttony, but an Inuit glutton was instead marked by the tendency to withhold food from others. One of the most monstrous acts one could commit, in traditional culture, was to deprive others of food by keeping the best or largest portions for oneself.

This ties into the Inuit concept of reciprocity, a practice that is fading today as the culture changes. When Inuit were nomads, it necessarily developed that food generally did not “belong” to anyone. Or, perhaps more accurately, it belonged to everyone.

Even today, Inuit do not customarily give thanks for food (except in prayer), since it was always considered every person’s right to eat whatever food was available. As recent as only a couple of decades ago, this was the most practical way of doing things.

For example: Let’s say family X has a store of caribou, while family Y does not. Family Y, then, has the right to eat some of family X’s caribou — no need to ask permission or offer thanks for it (in fact, family X will urge the others to come over and eat). Much later, however, family Y is catching caribou and X is having no luck at all. Suddenly, it becomes more understandable why X allowed Y to eat their food. Now it is X’s turn to come over and eat Y’s food.

This seems like a very pragmatic and even heartwarming system, but it all hinges on one delicate feature: reciprocity. If reciprocity breaks down, even a little, the whole system suddenly becomes impractical and impracticable.

Even today, the tradition still exists across the Arctic, but it is more scattered and selective than it used to be, since it cannot persist where reciprocity wanes. Since Inuit have adopted southern living methods, participating in a market economy, they have necessarily adopted a cautionary approach to their resources and property.

If Y approaches X for money, sensing that X has a surplus, X now takes a risk by being “traditional” and giving Y money. Often, X will never see any reciprocity in return. If Y can always get money from X, why should Y bother working at all?

Far easier to wait till X earns some money, then come around for a share of it. This system cannot last for long, since X and Y are of no mutual benefit to each other.

Like a parasite that stupidly kills itself by killing its host, X and Y are both losing through Y’s lack of reciprocity. In this way, a traditional system, born of practicality, is made to become singularly unworkable and un-traditional.

The potential breakdown of this system worried pre-colonial Inuit, as well. Being fully aware that the system depended upon reciprocity, they were quick to shame anyone who exhibited gluttony by the Inuit standard.

Several popular stories and monsters exemplified the glutton figure, and served as a caution against such deviancy. The best such example is the story of the blind son deliberately starved by his own blood.


Three people sat starving. One was an old woman, the other her daughter, and the other her son, who was utterly blind. No one is sure why they sat starving in their slowly melting igluvigaq (snow-house); perhaps it was that the old woman’s husband had died out on the Land, taking the dogs with him. Yet, regardless of the reason, the three of them sat waiting for the thaw, or death, whichever came first. And all were going increasingly mad with hunger.

There was an ice-window in the igluvigaq, and it was one day obscured by something moving around outside. The women looked up to see the face of a bear, looking in on them. They began to scream. Once the blind son understood what was happening, he cried,

“Mother! I’ll try to drive it off with the spear! Someone hand me the spear and guide me as I stab!”

He felt the spear being placed in his hands, just in time for his sister to scream that the bear was wriggling its way into the igluvigaq.

(Concluded next week)