From Anarchy In Action

Harold Barclay, People Without Government: An Anthropology of Anarchy:

Inuit, the indigenous residents of the North American Arctic, are a well-known people - both in terms of their adaptation to the hard life of the far north and as participants in an egalitarian social system. Even Hoebel recognises their "primitive anarchy" (1954, 67).

Social groupings among Inuit have been referred to as tribes by some observers, but the term designates a particular geographical group which shares a common culture and language. It has no political sigmcance. Birket-Smith writes:

"Thus among the Inuit there is no state which makes use of their strength, no government to restrict their liberty of action. If anywhere there exists that community, built upon the basis of the free accord of free people,, of which Kropotkin dreamt, it is to be found among these poor tribes neighboring upon the North Pole" (144).

Traditionally Inuit formed local communities or bands which in some cases consisted of a few dozen members and in others of ten times that number. In each band there is at least one outstanding individual and usually one person whom the others recognise as a first among equals' (Birket-Smith, 145). Birket-Smith reports that among the Central Eskimos of the Northern Canadian mainland this person is called "isumataq , he who thinks, the implication being he who thinks for the others" (145). But one might also surmise that the title implies that the person is considered the most intelligent in the group.

In any case, an important basis for leadership is demonstrated ability in activities necessary for survival in this climate: hunting, provision of food and shelter, shrewdness and astuteness. Spencer, describing the North Alaskan Inuit, says that one of the recognised leaders of the community would be a man of wealth - that is, a big boat owner (65). Yet this man has also achieved his position by knowledge and skill in exploiting the local environment. Aside from such secular leadership, shamans are an important element in Inuit politics as well as religion. A shaman may be a respected hunter, but his power derives from his special relationship with the supernatural forces. The shaman is a curer, a diviner, a conjurer, a magician and a leader in religious ceremony. The Inuit shaman is believed to have the power to ascend into the heavens and descend into the underground, to control weather and other natural phenomena. He can invoke supernatural forces to benefit a person and he can also invoke them to cause injury. Among the Copper Inuit, shamans "held the threat of witchcraft over others and were, for the main part, not highly susceptible to vengeance because of their presumed supernatural immunities" (Damas, 33).

In Inuit society there is no-one who can be called a ruler - a person who can order others to obey him, having behind this order an exclusive right to employ physical force to compel obedience. Leadership is informal and the role of leadership only loosely defined. The commands of a leader can be ignored with impunity, but this could be dangerous, especially in connection with a malevolent shaman. In a community major issues are . openly discussed in informal gatherings. Consensus regarding a course of action may result, usually being an approval of the suggestions made by influential men. However, if unanimity of opinion is not forthcoming, the disagreeing parties may merely go their own way.

The Inuit case points to the potential pitfalls of a system in which there is no formal leadership and where anarchy prevails. As we have noted, a shaman can exert considerable power by inducing fear of his supernatural powers, so that he could enhance his position, although he would not thereby enhance his prestige. Damas says they were more feared than respected (33). A related problem which arises in Inuit society is the man who chooses to reject community morality and assert his personal strength in acquiring whatever he wanted. Often such men are able to run roughshod over others in a community, but inevitably must ultimately come to a violent demise themselves. They might be dispatched by a revenge killing. Or in vigilante fashion, a number of men, sometimes the offender's relatives, would plan the execution. A less permanent solution is to drive the individual out of the group. In any case some form of diffuse sanction is the only means employed to overcome such threats.

All forms of leadership, including that of shaman, are achieved statuses in Inuit society. As one earns status, so one might also lose it. Loss of position could come with the appearance of what is recognised as a better leader, hunter or shaman or as a result of the failure of shamanic powers.

Alleged wrong-doers could be ostracised and in some cases driven out of the village, or, as we have already mentioned, in extreme cases they might be killed. Gossip and argument are effective techniques for lesser offences. Occasionally a severe crime might go entirely unpunished. Ordinarily the kinsman of a murdered man sought revenge and feuds of a limited sort have not been unknown. Inuit frequently settle disputes through competitive trials between opponents, with the audience deciding who is victorious and therefore winner in the dispute. Two disputants might therefore engage in a wrestling match, or they might compete with one another in composing songs which, among other things, attempt to outdo each other in insult. Shamans contest with each other by demonstrating their marvellous powers in grand spectacles which could be the highlight of an otherwise dreary and dark winter.

An Inuit woman could not be considered as fully equal to a man, yet she has a liberty and influence which exceeds that of women in most. other societies. It is sometimes argued that the high position of Inuit women results from their crucial role in the economy. An adult male Inuit requires assistance in maintaining a household; he cannot survive without an adult female fulfilling her role. So necessary are women to the household that if a man is unable to find a single woman to take as his wife, he may even indulge in polyandry and marry a woman who already has a husband. It is true that in a difficult land, such as the Arctic, one would expect the co-operative interdependence of a family group to have greater significance than it might under less severe conditions. Thus the economic importance of the woman's role elevates her status in such a society. On the other hand, among hunters and gatherers elsewhere women are known to provide over 50% of the food supply in their gathering activities, in addition to filling other crucial economic roles in society. Yet these women do not have the freedom or equality of their Inuit counterparts. The Australian Aboriginals are a case in point. Inuit may well award women more equality and freedom in part because of their important economic role, but, in fact, the position of these women derives mostly from an emphasis upon self-reliance which is instilled in every.Inuit. A self-reliant person must be given a greater degree of freedom . This emphasis also, I think, helps explain why children in Inuit society are treated as distinct persons with specific inalienable rights. In contrast, many other peoples see children at best as mere extensions of the person of their father. Again, in the environment of the Inuit, co-operative activity is crucial, but self-reliance, learning to get along on your own, is mandatory if one is to survive.