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Journal of Political Ecology:
Case Studies in History and Society
VOLUME 8 (2001)
Saqqaq: An Inuit Hunting Community in the Modern World. by Jens Dahl. Toronto: University of Toronto Press (2000), viii, 277 pp.
Reviewed by GĖsli P·lsson, University of Iceland.
Inuit studies have flourished in
recent years. There are annual conferences on Inuit issues, interdisciplinary
and social scientific, and, moreover, there are regular anthropological
workshops on hunter-gatherers, including Inuit. As a result, an extensive
ethnography has been emerging which documents Inuit society in the current
age, relations with the colonial past, and the problems posed by the future.
Jens Dahls work on the hunting community of Saqqaq in Western Greenland
is a welcome addition to this literature, written by a Danish anthropologist
who has not only been engaged in fieldwork in Greenland on and off for
two decades, practically since the introduction of Home Rule, but who
has also been active in ethnopolitics through the International Work Group
for Indigenous Affairs (IWGIA) in Copenhagen.
Dahls book is divided into
nine chapters focusing on the Saqqaq community, beluga hunting, fishing,
sealing, territoriality, division of labor, the Inuit hunting mode of
production, national policy, and, finally, the imagined community of modern
Greenlanders. Dahl observes that Greenland differs from many other colonial
contexts: those who negotiated Home Rule on behalf of Greenlanders "spoke
on behalf of all Greenlanders including ethnic Danes living in Greenland.
This process is therefore significantly different from land claims processes
in, for example, the Northwest Territories in Canada, which have been
raised on the basis of ethnic rights" (p. 19). This is not a community
study in the old-fashioned sense of the term. Rather, Dahl situates his
community in both historical time and sociopolitical space. Eager to dissociate
himself from "an approach that transforms community studies into
sheer symbolic affairs" (p. 209), Dahl emphasizes a "human-ecological
approach that incorporates economic, political, and ideological factors".
Much of the book discusses the contrasts
and relations between the activities of beluga whaling, sealing and fishing.
"Whereas beluga hunting epitomizes the collectivity of the community",
Dahl emphasizes, "the exchange of seal meat is the most fundamental
of all interpersonal exchanges" (p. 134). More than any other activity,
however, commercial fishing draws the community into a wider network of
economic relations, modifying in the process the nature and significance
of the household and the division of labor between men and women. The
thrust of Dahls argument relates to what he calls the "seven
pillars of the hunting mode of production": the centrality of the
household unit, individual control of the hunting process, collective
networks of exchange, open access to hunting grounds, the cultural role
of the hunter as provider, and flexible adaptation to changing circumstances.
There are some grounds for arguing
that nowadays, and for much of recent history, there is only one mode
of production, the capitalist one. Practically all production is somehow
involved in the world economy. Some production systems, however, can not
be described either as capitalist systems or as peasant households. In
the anthropological literature they are often referred to as "simple
commodity production". Such systems have often been associated with
agriculture, but they can also be found in whale hunting and fishing.
The simple commodity producer shares the characteristics of the peasant
in one important respect. In both cases family members pool their resources,
capital and labor. By pooling available resources the producer safeguards
him- or herself against the vulnerability of the enterprise. Market conditions
fluctuate, the productivity of fishing differs from one season to another,
and the need for labor varies with season and fishing gear. The extent
to which the simple commodity producer is able to draw upon the labor
of the family, however, varies with its composition and stage in the development
cycle, as Chayanov, Sahlins and many other have pointed out. Inuit hunting,
in Dahls description, is best regarded as simple commodity production.
Here production is partly geared for the market, but what motivates the
producers is not primarily profit but rather social responsibilities,
local commitments, and kinship relations. As Dahl puts it, "it is
not the cash motivation, but the significance of meat and the role of
the hunter as provider that explain why people go sealing" (p. 215).
While in some ways simple commodity production resembles industrial capitalist
production, and may therefore be regarded as quasi-capitalistic, it also
has much in common with household production.
There are good reasons why one should
bother to construct and refine concepts of modes of production. For one
thing, some kind of conceptual umbrella is needed to appreciate the different
ways in which humans relate to and appropriate animals. Classificatory
schemes are often central for resource management and environmental rhetoric,
especially with respect to sea mammals. A case in point is the notion
of "subsistence" production employed by the International Whaling
Commission, for whom whaling and sealing are the privileged activities
of "indigenous" hunters who do not produce for markets and are,
therefore, only minimally involved in the world economy. Such a notion,
a notion challenged by Dahls book, is highly romantic in that it
presents indigenous hunters as lay ecologists, as being closer to nature
than the rest of humanity. While it may represent charitable motives,
it has much in common with the ethnocentric discourse of the colonial
past. Humans, whatever their mode of production or subsistence, are simultaneously
part of nature and society.
One of the central themes of the
book is that of "tradition". Interestingly, "while Greenlanders
themselves used tradition in defense of their right to self-determination,
Greenpeace (and others) used tradition to attack the modern
Greenlandic version of sealing and whaling" (p. 5). The idea of hunter-gatherers
as lay ecologists or "noble savages" operating outside, or on
the margin of, society in a world of their own has often appeared in recent
debates on animal rights. While animal rights activists like to think
of themselves as the spokespersons for indigenous hunters, they often
misconstrue the hunters thinking and way of life. Dahl has much
to offer on this score, emphasizing that Inuit hunting is part of the
modern way of life, embedded in a larger context, the Saqqaq community,
Greenland, and the Danish state. Animal rights activists share the hunters
respect for animals and their concern with environmental problems, but
in many other respects the two groups are likely to disagree. Trapped
in objectivist Western discourse on science and the Other, animal rights
activists make a fundamental distinction between "them" (indigenous
hunters) and "us" (Euro-Americans), between nature and society,
and between animals and humans.
This contrasts sharply with the
ways in which hunters themselves often represent their relations with
society and the animate world. Thus, Inuit tend to think of themselves
as being in communion with nature, animals, and fellow humans. In their
view, there is no fundamental distinction between nature and society,
animals are regarded as social persons, and to kill them is a sign of
responsibility and not a criminal act, at least as long as certain technical
and ritual conditions are met. The environmentalist view may express charitable
and humanitarian motives. However, it is not an objective account of the
real world but an ethnocentric statement grounded in the historical realities
of particular groups of Euro-Americans.
Overall, this is quite a useful book, covering a range of ethnographic issues in plain language devoid of unnecessary jargon. Not only will it be useful in courses on hunter-gatherer society, Inuit culture, and colonial and post-colonial history, it should be valuable as well for specialists in economic and ecological anthropology. As to the weaknesses and omissions of Dahls account, I would have liked to see more on ethnographic comparison, Inuit conceptions of human-animal interaction, gender relations, and activities performed by Saqqaq women. Also, given the emphasis on "tradition" in both Inuit and observers accounts, a more thorough discussion of "traditional knowledge," an issue only briefly addressed (p. 228-9), should have been provided. Moreover, while Dahl provides perceptive observations of the hunting mode of production, some reference to recent critical engagements with Sahlinss thesis of the "original affluent society" would have been in order.