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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 Dahl’s 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.

Dahl’s 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 Dahl’s 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 Dahl’s 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 Dahl’s 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 Dahl’s 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 Sahlins’s thesis of the "original affluent society" would have been in order.