Eskimo sexuality is very tribal and, before outside influences changed it, Eskimo customs and traditions like wife-swapping (sound familiar, Mongols?) and wild parties (hey, the Romans did that too!) were common. To offer one’s wife to a guest was an aspect of hospitality that had spiritual and practical implications, and the very somber and respected tradition of wife-swapping was often accompanied by shamanistic rituals.
Despite the open sexuality and frank conversations about marriage within Eskimo culture, other topics, such as those who identify as LGBTQ, have remained taboo (although not quite the “disease” it was thought to be during the Depression). However, ideas about gays and lesbians are changing within Eskimo communities.
Even the term “Eskimo” itself is not without its challenges. Sometimes considered to be an over-generalization or even offensive, the term “Eskimo” refers to natives of Arctic regions of the north and subarctic parts of of North America, Greenland, and Siberia. Eskimo is an umbrella for specific groups and tribes known as Inuits, Aleuts, Yupik, or numerous other names depending on location as well as linguistic and cultural background.
Keeping different tribes and unique aspects in mind, here’s some general history about sex, Eskimo-style.
Eskimo Men Let Their ‘Brothers’ Sleep With Their Wives
Within the close relationships between men in Eskimo cultures, there was sharing of food, supplies, and other goods, especially when they were out on a hunt. Men considered their companions to be “brothers” and shared everything, including, sometimes, their wives. This custom had additional implications. Sometimes, when a man was out on a hunt, “his friends think they’re doing his wife a favor by dropping in to ease her loneliness,” according to one polar memoir. Wife-swapping could take the form of co-marriage, which was a more structured arrangement between two couples that exchanged partners.
‘Eskimo Kisses’ Aren’t Really Romantic Gestures
You may have heard of “Eskimo kisses” or even given someone that cute rub of the nose that is a sign of affection. In Eskimo communities, however, the kunik – rubbing your nose on someone — is a common greeting and an action that is common between family members. According to David Joanasi, an information officer of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami: “When you’re an infant and a little kid, your parents and grandparents and older siblings sniff you and rub your face with their nose,” which removes the sexual aspect of it entirely. This doesn’t mean that a good nose-rubbing can’t be intimate —it is — it’s just not something that is found in adult intercourse.
Becoming Pregnant By A Man Other Than One’s Husband Was No Big Deal
Because intercourse with another man’s wife was common, it was possible that a woman would become pregnant with a child that wasn’t her husbands. This wasn’t shunned, however, and children could be as communal as wives. According to the memoir of one English girl who grew up among First Nations tribes in Greenland,
“If a woman fell pregnant by a man other than her husband in the community, there was no stigma. It wasn’t like suburban wife-swapping. It was a question of survival. Equally if a couple were childless, it wasn’t uncommon for another family to give them a child, whom they’d love as their own, to raise.”
Polygamy Was Common For Some Wealthy Eskimos
Having more than one wife was a sign that a man could afford to provide for numerous women, a testament to his wealth. When Christianity was introduced to Eskimo populations, polygamy declined, but did not disappear.
Polyandry was not as well-known in Eskimo communities, but wife-swapping could be considered a form of the practice. Absent permanent residence together, these relationships still involved one woman and more than one man. Some scholars see polyandry as a form of adultery, however.
Marriage Was Informal And Involved The Groom Wooing The Bride’s Father
In anticipation of a marriage, a young man would join his potential bride’s father in male-dominated activities, like hunting, for about a year. During this time, the bride and groom would begin their bedroom lives, more or less entering into a marriage. There was no ceremony, however, the families needed to approve of the relationship, which is why it was so necessary for the groom to prove himself to his bride’s family. In some tribes, the groom may live with the potential bride’s family for a time, only being allowed to sleep with her after he’d won their approval. Along these same lines, arranged marriages could take place, with parents in two families promising their infants in marriage to one another.
Some Eskimo Tribes Taught Children About The Birds and Bees By Example
The Qipi Eskimos in the eastern Arctic were openly demonstrative when it came to teaching their children. Parents would be affectionate — kissing, touching, and playing with one another openly — as well as praise their child’s genitals from a young age. This continued through adolescence and children were encouraged to talk about it with their parents.
Pre-Marital Intercourse Was Encouraged By Eskimos
When Danish explorer Peter Freuchen spent time with Eskimo groups on Greenland during the early 20th century, he wrote about his experiences and commented on the practices of young men and women. Freuchen noticed that parents didn’t worry about whether or not their teenaged children came home at night but rather took it “for granted that they found a vacant igloo nearby and are spending some time there, either as a couple or as members of a larger party.” He went on to say,
“In fact, at a larger settlement there will always be a Youth People’s House where young people can sleep together just for the fun of it, with no obligation outside of that certain night. Nobody takes offense at this practice, for no marriage can be a success, Eskimos believe, without sexual affinity.”
Wife-Exchanges Took Place After Every Ritual A Shaman Performed
Wife-swapping and shamanistic activities were closely linked in Eskimo society. After every seance a shaman performed, men would exchange wives. Shamans encouraged the activity but when it came to outsiders, handing over a wife was different. Merchants and travelers may have been offered a widow or a single woman upon arriving into an Eskimo community, but most young women were married as soon as they were sexually mature. Women could also offer themselves to an outsider. All in all, arrangements to exchange and share wives among the Eskimo were one thing, giving a wife to a stranger was far less common.
Shamans Led Rituals Where Eskimo Couples Gathered Together And ‘Turned Out The Lights
The shamanistic ritual of “putting out the lamps,” as it was known in Greenland, involved bringing together married couples for a passionate night in the dark. After group of Eskimos was gathered, the shaman would wait to contact spirits, turn out the lights so the married Eskimos could sleep with a random person, and then turn them back on after everyone was done. This was supposed to be a way of welcoming the spirits into a hospitable environment, and, interestingly enough, was often meant to effect an entirely non-sexual outcome, such as better hunting weather. When Christian missionaries observed the practice, they objected to it.
Same-Gender Attraction Was Something That Should Stay Hidden, According To Some Eskimo Groups
Despite fairly open ideas about sexuality, masturbation and same-gender attraction were not accepted in most Eskimo communities. According to one elder from the Naujaat tribe, “we always lived in a tent or shared an igloo. It was never out in the open in my time, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t exist.” In some tribes, there aren’t even words for “homosexuality” or “lesbian.” In the Nunavut language, however,the “term for lesbian relationships is “two soft things rubbing against each other,’ while for gay men it’s ‘two hard things rubbing against each other.'”
Because there is a difficulty within Eskimo culture to recognize LGBTQ individuals, there have been efforts to make it more public and to push for gay rights in regions like the Nunavut. It’s an uphill battle, though. In 2003, a spokeswoman for the Qikiqtani Inuit Association claimed,
“We do not agree with same-gender marriage. This is not part of our custom, it is alien to us. As children, we knew that only men and woman can make children together.”
She went on to say that she believed the Inuit would have to accept gay marriage just like other aspects of white culture, which would therefore negatively infringe on the traditional way of life of the Inuit.
Infanticide Was Sometimes Practiced In Eskimo Families
In order to control their populations in difficult environments, Eskimo tribes sometimes practiced infanticide and reportedly sometimes killed their children if they could not take care of them. They also killed females more often than males, in large part because men were more likely to die as adults and the gender ratio in the community was difficult to maintain. Babies were most often killed by suffocation but taking a baby out to the woods, stuffing her mouth with grass, and leaving her to die was common as well.
Although records of this practice are often scattered, there has been research that hsa strived to paint an accurate and thoughtful history of this.