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The Fourth World: THE HERITAGE OF THE ARCTIC by Sam Hall (Knopf: $17.95; 240 pp.)

August 23, 1987|Ross Miller | Miller is writing a book on the cultural and architectural effects of the Chicago fire. and

Gertrude Stein's comment about Oakland, "There is no there, there" might accurately express the common understanding of the Arctic. Random images of glacial expanses, numbing cold, endless night are some of the ways we picture a land few of us will ever visit. Sam Hall's "The Fourth World" goes a long way to provide a full sense of place, rich in history and very much a part of the modern world.

The North most recently came to public attention through two events of wide public interest. The first was the agitation of Greenpeace against the European fur market. By publicizing the annual Newfoundland harp seal hunt with a series of affecting pictures of seal pups looking with innocent brown eyes into the camera, they were able to get legislation limiting the "slaughter." The second event was more menacing. The nuclear disaster at Chernobyl contaminated the air over Western Europe. Prevailing winds blew pollutants directly over the Samilands of Norway and Sweden. Radioactive fallout concentrated in lichens, poisoned the main food source for the large reindeer herds. More than 600,000 animals due for slaughter were destroyed and buried in 10-foot trenches because their bodies were too dangerous to eat. The Samis or Laplanders depend on their animal herds as their economic mainstay the way the Eskimos or Inuits ("Real People") as they choose to be called, subsisted until recently on the hunting of seals and whales. Herding and hunting create the social network for these ancient peoples, direct nomadic descendants of the first African men and women nearly 300,000 years ago. They are our own living past and are as such certainly as deserving of attention as the piles of bones we reverently visit at museums of natural history.

Hall, a journalist for Reuters and documentary film producer, has written a book that satisfies renewed interest in the Arctic--the northernmost parts of Alaska and Canada, three-quarters of Greenland, one-quarter of Scandinavia and one-fifth of the Soviet Union--by presenting a readable ethnography of the native peoples of the North and an overview of the contemporary international political maneuvering over its strategic and commercial uses. His portrait of the Inuit reveals that the cost of development has been greater than the loss of baby seals. Soldiers and entrepreneurs are simply the last of a line of white adventurers from the South with plans to profit from this rich "wasteland."

The first of these were the Vikings of Iceland who arrived in 984. They lived in Greenland for 500 years before a series of climatic changes blocked entry to the fiords in the south. Unable to be resupplied by ship from Scandinavia, they sailed from the colony in 1408. No news of them reached their homeland for three centuries. A Danish theologian, who had heard reports about "wild people and men" living in parts of Greenland, set sail in 1721. Finding no Norsemen or gold, Egede went ahead and tried to convert the Inuit, composing a glossary of native words and translating appropriate sections of the Gospel to aid their comprehension. "Give us this day the seal meat we need." Egede's son Niels carried on the work, having to resort to less poetic forms of argument. "When I had tried all I could by means of persuasion, without avail, I had recourse to my usual method, flogged him soundly and turned him out of the house." An Inuk, baptized by Hans Egede wrote his impressions of the Christians. "I could have wished that we had never set eyes upon them lest they should corrupt our people."

The lure of trade and whaling brought the white man north during the 18th and 19th centuries. What he found were native cultures left undisturbed until his arrival for more than 5,000 years. He built unique housing for his family out of the sod and stone and one for himself of ice when he was off hunting. His animistic religion provided an extraordinary intimacy with a world at its extremes. Through hunting, he learned to appreciate the balance of nature. "The most insignificant animal was important to those who lived in such difficult conditions. The Inuit killed Arctic hares for their fur, which was used for the socks and the inside of seal-skin boots and seal skins, which were prized for their suppleness, to make sacks for collecting birds and birds' eggs." He learned patience, standing silently for days waiting for a seal to resurface through a "blow hole," and executed the kill in seconds. The Inuits produced songs and beautiful carvings. Men and women worked together in communal societies where private ownership was discouraged and self-sufficiency of the group was raised to an art. When the whalers and traders came upon these people, they looked upon them as unfortunate interference and dealt with them without thinking that there might be something to learn.

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