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'The Eskimo Will Become a White Man' : Tomorrow Slowly Encroaches on Harsh, Scenic Arctic

October 11, 1987|CHARLES J. HANLEY | Associated Press

QAANAAQ, Greenland — The picture that hangs in the town hall here looks like a class portrait from the Stone Age.

The faded photograph, dated 1909, captures a band of Arctic hunters, long-haired Polar Eskimos, just a few years after their first encounter with the white man. In the front row, a small boy stands, clad in sealskins, cheeks smeared with blubber, eyes wide with awe.

The boy savage, Qarqutsiaq, is 86 now. He favors mirrored sunglasses and neat cotton parkas and lives in Qaanaaq, a settlement at the top of the world that plugs into the global village via helicopter, telephone and satellite television.

"Life is changing," the rotund old bear hunter told a visitor. "Soon there won't be any hunters, and the Eskimo will become a white man."

Contest Not Yet Won

Soon, but not yet. Across the Arctic, among the planet's northernmost citizens, the contest between prehistory and tomorrow has not yet been won.

In their remote and breathtakingly beautiful land, a place where pearly icebergs the size of cathedrals drift down the horizon, the Polar Eskimos still paddle kayaks and drive dog sleds to the hunt, and harpoon walruses and narwhals for the larder.

Under the summer's midnight sun, this town of 500 humans and 2,000 dogs echoes to the howl of huskies, the call of the wild. And life is still lived on the edge. Hunters do not always make it home from the ice.

But in Greenland and in a great Arctic ring stretching over northern Europe, through Siberia and into North America, tomorrow is encroaching.

Oil Debate

The U.S. Congress is debating opening up a last Alaskan frontier to oil development. In Canada and on this huge Danish island, Arctic military bases are being upgraded. In the vast and rich Soviet north, railroads and pipelines penetrate the frozen wilds.

Mightier icebreakers, sturdier oil rigs and hungrier economies are pushing back the borders of the impossible.

The natives are being pushed too. Before World War II, they predominated in the Arctic. Now an estimated 9 million immigrant southerners, mostly in the Soviet Union, outnumber natives 10 to 1.

The original northerners include the Nenets, Yakut and other ethnic groups in Siberia; the Lapps in Scandinavia; Indians in North America, and 100,000 Eskimos, who call themselves Inuit (the people). Their settlements cling to icy coasts from easternmost Siberia, to Alaska, to Canada and on to Greenland, where the Polar Eskimo tribe, in the island's northwest corner, leads the most traditional life.

Between 2 Worlds

Everywhere they live, the Inuit today are caught between two worlds, losing the old ways, not learning the new.

These nomads were originally gathered into settlements to combat epidemic and famine. But two generations later they remain poorly educated and often unemployed. Many have sunk into alcoholism and petty crime. Suicide is common.

Under the influence of southern TV, young Inuit disdain the hunter's life and even their Inuktitut language. Those who do hunt fear that the prey that fed their fathers will be wiped out by the ships, noise and spills of an Arctic industrial age.

But, though often unschooled, sometimes drunk and occasionally incarcerated, the Inuit are still tough and resourceful. And they are determined to protect Nuna, their land.

"They took the Indians' land. Now they are trying to take ours," Aqqaluk Lynge, a Greenland Inuit legislator, told a reporter. "We will never allow it."

The land is mostly a frigid desert.

In the long, dark winter, temperatures plunge to minus-50 degrees Fahrenheit. In the short summer, despite 24-hour sunshine, the temperature rarely rises above the 40s. And much of the Arctic gets no more precipitation than Arizona, although the snow that does fall stays.

The ground underfoot is frozen as far down as 1,000 feet--a cracked, brown, treeless tundra that forces man to adapt. In Greenland they drill graves with jackhammers.

Few Animals Flourish

At the core of the northern ring stretches the Arctic Ocean, 5 million square miles of black water capped with a white, 10-foot layer of ice in constant movement.

Few animal species flourish in the extreme north: among them seals and whales, caribou and musk oxen, and the half-ton polar bear, the world's largest meat-eater.

Man, the world's smartest meat-eater, ventured northward with the retreating Ice Age in Asia 10,000 years ago. Early Inuit crossed over to Alaska 6,000 years ago and reached Greenland 2,000 years later.

Out on the ice, watching the bears, they learned to hunt seals. They taught themselves to hunt the bears and to survive by making the most of very little--fuel from seal fat, tent supports from whale ribs, thread from caribou sinew.

The Inuit became a model of human adaptability. But eventually even weaker men learned to live in the north.

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