Netsilik infanticide and its effect on the social make up of Eskimo life

There are two big problems facing the Netsilik. The allocation of resources for survival, and the propagation of their community are the most concerning factors of Eskimo life. They have adapted different techniques that are implemented to elevate these pressures, namely infanticide and promised marriages. Infanticide is used to balance the high birth rate with the limited resources. The practice of promised marriages is designed to eliminate the conflict of finding a mate. These two practices may cause more problems than they solve.

There are a few common methods of eliminating a female child. After a female is born, the mother will place the baby girl in the doorway of the igloo and let her freeze to death. The baby girl might be suffocated with a Caribou hide. The girl could be placed in a pile of rocks and left to die in the cold. The mother never actively murders the child (i.e. Stabbing). The most respected member of the household has the power to decide if the girl lives or dies. This could be the father, mother, or grandparent.

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The Netsilik do not kill all the baby girls. There are three main ways that a girl will be allowed to survive. Naming is an important part of a Netsilik’s personal character. They believe that their kindred dead are reincarnated into the newborn child. The mother will call out different names of dead relatives during the birth. The name that was called at her time of relief is assumed to have entered the body of the baby and given aid to the mother. The mother will not be able to put away the child if it has been named for fear of offending their dead. This is a common situation that lends a helping hand to the unborn female’s survival.

Adoption is a method of saving a female from termination. The adopting family can approach an expecting mother and request to adopt the girl. Or a family may take in an abandoned baby that was left for dead.

Finally the most common reason for preserving the baby girl is she is promised in marriage. The parents of a baby boy (first cousins) will approach the expecting family about a union of their children. This promise in marriage will keep the mother from terminating the little girl.

A wife is the most prized possession of a Netsilik man. Most men are promised in marriage. Although there are those that are left to find a mate on there own. This stiff competition between men due to the lack of available women causes many conflicts. Many times a man is left to force or murder to obtain a wife. He may also reject his promised wife for another woman. This leaves little options for the widower or widow.

Because of the abundance of men there have been polyandrous relationships established. These relations are very stressful due to the inner contention among the co-husbands. They are more prone to jealousy and fight over the sexual preference of the wife.

Polygynous relations are more common than polyandrous. A man must be very well off to support two wives. Usually there is an age difference between the women. The older is seen as an authority in the home. She will direct the affairs of the house. Although there is this difference of position they both are considered co-wives. Multiple wives can an addition to his economic support by their labor. Or it can damn the family during hard times of starvation. Polygynous relations are more harmonious than polyandrous. The women have fewer tendencies toward jealousy and conflict.

Although the pursuit of a wife is severe, the access to sex is not that extremely guarded. The Netsilik are very open with their sexuality. The young children learn of sex at a young age. They incorporate sex into their games. It is common for young boys and girls to lie with each other. It is also know that adults will lie with young girls, even before their ability to reproduce. Adultery is not an important issue among the Netsilik. It is the cause of many fistfights but murder is never the result of infidelity. Where as stealing a wife can merit more extreme violence.

It is interesting that there is more value placed on the work that a woman will do for her new husband and family than her sexual access. The Netsilik are open to sexual access of others. One example is the practice of wife swapping. This sometimes ends up in quasimarital ties. These aren’t very successful due to the conflicts among the men. The only truly successful relationship is the duel gender family.

Although the Netsilik men may be prone to violence to obtain a wife and family they usually are very loving to their families. As seen in the videos, the men show a great amount of care and concern for their wife and children.

The Netsilik have adopted these two methods of survival. Although they see no problems with their traditions, they create many complex social conflicts. Though the use of infanticide they limit the number of baby girls in their community. They also prefer the marriage of a closely related boy and girl (first cousins).

They see infanticide as a method of balancing the needed population of survival with the resources at hand. These limits placed on the mating selection places undue value on a woman. This overestimated value of the woman causes most of the inner conflicts among the males. The fate of the baby girls is placed in the power of naming, the order of birth, the mood of the headman, the size of the family, or the state of the hunt that season. They do not consider the fact that if they continue to murder these “unneeded” baby girls they may cause their own demise. Although they need some regulation of their active birth rate, infanticide causes more problems than it solves.

The Netsilik do provide themselves with the flexibility for the ever-changing situations, but its general rules aren’t allowing for the proper growth within the community toward harmony. “Both practices [are] flexible, and each family had its own balance between the need for females and the need to stay alive.” If the rate of infanticide are to continue, the general population would not be able to survive their own selection.

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Netsilik infanticide and its effect on the social make up of Eskimo life. (2017, Dec 24). Retrieved from