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Indigenous Peoples

new internationalist
issue 217 - March 1991


Omalluk’s new baby
Why do Inuit women give away their own babies – and adopt others?
Jane Henriques tried to understand the heart-warming –and heart-breaking
– custom while she was staying with an Inuit community
on the tiny Arctic island of Kingnait.

Summer is fine, but adoption bonds may be a life-line in winter.
Don Rutledge / CAMERA PRESS

It was dark when we made for home. Children were playing ice-hockey in the streets – as they often do – late into the night. Others tobogganed on seal-skins down their favourite slope. We came to the house of Omalluk, an accomplished carver. Jeanie, my Inuit host and guide, took me in to meet the family.

Two adults and eight children – four of them adopted – lived in the small wood-frame house. Several children were playing a video game on the mattress in the bedroom and two men were engaged in a game of cribbage at the table. A baby, meanwhile, was chewing contentedly on its seal-bone teether. ‘This is Omalluk’s new baby!’ said Jeanie. ‘She’s adopted from me. Hello, beautiful eyes!’

Louisa, aged five and also adopted, was walking her doll in her amautiq – a scaled-down version of the traditional mother’s garment with room for the baby in the back and a wide hood that can be pulled up over both mother and baby’s heads. Omalluk’s 18-year-old adopted son was finishing his own carving. In this community almost half the adults – about 200 people – are soapstone carvers or graphic artists who sell their work to the south.

As Jeanie played with the baby girl I was becoming increasingly curious about adoption. Virtually every adult I met had both adopted children and given their own babies away. One of my interpreters Elisapee, now 28, had lost her first baby, kept the second, given away the third, kept the fourth, given away the fifth and kept the sixth. Now her mother had asked her to have another one to give to her. ‘I probably will,’ she said.

Neetani, 47, had 10 children. Three died, one committed suicide, one was adopted. She ended up raising three of her own and four adopted children.

‘What is this all about?’ I asked.

‘It can be about compassion for a couple who can’t have a baby or have any more babies,’ explained Jeanie.

‘Or in order to name a child after a relative who has died,’ added Omalluk.

‘Or,’ said Jeanie, ‘if a couple has babies who keep dying they may give away the next one and adopt somebody else’s. There are also lots of teenagers who choose not to go on the pill because they smoke. They normally give their babies to their mothers or to relatives.’

I started to compile a list as I met more people in the community. One mother had adopted a son when she was single ‘because all my friends had babies’. Some women even adopted babies when they themselves were pregnant, and then gave their own baby away at birth.

But I also discovered some of the unexpressed pain that adoption can cause. One of Jeanie’s sisters, Okpik, aged 42, told me how her parents-in-law had arranged for her third child to go to an infertile couple. ‘As soon as an adoption is arranged all emotions for the baby you’re carrying are set aside,’ she said. ‘But I was stuck in hospital in Iqaluit for a few days after the baby was born and I had to work hard not to get attached to it. There is no pressure on anyone to give up a baby… but the wishes of the elders are always respected.’

‘I had no choice,’ said Neetani, speaking of the hardships endured by women. ‘I did not know until the baby was born that my mother and in-laws had agreed to another couple adopting it.’

One young father felt bitterly about having to give their first child – a daughter – to his mother-in-law. ‘But I would have been thrown out of the family if I had taken any action against it,’ he said. His wife, now the mother of two more young children, described coming back from Iqaluit with the baby. ‘As I walked off the plane my mother took the baby out of my arms without even looking at me, and walked away with her.’

‘Did you cry?’, I asked.

‘Yes, I cried a lot – but only on the inside – I didn’t want my mother to know.’

There were two accounts, however, that confirmed my growing feeling that there was some wider principle underlying adoption. A couple from another community adopted Letia’s baby. ‘Now they bring the child back to visit,’ she said, ‘and I feel very close to the family.’ Akalayuk had three adopted children, followed by two of her own, and gave the second away. ‘Adoption brings families much closer together,’ she said.   

Perhaps adoption had originated as a survival strategy. In a land where death made frequent visits and lay in wait for those who made mistakes, children were valuable commodities. Inuit-style adoption would have ensured that all families raised as many children as they were able, but that none raised more than they could reasonably manage. The bonds created by adoptions may have been a guarantee of help in times of need, of shared food during periods of starvation or at least a means of ensuring that some of your children had a chance of survival if you and your close family died prematurely. Old habits died hard.

Social workers pointed out to me some of the disadvantages of the system, however. When grandparents who have adopted teenagers die the children they leave sometimes become delinquent, their natural parents having little interest in them. I heard several reports of ‘slave children’ – usually orphans – who are used as servants by adopting families.

Most of the children I met, however, were affectionate and seemed happy and well cared for, regardless of whether they were living with their natural or adoptive parents.

As far as the Canadian Government is concerned, though, Inuit ‘custom adoption’ should be conducted through ‘proper legal channels’. The Inuit are currently fighting legislation which would take control away from the parents. Some adopting parents may take out legal papers in case a natural parent should want a child returned, but most would resist attempts to interfere. They at least know where their babies go and can maintain a relationship with them if they wish.

‘Not like you!’ Jeanie remarked. ‘You never see your children again!’

Writer and anthropologist Jane Henriques has been making a study of the women of the Arctic.

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New Internationalist issue 217 magazine cover This article is from the March 1991 issue of New Internationalist.
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