2000 Bodenhorn

Inupiat relatedness

- a process

- adoption

- biological ties are no stronger than social

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Ways to be related

There are three ways to become a younger brother: men can be siblings through having been born of the same woman, through adoption, or through having parents who once had a sexual relationship that they acknowledged publicly. 

It should be clear that the universe of possible relatives for the Iñupiat is vast! As a result, it is useful to distinguish between relatedness that cannot be denied without incurring social disapproval and relatedness by choice. In the former category are parents, grandparents, and siblings; in the latter, everyone else. These are people Bodenhorn describes as “kin who are kin because they—and you—act like kin” (136). She remarks that “it was not uncommon to hear the comment ‘he used to be my cousin.’”

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Naming is another way in which relatedness is formed among the Iñupiat. The Iñupiat believe that names play an important role in transforming babies into real people because names contain personal essence that attaches to the human being who is given the name. The name connects the previous bearer of the name to the baby and shapes the character and person of that baby. 

The person who gives the name sees something in the baby that indicates a specific connection with someone else who is deceased. This can be a facial expression, an apparent familiarity with a place, or seeming to recognize a particular person the first time the baby sees him or her. None of this is based on gender. People can and do inherit names—and the personal essence that goes along with them—from both men and women.

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Adoption and Optative kinship

adoption, which is very common in the polar region, highlights how the practice of parenting overrides “begetting and bearing.” Bodenhorn estimates that most adults have themselves been adopted or have lived in a household in which children have been adopted. People who adopt usually know each other, but they do not have to be close kin. The most common reasons that people gave Bodenhorn for adopting was that they “wanted to,” they had too many boys and wanted a girl (or vice versa), “all my other brothers and sisters have adopted,” “we kind of exchanged,” or “we had too many kids.” Often adoption occurred because the child wanted to be adopted. In many cases, the shift was to everyone’s satisfaction, but even when it was not, the question of where the child should end up was never based on the argument that it naturally belonged with its biological parents. 

The point here is that recognition of the biological relationship becomes a matter of choice—there is no social stigma involved if a child ignores its biological parents, but people do disapprove if the child does not act like a son or daughter to its adoptive parents, who are real.

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Role of parents

Bodenhorn quotes Raymond Neakok, one of her older informants: “My people believed at the time when they were growing up, that parents had only one thing to do with the children—just love . . . their whole heart. They brought me up that way. Though it has changed, it hasn’t changed much—the only thing they could give me was love” (2000, 141).

From the Iñupiat perspective, then, the people who do the parenting are the parents—biology does not create parents, but action does. 

“shared tools, food, labor, political alliance, ceremonial participation, and simply company. . . . It is this labor—the work of being related—rather than the labor of giving birth, of the ‘fact’ of shared substance that marks out the kinship sphere from the potentially infinite universe of relative who may or may not belong” (143).

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