On my first day of Anthropology class at the University of São Paulo, the teacher (who, honestly, I don’t remember the name) recommended reading “In the country of long shadows”, a book that recounts the adventures of Eskimo Ernenek and his family, and contact with white men from other cultures.
“Pay attention to the part where the Eskimo receives the white man in his igloo”, warned the teacher.
Despite being a work of fiction, “In the country of long shadows” is based on real anthropological observations. Written by Hans Ruesch, the book accurately describes the peculiarities of Eskimo culture – social, sexual, dietary, religious beliefs and medical practices of a people who live in extreme situations.
I confess that I found the narrative a bit silly, but I realized that the teacher chose an easy work, as it was the first contact with literature in an instigating and at the same time dense course. Then there would be heavyweight works like Lévy-Strauss, Malinowski and Radcliffe-Brown.
This part of the igloo reported at the invitation of the Eskimo Ernenet to open up in his igloo. First, he offered fresh larvae to the white man and he, expressing disgust, refusal. Then the Eskimo gives you tanned meat, but, by Western standards, “spoiled”. The white man bites off a piece and then spits, because of his bad taste.
Ernenek, who was already wary, is angry. After all, he was doing his best to please the visitor – an Eskimo tradition. He had offered fresh and tasty larvae, meat kept for a special occasion, and the stranger refused with great contempt. The Eskimo made one last attempt: he offered his own wife to have sex with the white man.
The foreigner refused. That was too much for Ernenek. To despise his hospitality, food and even his companion was the maximum insult for the Eskimo, who learned these values, passed down from father to son for generations, since he was a child.
Possessed, Ernenek grabbed the white man and hit his head against the wall of the igloo, until he was killed.
In the act, I understood the teacher’s intention. This passage from “In the country of long shadows”, defines perfectly the main concept of anthropology: understanding that each social group has its own rules, values and beliefs, and understanding how they work requires respecting them. It is about avoiding ethnocentrism, a way of thinking that believes that the social group to which the subject belongs (ethnicity or nation) is superior to the others.
Recognizing the differences, perceiving these characteristics and respecting them is like understanding “the rule of the game” of human relationships. In the popular saying, “don’t measure others with your own ruler”.
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