Ethnocentrism At The Top Of The World

Essay, Research Paper

In Hans Ruesch’s novel The Top of the World the author describes the life of the polar Eskimos (Inuits) in depth. The main focus of the novel is to show the differences between their culture and ours, and how the introduction of the white mans customs changed their way of life. The concepts of ethnocentrism and cultural relativism are major themes in The Top of the World. Understanding these concepts is important for a full understanding of the ways people think and behave.

The Inuit society at the top of the world is a small one. While the Inuits in this novel interact with many people, this was not how most of the polar Eskimos lived. They lived very secluded lives and only interacted with a few families throughout their lives. While the small Inuit population wasn’t a main focus in this book, it does affect many aspects of their lives. The main cause for the small population is the lack of resources. There is hardly any vegetation, and the game is tough to hunt. For this reason the Inuits control their population. If the first born is a girl, the child is set out on the ice to die.

While this is looked unfavorably upon my most other cultures and by the missionaries in the novel, it is simply a way of life for the Inuits. The white mencannot accept this practice as it is against Christian belief, and furthermore cannot see it as the Inuits do. This is one of many examples of the white mans ethnocentrism in The Top of the World.

The role of women in Inuit society is described at great lengths in The Top of the World. The Inuit men have great respect for the women. The women care for the children, build igloos, sew, tenderize skins with their teeth, and complete many other arduous tasks. The concept of wife sharing is another practice popular among the Inuits, of which the white men disapprove. In the novel a Ernenek gets into a lot of trouble because the white man doesn’t understand the ways of ‘the men’. When Ernenek offers Asiak to a white traveler to ‘laugh with’ the white man shows no interest. In the Inuit society this is a great dishonor, and Ernenek bashes the white mans skull into the wall and ends up killing him. This shows how such cultural barriers can lead to larger problems. The white man’s world is very different from that of the Inuit, and the custom of wife sharing is very strange to him. His lack of cultural relativism gets himself killed, and lands Ernenek in some trouble with the law.

The environment plays a large role in the lifestyle of the Inuits. The land is completely covered with snow and ice all year round. This leaves little nutrients for vegetation to grow, hence food for animals to thrive. The fewanimals that live in the polar region are large and hard to hunt. Early in the novel the author describes a typical hunt, and how difficult their hunt for the bear is. They have to travel for many days and nights without working up a sweat, which would cause them to freeze to death. A lot of emphasis is also placed on their housing. The Inuits have learned to make a warm home out of simply ice. They are content with these igloos, and when Ernenek and Asiak visit the white men’s wood house, they do not like it one bit. They cannot understand why the white man would bring such large pieces of wood and construct big square houses, when an igloo was warmer and much more convenient. This is yet another instance of the two groups having no sense of cultural relativism.

Technology is one of the main themes in The Top of the World. The novel starts off with the hunt. In this hunt the reader sees the crude weapons used to injure the bear, and then the time it takes to hunt down the bear and finally kill it. When the white men come with a promise of guns, the Inuits are overjoyed. They no longer have to spend days and days hunting their game, but instead merely point and pull the trigger. The modern technology that the white men posses allow them to get whatever they want out of the Inuit. The white men are very egocentric, as the feel they are better than the Inuits because of their technology. At the end of the novel their weapons backfire as groups of angry males swarm the church.

Cultural relativism and ethnocentrism are two ways of thinking which one must comprehend in order to have a full understanding of how people think and behave. The Inuit society is very different from that of most. The white men that come to conquer the land, and convert the Inuits have a sense of ethnocentrism which doesn’t change through out the novel. The Inuit society is changed greatly by this invasion, yet the white men change very little from their interaction with the Inuits.


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