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I was up in Yellowknife a few weeks ago, and I heard some comments that sounded really horrible, basically to the effect of "Oh, Inuit people don't care about their children -- they just give them away all the time." I was pretty shocked. I'm not from the area, and don't know much about the Inuit at all, but I decided to do a little research.

Turns out my misguided acquaintence was referring to what is legally known as "Inuit custom adoption," and the practice is an ancient tradition among the Inuit. It isn't at all about not caring about or not wanting one's children. It's about family being bigger than the nuclear family unit, about community building, and about survival.

In traditional Inuit culture, it was (and still is in many places) quite common for one family to adopt another family's child for a variety of reasons. We're used to adoption in cases of infertile couples and orphaned children, but Inuit adoption has a much wider range of circumstances, and giving away a child has none of the guilt and stigma associated with it in European culture. None of the secrecy or isolation, either. Birth parents often see their adopted children daily, and often have close relationships with them.

If a family had too many births too close together, and felt they wouldn't be able to feed all their children, they might give one away to someone better able to care for it. A family with all girls might decide they want a boy, too. A family might even give some of its' biological children away, and then later adopt someone else's. (This is especially common among families who want to strengthen ties to each other, much the way arranged marriages might be used in other cultures.)

When you think about it from a survival standpoint, Inuit adoption practices make a lot of sense. In a society where survival from one year to the next is tenuous, and birth control is primitive, giving children away increases everyone's chances of survival. And the give and take of the relationship strengthens community bonds, also crucial when everyone's survival depends on everyone else.

As you can imagine, the situation isn't all milk and cookies, though. There are a lot of community and family politics involved. There have been cases of grandparents promising away their grandchildren without the consent of the birth parents. Or of broken agreements, where a family agrees to take a child and then changes it's mind. Or occasionally birth families deciding they want their child back.

There's a big debate right now about codifying custom adoption practices into law. Some people say we need these relationships recognized (and regulated) legally, and that the custom can put children in bad situations (after all, there's no social worker coming out to do home studies). Some are afraid that codifying custom adoption is the first step on the road to eliminating it (would most Inuit wanting to adopt be able to meet the minimum income and separate bedroom requirements demanded of non-Inuit adopters?), or at least moving toward the European model of having to go through legal proceedings everytime someone wants to adopt a baby.

It's a thorny issue, but now the next time you're in the Arctic and it comes up, you'll be better able to debate it.

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