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An Inuit Childhood Drama
Jean L. Briggs
Memorial University of Newfoundland
CREDIT "Journey out of Babyhood" is adapted from chapter 2 of Jean L. Briggs, INUIT MORALITY
PLAY, Yale University Press and, in Canada, ISER Books, Memorial University of Newfoundland,
1998. The title of the paper is borrowed from a subtitle in chapter 6.
(c)Jean L, Briggs
You may go directly to:
Introduction The Drama The Fate of Babyness: Part 1 Celebration
The Fate of Babyness: Part 2 Vulnerability The Drama Analyzed: How Play Works
This paper is a story about a child - a three-year-old Inuit[ii] girl whom I call Chubby Maata. The
story is about how Chubby Maata learns to become a social person - and to become aware that she is one.
But it's about more than that, too. Inuit have an extraordinarily powerful way of acquainting children
with the difficult issues and situations that they'll have to deal with in their everyday lives. They
playfully blow up the plots larger than life; turn them into dramas and dilemmas that children experience
as dangerous; set children down at the mouths of labyrinths; and then abandon the children - so the

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innocents imagine - to solve the problems with their own resources. A child trying to find a safe passage
through the maze, gets quite a lot of experience with real life; and we, watching her vicissitudes, can
learn quite a lot about matters of more scholarly interest. We can learn about the process of growing up -
or in academic jargon: "child development". We can also learn how culture comes to be experienced and
internalized by those who grow up in it; about the emotional underpinnings or dynamics of morality; and
about the operation of play and of imagination in social life, among other things. I'm only going to point
you toward the tips of a few of these icebergs today. My intention is to give you material to think with, in
whatever direction you choose - which is a very Inuit way of proceeding with education.
The drama I'm going to describe is not one of the most vivid ones. I could have told you about a
drama in which Chubby Maata's doting grandmother celebrates and tests her beloved granddaughter by
telling her in no uncertain terms that the whole world considers her - and especially her genitals -
BAAAD: "Isn't that so?"[iii] Or I might have told you how Chubby Maata's mother shows her daughter
her bleeding finger, and an aunt, playing stooge, solemnly assures the child that her mother is going to
die, and asks her whom she wants to live with now. Or I might have described how Chubby Maata's
grandmother asks another threeyearold granddaughter why she doesn't kill her newborn brother: "like
this"showing the child how to tip the baby out of her parka hood - and then begs the little girl to die, so
that she - grandma - can have the child's beautiful new shirt: "Why don't you die? You don't want to die?
Do die! ..."
By comparison with these shockers, the game I call "Because you're a baby" is so mild, benign,
and emotionally unchallenging to the foreign naked eye as to be almost invisible at first glance. But it
would be a mistake to overlook the "Baby" drama. It lays the foundation for all the others; it's subtle, and
rich in lessons. It cracks the baby's cocoon, and lets in the chilly air of the larger world - a bracing
atmosphere that allows the social person to form and grow.
Chubby Maata was a child of hunters, and at the time of this story, she was growing up in a
nomadic camp, in the company of sixty or so other Inuit, all kin of one sort or another. From the point of
view of Chubby Maata at the age of not-quite-three, the world revolved around her. Like many other
muchloved Inuit children, she was fed when she was hungry; comforted and rescued when she was
unhappy; was often given baby bottles of milk on demand; was cleaned when she was dirty; and was put
to sleep when she was sleepy. And she was almost always within touching distance of a loving caretaker:
an aunt, a cousin, an uncle or grandparent, her father, and most often, her mother.[iv] Chubby Maata
knew that she was very much loved and she revelled in that condition.[v]
Chubby Maata's parents enjoyed their little daughter's babyness as she did, and they often
celebrated it, as we will see. But even a muchenjoyed baby must someday become a child, and the child
an adult. The symbiosis must be loosened, and the celebration given up if the baby is to become a social
person and not a toy. How can caretakers communicate these hard necessities to the baby they dearly
love, who dearly loves being what she is? And what can possibly motivate her to outgrow the Garden of

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Of course, sometimes going off by oneself, exploring new skills and independence, can be fun. But
sometimes it is the adult who wants the child to grow up and stop being a nuisance. Then what do
socializers do? In all cultures, I imagine, they use a variety of strategies. In our world, in the carrot
department, I've seen parents encourage, cajole, reward, bargain, and bribe; in the stick department, we
wield criticism and punishment: "You're too old for that, now." "That's not nice!" "Time out!" "Go to
your room." "No candy today." Or simply: Whack! To a large degree, we impose growing up, and the
pace of it. (I know there's another side to the picture, and I don't like to sound unfair; but I do want to
make you think - or "let" you think, as an Inuk would put it - about some of the characteristics of our
practices, to prepare you for seeing what's different about Inuit ways.)
Notice several things about the familiar strategies I've mentioned. First, they all create an
oppositional relationship between socializer and tyro, whether the relationship treats of rewards or
punishments, of coaxing or criticizing. Mother (or another adult) metes out the treatment, and the child
accepts, negotiates, argues, or tries to reject it.
In the second place, the reward, punishment, or bargain is most often mediated by the socializer; it
is external and arbitrary, in the sense that it is not an intrinsic consequence of the behaviour the adult
wants to change. What do I mean? If a child plays with a knife and cuts herself, that's an intrinsic
punishment; if the child plays with a knife and mother takes it away, that's an arbitrary punishment, a
consequence that doesn't follow naturally from the child's dangerous action. Similarly, if a shy child
approaches an adult, tentatively, and the adult smiles and hugs the child, that's an intrinsic reward; if
mother says, "There's my good, big girl," it's a mediated or external reward.
Another characteristic of some of the parental responses that I listed just now is that they follow
from the child's chronological age ("you're too old..." or "not old enough"), instead of from her own
individual capabilities, understandings, and tendencies. These judgments are arbitrary, too, in that they
don't exactly fit the child. There are profound lessons for the tyro in this approach to socialization -
lessons about the locus of power; the arbitrariness of social rules (from the child's point of view); and the
unimportance of idiosyncracy and an individuated self.
Now, I'm not going to claim that the Inuit adults I watched didn't hold the balance of power, or that
they never exerted arbitrary authority, and never imposed their will on children. They did all those
things. But there were striking differences, too, between the ways they treated children and the ways we
Inuit didn't impose age- or stage-related standards of behaviour on children of any age. Parents

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watched every single child. They acquainted themselves with the emotional and social issues that
exercised each child - often they provoked or nudged children into being exercised, as we'll see - and
then observed the child's progress in dealing with the issues. They observed the development of physical
skills, too, of course. And all this information guided their educational efforts. Moreover, criticisms -
especially when children were small - rarely had an angry, or even serious, tone. Anger was thought to be
demeaning both to the child and to the adult critic who lowered herself or himself to the child's level.
Argument was avoided, too. It was considered unproductive, since it pitted socializer against tyro, and
made the child resistant to influence. Argument would have modelled the wrong behaviour, too, since
confrontation in adult life was avoided at all costs, as a very dangerous business. Adults did sometimes
tell children what the social rules were, but they never enforced the rule or insisted that the children
follow it, on pain of this or that. Sometimes adults offered false blandishments to very young children, or
warned them of imaginary dangers; but when they saw the anthropologist watching, they excused their
behaviour a little sheepishly by explaining that small children haven't learned to think, and to recognize
truth yet, and therefore it's ok to lie. But most often adults simply laughed; started a distracting game; or
ignored a child who was being unruly or intrusive, and waited for the child to learn to think, that is, to
develop social awareness by using her, or his, own mind.
What interested me most about Inuit childrearing was the play I mentioned, which provided
children with opportunities for learning to think - and very early, too. Play that taught children not only
to think but to feel and to value in Inuit ways - to perceive dangers where adult Inuit perceive dangers; to
be drawn to certain situations and behaviours, and to be repelled or outraged by others. Play that taught
children to recognize issues and to take part, all unwitting, in the plots, the dramas, of Inuit everyday life,
so that they would be able to move out into that world, feeling themselves to be independent and
responsible actors, able to exercise judgment and make decisions with culturally appropriate sensitivity.
Learning these plots required alertness and sensitivity because they were subterranean and unspoken; and
because the dangers, too, were either subterranean or outside the warm and visible social circle.
There are a number of issues that engage three-year-old Chubby Maata and her family: What is
she (baby or child), and which does she want to be? Where does she belong? (That is, where is home,
emotionally speaking?). How should she relate to the people around her? (That is, whom does she like
and dislike? and whom should she like?). And how is she herself regarded by others? (Is she good? bad?
lovable? not lovable?). None of these questions have simple answers. For example, the right answer to
how Chubby Maata should regard other human beings is that she should like everybody, so that
everybody will like her, but at the same time she should be a bit afraid of liking and being liked - a bit
watchful - lest she be attacked, or stolen, or overcontrolled. But in spite of their complexity - or perhaps
because of it? - none of these issues are ever discussed in serious life, and none are the subject of serious
instruction, criticism or scolding. Instead, all of them - and the plots that shape them - make their
appearance, sometimes singly, sometimes multipley, and often ambiguously or even contradictorily - in
play. Most of the dramas are initiated by adults, but Chubby Maata is the principal actor, sometimes
wittingly, sometimes not. And often, as we will see, she is a very creative actor.
We go now to one of the first issues of all: the problem of leaving babyhood. And I'll try to show
you how - I think - an Inuit approach works.
The actors in the drama are Chubby Maata; her mother, Liila; her four-year-old sister, Rosi, and
Liila's teenage sister, Luisa.
Liila and her two daughters, Rosi and Chubby Maata, came into my tent to visit. Liila sat down,
and four-year-old Rosi sat down between her knees, in the place usually reserved for Chubby Maata. The
place of a baby.
Chubby Maata wasn't at all happy with her sister's occupation of her territory, and she expressed
her displeasure with a wordless moo - a sound that one often hears from Inuit children who are annoyed.
In this case the protest had no apparent effect, either on Rosi or on Liila. Liila kneaded her gum between
her teeth, pulled one end out in long threads and put it back to be kneaded again, all the time looking off
into space. Rosi's expression was as blank as her mother's.
Chubby Maata was not discouraged. "Remove her!" she demanded, addressing her mother. Liila
continued to chew her gum, apparently hearing and seeing nothing. Chubby Maata insisted: "Remove
that one!" Still no response. "Remove Rosi!" No response. Her mother went on playing with her gum.
What to do now? Chubby Maata, having reached a dead end on the road of direct demand, took
Liila's gum out of her mouth, put it in her own mouth and began to chew it. This was not at all an unusual
thing for a little girl to do, but in doing it, she made some gesture that made her mother laugh. "Do this,"
Liila said, smiling at Chubby Maata, and in rapid succession she clapped her hands and slapped her
knees, then crossed her arms and held her nose with one hand and her ear with the other. Chubby Maata
imitated one gesture after the other. Her face was a funny mixture of brilliant beam and concentration,
and her arms were a tangle. Rosi began to imitate too, with just as much enjoyment and no more success,
and all three laughed happily together.
Suddenly Chubby Maata said to her mother: "Shall I sit here?" This time, she pointed to a spot
beside Liila. Liila countered playfully: "Squat on the floor." But when Chubby Maata didn't respond to
that suggestion, Liila said, "All right," and Chubby Maata sat down beside her.
I watched all this with amusement, leaning back comfortably against my sleeping bag with my

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hands behind my head. Chubby Maata, now established beside her mother, looked at me, put her hands
behind her head and said in a pleased tone: "Yiini" (it was my name). Liila and I laughed.
At this point, Liila's 19yearold sister Luisa came in, and Liila said to Chubby Maata: "Imitate
Yiini." The word she used means literally "pretend Yiini." Chubby Maata immediately repeated her
imitation, but this time, instead of 'Yiini' she said, "Tiini," as a smaller child might do. There were still a
lot of words that Chubby Maata herself mispronounced, but 'Yiini' wasn't one of them.
Luisa nevertheless asked, "Tiini?" - questioning, the way Inuit do when they want to make a
person think again about the correctness of something she or he has said. But Chubby Maata repeated:
"Tiini." Luisa questioned again several times: "Tiini?" and each time Chubby Maata confidently
confirmed: "Tiini."
Finally, Rosi, seeming impatient with her little sister's mispronunciation, said in an emphatic,
how-can-you-be-so-silly voice: "Yiini!" It was clearly her intention to correct. But Chubby Maata replied
in her innocent voice: "Tiini?"
Liila intervened. Her tone caressed Chubby Maata and dramatized her affection for her; it was a
playful version of the voice that Qipisa parents and grandparents often used to babies and small children
to teach them that they were loved, and what she said was: "Say 'ungaa' (make the cry of a baby) because
you're a baby." When Liila said "ungaa," her voice was the voice of a tiny baby crying. And Chubby
Maata's voice, when she echoed, "ungaa," was just like her mother's. Liila hugged her daughter
extravagantly and exclaimed in the same intense, playful voice: "Unakuluuuk! That darling little one!"
Then, still in the same playful voice, a chant that rose at the end of each word, she dictated for
Chubby Maata to repeat: "Anaanak!" "Ataatak!" "Amaamak!" "Uquuquu!" The words mean 'mother,'
'father,' 'suck' or 'baby bottle,' and 'meat' - all wellworn words in Chubby Maata's baby vocabulary; and
both the words, and the voice in which Liila said them, assured Chubby Maata that she was a baby.
Chubby Maata's voice again echoed her mother's exactly, as she repeated: "Anaanak!" "Ataatak!" and
"Amaamak!" but when she said "uquuquu" she added another syllable: "Uquuququu!" She was saying
the word this time not only like a mother talking to her baby but also as the baby herself might say it.
And Liila gave her another extravagant hug. They repeated the same litany several times, celebrating
But suddenly there was a rude interruption. Somebody (it was Luisa) pushed Chubby Maata's
bottom lightly with her foot. The spell was broken. Chubby Maata turned, looking annoyed, and asked:
"Who's hurting me?" There was no answer.

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Instead, Liila said to Chubby Maata: "Say 'ungaa'." Again the voice of the tiny baby. Chubby
Maata echoed, "Ungaa." And again her mother hugged her. Liila didn't succeed in restoring the
celebration, though, because Luisa's push had given Rosi an idea. Now it was Rosi who attacked Chubby
Maata from behind, smiling broadly, and this time Chubby Maata was in no doubt as to who the
aggressor was.
Liila explained. "Because you're a baby she's attacking you; she's ugiat-ing you." In using the word
ugiat-, Liila implied that Rosi's attack was motivated by affection. People often expressed intense
affection toward babies in aggressive ways which were called ugiat-. I suspect that Rosi's motives were
less benign; nevertheless, Liila's explanation made the attack playful; and since it was playful, it was
safe. So the children wrestled together, laughing - until Rosi exercised a little too much strength. "A'aaa
(ouch)!" exclaimed Chubby Maata.
"Say 'ungaa'," said Liila; "cry, and I'll rescue you." This time she used the ordinary, adult word,
qia, for 'cry'. And this time Chubby Maata didn't reply immediately. But after a minute she did say,
"Ungaa," and then Liila, laughing, pushed Rosi away from her sister. Rosi returned, however, and the
two girls began again to wrestle and to laugh - until once, when Chubby Maata attacked Rosi, Rosi, still
laughing, ran to hide behind Luisa, who was standing near the door.
Liila held out her hands to Rosi, beckoning her affectionately. But when Rosi trustfully came
toward her, Liila's arms shot out, not to embrace but to imprison her. Holding Rosi down, she said to
Chubby Maata: "Hurt her; make her angry; hold your hand on her head so she can't get up."
Chubby Maata said: "Shall I pull her hair?" She clutched a handful of hair, but Rosi cried out,
"Aa'aaa!" and Liila said, "No, just hold your hand on her head so she can't get up." Chubby Maata did
that, but Rosi wrenched herself free and escaped back to Luisa.
Then the wrestling began again, and Liila, with an amused look, commented to everybody and
nobody: "She - she meant Chubby Maata - is really fighting!" The children were, indeed, beginning to
look angry, and they strained against each another, trying to push each other over. Their earnestness was
comical, and Liila, Luisa, and I broke into laughter; but at the same time, when the girls began to flail at
each other, Liila took the precaution of holding her hand between them. She didn't really want to lose a
Then, suddenly, she said: "Be good, please; someone's coming in!" I hadn't heard anything and the
children hadn't, either, but they stopped fighting and one of them asked: "Who is it?" Liila lowered her

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voice to an intense whisper, resonant with memories of bugaboos, and said: "Visitors from another
camp!" The effect was magical, as Liila had every reason to think it might be. 'Visitors from other camps'
were a formidable presence in the worlds of Qipisa three- and four-year-olds, and in fact, made their
elders somewhat uneasy, too. So the children stood still and waited.
For a few minutes no one came in. But then we heard footsteps in the porch and the door opened to
reveal - not "visitors" but two very familiar boys, the girls' uncles Juda and Matiiusi.
Rosi and Chubby Maata were on easy and playful terms with both boys. But this time, when the
boys came in, Rosi whispered in Liila's ear: "Let's go to Kaati's." And Chubby Maata whispered in her
other ear: "Let's go home." Liila made no response at all to Rosi's plea and pretended not to have heard
Chubby Maata's. She made her repeat it several times: "Hai?" "Hai (what did you say)?"
Chubby Maata did repeat her request several times, at first in a whisper but each time a little more
distinctly, and finally Liila said: "Say 'ungaa' and we'll go home." This time her voice was not playful, it
was matter-of-fact. Chubby Maata didn't respond at once, but when she did say "ungaa," her voice was
matter-of-fact like her mother's, and immediately afterwards she claimed fulfillment of the bargain.
"Come on! Let's go home!"
But Liila didn't seem to be listening. She said in an abstracted voice: "After awhile." It was the
standard putoff. Then, speaking again to Chubby Maata, she asked: "Shall Yiini and Luisa come and
visit?" Chubby Maata wrinkled her nose to say no, and Liila laughed. I joined in, repeating the question
for confirmation, as Inuit often do: "Chubby Maata! You don't want me to visit?" "That's right," said
Chubby Maata; she did not want me to visit. Liila said in a tone of amused surprise: "She agrees!" And
then, speaking to Chubby Maata, she asked in the same amused tone: "Because you still don't like her?"
Chubby Maata opened her eyes wide and raised her brows to say yes, confirming that her mother had
understood her motive; and again Liila and I laughed.
Then, finally, Liila and the children left, Liila saying: "Come on! Let's go home"the same words
that she had ignored when Chubby Maata said them a few minutes earlier. Luisa and Juda followed them
out, and Liila and Luisa mooed rejectingly at their brother, making it clear to him that his presence was
not wanted. He followed anyway, and Matiiusi, after a minute, followed too.
That's all there is to the drama. It was a very ordinary, everyday, spontaneous, playful interaction.
But I think it was also a most effective socializereven when the adult players were not fully aware that
they were socializing when they played it.

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What meanings could the drama have had for the actors? And what might Chubby Maata have
learned from it?
This drama, like others, was shaped by a number of the themes and plots that governed life in
Chubby Maata's camp, and in other Inuit settlements. But I want to focus on the messages about
babynessthe issue in the forefront of the drama. Liila is playing with Chubby Maata's babyness. She
repeatedly tells Chubby Maata to make the cry of a baby - "say ungaa" - and the action of the drama
develops out of these cries. Looking at how the action develops, we can follow Chubby Maata as she
becomes aware of being a baby, and aware of the advantages and disadvantages of babyness. We can
watch her also as she learns how to outgrow that state and discovers reasons for wanting to outgrow it.
The Fate of Babyness, Part 1: Celebration
The drama can be divided into two halves, in which rather different things happen, so I will discuss
each half separately. The first half is a celebration of babyness. At the same time, it's a field in which
Chubby Maata can experiment with being something other than a baby. How does this come about?
Well, to begin with, babyness is not all of a piece, and not all of its manifestations are acceptable to
adults - Liila in particular. When Chubby Maata maneuvers to restore her place between her mother's
knees, she discovers that Liila is not willing to validate her serious and somewhat bad-tempered,
confrontational baby demand. She ignores it.
Instead, Liila turns the interaction into play when she laughs at her daughter's taking the chewing
gum, and when she demonstrates gestures for her to imitate. The game with the gestures distracts Chubby
Maata from her baby demand and gives her an opportunity to join with her older sister in a common
effort: to do what an adult does. The result is that she grows up a little. For the moment, she becomes a
childat least, she is not focused on babyness, baby privilege; she can ask for the sitting position of a
nonbaby. And this her mother accepts.
Carrying on from this development, Chubby Maata's sharp eyes see another adult gesture to
imitate: my own posture, with hands behind head. "Yiini!" she says, very pleased with herself. In this
game she is playing "adult". Liila is pleased with Maata's imitation, too, but her warm laughter tells us
that she sees it as the act of a charming baby. Older children, and of course adults, would be embarrassed
to imitate somebody's action in that person's presence; and if Chubby Maata were older, Liila wouldn't
ask her to repeat the imitation. But because Chubby Maata is a baby, her mother does ask her to repeat it

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for Aunt Luisa, and when Chubby Maata complies, she does it as a baby would do it, saying "Tiini"
instead of "Yiini".
In other words, Chubby Maata is returned to baby status by her mother's laughter and mine, and by
her mother's request for a repetition of her cute action; and she acknowledges and dramatizes that baby
status by imitating baby speech. But there seem to be some differences of opinion as to whether she is a
real baby or playing baby. Luisa and Rosi think she really doesn't know how to pronounce my name, and
both of them try to correct her. I think Liila knows better. Instead of trying to make her daughter's speech
more adult, she points out her babyness: "Make the cry of a babysay 'ungaa'because you are a baby."
In saying that, she is both telling Chubby Maata that she is a baby and encouraging her to continue
playing baby, as she was doing.
The drama goes on in the same vein. Liila dictates other words for her daughter to imitate: mother;
father; suck; meat. These are all words that adults say to babies and that represent infantile concerns, but
they are adult words, too. The last word is different. It's a play word and belongs entirely to baby talk. It's
interesting that this playbaby word is the word that Chubby Maata chooses to play with. She makes it
even more babylikeas she did when she said "Tiini" instead of "Yiini". And Liila responds with another
mighty hug, as she did when Chubby Maata made the baby cry, "Ungaa." In other words, mother and
daughter are playing baby together, each of them elaborating and celebrating the other's overtures; and in
the process, Chubby Maata is learning how to play at being what she is: her mother's darling little baby.
She is also experiencing in play a progression of identities. There are two parallel developments,
both of which correspond logically to the outgrowing of babyness. On the one hand, Chubby Maata
moves from being a baby through being a child to being an adult - before she returns to being a baby. At
the same time, she moves from being an unselfconscious baby toward being a selfconscious baby, who
can observe babyness and consciously play a baby role. The movement from baby through child to adult
happens to be a microcosm of the process of growing up, whereas the movement from being an
unselfconscious baby to a selfconscious one represents progress in acquiring techniques for growing up.
Notice that throughout part one, Chubby Maata has been maneuvered into operating, more and
more consciously, in play mode. It's playfulness that gets her what she wants. It's playfulness that
enthrones her as a darling baby. At the same time, in various ways, it nudges her toward the edge of the
throne. We'll see more of that, presently.

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The Fate of Babyness, Part 2: Vulnerability
A third line of development in the first half of the drama has to do not with the baby identity itself
but with the ways in which that identity is evaluated - the places that babies occupy in human society. In
the first half of the sequence, Chubby Maata moves from being an annoying baby standing on the
periphery of her social world to being an adorable one, cuddled at its centre. This third development
doesn't lead directly to growing up, and it runs into trouble in the second part of the sequence.
In this second half, spurred by Luisa's kick, the plot thickens and identities become more complex.
The adorable baby, whose dyadic baby relationship with her mother has just been celebrated, begins to
become aware of an outside world that interferes with that relationship, a more complex world that
contains the potential for hostility as well as affectionand more complicated still, it contains the
possibility that affection may be expressed painfully, with the appearance of hostility. Remember that
when Rosi attacked Chubby Maata, Liila didn't rescue her; she explained that Rosi was expressing
intense affection for her because she was a baby. So! It is not only a nice warm experience to be a baby -
and to be loved - it can also be dangerous, or at least disagreeable.
Nevertheless, both adults and children laugh at Rosi's attack and at Liila's explanation, which
keeps the play alive; and the attack turns into wrestling, which both children enjoyuntil Rosi gets a little
bit rough, and Chubby Maata utters a cry of pain. Liila tries to restore play by telling Chubby Maata:
"Say 'ungaa' (in a baby tone); cry and I'll rescue you." Here's another consequence of babyness, a
desirable one, this time: Babies are rescued. But this time Liila associates the charming baby cry, ungaa,
with the disagreeable and disapproved cry, qia, of the older child. Chubby Maata has often heard her
mother say, both to her and to Rosi: "Don't cry!" "Stop crying!" So, where is Chubby Maata now? Babies
are in danger of being hurt because they're loved. They can also be rescued because they're loved. But is
a baby cry lovable? Or is it disapproved of?
Chubby Maata hesitates this time before she says "ungaa," but she does say it. She announces her
babyness, she plays baby, and Liila rewards her by pushing Rosi away. Nevertheless, the wrestling game
resumes, and continues until Rosi runs to Luisa for protection. This time Liila offers protection to Rosi;
but when Rosi foolishly trusts her, Liila betrays her, holds her captive, and tells Chubby Maata to "hurt
her, make her angry."
In this betrayal, there is a message for Rosi about babyness: She, the elder child, can't expect to
have a protective dyadic world-excluding relationship with her mother; mother will take the side of the
baby and allow the elder to experience helplessness. Liila is, playfully, and certainly unwittingly,
demonstrating the real displacement of the elder child by the younger, the baby.
But there is also a message, a subtler one, for the baby. Is she really being rescued because she's a

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charming baby? Indeed, is she really being rescued at all?
Up to this point in the drama, saying "ungaa" has been part of a celebration of babyhood, and has
been rewarded as a symbolic expression of babyness. But now the direction to "say ungaa" is presented
as a means to an end; it's a condition that Chubby Maata must fill in order to achieve the goal of being
rescued - the goal of maintaining her alliance with her mother. Babyness is still being rewarded, but now
we begin to glimpse the saying of "ungaa" from another angle. It begins to sound less as though Chubby
Maata is being invited to play baby or to demonstrate her real babyness for the enjoyment of herself and
others, and more as though she is having to prove she's a baby, by making a public declaration of
babyness at some cost to herself, in order to obtain what she wants. And perhaps the reward she's paying
for - protection, alliance - is only a mirage.
Remember that at the beginning of this drama, when Chubby Maata seriously tried to displace
Rosi, Liila did not take sides and did not intervene. If she had taken sides on that occasion, she would
have been supporting Chubby Maata's bad temper and interfering in a problem that concerned just the
two children. To put it in an Inuit way, she would have been making Chubby Maata feel "strong"
vis-à-vis her sister and encouraging her to take advantage of that strength. Inuit believe that children
should learn to feel weak; they should learn to fear other people a little, so that they won't confront
people and try to impose their will on them. By pretending to take sides and then stepping back when the
going gets rough, Liila is able to create a situation in which both children can experience helplessness
and a certain amount of discomfort. And when the battle appears to be getting out of control, Liila stops
it evenhandedly. So Chubby Maata is not quite as "rescued" as she may have imagined she would be.
Liila refuses alliance again when Chubby Maata asks to go home and Rosi asks to go next door.
She turns a deaf ear to both serious demands. Instead, she creates another game and directs it to Chubby
Maata, who has made the more babyish of the two requests: "Let's go home." By pretending not to hear
what Chubby Maata says, Liila again forces her to expose her babyness to an audience. This time, it
doesn't sound, in the least, as though Liila were encouraging Chubby Maata to play baby; in fact, she's
not inviting her to play at all; she merely asks her to repeat her serious wish more loudly. And when she
tells her daughter to 'say "ungaa," her tone is matter-of-fact.
Chubby Maata seems to notice that her mother is not fully playing: She expects fulfillment of a
serious contract - if I say "ungaa," I'll get to go home - and she herself doesn't revert fully to play form;
she says "ungaa" in a matter-of-fact voice like her mother's.
But are serious and playful ends really distinct? When Liila says "Say 'ungaa' because you're a
baby" she is teaching Chubby Maata to perform what she really is, so "Say 'ungaa'" can mean several
things, separately or all at the same time: play baby so we can enjoy your babyness together; play baby
so you can discover that you are one; playing baby is better than seriously being a baby; and play baby so

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I can see whether you are one - and if you are one we can laugh at you. I think we can see how slippery
these meanings are, how easily they metamorphose, one into the other, and to what dilemmas they might
lead. Chubby Maata herself may not see clearly yet, but the fact that she already senses danger of some
sort in self-exposure is evident in the subdued nature of her reply to her mother's question, "what did you
say?" Here is no bounciness, no baby beam, but a whispera sure sign that she feels a little jumpy.
So, the dark underbelly of babyness begins to be exposed. Not only may it be somewhat dangerous
to be a baby because one is vulnerable to attack and alliances suddenly disintegrate; it may also suddenly
turn out that when one thinks one is being a charming baby (saying "ungaa"), one is instead perceived as
an unpleasant baby, tearful and aggressive. The adorable baby in the arms of her enchanted mother has
become a mindless baby in the eyes of a larger and less enamoured world. Again it's the growingup
process in a nutshell. And what Liila is doing, as she plays with her daughter, is to help her to become
more aware of these facts of her three-year-old life. The play provides both techniques and motives for
growing up, as well as provoking Chubby Maata to think about whether she wants to grow up.
The Drama Analyzed: How Play Works
How does play work to accomplish these ends?
Remember that in the first half of the drama, serious behaviour always brings about a deadlock in
communication, a situation that Chubby Maata doesn't want; and good communication is always
reestablished by playful means.
Moreover, in every instance of miscommunication in part one, after mother and daughter have
begun to play together, Liila uses the opportunity to point out to Chubby Maata, explicitly and playfully,
that she is a baby. She shows Chubby Maata all the delightful rewards of babyness. But at the same time,
she blames all Chubby Maata's difficulties - being ignored, misunderstood, and attacked - on the fact that
she is a baby. In a word, the ruptures in the play provide opportunities for Liila to use the play to call
attention to Chubby Maata's babyness and demonstrate how the baby identity works - both for and
against herin her social life.
We've seen that in the first half of the drama, seriousness and playfulness seem to alternate quite
simply, seriousness intruding when one person understands another's act in the "wrong" mode. And Liila
always interprets the breakdown, returns the interaction to the safe sphere of play, and reestablishes a
clear, simple, and secure life, with mother and baby at its core. In the second half of the drama the uses
of seriousness and play get more complicated. Saying "ungaa" still solves problems, but it's no longer
pure play; it's a serious condition to be fulfilled before Liila can repair the breakdowns in

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Moreover, although play is reestablished when Chubby Maata says "ungaa" in order to be rescued
from Rosi's wrestling attack, it's a different kind of play than in the first half of the drama. Liila is no
longer playing with Chubby Maata as a companion, she is playing with her as an object. She has goals,
and some of them are serious. Liila is tricking her daughters into serious confrontation, which she
disapproves of, just as she disapproved of Chubby Maata's first serious behaviourher attempt to remove
Rosi. Liila is testing both children to see whether they can be seduced into serious aggression, and, as I
said earlier, she is playfully creating a situation in which, if the girls do exceed the limits of play, they
will experience the uncomfortable consequences of confrontation. She is discouraging serious behaviour.
She doesn't do it by contributing to the attack (which would terrify Chubby Maata) or by legislating
against it or seriously suggesting how to deal with it (which would deprive the children of the
opportunity to actively participate in the solution of a problem); she does it by disengaging herself and
letting the children discover for themselves the possibilities and consequences of the behaviour: physical
discomfort, criticism from others (expressed as amusement), and disintegration of the cherished mother
baby dyad. These are experiences that the children could not be given in serious mode, because in that
mode physical aggression between people is unthinkable and encouraging it would be condemned as
"mindless." Instead, Liila encourages the development of "mind" in the children by tricking them into
displaying their lack of it.
And so it goes on. When Chubby Maata wants to go home, Liila once more playfully forces her to
expose her babyness by saying "ungaa" as a condition for fulfilling the request, and Chubby Maata
imagines that she is making a serious contract.
But Liila doesn't immediately fulfill her side of the contract. Instead, she makes still another test of
her daughter's maturity: "Shall Yiini and Luisa come and visit?" And Chubby Maata fails the test. This
time, she doesn't even seem to suspect hidden levels of meaning, even though Liila laughs at her
ungracious response. Chubby Maata has once again demonstrated to her elders that she is indeed a baby -
an unenlightened one who still has a long way to travel on the road toward becoming a social person.
And Liila accepts that fact. This time she does not explicitly point out Chubby Maata's babyness; she just
takes her home.
In other words, in the second half of the sequence, simple dichotomies disappear and are replaced
by multileveled communications, part play, part serious. And it is Liila, no longer clarifier but
obfuscator, who creates these ambiguities by pretending to be serious when she is not and pretending to
play when she does not. Or by playing and being serious at the same time. Chubby Maata, of course,
misunderstands more than ever, while we, watching, bugeyed, from a safe distance, can see that life is
no longer made clear and simple but, on the contrary, is very complex. The dyad of mother and baby is
being undermined, and Chubby Maata is being left to her own interpretive resources.

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Once again this small sequence of interactions appears to be a microcosm, this time of the tangled
and treacherous nature of communication in adult society. Chubby Maata is learning several lessons
about playfulness and seriousness that will be of use to her all her life. I think she has already learned
that it's possible to act in more than one mode, and she is beginning to learn that truth and reason are not
the exclusive property of one mode or the other. When communicative trouble looms on one plane it can
be dealt with by switching into the other - although play often works better than seriousness. At the same
time, and somewhat contradictorily, Chubby Maata is learning that no communication can ever be trusted
to be what it seems to be. It is always necessary to be alert to the possibility of hidden meanings:
seriousness under playfulness, playfulness under seriousness, the two intricately enmeshed.
As to the lessons about babyness that Chubby Maata is learning, it's clear that the playfulness of
the medium both simplifies and complicates the learning process. Some of Chubby Maata's performances
of babyness are initiated by her mother and others by herself, and they take various forms, but all of them
dramatize babyness in clear and simple images. Chubby Maata seems to recognize, create and
communicate the positive images of the darling baby quite well already; but she appears to have only the
faintest glimmering awareness of the existence of the mindless baby, who is perfectly present to the
adults. Nevertheless, all her baby performances give Chubby Maata the opportunity to discover and
explore - even to create (as in "Tiini" and "uquuququu") - the various dimensions of babyness and the
consequences of being a baby. Through her performances, she lives Babyness richly and with increasing
awareness. And, for the moment, by and large, with joy. At the same time, those performances give her
practice in experimenting with new behaviours and identities in a milieu that is fun and, in an important
sense, safe. When Liila playfully says "say ungaa," she is not - so far as Chubby Maata can see -
threatening her babyness. In fact, she is herself enjoying it; she presents herself, in the main, as Chubby
Maata's playfellow and ally, so Chubby Maata has no need to oppose her and to resist the lessons she
presents. Indeed, Chubby Maata is maximally open to those lessons, because she is in a happy and
relaxed mood, not in crisis.
In performing babyness, Chubby Maata is wilfully, actively, putting on baby behaviour. And of
course what is wilfully put on can also be wilfully taken off, so Chubby Maata, in learning to play the
role of baby, is unwittingly learning how to take distance from babyness. At the same time, in performing
babyness, Chubby Maata will also discover - indeed, she may already suspect - that she is displaying it;
she is performing what she is, and audiences will confirm her understanding, in hugs and in words - and
in laughter that contains many meanings, evaluations both wanted and unwanted. We have seen that the
fuzziness of the boundary between playing baby and really being a baby disrupted Chubby Maata's play
when Luisa mistook her playful mispronunciation for real baby incompetence. It's because she is playing
at being what she really is that the boundary is problematic, and it's because it's problematic that it's
educational. It's the identity between playful and serious selves that makes it possible for the play to
serve as an announcement of self and, so, possible for audience reactions, both pleasant and unpleasant,
to create awareness of self; to break the cocoon and bring about a change.

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In conclusion, I want to come back, full circle, to my introduction. I hope it's evident that in this
simple, happy play, Chubby Maata is learning about much more than the pros and cons of babyness -
more, even, than the value of playing. Larger dilemmas of adult life are also there for her to discover as
her antennae mature. One problem that is foreshadowed in the Baby game concerns love. Although love
is essential for survival and although sometimes it's delightful to love and be loved, it's also painful and
dangerous. A second problem concerns social support. Alone, one is weak; nevertheless, it's safer to say
"uncle!" - that is, "ungaaa" - when attacked than to seek alliance. Alliances can be untrustworthy, even
with mother. And because nobody tells Chubby Maata these things, and nobody tells her how to deal
with them - because she discovers all of this through powerful, emotionally charged experience, and, she
supposes, by herself - growing up becomes a creative act. Not something imposed by adult will and
learned by rote.
[i].This paper was delivered twice in December 1998, first as the MillerComm lecture at the University
of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, and then at the 2nd Conference on Challenging the Child to Figure
Things Out, at the Fall Meetings of the American Psychoanalytic Association in New York. "Out of the
Garden of Eden," the paper that follows "Journey out of Babyhood" in this issue of AnthroGlobe, was
delivered in May 1998 at the Joint Meetings of the American and Canadian Psychoanalytic Associations
in Toronto. Because both papers are published together in this issue of AnthroGlobe, I have made
occasional cross-references to minimize duplication. A modicum of repetition is, nevertheless, necessary,
in order to maintain the internal coherence of each paper.
[ii]."Inuit" are the native people who used to be called "Eskimos." The change in nomenclature was
adopted at their request some years ago. The word Inuit means "people" in the Canadian dialects of their
language, Inuktitut, but in the title of the northern political body, the Inuit Circumpolar Conference, it
refers not only to the Inuit of Canada but also to the Inupiat of Northern Alaska and the Kalalliit of
Greenland, all of whom were formerly called "Eskimos."
[iii].This drama is the subject of "Out of the Garden of Eden" (this issue of AnthroGlobe).
[iv].A fuller account of the experiences of infants and small children in camps like Chubby Maata's can
be found in the introductory section of "Out of the Garden of Eden" (this issue of AnthroGlobe).
[v].An anecdote that charmingly demonstrates Chubby Maata's perspective can be found in the

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introductory pages of "Out of the Garden of Eden."
[vi].In an ethnographic account of a rapidly and unevenly changing society, it is difficult to choose tenses
for the narrative. Neither past nor present fits exactly. In this paper I adopt the convention of using the
past tense for events I observed. I also use it for ethnographic generalizations, because I am writing of a
past way of life, and this point needs to be emphasized, even though some of the behaviour described is
still widely found. I use the present tense for analysis, to set it off from the ethnography and make it
more immediate. (17 of 17) [2/19/2001 1:56:23 PM]

Posted: 23 January 1999  Last edited: 23 September, 2005