Ethnographic Information

This page provides a sketch of the environment in which the Skerre live, and a brief description of various aspects of their way of life.

Physical Geography

The Skerre (population 4,000) live in the glacier- and stream-carved valleys of the Western Interior Range. Their range is a roughly defined area of about 3,000 km2 (1,200 mi2). The Skerre area ranges in altitude from about 1,500 m (5,000 ft) to about 3,000 m (10,000 ft) above sea level. This area has many deep valleys and is covered with coniferous trees, though some deciduous trees appear at lower elevations. The local bodies of water are not large, but are plentiful. There are many mountain streams, which at the lower elevations become small rivers. There are also many (mostly small) lakes. There is a fair amount of wildlife: bears, mountain lions, moose, wolves, beavers, muskrats, rabbits, and many different species of birds and fish.


The climate is mild in the summer and cold in the winter. Summertime temperatures average in the 20s Celsius (70-85 Fahrenheit), while wintertime temperatures are in the negative singles Celsius (20s Fahrenheit). The area gets a fair amount of precipitation, about 60-75 centimeters (24-30 inches) annually, mostly in the form of winter snows. There are essentially just two seasons--summer and winter, with only short interludes between them.

Historical Origins

Evidence is scant on how long the Skerre have lived in this area or where they came from. Historical linguistics does not help much in this instance because the Skerre language is believed to be an isolate, with no known linguistic relatives. Skerre legends say that their people moved to the Western Interior Range from the west. Studies of the place names of Western Plateau seem to confirm this, though the evidence is not completely clear.

Economic Activity

The Skerre are hunter-gatherers. Their diet consists of a wide variety of game and plants. They mainly hunt the various herbivores that live in the area, though bears are hunted as a delicacy. Though this lifestyle may seem austere, there is plenty to eat and plenty of time for leisure activities.

The Skerre are nomadic, but have regular patterns of movement. They spend the summers in the higher elevations and come down the lower parts of valleys in the winters. Each band establishes a camp for six weeks to a year. These camps are used as bases of operations--a place to start out on hunting or gathering expeditions, and a place to bring the results of such expeditions. Camps, especially winter camps, are made in the nearly same location year after year--though a camp may be moved in the event of an environmental disaster (such as flooding) or marked change in wildlife patterns.

Though Skerre society is, on the whole, much more egalitarian than most agricultural societies, economic activities are divided along gender lines--men typically hunt and women typically gather. Though occasionally these tasks are done alone, they are most often done in groups.

Familial and Political Organization

Familial and political organization are closely related aspects of Skerre life. In this section we take a top-down look at these spheres of Skerre life.

Political Organization

The primary unit of the Skerre life is the band (Skerre kaaro), a group of between 30-75 individuals who camp together, cooperate to find food, and form a community in which the social, spiritual, medicinal, and child-rearing needs of the individuals are met. Bands typically are highly interrelated, both because several generations of single families live within the band and because there is a high amount of intermarriage within the band.

The band is lead by an individual called a taran. The position of taran has limited authority. The office's principal duty is to coordinate movement and settlement--when the band will move and where the band will make its base camp. The taran also serves a moderator to discussions, which facilitate the consensus building (among all adult members) required for most band decisions. The taran does not organize hunting parties, arrange marriages, perform religious duties, or judge (in a legal sense) his/her fellow band members. Instead, some of the duties are performed by someone else (the arakir), some of them are individually done (organizing hunting parties and selecting a mate), and some of them are done by the band collectively (legal duties).

Both males and females can be tarans, though a majority of tarans are male. They are typically older members of the band, though not usually the oldest member. Tarans' election and term of the office is reminiscent of a prime minister: a new taran is selected by the consensus of the adult population of the band (and thus, is not necessarily hereditary, though it sometimes turns out that way), and the term continues until a metaphorical "vote of no confidence" is given or the taran dies. Despite the possibility for frequent turnover, most tarans stay in office a reasonably long time.

Familial Organization

Within a band are individual households (Skerre, tseris). They usually consist of a married man and woman, their children (usually no more than 2 or 3, spread many years apart), and possibly the man or woman's parent(s). They live in small, easily transportable huts that are open on the top for the smoke from the hut fire to escape.

Parents are involved in their children's marriage choices, but in most cases, marriage choices ultimately involve a combination of individual choice and parental choice. Marriage residence is neolocal--once married, couples form their own households, instead of living with one of their sets of parents, or with some other relative. In rare instances of marriage outside the band, the new couple must join one of the two bands, but there seems to be no discernable pattern as to preference for the male's or the female's.


Religion is a fundamental and inseparable part of Skerre life. Skerre theology has no written canons (it has been passed by oral tradition for generations) and it has no supreme god or pantheon of gods. Instead, Skerre theology focuses on spirits, some of which are found attached to all living things and some of which are free and unattached. To the Skerre, spirits are actively involved with the events of this world. They can be made both happy and unhappy by human actions and thus, there is great effort to try to appease them.

The band's religious specialist is called an arakir (pl. tinarakir). Smaller bands usually have just one arakir, but large band can have three or four. An arakir can be both male or female, but a majority of tinarakir have been female. Being arakir is not a full time job--the arakir must also participate in hunting or gathering. However, tinarakir have a lesser role in economic production, so they can perform their religious duties without being too overwhelmed. The arakir's religious duties include: picking up the "pulse" of the spirits (often in quiet mediation), healing the sick and wounded, tending to various other spiritual needs of the people (including what amounts to counseling and other quasi-psychiatry plus communicating with the dead), and performing the various rituals below. To find successors for themselves, tinarakir look for individuals with a predilection for the various duties of the arakir, and then train them as apprentices.

Skerre religion contains a number of important rituals. A collection of them mark important stages in a person's life: birth, reaching adulthood, marriage, parenthood (combined with birth), and death. These occur at their appointed times within a person's life (and are so "regularly scheduled"). Though the arakir is in charge of these ceremonies, the whole band is actively involved, and these ceremonies involve a synergy between the arakir, audience, and the honored.

There is a second class of rituals that are impromptu and are usually in response to crises such as a natural disaster like a flood or drought. In this case, the arakir is more in charge, since s/he is the medium between the spirit and human worlds; however, audience participation is key here, too, since only the group together, it is believed, can assauge the spirits in times of crisis.

Arts and Recreation

The arts and recreation are an important part of Skerre life. Storytelling, music-making (generally singing with drum, and sometimes flute, accompaniment), and fine arts are all important parts to the rituals above, but also occur independently. All bands have their expert artists, though these people are otherwise regular members of the band. In storytelling, there is no clear distinction between poetry and prose: story-telling contains elements from both, as well as other mnemonic devices such as repetition of salient parts of lines and having things occur in fours (contrast that with the patterns of threes found in the western European tradition).

The Skerre also engage in activities that one could loosely term as sports. These activities, including spear-throwing, sling-throwing, and running, all hone hunting skills, but also serve as a form of leisure as well.

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