Inuit

For 5,000 years, the people and culture known throughout the world as Inuit (which means simply "the people" in Inuktitut) have occupied the vast territory stretching from the shores of the Chukchi Peninsula of Russia, east across Alaska and Canada, to the southeastern coast of Greenland. It is here, based on their ability to utilize the physical environment and living resources of this geographic region known as the Arctic, where their culture developed and their history unfolded.

Inuit are a founding people of the country now know as Canada, and their history represents an important and fascinating story. It is not just a story about an early chapter of Canadian history. Indeed it is an epic tale in the history of human settlement and the endurance of culture.

Each chapter of their story provides valuable lessons and insights about issues that matter to cultures everywhere. Their history is about people and their relationship to the environment and to each other; about dealing with change as well as the causes and consequences of change forced on them through colonialism; and about how they have reestablished control over their cultural, economic and political destiny through land claims and self government.

Above all, the story of Inuit is about how they as a culture are able to live in balance with the natural world. This is a story that they must begin to tell for themselves. Unfortunately until now, most of the research on their culture and history has been done by individuals who come from outside their culture.

Before European contact, the Inuit lived in extended families of five to six people and in hunting groups of six to ten families. They were nomadic, moving with the seasons and the animals they hunted. The lifestyle and the annual pattern, however, varied somewhat from region to region depending on the animal resources available and their seasonal distribution.

Generally, in the winter, the Inuit lived in coastal campsites hunting seals by patiently waiting at their breathing holes in the ice. They often traveled vast distances on the sea ice using dogteams and sleds. The domed snowhouse, or igloo was used for shelter in the winter, but the Inuit also built homes of sod, stone and whalebone. The people wore layers of caribou skin clothing and sealskin footwear to protect themselves from the Arctic climate.

In the spring, families dispersed from the coastal campsites to hunt seals at the ice edge. During the ice-free months, they often moved inland in smaller groups to fish at lakes and to hunt caribou. In summer, they lived in skin tents and traveled by foot and by boat. During the spring and fall char runs, the Inuit built stone weirs to trap the fish.

The Inuit were masters of improvisation and many of their inventions, such as the igloo, the toggling harpoon head and the kayak, are considered technological masterpieces. Sleds and skin-covered boats were universally employed although regional variations in both design and use were common. The umiak, a large, open skin boat, was used to move camp by water and also for whale hunting. The one-man kayak was used to hunt seal, walrus and swimming caribou. Dogs were used to pull sleds, as pack animals in the summer, and also to locate seals under the ice and to hold bears or musk oxen at bay. Spears, bows and clubs were used for hunting and stone traps for catching small game and bears.

Contact with Europeans resulted in many changes in the Inuit way of life. Changes in Inuit occupancy patterns began in the early 19th century. Rather than traveling inland in the summer, the Inuit began to stay on the coast to work in the whaling industry. The trade in furs caused the Inuit to forego their traditional winter seal hunt for non-traditional trapping of Arctic fox. By the early 1920s, virtually all Inuit were living within traveling distance of a trading post. This eventually led to the creation of permanent campsites at the trading posts. Concentration of the population at permanent communities also concentrated the hunting activity in the vicinity of these communities.

Christian missionaries also affected Inuit culture and life style. Missionaries followed the whalers and the fur traders, traveling by dogteam and schooner along the Arctic Coast and around Hudson Bay. As a result of missionary activity, many of the traditional spiritual beliefs of the Inuit were lost. On the positive side, the missionaries were often scholars who left valuable records of the language and way of life of the Inuit. Edmund Peck, an Anglican missionary was responsible for the spread of the Inuktitut syllabic script in the eastern Arctic. By the 1920s, adult literacy had reached almost 100%.

By the end of the 19th century, the Inuit had acquired rifles, telescopes, metal pots, steel needles, cotton thread, and woolen material. The 20th century brought a wide variety of technological advances. Most hunting is now done using snowmobiles, outboard motorboats, and three- or four-wheeled motorcycles. These vehicles have increased the hunting range and relieved some of the pressure on wildlife in the immediate vicinity of communities, but the Inuit still use less of the land than they did before moving into permanent settlements.