There are eight main Inuit groups in Canada, the LABRADOR, UNGAVA, BAFFIN ISLAND, IGLULIK, CARIBOU, NETSILIK, COPPER and Western Arctic Inuit (see NATIVE PEOPLE, DEMOGRAPHY). The Western Arctic Inuit (or Inuvialuit) are recent immigrants, or their descendants, from Alaska, taking the place of the MACKENZIE INUIT, who were decimated by several smallpox and influenza EPIDEMICS at the beginning of the 20th century. The SADLERMIUT, in northwestern Hudson Bay, died out following contact during the early 1900s ( see NATIVE PEOPLE, HEALTH).
All of the Canadian Inuit speak one language, Inuktitut or Eskimo-Aleut, though there are six different dialects (see NATIVE PEOPLE, LANGUAGES). However, because of improved travel opportunities and the development of Inuit-language radio and TV programming, language differences are diminishing (see COMMUNICATIONS IN THE NORTH; NATIVE PEOPLE, COMMUNICATIONS). Traditionally, there was no written language, but after contact with missionaries, writing systems were widely adopted. Since 1920 the adult literacy rate has been almost 100%.
The first sustained contact with outsiders occurred between Moravian missionaries and Labrador Inuit in the late 18th century. Fleeting trade contacts were established at a few other locations in the Arctic, but most contact occurred nearly a century later. During the latter half of the 19th century, explorers and commercial whalers introduced various trade items to the Inuit, though it was only following the end of commercial whaling, at the time of the SECOND WORLD WAR, that trading posts became more or less permanently established in the Arctic regions. Mission stations and police posts were also established during this period. Following the Second World War there was an intensification of government activity, including the establishment of schools, nursing stations, airports and communication installations, and housing programs in the newly established settlements and hamlets.
Historically, Inuit communities contained 500-1000 members. The most important social and political unit was the regional BAND, several of which together constituted the larger groups within which marriages occurred and all members spoke a similar dialect. Regional bands would customarily congregate for short periods during the winter months, when people would gather in sealing or hunting camps.
During the rest of the year, they lived in smaller bands, often composed of two to five families. Each household generally consisted of a married couple and their children, though elderly and unmarried relatives might also be present. Many economic and social activities involved inter-household co-operation, and widespread sharing was, and still is, a fundamental characteristic of Inuit social life. Most families who chose to live together were closely related, with leadership of the group generally assumed by the oldest active member.
Marriage was nearly universal among Inuit and customarily took place in early adulthood; it was common for the young couple to reside close to the parents of one or the other spouse. Many households included adopted children, an indication of the high value accorded children. Children were an important means of establishing valued interfamily relationships through adoption, betrothal, adult-child relationships established at birthing ceremonies, and naming practices. The family was an important economic unit, relying on a decided division of responsibilities among all household members, including children and elderly relatives.
Most Inuit groups based their economy on sea-mammal hunting, particularly for seals. In summer and fall many groups hunted caribou or moved to favoured coastal locations to hunt and fish a variety of game species. Fishing and food gathering (for bird eggs, shellfish and berries) were important seasonal activities, as were hunts for polar bear and whale. Though high value was placed on fresh food, quantities were also stored for future use. Drying, and caching in cool areas, were common techniques, although several special techniques (such as storing in oil) were also used.
The traditional technology was based on locally available materials, principally bone, horn, antler, ivory, stone and animal skins. In some areas grass or baleen was used for basketry, wood substituted for bone, copper for antler or bone, and bird or fish skins for animal skins. Use was made of special parts of animals, eg, sinew, intestine and bladders. The improvising abilities of Inuit are well known today, and many Inuit inventions are considered technological masterpieces. The domed snowhouse (igluvigak, or IGLOO in English), the toggling harpoon head and the KAYAK are noteworthy examples.
There was an important relationship between location of settlements and seasonably available food resources. The composition of settlements might change periodically in response to social needs and desires to interact with kinsmen residing elsewhere. Many hunting methods became more effective when several hunters worked co-operatively, eg, during winter seal hunting.
Sleds and skin-covered boats were universally used by Inuit, though regional variations in both design and use were common. Dogs historically served as hunting animals and were used to locate seals under the sea ice or to hold bears or muskoxen at bay. They were also used as pack animals in the summer. Men used single-seat kayaks for hunting sea mammals and for hunting caribou in rivers and lakes. In Alaska, large skin-covered UMIAKS were used for whale hunting, although in the Canadian Arctic (and Greenland) such boats were more usually used by women to transport households from place to place.
The skin tent, often with a short ridgepole, was generally made from dehaired sealskins and weighted down along the ground with rocks. Among the Caribou Inuit, the tent was often conical shaped and constructed from dehaired caribou skins. Tents were used when suitable snow was not available for snowhouses, or when away from the sites of sod and stone-walled houses.
Snowhouse design varied. At winter settlements the main living chamber could be quite large, perhaps four metres in diameter and almost three metres in height. In addition, there were chambers for storage and an entrance passage, and often extra living chambers attached to the side. In some regions it was customary to line the walls with caribou skins for insulation. Most snowhouses had a snow sleeping platform and a window (made from clear lake ice) set into the roof (see HOUSE). Smaller, less elaborate snowhouses are still used during winter travel. In the western Arctic, where driftwood logs were available, permanent dwellings were constructed for winter use. Windows in this case were made from translucent animal-skin parchment.
Inuit skilfully manufactured footwear and clothing from locally obtained and prepared animal skins. Even though parkas, gloves and boots followed a similar basic design, regional variations in pattern and technique persisted. For most Inuit, footwear was made from the skin of two different species of seal, either haired (for winter use) or hairless (for spring and summer use); the latter were entirely waterproof. In some areas caribou skin replaced sealskin, especially for winter boots.
The parka traditionally consisted of an inner and outer jacket, usually of caribou fur. Among some groups, sealskin parkas were commonly worn in spring through autumn, and caribou fur was preferred for winter clothing. Women's clothing was often more elaborate than men's, with a voluminous hood on the tailed and aproned parka. Infants were carried in a pouch against the woman's back, not in the hood. There was little bodily adornment, though women's facial tattooing was practised.
Birth was associated with several socially significant rituals. Among some groups, in addition to an attending midwife, there was another adult who served as the child's ritual sponsor, assuming responsibilities for the child's moral upbringing. Throughout life, special terms of address were used, and in the case of a boy, his first killed game animals, and in the case of a girl, her first sewn items, were presented to this adult. Naming occurred at birth and had special significance, as Inuit names included part of the identity and character of the name bearer.
Betrothal of children could occur at any time, even before birth. Young people promised to each other used a special form of address, and their families related in ways appropriate to the future relationship. There were many rituals associated with hunting, although these are becoming less common. Animal bones or ceremonial bundles and ceremonies involving self-induced trance were used to foretell future events. Marriage, an exceptionally stable institution among Inuit, was customarily preceded by a period of trial marriage. Polygamy, and more rarely polyandry, also occurred, but were not common practices.
In the 20th century, Inuit have universally embraced CHRISTIANITY, and a large number of communities are now served by ordained Inuit clergy or trained catechists. Prior to missionary activity, Inuit religious leaders were shamans who often underwent lengthy and arduous training. Shamans were intermediaries between the Inuit and the various spiritual forces that influenced activities. Inuit life in pre-Christian days required strict adherence to various prohibitions and rules of conduct, so the role of the SHAMAN was usually to determine transgressors and to prescribe appropriate atonement (see NATIVE PEOPLE, RELIGION). Early missionary activity was similarly constituted, with many new rules and prohibitions introduced and penitence demanded after sinning.
Young Inuit were expected to learn by example, through close association with adults. Desire to be praised by respected elders and to attain social competence were strong incentives for young people to join adult society (see NATIVE PEOPLE, EDUCATION). Many of the values and beliefs of the society were demonstrated implicitly in behaviour; eg, the constant sharing of food and other commodities was a manifestation of the value of generosity and co-operation and a negation of stinginess, greediness and selfishness. Reinforcements of these lessons were contained in stories that the elders enjoyed telling, especially to children (see INUIT MYTH AND LEGEND).
The traditional musical instrument was the drum, up to a metre in diameter, made by stretching a skin membrane across a wooden hoop. Among Western Arctic Inuit, several sitting drummers usually accompanied one or several dancers, whereas elsewhere in the Canadian Arctic drumming was an individual performance at which the drummer stood and chanted, swaying rhythmically with the drum beat. Following contact with outsiders, instruments such as concertinas, accordions, violins, harmonicas and, more recently, guitars became widespread. Square dancing, often in extended and intricate performances without a caller, was very popular. "Throat singing" occurred among some groups, usually performed by two women producing a wide range of sounds from deep in the throat and chest.
Decorative arts were associated with skin sewing, or were inscribed on utensils. Recent innovations in INUIT ART, eg, soapstone carving, printmaking and wall hangings, stem from traditional skills, sometimes using new materials or techniques. Skills in creating string figures and other games that develop memory, manual dexterity and patience, continue to be practised.
Since contact with outsiders, many changes in Inuit society and culture have occurred. The early adoption of iron tools, firearms, cloth and wooden boats altered or replaced certain material items. Adoption of Christianity resulted in the loss of many traditional religious ideas and practices, and Canadian law has been superimposed on customary law in areas concerned with marriage, dispute settlement and wildlife management (see NATIVE PEOPLE, LAW). Even the language has changed, with English words replacing numerals above six (though the Inuit words for 10 and 20 are still retained).
However, many material items cannot be satisfactorily replaced; among these are harpoons used in marine mammal hunting, sealskin boots and caribou parkas required for winter hunting, snowhouses and sleds used in winter travelling, and techniques of preparing animal skins and sewing skin clothing. Important elements of the value system also resist change, including traditional child-rearing practices, concerns about environmental matters, the continued survival of the Inuit language and culture, and respect for individual autonomy (see INUIT CO-OPERATIVES).
In the early 1970s a national organization, the INUIT TAPIRISAT OF CANADA, was established to protect Inuit cultural and individual rights. The organization created several agencies in response to expressed needs. An Inuit Language Commission, for example, was formed to seek the best means of ensuring the increased use of Inuktitut for governmental, educational and communications purposes, and a Land Claims Office was established to research and negotiate Inuit LAND CLAIMS.
Many of these issues, such as protection of the arctic environment, are international in scope. Therefore, an international Inuit organization, the Inuit Circumpolar Conference, was formed with committees seeking to strengthen pan-Inuit communication, cultural and artistic activities, and international co-operation in environmental protection. This organization has affiliation with numerous international bodies, including the United Nations, thereby ensuring that Inuit concerns become widely understood throughout the world.
Author MILTON M.R. FREEMAN
Links to Other Sites
The website for the Historica-Dominion Institute, parent organization of The Canadian Encyclopedia and the Encyclopedia of Music in Canada. Check out their extensive online feature about the War of 1812, the "Heritage Minutes" video collection, and many other interactive resources concerning Canadian history, culture, and heritage.
Canadian Aboriginal Writing and Arts Challenge
The website for the Canadian Aboriginal Writing and Arts Challenge, which features Canada's largest essay writing competition for Aboriginal youth (ages 14-29) and a companion program for those who prefer to work through painting, drawing and photography. See their guidelines, teacher resources, profiles of winners, and more. From the Historica-Dominion Institute.
Bone Snow Knives and Tin Oil Lamps
View a collection of traditional tools and household articles representing various First Nation's cultures at this Virtual Museum website.
Art of this Land
A virtual exhibit devoted to Aboriginal art within the permanent collection of Canadian art at the National Gallery of Canada.
Holman: Forty Years of Graphic Art
This Virtual Museum website showcases the life, culture, and work of Inuit artists who reside in the northern Canadian community of Holman. Printmaking techniques and an extensive collection of their captivating art are also featured. Developed by the Winnipeg Art Gallery.
Search the extensive "Images Canada" site for historical images depicting the people and landscape of Canada’s Arctic.
An Archaeological Expedition to Kuukpak
Take a virtual archaeological expedition to Kuukpak. A website from the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre.
Avataq Cultural Institute
This extensive Avataq Cultural Institute website features a fine collection of Inuit art, stories, and artifacts. Also included are maps, background historical information, and an Inuttitut lexicon.
Encyclopedia of Canada's Peoples
The website for the "Encyclopedia of Canada's Peoples." Click on the links for feature articles about Canada's many multicultural communities, access to their extensive digital archives collection, learning modules, and much more. From "Multicultural Canada."
Languages of Canada
A comprehensive online database of languages currently in use in Canada. Also provides details about extinct languages. Check out the "language maps" for more information. Based on "Ethnologue: Languages of the World, Fifteenth edition." From SIL International, a US website.
FirstVoices Language Archive
A website devoted to Canada's indigenous languages. Features program information, multimedia dictionaries, and related resources. Produced by The First Peoples' Cultural Foundation.
Yukon Native Language Centre
A superb multimedia site that offers an introduction to native languages in the Yukon. Features the Gwich'in, Hän, Kaska, Northern Tutchone, Southern Tutchone, Tagish, and Upper Tanana languages. Includes information about training programs for teachers and the public.
Inuit Circumpolar Conference
This international organization is dedicated to preserving the history and culture of the Inuit people who inhabit the Arctic. Also concerned with environmental conservation in the Arctic region.
An illustrated website about archaeological research and prehistoric culture in the Canadian Arctic. From the University of Waterloo.
In this website you will find several animations designed and produced by the International Polar Foundation on different topics linked to the polar regions, the way our planet's climate functions, climate change and energy.
Check out Sikunews for daily coverage of the top stories around the circumpolar world. Search for news items about specific issues and locations in the Canadian Arctic.
The trials of Nunavut: Lament for an Arctic nation
This feature probes pressing social, economic, and cultural challenges currently facing Nunavut communities and their residents. From theglobeandmail.com website.
Beaufort Sea commercial fishing banned
A CBC News story about the federal government and the western Arctic Inuvialuit people agreeing to declare commercial fishing off-limits in the Beaufort Sea.