Quebec History Marianopolis College

Date Published:
June 2005

L’Encyclopédie de l’histoire du Québec / The Quebec History Encyclopedia





[This article was published in 1948; for the precise citation, see the end of the document. The term Inuit is rarely used today; the Natives of the extreme north of Canada prefer to be called the Inuit people. The information provided here should be treated as historical data rather than as a description of the current conditions and way of life of the Inuit people.]

Ever since the early days of Arctic exploration, travellers and scholars have wrangled about the Inuit, disputing whether they constitute a separate race quite distinct from other American aborigines, or are merely a branch of the Indians that has settled in a unique environment and developed a peculiar appearance, a peculiar language, and peculiar ways of life. Until quite recently, however, Europeans had come into close contact with them mainly at the extreme limits of their range, in Alaska on the one side, and Greenland and Labrador on the other; and they had assumed that in physical type and in customs the Inuit were everywhere fairly uniform. This we now know is not true. In Canada alone, which shelters only about one-fifth of the total population (approximate figures to-day are: Greenland, 16,000; Labrador, 900; Canada, 7,000; Alaska, 14,000; Siberian shores around Bering strait, 200?), marked differences have been discovered between groups in different areas, differences that suggest a complex history over many centuries and an origin for the people from two or more once separate strains.


The least typical group is the Caribou Inuit, numbering about 600, who occupy the so-called Barren Lands behind Hudson bay. Unlike other Inuit, these natives have never learned to hunt the sea-mammals (the seal and the walrus), but depend for their daily food on land animals, principally the caribou, and on the fish that they catch in the lakes and rivers. In this respect they resemble the neighbouring Indian tribes, especially the Chipewyan and the Dogrib, from whom they have learned the use of snow-shoes and other customs. Yet their caribou-fur clothing hooded coat, trousers, stockings, and shoes are typically Inuit, not Indian; their winter homes are the familiar snow-huts not used by any Indian tribe; their hunting boat is the skin-covered kayak, not the bark canoe; and their speech is identical, save for dialectal variations, with that of all the coastal Inuit from Labrador to the mouth of the Mackenzie river.


The typical school-book Inuit is the native of Baffin island or of the northern part of Hudson bay . During the summer months he dwells in a tent of seal or caribou-skin, but he moves into a round snow-hut, entered through a long snow passage-way, as soon as the fading days of late autumn bring back sufficient snow. One or sometimes two low sleeping-platforms of snow, con­cealed beneath caribou furs, occupy over half the floor-space; and a seal-oil lamp, carved out of stone, casts a soft glow on the dazzling white walls and cooks in the overhanging stone kettle juicy steaks of seal or walrus meat. A dozen or more of these houses cluster near one another, forming a little village; for though the Inuit is a fervid individualist who obeys no chief, and recognizes no laws save time-honoured tribal customs and the regulations recently enforced by the white man, he is also an intensely social person who likes to keep open house and to share his joys and sorrows with his kith and kin. To maintain himself throughout the winter months, he stabs the seals at their breathing holes in the sea-ice, or harpoons them from the edge of the ice-floe as they sport in the lanes of open water; and whenever seals grow scarce in one locality, he harnesses his dogs to a sled and moves his whole household to another, where in the space of an hour he erects a new snow­hut to -take the place of the one he has just abandoned. The mild weather and long days of late spring see his household again on the move, this time in the skin-covered umiak or travelling boat, which his wife and children row, while he himself lightly drives his kayak over the water in quest of seals and walruses. He now adds to his larder the ducks and geese that have come north to their nesting-grounds, and the salmon-trout that migrate up the streams to spawn. August calls him inland to hunt the caribou while their furs are prime, but in September he returns to the coast to capture in the still open water a few more seals before winter closes in again. So his life is a continuous round of hunting, an alternation between feasts and famines that is lightened only by occasional dances and festivals, held mainly during the winter months, when blizzards, evoked, as he believes, by malevolent spirits, keep him weather­bound within his village.


The picture changes somewhat as we travel westward along the Arctic coast. The Inuit between Melville penin­sular and Coronation gulf never hunt seals from kayaks or use the open travelling boat. These traits reappear, it is true, in the Mackenzie river delta and in Alaska ; but there the snow-but disappears, the winter home is a cabin of driftwood and turf, the physical appearance of the natives alters, and their dialects become more divergent. These and other changes are not simply progressive and cumulative with dis­tance, as one might naturally expect, for widely-separated areas often reveal common traits that are lacking in inter­mediate regions. Hence we are forced to conclude that the Inuit are not a homogeneous people with a single cul­ture from one end of their territory to the other, but the product of a long and complex history not easily unravelled.


Recent excavations in old Inuit settlements have already unravelled part of that history. We know that the natives who to-day inhabit the shores of the eastern Arctic formerly dwelt on the Barren Lands, and only moved out to the coast about 600 or 700 years ago. Two other groups preceded them: one, rather primitive and long since extinct, has left its traces from Newfoundland to Ellesmere island; the other, which ranged from northern Alaska right across the Arctic to Greenland and Hudson strait, still survives, though greatly modified, in the Mackenzie river delta. Still a fourth group of Inuit, very different from the other three, flourished around the Bering sea during the first millenium A.D., and evolved, by slow changes, into the present population of that region. Further than this we cannot yet penetrate; nor, despite many efforts, can we link up the Inuit with any known people in the Old World. The most recent researches into Inuit anatomy indicate that only certain groups are peculiar physically, whereas others are hardly distinguishable from the Chipewyan Indians of the Mackenzie river basin, and also resemble in many ways the widely-spread Cree. This suggests that long centuries ago an extensive body of Indians was absorbed by an early Inuit population, but it still leaves the origin of that population unsolved.


Modern civilization is rapidly breaking down the old Inuit customs, so that the picture of their life given in the preceding paragraphs mirrors its appearance yesterday rather than to-day. Umiak and kayak have already disappeared from many regions, snow-hut and stone lamp seem likely to follow in their wake, tents of cloth are replacing summer tents of skin, and high-powered rifles have completely ousted bows and arrows and in some districts harpoons. To-day is the era of the trapper; the energy that the Inuit once devoted to winter sealing he now expends in the pursuit of foxes. What the future holds out for him is uncertain, but the readiness and skill with which he has adapted himself to the present economic conditions furnish the surest guarantee of his survival.


The literature on the Canadian Inuit is enormous, and much of it is scattered in technical journals. Only a few outstanding works can be listed here. The serious student should consult F. Boas, The Central Eskimo (6th Annual Report, Bureau of American Ethnology, Washington, 1888), and The Eskimo of Baffin land and Hudson bay (Bulletin of the American Museum of Natural History, vol. xv, New York, 1901 and 1907), L. M. Turner, The Hudson bay Eskimo(11th Annual Report, Bureau of American Ethnology, Washington, 1894), V. Stefansson, The Stefansson-Anderson Arctic expedition (Anthropological Papers, American Museum of Natural History, vol. xiv, New York, 1914), Reports of the Canadian Arctic expedition, 1913-1918, vols. xii-xv (Government Printing Bureau, Ottawa), Reports of the fifth Thule expedition, 1921-1924, vols. iii-ix . (Copen hagen), and E. M. Weyer, The Inuits, their environment and folkways (New Haven, Conn., 1932). For the lay reader three works are recommended: V. Stefansson, My life with the Eskimo (New York, 1919), D. Jenness, The people of the twilight (New York, 1928), and especially K. Rasmussen, Across Arctic America (New York, 1927).

Source  : W. Stewart WALLACE, ed., The Encyclopedia of Canada, Vol. II, Toronto, University Associates of Canada, 1948, 411p., pp. 298-300.


© 2005 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College