Quebec History Marianopolis College

Date Published:
September 2004

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


Eskimo [Inuit]



[This text was originally published in 1907 by the Bureau of American Ethnology as part of its Handbook of American Indians North of Mexico . It was later reproduced, in 1913, by the Geographic Board of Canada. The work done by the American Bureau was monumental, well informed and incorporated the most advanced scholarship available at the time. In many respects, the information is still useful today, although prudence should be exercised and the reader should consult some of the contemporary texts on the history and the anthropology of the North American Indians suggested in the bibliographic introduction to this section. The articles were not completely devoid of the paternalism and the prejudices prevalent at the time. While some of the terminology used would not pass the test of our "politically correct" era, most terms have been left unchanged by the editor. If a change in the original text has been effected it will be found between brackets [.] The original work contained long bibliographies that have not been reproduced for this web edition. For the full citation, see the end of the text.]


[Further information on the Inuit may be found in the Canadian Encyclopedia, the Encyclopedia of North American Indians and at the Native American Languages' site]


[For this article, the name of Eskimo has been kept as it was in the original text. Nowadays, the name of Inuit is more commonly and appropriately used. In all other articles touching on native Canadians the name of Inuit has been substituted for that of Eskimo. To update the information presented below, consult the Nationmaster encyclopedia entry for Inuit.]


Eskimo. A group of American aborigines, forming part of the Eskimauan linguistic stock, which formerly occupied nearly all the coasts and islands of Arctic America from E. Greenland and the N. end of Newfoundland to the westernmost Aleutian ids., even extending to the E. coast of Siberia, a distance of more than 5,000 m. From remains found in Smith sd. it is evident that bands formerly wintered as far N, as lat. 79° and had summer camps up to 82°. At the present time they have receded from this extreme range and in the S. have abandoned the N. shore of the gulf of St. Lawrence, the N. end of Newfoundland , James bay, and the S. shores of Hudson bay, while in Alaska one Eskimo tribe, the Ugalakmiut, has practically become Tlingit through intermarriage. The name Eskimo (in the form Excomminquois) seems to have been fast given by Biard in 1611. It is said to come from the Abnaki Esquimantsic, or from Ashkimeq, the Chippewa equivalent, signifying 'eaters of raw flesh.' They call themselves Innuit, meaning 'people.' The Eskimo constitute physically a distinct type. They are of medium stature, but possess uncommon strength and endurance; their skin is light brownish yellow with a ruddy tint on the exposed parts; their hands and feet are small and well formed; their eyes, like those of other American tribes, have a Mongoloid character, which circumstance has induced many ethnographers to class them with the Asiatic peoples. They are characterised by very broad faces and narrow, high noses; their heads are also exceptionally high. This type is most marked among the tribes E. of Mackenzie r. In disposition the Eskimo may be described as peaceable, cheerful, truthful and honest, but exceptionally loose in sexual morality.


The Eskimo have permanent settlements, conveniently situated for marking certain hunting and fishing grounds. In summer they hunt caribou, musk-oxen, and various birds; in winter they live principally on sea mammals, particularly the seal. Although their houses differ with the region, they conform in the main to three types: In summer, when they travel, they occupy tents of deer or seal skins stretched on poles. Their winter dwellings are made either in shallow excavations covered with turf and earth laid upon a framework of wood or whale ribs, or they are built of snow. Their clothing is of skins, and their personal adornments are few. Among most tribes, however, the women tattoo their faces, and some Alaskan tribes wear studs in openings through their cheeks. Considering their degree of culture, the Eskimo are excellent draughtsmen and carvers, their designs usually consisting either of simple linear incisions or of animal forms executed with much life and freedom. The people about Bering strait make some use of paints.


There has always been extensive intertribal communication. The Eskimo have an exceptional knowledge of the geography of their country. Poetry and music play an important part in their life, especially in connection with their religious observances,


The Eskimauan social organisation is exceedingly loose. In general the village is the largest unit, although persons inhabiting a certain geographical area have sometimes taken the name of that area as a more general designation, and it is often convenient for the ethnographer to make a more extended use of this native custom. In matters of government each settlement is entirely independent, and the same might almost be said for each family, although there are customs and precedents, especially with regard to hunting and fishing, which define the relations existing between them. Although hardly deserving the name of chief, there is usually some advisory head in each settlement whose dictum in certain matters, particularly as to the change of village sites, has much weight, but he has no power to enforce his opinions.


The men engage in hunting and fishing, while all the household duties fall to the lot of the women - they must cook, make and mend clothes, and repair the kaiaks and boat covers, pitch the tents, and dry the fish and meat and stow them away for the winter. In some tribes skin dressing is done by the men, in others by the women. Monogamy, polygamy and polyandry are all practised, their occurrence being governed somewhat by the relative proportion of the sexes; but a second marriage is unusual where a man's first wife has borne him children. The execution of law is largely left to the individual, and blood-revenge is universally exacted.


The Eskimo believe in spirits inhabiting animals and inanimate objects. Their chief deity, however, is an old woman who resides in the ocean and may cause storms or withhold seals and other marine animals if any of her tabus are infringed. Her power over these animals arises from the fact that they are sections of her fingers cut off by her father at the time when she first took up her abode in the sea. The chief duty of angakoks, or shamans, is to find who has infringed the tabus and thus brought down the wrath of the supernatural beings and to compel the offender to make atonement by public confession or confession to the angakok. The central Eskimo suppose two spirits to reside in a man's body, one of which stays with it when it dies and may temporarily enter the body of some child, who is then named after the departed, while the other goes to one of several lands of the souls. Some of the lands of the souls lie above the earth's surface, some beneath, and the latter are generally more desirable.


Although the theory of Asiatic origin of the Eskimo was long popular, many of their ethnic peculiarities are opposed to such a notion, and recent researches seem to indicate that their movements have rather been from E. to W. [On the origin of the Inuit, consult this site] They are peculiar as being the only race of American aborigines who certainly had contact with white people before the days of Columbus, for Greenland was occupied during the 10 th and 11 th centuries by Norwegians, whose expeditions did not extend as far as the American mainland [historians now accept that there was a Viking settlement on the northern tip of Newfoundland at L'Anse aux Meadows.]. Later Frobisher and other European navigators encountered the Eskimo along the E. coasts, while the Russians discovered and annexed the W. portion of their domain. This occupancy in its earlier period proved disastrous to the Aleut in particular, who were harshly dealt with and whose number was greatly reduced during the Russian domination. The larger portion of the Greenland and Labrador Eskimo have been Christianized by Moravian and Danish missionaries, while the Alaskan representatives of the family have had Russian missionaries among than for more than a century. Those of the central groups, however, owing to the remoteness of their situation have always been much less affected by outside influences. The Eskimo have proved almost indispensable assistants to Arctic explorers.


The Eskimauan stock embraces two well-marked divisions, the Eskimo proper and the inhabitants of the Aleutian ids., the Aleut. Other divisions are rather geographical than political or dialectic, there being great similarity in language and customs from one end of the Eskimo domain to the other. They can be separated, however, into the following fairly well marked ethnological groups (based on information furnished by Dr. Franz Boas):


I. The Greenland Eskimo, subdivided into the East Greenlanders, West Greenlanders, and Ita Eskimo, the last transitional between the Greenland Eskimo proper and the next group.


II. The Eskimo, of s. Baffin Island, Ungava, and Labrador embracing the following divisions: Akudnirmiut, Akuliarmiut, Itivimiut, Kaumauangmiut, Kigiktagmiut, Nugumiut, Okomiut, Padlimiut, Sikosuilarmiut, Suhinimiut, Tahagmiut.


III. The Eskimo of Melville penin., Devon island, N. Baffin island, and the N. W. shore of Hudson bay, embracing the Agomiut, Aivilirmiut, Amitormiut, Iglulirmiut, Inuissuitmiut, Kinipetu, Koungmiut, Pilingmiut, Sauniktumiut.


IV. The Sagdlirmiut of Southampton id., now extinct.


V. The Eskimo of Boothia penin, King William island , and the neighbouring mainland. These include the Netchilirmiut, Sinimiut, Ugjulirmiut, Ukusiksalirmiut.


VI. The Eskimo of Victoria Island and Coronation gulf, including the Kangormiut and Kidnelik, which may, perhaps, be one tribe.


VII. The Eskimo between cape Bathurst and Hershel id., including the mouth of Mackenzie r. Provisionally they may be divided into the Kitegareut at cape Bathurst and on Anderson r., the Nageuktormiut at the mouth of Coppermine r., and the Kopagmiut of Mackenzie r. This group approximates the next very closely.


VIII. The Alaskan Eskimo, embracing all those within the American territory. This group includes the Aglemiut, Chingigmiut, Chnagmiut, Chugachigmiut, Ikogmiut, Imaklimiut, Inguklimiut, Kaialigmiut, Kangmaligmiut, Kaniagmiut, Kaviagmiut, Kevalingamiut, Kiatagmiut, Kinugumiut, Kowagmiut, Kukpaurungmiut, Kunmiut, Kuskwogmiut, Magemiut, Malemiut, Nunatogmiut, Nunivagmiut, Nuwukmiut, Nushagagmiut, Selawigmiut, Sidarumiut, Tikeramiut, Togiagmiut, Ugalakmiut, Unaligmiut, Utukamiut, and Utkiavimiut.


IX. The Yuit of Siberia.


Holm (1884-86) placed the number of East Greenland Eskimo at 550. The W. coast Greenlanders were given as 10,122 by the Royal Greenland Co. in 1888, and the Ita Eskimo numbered 234 in 1897, giving a total for this group of 10,906. The Eskimo of Labrador were estimated at 1,300 in a recent report by the Government of Newfoundland, and the Dominion Government, in 1912, estimated the Canadian Eskimo at 4,600. According to the census of 1890, there were on the Arctic coast of Alaska from the British border to Norton sd., 2,729 Eskimo; on the s. shore of Norton sd. and in the Yukon valley, 1,439; in Kuskokwim valley, 5,254; in the valley of Nushagak r., 1,952; on the S. coast, 1,670. The Ugalakmiut of Prince William sd., numbering 154, are reckoned with the Tlingit, but they were originally Eskimo, and for our present purposes are best placed in that category. Adding these, therefore, the total for this group, exclusive of the 968 Aleut, is 13,298. The Yuit of Siberia are estimated by Bogoras at 1,200. The Eskimo proper, therefore, number about 31,200, and the stock about 32,170.


Source: James WHITE, ed., Handbook of Indians of Canada, Published as an Appendix to the Tenth Report of the Geographic Board of Canada, Ottawa, 1913, 632p., pp. 148-150.



© 2004 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College