Canadian History/The People of the Lands/Inuit

Inuit refers to a large aboriginal group that live in the Arctic Regions. The Arctic is definitely a challenging climate to live in, long, bitter winters and short, cool summers. However,the Inuit have been doing it for a extraordinarily long time; this native group can trace their ancestry back to thousands of years BCE. They are also wrongly referred to as Eskimos.

The Inuit people are not actually considered to be part of "The First Nations." This term usually refers to the other indigenous people of Canada. The Inuit are included under the Constitution Act (1982) as Aboriginal peoples of Canada however.

Early History


The Inuit's history was first recorded when they conquered the previous people, the Tuniit, when they started moving east from Alaska, across the Arctic Circle at around 1000 AD. The Inuit reached the Atlantic Ocean around 1400 AD. They had an advantage over the other groups who had settled in the region because they had dogs and boats.

Because of the Little Ice Age happening around 1408 AD, the Inuit were forced to move to souther Greenland in search of food. By that time, the Inuit were struggling with their main way of living. The weather made it too icy to hunt whales in the northern Arctic, and they could not afford to live in houses of sod like they had before. Instead, they were forced to travel farther and farther down south and had to live in tents and igloos for most of the time. By 1500 AD, the Inuit had reached southern Labrador, and started their new life.



The Inuit regularly hunted, fished, and gathered their food. Tribes that lived on the coast depended more on seals, walrus and whales, whereas inland tribes hunted more caribou and musk-ox. Both tribes ate fish. They consumed a diet high in meat because it kept them warm, strong, fit, and healthy. Another reason was that they had no choice, for vegetation was extremely limited in the Arctic and trees were hardly taller than shrubs.

Every part of an animal was carefully used, including the fat. This fat was collected and used for oil in soapstone lamps. These lamps were essential for heat and light, however, soapstone lamps were hard to cook with and meat was generally eaten raw and/or frozen. The Inuit ate two meals a day, though these were informal meals and no one was expected to join in, as well as several snacks throughout the day.

The seal was the largest and most important part of the Inuit diet. Inuits ate harp seals, bearded seals, and harbour seals. Seal blubber provided a necessary source of protein and energy. During the winter, these seals were hunted through the ice. When a seal broke the ice to come up for air, they were skilfully harpooned. During the summer months, hunters went out onto the water in kayaks. Inuit hunters strongly believed in a bond between person and seal. The agreement was that seals could only be hunted to feed the hunter's family.

Other sources of protein included walrus, the Bowhead whale, caribou, and (of course) fish. Walruses were hunted in the winter and spring by groups of hunters, for the they were much to large for a single hunter. The Bowhead Whale, one of the largest animals in the world, could feed an entire Inuit community for almost a year. Nothing was wasted- every part of the whale was put to use.

Caribou were one of the few land animals hunted by the Inuit. Hunters had to carefully pursue and spear these animals. Every year, herds of caribou would follow specific migration routes, so they were easy to track. However, these animals only crossed the inland regions twice a year so hunters had to be ready. Hunters would use inuksuit (large, human figures made of stone and used for landmarks) to lure the caribou toward a shallow pit where hunters waited, or lakes and rivers where they were trapped and easy to hunt. This caribou hunt supplied the Inuit with enough meat to last the winter as well as hides and sinew (connective muscle tissue, used for cord and thread) to make clothing with, as well as antlers to make tools with. If the hunt failed or the caribou changed their migration route, the tribes faced potential starvation throughout the winter months.

Fish created an important supply of food for both inland and coastal Inuit tribes. The Inuit fished by jigging. Instead of using a hook, they would use a fake fish on their line. The bait was jerked around until other fish came to investigate, and then the fisherman could use his spear to catch the fish.



In the Arctic, the temperature can drop below -30 degrees Celsius so quality of shelter is extremely important. It must trap heat and resist the weather as best as possible.

During the winter, snow was used to build igloos, dome-shaped houses made of snow. An igloo can be built within an hour by two skilled men working with long knives. These igloos form excellent insulators for people. They are warmed by the body warmth of its occupants as well as seal oil lamp. Even though these homes are not permanent, they are safe, secure and easy enough to rebuild. Inside an igloo were low platforms made of snow and covered with twigs and fur that the people could sleep on.

When the snow started to melt in the summer months though, igloos were impossible. Instead, Inuit families moved into tents made of animal skin.



The Arctic is a harsh, and extraordinarily cold climate so warm clothing is essential. The Inuit layer parkas, coats, trousers, stockings, and hoods all mostly made of caribou skin. Caribou fur is great for warmth because the each hair is hollow so it traps the air inside, forming an insulator. The inner layer of clothing would be worn with the fur facing outward and the outer layer facing inward to create maximum warmth. The people wear furry hoods on their heads to keep warm. Sometime babies are even carried in the convenient pouch of a hood to stay warm. Duble boots made from sealskin and mittens made from caribou hide added the finishing touches to the Inuit's winter outfit. These many layers of tough skin and fur provided plenty of warmth.

During the cool, Arctic summer, the Inuit wore the same type of clothing and simply removed the outer layer(s).



The Inuit traveled by komatik, kayak, or umiak. At sea, they used the stars to navigate their way and on land they used landmarks. If these landmarks were inefficient, the Inuit would build inukshucks, tall human like figures made of stone.

When traveling across land, the komatik (also known as the dogsled) was used. It consisted of a light but sturdy sled frame made of either animal bone or wood that was light and could glide across the snow easily. The sled had reins that were attached to about six huskies that pulled the sled. These dogs helped tribes by not only pulling sleds but also guarding villages and using their noses to find the seals.

Kayaks were a one-person boat that was effective for hunting. It glided gracefully and quietly through the water and was waterproof. The passenger steered himself by using a long rod with a paddle on each end.

Umiaks were larger boats they could carry groups of people or families. It was 35-40feet long and covered in animal furs. For its size it as quite light though. Two men could carry its light frame.



The Inuit's language, Inukitut, means "like the Inuit."

It refers to and includes the different dialects spoken by the Inuit across Canada (mostly in Nunavat). Inukitut has even been recognized as an official language in the Northwest Territories and Nunavat.

There are roughly 35,000 Inukitut speakers in Canada.



Before the Canadian legal system, customary Law was nonexistent in Inuit society.

In 1954 Hoebel concluded that only rudimentary law existed for the Inuit peoples. These laws are as follows:

maligait refers to what has to be followed piqujait refers to what has to be done tirigusuusiit refers to what has to be not done

"We are told today that Inuit never had laws or "maligait". Why? They say because they are not written on paper. When I think of paper, I think you can tear it up, and the laws are gone. The laws of the Inuit are not on paper." --Mariano Aupilaarjuk, Rankin Inlet, Nunavut, "Perspectives on Traditional Law"



The Inuit practiced a form of animism; they believed all living creatures contained a spirit. These spirits could be pleased by acting in a certain manner and so the people relied upon the Angakkuq in their community. This was not the leader of the tribe but rather a healer or priest who could give advice, treat wounds, and invoke the spirits inside of people to help them. They had the ability to see and interpret the subtle and unseen. Angakkuqs were not trained for this role, they were simply born with the ability. People strongly believed that the aurora borealis or northern lights were a way of seeing their lost family and friends dancing in the next life. It was their connection with their ancestors.

The closest thing the Inuit people had to a deity was the old woman of the sea, called Sedna. Sedna is the underwater goddess of marine animals, especially seals. The sea was believed to contain many great gods as it was such a major source of food. In order to please the Goddess Sedna, after catching a seal, hunters would remove the bladder of the animal and place it back in the sea.



People in Inuit communities did have different jobs depending on their gender, however it was not always strictly followed. In general, men were expected to hunt and fish whereas women were expected to care for the children, home, clothing, and food.

Marriage was common for men once they became successful hunters and for women when they reached puberty. Divorce and remarriage were acceptable however in some communities, consent was needed from the elders.

Some communities believed in patrilineal bonds, meaning a newly wed couple would stay with the man's family and their children would be named after the man's family tree. Before moving in here however, the couple would first live with the woman's family for a year in order to let the husband and father of the bride work together.

The elder males of a family were the leaders and together formed a leading council for the community. They had the important role of passing on beliefs, history, and stories.

Modern Culture


As Inuit societies are thrust into the modern world, they are forced to adjust. Some changes have occurred however traditional storytelling, myths, and dancing still play an important role in the communities. Time spent with family and friends is still highly valued.

The visual arts have always been highly regarded for the Inuit and it continues to be. In 2002 the first film in Inukitut "Atanarjuat," was released. Mitiarjuk Attasie Nappaaluk wrote the first published novel written in Inuktitut.

Many individuals are working to keep this traditional language alive but it is slowly fading away within Inuit societies today. Technology is beginning to play a greater role in the lives of youth causing communication with the elders to be limited. Less and less Inuit people are learning to speak Inuktitut. This loss of language is part of the identity struggle among the younger generations of Inuit today. As youth are exposed to both the culture of their tribe and more and more culture of they rest of the world they begin getting confused as to what to believe, how to live. This has lead to greater suicide rates among the Inuit people.