Distinct from all other Canadian Aboriginal peoples by virtue of their culture, language and Asiatic physical features, the Inuit are the dominant people of a territory extending from northern Alaska to Greenland. They once led a nomadic existence in one of the most hostile environments on earth, dwelling in igloos during the winter and skin tents in the summer, moving around using kayaks (qajaq) or dog sleds (qamutik). The latter were examples of typical Inuit adaptability – the runners were sometimes made from frozen fish wrapped in sealskin and caribou bones were used for crossbars.
Animals from the land and sea – caribou, musk ox, seal, walrus, narwhal, beluga whales, polar bears, birds and fish – provided everything: oil for heating and cooking, hides for clothing and tents, harpoon lines and dog harnesses and food.
The Inuit diet was almost entirely meat based, and every part of the animal was consumed, usually raw, from the eyeballs to the heart. Delicacies included the plaited and dried intestines of seals and whole sealskins stuffed with small birds and left to age until the contents had turned to the consistency of cheese. All food was shared among the community and the successful hunter had to watch his catch being distributed among other families in the group, in accordance with specific relationships, before his own kin were allowed the smallest portion. Starvation was common – it was not unusual for whole villages to perish in the winter – and consequently infanticide, particularly of females, was employed to keep population sizes down. Elders who could not keep up with the travelling group were abandoned, a fate that also befell some offenders of the social code – though the usual way of resolving conflict was the song-duel, whereby the aggrieved would publicly ridicule the behaviour of the offender, who was expected to accept the insults with good grace.
It was a woman who often served as the shaman, or angakok, maintaining the group’s communion with the supernatural. The deity who features most regularly in Inuit myth is a goddess called Sedna, who was mutilated by her father. Her severed fingers became seals and walruses and her hands became whales, but Sedna lived on as the mother and protector of all sea life, capable of withholding her bounty if strict taboos were not adhered to, including keeping land and sea products separate.
Sporadic European contact dates back to the Norse settlement of Greenland, and early missionaries did visit some Inuit. It wasn’t until the early 1800s that the two cultures met in earnest. By 1860 commercial whalers had begun wintering around the north of Hudson Bay, employing Inuit as crew and food hunters in return for European goods. The impact on the Inuit was not really deleterious until the arrival of American and European whalers in 1890, when the liberal dispensing of alcohol and spread of diseases (smallpox and tuberculosis) led to a drastic decline in population.
By the early 1900s fur traders were encouraging the Inuit to stop hunting off the coast and turn inland, using firearms and traps. The accompanying missionaries brought welcome medical help and schools, but put an end to multiple marriages, shamanism and other traditional practices. More changes came when Inuit were employed to build roads, airfields and other military facilities during World War II, and to construct the line of radar installations known as Distant Early Warning system (DEW) in the Cold War era. As well as bringing new jobs, this also focused government attention on the plight of the Inuit.
The consequent largesse was not wholly beneficial: subsidized housing and welfare payments led many Inuit to abandon their hunting camps and settle in permanent communities. Without knowledge of English and French, these Inuit were left out of all decision-making and often lived in separate parts of towns administered by outsiders, and high levels of depression, alcoholism and violence became the norm. A 1982 ban on European imports of sealskins created mass unemployment, and although hunting still provides the basics of subsistence, the high cost of ammunition and fuel makes commercial-scale hunting uneconomical.
And yet it’s not all gloom. Inuit co-operatives are increasingly successful and the production of soapstone carvings – admittedly a commercial adulteration of traditional Inuit ivory art – is very profitable. Having organized themselves into politically active groups and secured land claims such as Nunavut, the Inuit are now slowly rebuilding an ancient culture that was shattered in under half a century.