Inuit, Caribou (Native Americans of the Arctic)

Caribou Inuittmp2079_thumbis a non-native term reflecting the people’s reliance on caribou. The Inuit self-designation was Nunamiut, "inlanders."

Location The Caribou Inuit homeland is located on the southern Barren Grounds west of Hudson Bay (Keewatin District, Northwest Territories). The early population centered along the coast, near Whale Cove. As population grew during the nineteenth century, the trend was to expand to the north, south, and west (interior), especially as the Chipewyan Indians abandoned the latter region. This windy land consists mainly of gently rolling plains. It is very well watered, although little plant life exists there.

Population There were between 300 and 500 Caribou Inuit in the late eighteenth century. The population had grown to around 1,500 in 1915. In the mid-1990s there were approximately 6,900 Inuit in the Keewatin District (Kivalliq).

Language The Caribou Inuit speak a dialect of Inuit-Inupiaq (Inuktitut), part of the Eskaleut language family.

Historical Information

History The historic Caribou Inuit descended directly from ancient Thule people, in local residence since about the twelfth century. The first non-native explorers arrived in the early seventeenth century, although there may not have been direct contact between the two peoples.

Regular trade with non-natives began shortly after the people were first visited by Hudson’s Bay Company representatives in 1717. Ships brought foreign goods from Churchill, and the Inuit traded for items such as metal knives and axes, beads, tobacco, and, later, guns and powder. At that time they often acted as intermediaries between non-natives and the Iglulik, Netsilik, and Copper Inuit. Regular trade began at Churchill in 1790.

By the early nineteenth century, Caribou Inuit society had begun to reorient itself, with southerners focusing on the Churchill area and the non-native trade, and northerners making stronger ties with the Aivilik Iglulik Inuit. The two groups divided in about 1810. Shortly thereafter, the two societies became five.

The Hudson’s Bay Company conducted commercial whaling from about 1860 to 1915. The Inuit people killed seals and whales each summer, trading most oil and other products, while shifting to almost total dependence on caribou as well as musk ox and fish to a lesser extent.

Canada established a formal presence in 1903. Trading posts and Catholic missionaries arrived in 1912, followed by various non-native settlements in the region. A severe famine from 1915 to around 1924 killed perhaps two-thirds of the people. After that event, the people turned to trapping (mainly fox fur) and the wage/trade economy as a means of survival. This marked the end of their essential independence.

Gradually, continuing hunger and epidemics began to fragment the societies, as the population continued to decline. The situation attracted governmental intervention in the 1950s. Administrative centers were established. Most people relocated by choice to one of five settlements, most of which contained a minority of Caribou Inuit (although a majority of Inuit).

The shift to towns was completed in the 1960s. The people lived in prefabricated housing, generally wore nontraditional clothing, and ate nontraditional foods. With the breakdown of the traditional economy, and nothing to take its place, many experienced for the first time problems of substance abuse. Children began learning English in school but little about their traditional culture. Acculturation quickly became established among the young. The arrival of television in the 1970s and then other electronic media accelerated these trends.

Religion The Caribou Inuit recognized a supreme creative force that took an interest in the affairs of people. This deity may have been associated with the female caribou. The souls of people who had lived well (observed all the taboos, of which there were many) were thought to rejoin this force when they died, thence to be reincarnated on earth. The souls of those who had not lived well were said to be eternally damned.

Religion was essentially hunting based. Respect was owed to all things in nature but especially game animals. People left offerings for the spirits of slain animals. A number of ceremonial danced reinforced these ideas. Shamans specialized in spiritual matters, acting as intermediary between the two worlds. They could find out, by communicating with the spirits, who had broken which taboo and how a problem situation could be rectified (curing).

Government Political leadership, such as it was, took place within the context of the family. The leader was generally an older man who sat atop the family kinship network. He was also likely to be strong, wise, highly skilled in hunting, and familiar with the spirit world. Other than this, informal, ad hoc leaders advised small groups on hunting matters and when to move camp.

There were five bands or societies in the mid-nineteenth century: Paatlirmiut, Qairnitmuit,Ahiarmiut, Hauniqturmiut, and Harvaqturmiut. The societies were separate although related by marriage and descent.

Customs Betrothal took place as early as infancy. Cross cousins (children of a mother’s brothers or a father’s sisters) were regarded as highly desirable marriage partners. There was some regular intermarriage with other Inuit groups such as the Netsilik and Iglulik. There was little or no marriage ceremony. Newly married couples might live with either set of parents. Men might have more than one wife; widows, especially, tended to marry their brothers-in-law.

Occasional temporary partner swapping— considered a type of marriage—established further obligations and social ties. Other alternative relationships were known as dancing partners. This arrangement consisted of partners beating each other until one surrendered, after which time presents were bestowed. Later, they danced together to the sound of beating drums. These people generally lived apart but visited regularly.

Although children were highly valued and generally treated very well, and although childless couples often adopted children, there was some female infanticide. Corpses were wrapped in skins and placed within a circle of stones, along with various possessions. The mourning period was highly ritualized.

The extended family was the basic unit. The people displayed a distinct fondness for singing, feasting, and social drum dancing, sometimes in a large snow house or tent. They played several games, many of which included gambling, and took part in athletic contests. The art of making string figures was well developed.

Dwellings For most of their prehistory, coastal people used stone winter houses, chinked with moss and dirt and covered with snow. Around 1880 they learned, from the Iglulik, to build domed snow houses. These houses generally held ten people at most. A clear ice window was placed over the door. Storage was available on the sides of a long entryway, which itself was placed below ground level to keep the cold drafts out. Furniture consisted of snow platforms covered with skins and willow mats. Some people built a small connected kitchen with a smoke hole, although many cooked, when they cooked at all, outside on fires of moss and willow. There was generally no heat. Houses of family members might be linked by tunnels.

The people used conical skin (hair side out for waterproofing) tents as well as temporary brush windbreaks in other seasons. Most settlements were occupied by only one extended family, although groups might grow in size in spring and summer.

Diet Men engaged in extensive summer seal, walrus, and whale hunting before the early to mid-nineteenth century. A few coastal people continued these activities even after that time. Meat was sun dried and stored in sealskin bags and retained for winter use.

Especially from the mid-nineteenth century on, the people depended almost totally on migrating herds of caribou, which reached their peak numbers in autumn. People intercepted the animals at water crossings, drove them into lakes, and directed them down courseways where hunters waited. The men continued to hunt while women processed the meat and skins. Excess meat was covered with skins and hidden under rocks. Men also hunted musk ox when necessary, especially when the caribou meat began to run out. These were hunted to extinction by about 1900.

Most winter food was eaten frozen and raw. Fishing took place mostly in winter and spring. Other foods included birds and their eggs, some summer berries, and the plant foods inside of caribou stomachs. Winter food stores often ran quite low toward the end of the season. Sharing of food was well developed, to the point where hunters were not considered to own their own kills.

Key Technology Most material items, such as tools, scrapers, needles, hooks, and arrowheads, were derived from the caribou. Men used bone or antler snow knives to cut blocks of snow for winter houses. They hunted with bow and arrow, snares, pitfalls, lances, and harpoons. Stone weirs and hook and line were the most common fishing equipment. Other raw materials included wood and soapstone. Small, weak lamps burned caribou fat or fish oil. Cooking fires burned dwarf shrubbery. Musical instruments included drums, tambourine, and voice.

Trade All trade took place in summer. The people traded caribou skins and soapstone with the Chipewyan and Cree for snowshoes, moccasins, and pyrite. They also traded with the Aivilik Iglulik Inuit from about 1800 on. Exports included driftwood and seal dog traces and boot soles, among other items.

Notable Arts Caribou Inuit may have learned quill embroidery from the Chipewyan and/or Cree Indians.

Transportation Long, narrow, skin-covered kayaks were sometimes tied together to form rafts for crossing larger bodies of water. After around 1800, the people used dogsleds whose runners were coated with ice-covered peat. Most transportation was overland with the help of tumplines, the Caribou Inuit being particularly strong walkers.

Dress Six to eight caribou skins provided an adult suit of well-tailored clothing, including pants, boots, mittens, and outer and inner parkas. Furs and fur trim came from polar bears, wolves, wolverines, and foxes. Women wore bone or copper headbands. Women’s parka hoods were extra large to accommodate babies carried high on the back. Wet clothing was dried only with great difficulty in winter.

War and Weapons Enemies of the Caribou Inuit included the Chipewyan (at least to the mid-eighteenth century) and Dogrib Athapaskans. Hunting implements doubled as weapons.

Contemporary Information

Government/Reservations Contemporary population centers include Arviat (Eskimo Point), Igluliagaarjuq (Chesterfield Inlet), Kangiqliniq (Rankin Inlet), Naujaat/Aivilik (Repulse Bay), Qamanittuaq (Baker Lake), Salliq (Coral Harbour), and Tikirarjuaq (Whale Cove). Government is based on elected councils.

The Caribou Inuit have pushed hard and successfully for the creation of an all-Inuit territory, Nunavut, which will include their territory. They are also active in the Inummarilirijikkut, or Inuit Central Institute.

Economy Hunting and fishing remain important subsistence activities. Wage labor includes trapping; some crafts, especially woodcarving; mining; working as support personnel; and government assistance.

Native-owned and -operated cooperatives have been an important part of the Inuit economy for some time. Activities range from arts and crafts to retail to commercial fishing to construction.

Legal Status Inuit are considered "nonstatus" native people. Most Inuit communities are incorporated as hamlets and are officially recognized. Baffin Island is slated to become a part of the new territory of Nunavut.

Daily Life The people never abandoned their land, which is still central to their identity. Traditional and modern coexist, sometimes uneasily, for many Inuit. Although people use television (there is even radio and television programming in Inuktitut), snowmobiles, and manufactured items, women also carry babies in the traditional hooded parkas, chew caribou skin to make it soft, and use the semilunar knives to cut seal meat. Full-time doctors are rare in the communities. Housing is often of poor quality. Most people are Christians. Culturally, although many stabilizing patterns of traditional culture have been destroyed, many remain. Many people live as part of extended families. Adoption is widely practiced. Decisions are often taken by consensus. Intermarriage between Inuit groups in the five population centers has blurred ethnic identity; people now tend to identify with their settlement.

Politically, community councils have gained considerably more autonomy over the past decade or two. There is also a significant Inuit presence in the Northwest Territories Legislative Assembly and some presence at the federal level as well. The disastrous effects of government-run schools have been mitigated to some degree by local control of education, including more culturally relevant curricula in schools. Many people still speak Inuktitut, which is also taught in most schools, especially in the earlier grades. Children attend school in their community through grade nine; the high school is in Frobisher Bay. Adult education is also available. Caribou overhunting has prompted increased government regulations, which are resisted by the Caribou Inuit, who still identify to a significant extent with the caribou.

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