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Topic – Peoples of the Arctic

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Peoples of the Arctic

Another Indigenous group in Canada are the Inuit (pronounced In-noo-it). The Inuit were the first people to live in North America’s Arctic region, arriving there about 1,000 years ago. Although “Innu” and “Inuit” sound the same, they are not related. The Inuit are a distinct people; they are not related to any other Indigenous group.

This map shows the four Inuit Regions in Canada

Location

Although some Inuit live in Greenland and Alaska, in Canada most live in four regions called the Inuit Nunangat. This means “the place where Inuit live.” These four regions are: northern Quebec, northern Labrador, the Northwest Territories and Yukon, and Nunavut. Nunavut means “our land.” Nunavut is Canada’s largest and newest territory. It was formed in 1999 out of the Northwest Territories. Most of Canada’s Inuit live in Nunavut.

The Arctic regions where the Inuit live have no trees, though there are mosses and grasses and some low bushes that have berries. The berries could be eaten or used to make teas. In summer, even though much of the Arctic is cloud-covered or foggy, daylight can last almost 24 hours—a full day! But winters in the Arctic are long and cold. Sometimes the sun appears for only a few hours. In some communities that are very far north, the sun doesn’t appear at all for many weeks in mid-winter!

Way of Life

Pins and brooches carved from tusks of walrus by Inuit residents, Nunavut

The Inuit were a semi-nomadic people, which means they moved three or four times a year. They moved with the seasons, usually to hunt. Each year, they would return to hunting and fishing spots they knew and liked. Usually, the Inuit hunted and travelled in the spring, summer, and fall. 

Climate change has changed the Inuit way of life in recent years. As melting ice makes life more and more difficult for the animals of the Arctic, hunting and the traditional Inuit way of life become harder. Today, most Inuit live similar lives to those of people in the rest of Canada. However, the Inuit express their culture through various forms of art, including carving, printmaking, and throat singing. The Arctic Winter Games, held every two years, feature traditional Inuit sports. 

Food

caribou

Because there are not many edible plants in the Arctic, the Inuit ate mostly meat and fish they got from hunting, fishing, or trapping. They caught caribou, musk oxen, Arctic hare, polar bear, seal, whale, walrus, duck, fox, and wolf. They fished for Arctic char, salmon, trout, and whitefish. They also gathered birds’ eggs and berries. Often, food was eaten raw, but sometimes it was cooked. It could also be dried and stored in a cool area or preserved in oil. Today, the Inuit can buy some of their food in stores. But in many northern communities, fresh food such as milk, fruit, and vegetables must be brought in, usually by plane, from a long way away. Fresh food is expensive in the Arctic—in Nunavut, a single kilo of grapes can cost $28!

Clothing

mukluks

Traditionally, the Inuit made their own clothing from animal skins and furs. Seal and caribou were the most common, though polar bear, fox, wolf, and even birds were also used. Men, women, and children wore hooded coats called parkas, which were often made of caribou skins. They also wore gloves or mittens and watertight boots called mukluks. The word “mukluk” comes from an Indigenous word, “maklak,” which means “bearded seal.” Some Inuit sewed their clothing using thread made of seal or walrus intestines since these are waterproof.

Because it is very cold in some regions where the Inuit live, in winter they dressed in layers. Usually, clothing had an inner layer with the fur facing the skin and an outer layer with the fur facing out. On their feet, the Inuit might wear three layers: a “stocking,” a fur slipper, and a mukluk.

Housing

Inuit igloo village

Today, most Inuit live in wooden houses clustered in small villages. But in the past, they had a summer home and a winter home. In summer the Inuit lived in tents made from animal skins, such as caribou. In winter, they lived in sod houses or igloos. A sod house had a frame made of driftwood or whalebone. Sod would be draped over this to make a roof and packed around it to make walls. Depending on where they lived, some Inuit could use driftwood logs to make their winter houses.

Beliefs

The Inuit believed that all things had spirits. Humans, animals, forces of nature (such as wind and storms), and non-living objects, such as rocks, all had spirits. Inuit myths and legends explained many things about life, for instance, how the sun, moon, and stars came into being. They also explained the existence of good and evil. To tell these myths and legends, the Inuit used stories, songs, dances, masks, and small carvings. They wanted to pass these legends on so they would be remembered and remain part of their culture. 

Shamans

The most studied garment in Canadian history – coat of the Inuit shaman Aua

It was thought that only certain people could control the spirits. These people were called shamans. A shaman (“angakkuq”) could be male or female. The Inuit believed shamans had magical powers, such as the ability to fly or turn themselves into animals. It was also thought that good shamans could cure illness by forcing evil spirits out of the body. Shamans used dances, drums, and charms to talk to the spirit world. They wore special masks while performing these rituals. The masks were carved from driftwood or bone and usually showed an animal. The Inuit believed these masks had powers that helped the shaman talk to the spirits.

Inuit Legends   

One of the most important Inuit spirits was Sedna, the goddess of the sea. The Inuit believed that Sedna controlled many of the animals who lived in the sea, such as seals, walruses, and whales. These animals were very important to the Inuit. They needed their meat, skin, tusks, and even their intestines to survive. The Inuit believed they must keep Sedna happy so she would let them continue to hunt these animals.

Another Inuit spirit was Kiviuq. In Inuit mythology, Kiviuq was an eternal wanderer who roamed the Arctic and had many adventures. Kiviuq had supernatural powers. These helped him to overcome sea monsters, giants, and other challenges he met in his travels. Did you know that the planet Saturn has a moon called Kiviuq? It was named in 2003 after this important Inuit spirit.


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