Looking Back
The Early Years
The Road to Nunavut

What Price Nunavut?
The Next Generation
Inuit and The Land As One
Living with Change
Our Language, Our Selves
Inuit Art: The New Reality
Hunters and High Finance
The Subsistence Economy
A Public Government
The First MLAs
The World Looks North
What's In A Name?

Map of Nunavut

Inuktitut - Nunavut 99

 

The ancestors of Inuit and earlier northern inhabitants adapted and survived in the harsh arctic environment for thousands of years. Then Europeans arrived around AD 1500, and Inuit would never live solely as hunter-gatherers again

THE EARLY YEARS
There was once a world before this, and in it lived people who were not of our tribe. But the pillars of the earth collapsed, and all were destroyed. And the world was emptiness. Then two men grew up from a hummock of earth. They were born and fully grown all at once. And they wished to have children. A magic song changed one of them into a woman, and they had children. These were our earliest forefathers, and from them all the lands were peopled.
— Tuglik, Igloolik area, 1922


By Robert McGhee and Keith Crowe

[ANCIENT HISTORY] [The Glacial Period] [Tuniit or Dorset Culture] [Thule Culture] [Inuit]
[EARLY HISTORY] [Whales, explorers and fur traders] [The unsung role of Inuit]

Ancient History
By Robert McGhee

his traditional Inuit story tells of the origins of humans. Other traditions relate that when ancestral Inuit first arrived in Nunavut, they found the country occupied by a strange people whom they called Tuniit. These historical records tell us two important things about early Inuit history: that ancestral Inuit originally came to Nunavut from another homeland, and that they were not the first people to occupy the country that is now Nunavut. During the past few decades, archeology has confirmed both of these interpretations of the past, and has filled in many details of the early history of arctic North America.

The Glacial Period
(35,000 to 10,000 years ago)

During the last Ice Age, almost all of Nunavut was covered by glacial ice, in places up to several kilometres thick. There was so much water locked into continent-wide glaciers that the sea levels dropped, and the bottoms of shallow seas became dry land. What is now the Bering Sea, separating Siberia from Alaska, was a wide and ice-free plain across which ancestral American Indians moved to North America, and then down the Pacific coast to the areas south of the ice sheets.

When the glaciers covering Nunavut melted between about 15,000 and 10,000 years ago, they revealed a landscape which was empty of life. By shortly after 10,000 years ago, however, Nunavut looked very much as it does today, with caribou and muskoxen grazing the tundra, and walrus, seals, and whales — including bowhead whales — feeding in the channels between the Arctic islands. Indian hunters followed the migrating caribou northwards across the barren grounds, much as the Dene did in more recent times, but never reached the Arctic coast or islands. For the following 5,000 years, the parts of Nunavut that were more than a few days' walk north of the tree line remained empty of human occupation.

The Tuniit, or Dorset Culture
(5,000 to 1,000 years ago)

The first people to arrive were the Tuniit. The archeological remains of their camps begin to appear in Alaska shortly after 5,000 years ago, and they quickly spread across the western Arctic, Nunavut, and down the coasts of Greenland and Labrador. The tools and weapons which we find in their North American camps resemble very closely those used by northern Siberian peoples of the time, and the foundations of their tents were also arranged in a typically Siberian pattern, marked by a mid-passage of stones flanking a central fire-box. We think that the earliest Tuniit brought with them two items of technology which allowed them to quickly occupy arctic North America: the bow and arrow, which may have reached America for the first time in their hands, and finely tailored skin clothing similar to that still used by the Inuit and northern Siberian peoples. Until about 1,000 years ago, the Tuniit (or as archeologists call them, the Dorset Culture people) were the sole occupants of most of arctic Canada.

35,000-10,000 years ago
Ancestral American Indians cross land bridge from Asia

10,000-5,000 years ago
North American Indians move northward to tree line with retreat of glaciers

5,000-4,000 years ago
Tuniit (Dorset Culture people) cross Bering Strait and move eastward

3,000-2,000 years ago
South Bering Sea and North Pacific people became North Alaska Inuit

1,000 years ago
Thule (North Alaska Inuit) move eastward, displacing Tuniit

The history of the Inuit can be traced to a much different part of the arctic world — not Siberia, but the southern Bering Sea or North Pacific. The central genius of ancient Inuit culture was adapting their maritime hunting life to the seasonally ice-covered waters of the Bering Sea. This adaptation was accomplished between about 3,000 and 2,000 years ago, and by the latter date large permanent settlements of ancestral Inuit were scattered around the coasts of the Bering and Chukchi seas. The splendid and fantastic carvings found in the remains of these settlements hint at a rich social and spiritual life. Metal tools had largely replaced stone implements, and the massive deposits of sea mammal bones associated with the villages tell of a secure economic base.

Thule Culture
(1,000 to 500 years ago)

Between 1,500 and 1,000 years ago, some of these Inuit groups learned to hunt bowhead whales, the largest animals in the arctic seas. Large communities were established on points of land along the northern coast of Alaska, where whales could be easily hunted as they migrated through narrow leads in the spring ice. Then, about 1,000 years ago, some of these North Alaska Inuit spread rapidly eastwards across arctic Canada and Greenland, quickly displacing the previous Tuniit occupants of the region and establishing the first Inuit occupation of Nunavut.

These early Inuit are called the Thule people by archeologists, since the remains of their settlements were first recognized near Thule in northwestern Greenland. The Thule people brought with them from Alaska most elements of their complex maritime hunting culture: kayaks with throwing-harpoons attached to floats; large umiat (skin-covered boats) that could transport an entire camp or be used as a platform from which to hunt bowhead whales; equipment for hunting and travelling on the ice; strong sinew-backed bows for hunting on land; and heavily insulated winter houses built from boulders and turf, raftered with whalebones. Within a very short time, the Inuit had adapted their Alaskan maritime hunting culture to most regions of Nunavut. They very soon came into contact with the Norse, who were establishing farming communities in southwestern Greenland at the same time, and traded with the Norse for the metal tools that were basic to Inuit technology.

Inuit and the Little Ice Age
(after 500 years ago)

About 500 years ago, Inuit culture in many parts of Nunavut underwent a significant change. Most regions of the High Arctic were abandoned, and many groups throughout the central portions of Nunavut gave up whaling and began to concentrate on hunting smaller sea mammals, caribou and fish. Unable to accumulate enough food to survive the winter in the permanent villages of their ancestors, they began to winter in snowhouse communities from which they could efficiently hunt ringed seals through the ice.

This change may have been caused by a cooling climate, sometimes referred to as the Little Ice Age, which occurred between approximately AD 1500 and 1850, and which may have made the traditional Thule economy impossible in many areas. The same period saw the advance of European fishermen, explorers, whalers and traders into the Inuit homelands, and a growing European influence on traditional Inuit ways of life.

The ancient history of Nunavut, and of the Inuit, is not a simple story of isolation and adaptation to an arctic environment. Rather, it is a complex tale involving great movements of populations, marvellous achievements, and encounters with strange peoples. In these terms, it is very much like the histories of any other people of the world.


Early History
By Keith Crowe

The first meeting between Inuit and Europeans likely occurred about AD 1500, when Basque or Portuguese fishermen and whalers reached southern Labrador. The Inuit called the strangers qallunaat because of their comparatively bushy eyebrows.

At that time, the Inuit of what is now Canada comprised nine main groups, distinguishable by region, dialect, clothing and adaptation to regional conditions. All Inuit, however, shared a common language, legends and spiritual beliefs.

Whalers, explorers and fur traders

During the next four centuries, European and American whalers hunted bowhead whales for their oil and baleen in arctic waters, while explorers sailed the same channels in search of a Northwest Passage to the Orient. The explorers also travelled overland, and along the Mackenzie River.

Both groups of intruders brought to the Inuit guns, cloth, metal, tools and utensils, musical instruments and dances, alcohol and tobacco, disease and new genes. Some whalers, particularly in Hudson Bay and Cumberland Sound, employed Inuit families in the industry, creating a new seasonal way of life that blended two cultures.

The old system of barter between Inuit was expanded to include European goods, and furs became an important item. As whaling declined, the fur trade became a paramount influence, with posts throughout the Arctic.

 
 
Englishman and Anglican missionary Edmund Peck, or
Uqammak ("the one who speaks well"), translated the Bible into Inuktitut and in 1894 established Baffin Island's first permanent church mission near Pangnirtung, teaching syllabics to Inuit.

The old system of barter between Inuit was expanded to include European goods, and furs became an important item. As whaling declined, the fur trade became a paramount influence, with posts throughout the Arctic.

Catholic and Protestant missionaries became the fourth element of change, sometimes competing for converts. Some bizarre cults emerged among Inuit caught in a conflict of beliefs. One of the most notable led to a string of murders on the Belcher Islands in 1941.

By about 1920, the main thrust of exploration was over, and few bowhead whales remained in arctic waters. In the Mackenzie Delta, the Inuit had been decimated by epidemic disease, and their places taken by Alaskan Inuit. Qallunaat were moving into the region.

In the less accessible central Arctic, there were Inuit who even as late as 1900 had not seen a qallunaaq, while in Labrador, European settlers had displaced the Inuit from the coast, or mingled with them, everywhere except the Far North.

Another group of qallunaat to enter the Arctic around this time was Canada's federal police force, the North-West Mounted Police, or NWMP (later called the Royal Canadian Mounted Police). The Canadian government, concerned by the presence of American whalers in Hudson Bay and by the activities of foreign explorers in the High Arctic, began to set up NWMP posts in order to enforce Canadian laws and exert control.

The unsung role of Inuit

Written histories of the Arctic during the 19th century often comment on the contrast between the Inuit, who had long before adapted superbly to their environment, and the ill-equipped Europeans, who starved, froze, sickened and sank their way around the Arctic.

Little attention, however, has been paid to the role of Inuit who helped the newcomers as hunters, guides and interpreters. To name a few, Ipilgvik (Joe) and his wife Taqalikitaq (Hannah) of Cumberland Sound saved the lives of a ship's crew, and advanced the careers of several explorers at great cost to themselves. Ouligbuk of Hudson Bay and his son William spoke many languages, and made the hazardous crossing of the continent several times in the service of Europeans.

David Kaniak, Moses Koihok, Paul Omilgoetok, and Bessie Omilgoetok, Cambridge Bay. Christianity remains a strong element in Inuit culture, despite overly zealous beginnings by early missionaries.

During the 1920s and 1930s, most Inuit were troubled by fluctuating fur prices, epidemics and shortages of wildlife. A further burden was the establishment of five residential schools that removed Inuit children as young as five from their families and the whole context of Inuit culture, sometimes for years. Incidents of physical and sexual abuse also took place at some church-run residential schools. In general, however, the Inuit retained their language and sense of independence, within or despite the ill-defined authority of the "Big Three": policeman, trader and missionary. This equilibrium continued until the outbreak of the Second World War.


Robert McGhee is curator of arctic archeology with the Canadian Museum of Civilization.
Keith Crowe is the author of A History of the Original Peoples of Northern Canada.

Back to top Next chapter