Inuit is the term used to identify the indigenous peoples of the Canadian Arctic. Inuit (singular, Inuk) means “people” in Inuktitut, Inuinnaqtun, and Inuvialuktun, the three dialects of the Canadian High Arctic. The term has replaced “Eskimo” in most political discourse. Eskimo is an external label, long believed to have its origins as an Algonquian Indian word thought to mean “raw-meat eater.”
Despite the narrow meaning of Inuit as a designate for Canadian Arctic indigenous peoples, the term has sometimes been more broadly applied to other Arctic peoples who share their origins with Canadian Inuit. These peoples all speak languages from the Eskimo branch of the Eskimo-Aleut family and include Kalaalit (in Greenland), Inuvialuit (Western Canada), Inupiat (in Alaska), Central Yup’ik (Alaska), Siberian Yup’ik (Alaska and Russia), and Asiatic Eskimo (Russia). These are all peoples who, like Canadian Inuit, find “Eskimo” an unsatisfactory referent but also prefer to use their own self-designates instead of «Inuit.”
Deciding on appropriate labels for particular groups can be somewhat hazardous, especially since categories and labels can change rapidly as indigenous peoples acquire greater self-determination and autonomy and develop regional, national, and international identities. Anthropologists are quite aware of these shifting sands but continue to use “Eskimo” as an appropriate referent in historical and comparative work.
Canadian Inuit, the subject of this entry, have been attractive subjects for southerners because of their ability to survive in an especially difficult and inhospitable environment, and to do so with a particular style and grace. Their ability to survive is based on a toolkit known for its technical complexity despite very limited materials for constructing that toolkit. The toggling harpoon head, for example, makes ideal use of scarce materials, conserves those materials for reuse, and also ensures the capture of marine mammals that might otherwise escape. As another example, Inuit clothing design and manufacture makes ideal use of furs and skins in a manner that conserves heat without restricting movement or blood flow.
Inuit technical sophistication has translated to the contemporary arena as well. Every anthropologist who has traveled with Inuit has firsthand knowledge of the ability, honed by experience, experimentation, and necessity, to make equipment repairs with limited and seemingly unsuitable materials.
Inuit are also highly regarded by southerners for behavioral attributes. Equanimity and even cheerfulness in trying circumstances is highly prized by Inuit, and a particular point of emphasis in Inuit culture is the high value placed on helpfulness. Inuit gain greater prestige through giving gifts of food, sharing labor, and the exchange of knowledge than they ever could by being a great hunter or seamstress alone.
Because of the harsh environment in which Inuit live and the sophisticated technology they use to survive in that environment, they were natural subjects for anthropologists interested in understanding human-environment relationships. The Arctic during the 1950s and 1960s became one of the principal testing grounds for the cultural ecology approach developed by Julian Steward.
David Damas’s Environment, History, and Central Eskimo Society, published in 1969, exemplifies this kind of work. Damas examined the three Central Eskimo groups, Copper, Netsilik, and Iglulik, paying particular attention to the relationships between ecological factors, subsistence patterns, and social features of each of these groups. Although they all shared a common and recent ancestry, some particular social formations, such as the large winter villages that typically contained up to 50 and occasionally up to 200 people, were present or absent in these groups due to ecological circumstances. The method of hunting ringed seals through the sea ice, most commonly found among Netsilik and Copper Eskimos but absent among Iglulik Eskimos, is most successfully accomplished by large groups of hunters working cooperatively. Damas did not discount other, purely social factors that could promote large seasonal aggregations, but most anthropologists assume that the need for food outweighs concerns about sociality.
Although Damas’s work, like much of the scholarship of the period, generated a new understanding of Inuit culture, research was also speaking to an anthropological audience increasingly interested in cultural evolution. Inuit, whose subsistence mode is one of hunting and gathering, were at the time widely believed to be living fossils, representatives of how all humans lived during the Late Pleistocene. Based on this belief that Inuit were representatives of the natural human state, many anthropologists thought that Inuit were important subjects of study on these grounds alone. In addition, the intensification of contacts with the Canadian state raised concerns about the cultural survival of Inuit, providing further impetus for the conduct of anthropological research.
Eventually, scholars realized that Inuit, by virtue of the qualities that made them so attractive to researchers in the first place, were not living fossils, but were contemporary humans who happened to make their living as foragers. Concerns about vanishing hunter-gatherers, however, encouraged another research interest for anthropologists: principles of culture change, acculturation, and cultural survival in the face of colonization by and integration into more powerful societies.
Even as anthropologists were taking a keen interest in subsistence, ecology, and technology, it was apparent that Inuit culture was changing. Before 1950, Inuit relations with the Canadian state were accomplished through the trinity of the Hudson’s Bay Company, Anglican missionaries, and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. All of these groups echoed Canadian government policy and encouraged Inuit to pursue a seasonally nomadic lifestyle centered on subsistence hunting and trapping furs for trade. By the 1950s, however, many Inuit were expressing a preference for living in permanent communities and pursuing wage labor opportunities. The Canadian government, which began to take a more active role in Northern administration during this time, likewise began to encourage settlement.
Settlement was not without consequences. The wage labor opportunities available in new and expanding communities altered some Inuit cultural patterns. In Copper and Netsilik Eskimo communities, for example, the traditional, formal seal-sharing partnerships quickly vanished as hunters adopted new methods and strategies for hunting ringed seals. The introduction of formal day schooling in communities provided a vehicle for the transmission of southern cultural values, and these foreign values were, by 1970, being transmitted to many more Inuit children. The social safety net provided through settlement living resulted in a baby boom during the 1960s, generating a cohort of Inuit raised in the context of settlement life and socialized by a combination of schooling, their own age mates, and, by the early 1980s, television and southern mass media.
Some anthropologists have seen the constellation of changes surrounding settlement as the beginning of the end of Inuit culture, and not without reason. Inuit have experienced the Industrial Revolution in a span of three or fewer generations. Many researchers have documented the problems of alcohol consumption, interpersonal violence, underemployment, and young people’s declining involvement in subsistence activities. These problems are commonly interpreted as both evidence of cultural decline and the result of a basic transformation of Inuit social life.
Other anthropologists have remained focused on subsistence, technology, and social organization, examining the changes wrought by settlement and new technological inputs through the lens of adaptation rather than acculturation. William Kemp, for example, working in Lake Harbour, on Baffin Island, during the late 1960s, examined the effects of imported technology on Inuit cultural patterns. Kemp noted that Inuit in Lake Harbour quickly adopted snowmobiles as the principal mode of travel, displacing dogs, despite the significant drawbacks associated with snowmobiles. Snowmobiles are loud, break down frequently under arctic traveling conditions, and require constant feeding with expensive gasoline and oil. Despite these problems, Lake Harbour Inuit felt that the advantages of living in a permanent settlement, which included access to wage labor and access to a larger number of kin, outweighed the disadvantages. Indeed, the snowmobile was what made living in the settlement possible, as it allowed for easier and quicker access to more distant hunting areas.
In this regard, then, the changes wrought by contact and settlement were not driven solely by changes introduced by the Canadian state. Inuit were making choices about settlement and subsistence strategy in reference to their own cultural preferences.
One consequence of greater integration into the Canadian state was the emergence of political movements that sought to protect native rights and formally define the relationships between native peoples and the state. These concerns emerged during the 1960s and early 1970s, as the pace of oil, gas, and mineral exploration in the North increased. These were serious issues. The political relationship between Canada and Inuit had never been resolved via treaty. Land claims movements sought to settle this issue, with the hoped-for result being greater political autonomy and improved social welfare for Inuit.
Beginning in 1975, with the signing of the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement, these relationships began to take shape. James Bay was followed by the Northeast Quebec Agreement, in 1978; the Inuvialuit Final Agreement, settling claims in the Western Arctic, in 1984; the Nunavut Land Claims Agreement, settling claims in the Eastern Arctic, in 1993; and the Labrador Inuit Land Claims Agreement, signed in 2003. All of these agreements settled land claims and specified economic, political, and social obligations between Inuit and the Canadian government.
A significant change in the nature of anthropological research paralleled the land claims process. Just as Inuit began taking an interest in their political and economic relationship with the federal government, so did anthropologists. Research on the politics of resource management led to new insights about Inuit resource use and ecological knowledge and led to recommendations about appropriate political arrangements for the comanagement of renewable resources. Investigations of Inuit subsistence practices began to focus on the continued economic importance of subsistence hunting to predominately Inuit communities, where wage labor jobs remain scarce and most Inuit are underemployed or cannot find work. Other examinations of Inuit cultural identity have yielded an improved understanding of Inuit identity formation and the ideology behind Inuit engagement in traditional activities despite external social and economic forces that seek to undermine the viability of those traditional practices.
The net result of this shift in focus has been an anthropology of the North that, as anthropologists such as Asen Balikci and George Wenzel, among others, have noted, is less engaged with theoretical trends in anthropology as a whole. Research in the North is, however, more engaged with Inuit social, economic, and political needs and goals than at any point in time. Research on contemporary Inuit subsistence practices may no longer be speaking directly to theoretical concerns in ecological anthropology, for example, but it is seeking to serve the practical needs of Inuit who continue to derive their continued well-being from hunting, trapping, and fishing.
- Balikci, A. (1970). The Netsilik Eskimo. Garden City, NY: Natural History Press.
- Briggs, J. (1970). Never in anger: Portrait of an Eskimo family. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
- Damas, D. (2002). Arctic immigrants, Arctic villagers: The transformation of Inuit settlement in the Central Arctic. Montreal, Canada: McGill-Queen’s University Press.
- Wenzel, G. (1991). Animal rights, human rights: Ecology, economy, and ideology in the Canadian Arctic. Toronto, Canada: University of Toronto Press.