A peoples rich in history and culture in Canada’s rugged north
Image from Pixabay
That inspired @paulag to use some free time to try out the concept. She used pebbles, telling us it was too cold in Ireland to be searching for stones. She managed to create some pretty cool pebble balancing.
When I looked at the posts I immediately thought of the Inuksuk the Inuit of the Arctic have built for centuries.
What Are Inuksuks?
When you look at an old Inuksuk, you are seeing more than just a stack of stones. You are seeing the thoughts of another person left upon the land.” Norman Hallendy
For a start, the plural of Inuksuk is Inuksuit not the anglicized word I used in the subtitle. When Canada hosted the Winter Olympics in Vancouver in 2010 the Inuksuk was used on the logo to welcome the world.
Original image from Flickr
The Arctic regions are vast, barren and for much of the year, freezing cold. When people refer to Canada as being ‘too cold’ this is the area where it can actually apply. It’s northernmost city (population 150) is in the Arctic circle. The temperatures range from -40F(&C) in winter to 5F (-15C) in the summer.
The Inuit stacked rocks in human form to provide both direction and spiritual guidance. They were the first people to inhabit Canada’s Arctic regions.
Over time their distinctive rock forms have come to symbolize a warm open armed welcome to all who encounter them.
Each structure has a purpose. They provide hunting and navigation aids, coordination points, indicators and message centers for those who know how to read them.
Other Inuksuk-like figures are spiritual in nature. They can serve as a spiritual symbol, a place of worship, judgment and decision making or a location for celebration.
Building Inuksuit are a skill passed down from generation to generation of Inuit.
image from Pixabay
Who Are The Inuit?
I often refer to Canada’s indigenous people as First Nations. That is not an accurate reference. Indigenous people refers to First Peoples. The First Nations are Indians. The Inuit are a separate people.
Archeological research places the origins of the Inuit in north-western Alaska where they lived on the seacoasts and tundra. They lived in houses of driftwood and sod and hunted seals, walrus, whales and caribou.
About 1,000 years ago they started their migration across the Arctic reaching as far as eastern Greenland. This was likely a gradual migration of small parties moving east seeking a better life. Over a few hundred years they gradually replaced the earlier, now extinct, inhabitants of the region known as the Tunit.
The Inuit were experts at hunting large sea animals like the bowhead whale. This ability made their lives richer and more secure than many other peoples dependent on hunting.
image from Wikimedia
The Inuit Homeland
Inuit is Inuktitut for “the people who are alive at this time”. Inuktitut is the Inuit language which has five dialects across eight main ethnic groups. About 83% of Inuit identify as having conversational ability in Inuktitut.
In our early history we referred to Inuit as Eskimos. The term “Eskimo” is a Cree Indian word meaning “eaters of raw meat” and is considered to be a derogatory term.
The Canadian census of 2016 identified 65,000 Inuit in Canada spread across four regions; Nunavut Territory, northern Quebec (Nunavik), Northern Labrador (Nunatsiavut) and the Northwest Territories & Yukon Territory (Inuvialuit). They also inhabit regions in Alaska, Greenland and Denmark.
Their homeland across these four regions are referred to as Inuit Nunangat which refers to the land, water and ice.
Nunavut flag -- image from Wikimedia
The Inuit and Nunavut — One of the First Indigenous Self-Government
The majority of the Inuit reside in the Territory of Nunavut which was formed in 1999. The new territory was the result of the largest land claim agreement between the Canadian government and the Inuit.
Comprising 20% of Canada’s landmass, Nunavut is home to about 25,000 people of which 83% are Inuit. They are spread across three regions and 28 communities. The three official languages in the territory are Inuktitut, English and French.
The city of Frobisher Bay was renamed to Iqualuit when the territory was formed and became the new capital.
Early Contact With Whites
Most of the early explorers who came into contact with the Inuit had little interest in them. Their only interest in the barren inhospitable north was to serve as a passage to the richer trade lands to the west.
Until the 1850s when commercial whalers began to appreciate the value of the Arctic’s animal resources and to some extent the skills of the Inuit.
Commercial goods started to enter Inuit culture along with the white’s infectious diseases. The Inuit had no natural immunity when there was an outbreak. They died by the hundreds. One example is the western Arctic Inuit who numbered around 2500 in 1850 and had dropped to 150 by 1910.
By 1905 the whaling trade was dying and attention for a time was turned to the fur trade. Along with the fur trade came the Hudson’s Bay Company, the Mounties and Missionaries from the Anglican and Roman Catholic churches.
By 1925 the Inuit had become subjects but not citizens of Canada. The missionaries, as they did with so many First Peoples, attempted to enforce assimilation.
image from Wikimedia
Canadian Inuit Before Nunavut Were Numbers
The Inuit were largely ignored by the government until 1939. They were not subject to the Indian Act, a much reviled statute that governs Canada’s First Nations. In 1939 the Canadian Supreme Court ruled they were a federal responsibility.
What followed was an official effort to assimilate the Inuit culture and literally making them numbers. They were forced into communities and to abandon their nomadic ways.
The Inuit naming system for people doesn’t fit what white people are used to. Inuit may be known by different names throughout their life depending on context. The government imposed sanctioned names and location based numbers which were imprinted on leather or pressed-fibre discs meant to be worn by each person.
During the 1960s and 70s the Inuit became politically active to push back against this cultural assimilation and reclaim their heritage. This activity led eventually to the formation of Nunavut.
The settlement between the federal government and the Inuit also included $1.1billion in compensation, a share of mineral, oil and gas development, the right to have a say on how land and water resources are used and the right to hunt and fish on their lands.
The Inuit to the west and those in Northern Quebec have also negotiated land agreements with the government of Canada giving them autonomy over resources they could then use to support themselves. For those in the west, it was rich oil and gas reserves of the Beaufort Sea and in Quebec it was power generated from James Bay.
Only the Nunavut agreement included establishing a public, territorial government.
image from Pxhere
The Future For the Inuit
Life in the north is hard. It’s also very expensive. Food prices in northern communities puts much out of reach. Educational experiences are limited which puts access to much of our technological opportunities out of reach.
The Inuit are a resilient and proud people who take pride in the culture. They enrich the Canadian mosaic.
In addition to the Inukshuk they bring distinctive art and music forms. One of the most distinctive art styles are their whale bone carvings:
image from Wikimedia
On the music side the traditional Inuit throat singing or katajjaq is a form of music unique to the Inuit. Done without musical accompaniment, it consists of usually two women singing a duet in in a close face-to-face setting. It’s actually a contest between the two women to see who can outlast the other.
This is a video of two Inuit ladies talking about the art.
Hope you’ve enjoyed the journey exploring the Inuit Inuksuit, the people and their rich culture. I learned more than I knew when I started.