For the 2010 film, see Inuk (film). For other uses of Inuit, see Inuit (disambiguation).
Not to be confused with the Innu people, a First Nations people in eastern Quebec and Labrador.
Color photograph of three Inuit persons on a traditional qamutik (sled), in a snow-covered landscape in Cape Dorset.
Traditional qamutik (sled), Cape Dorset, Nunavut
Total population
Regions with significant populations
Greenland: 51,365
Canada: 50,480
United States: 16,581
Denmark (mainland): 15,815
Greenlandic, Inuktitut, and other Inuit languages, Danish, English, French, Inuiuuk and various others
Christianity, Inuit religion
Related ethnic groups
Aleut and Yupik peoples[5]

Inuit (pronounced /ˈɪnɪt/ or /ˈɪnjuːɪt/; Inuktitut: ᐃᓄᐃᑦ, "the people"[6]) are a group of culturally similar indigenous peoples inhabiting the Arctic regions of Greenland, Canada and Alaska.[7] Inuit is a plural noun; the singular is Inuk.[6] The oral Inuit languages are classified in the Eskimo-Aleut family.[8] Inuit Sign Language is a critically endangered language isolate spoken in Nunavut.[9]

In the United States and Canada, the term "Eskimo" was commonly used to describe the Inuit and Alaska's Yupik and Iñupiat peoples. But "Inuit" is not accepted as a term for the Yupik, and "Eskimo"[10] is the only term that includes Yupik, Iñupiat and Inuit. However, Aboriginal peoples in Canada and Greenland view "Eskimo" as pejorative, and "Inuit" has become more common in use among its peoples.[11][12] In Canada, sections 25 and 35 of the Constitution Act of 1982 classified the "Inuit" as a distinctive group of Aboriginal Canadians who are not included under either the First Nations or the Métis.[13]

The Inuit live throughout most of the Canadian Arctic and subarctic in the territory of Nunavut; "Nunavik" in the northern third of Quebec; "Nunatsiavut" and "NunatuKavut" in Labrador; and in various parts of the Northwest Territories, particularly around the Arctic Ocean. These areas are known in Inuktitut as the "Inuit Nunangat".[14][15]

In the United States, the Iñupiat live primarily on the North Slope in Alaska and on Little Diomede Island. The Greenlandic Inuit are descendants of indigenous migrations from Canada. In the 21st century they are citizens of Denmark, although not of the European Union.

Precontact history

For their earlier precontact history, see Aboriginal peoples in Canada § Paleo-Indians period.
Maps showing the different cultures (Dorset, Thule, Norse, Innu, and Beothuk) in Greenland, Labrador, Newfoundland and the Canadian arctic islands in the years 900, 1100, 1300 and 1500

Inuit are the descendants of what anthropologists call the Thule culture,[16] who emerged from western Alaska around 1000 CE. They had split from the related Aleut group about 4,000 years ago and from northeastern Siberian migrants, possibly related to the Chukchi language group, still earlier. They spread eastwards across the Arctic.[17] They displaced the related Dorset culture, the last major Paleo-Eskimo culture (in Inuktitut, called the Tuniit).[18]

Inuit legends speak of the Tuniit as "giants", people who were taller and stronger than the Inuit.[19] Less frequently, the legends refer to the Dorset as "dwarfs".[20] Researchers believe that the Dorset culture lacked the dogs, larger weapons and other technologies of the Inuit society, which gave the latter an advantage.[21] By 1300, Inuit migrants had reached west Greenland, where they settled, moving into east Greenland over the following century.[22]

Faced with population pressures from the Thule and other surrounding groups, such as the Algonquian and Siouan to the south, the Tuniit gradually receded.[23] They were thought to have become completely extinct as a people by about 1400 or 1500.

But, in the mid-1950s, researcher Henry B. Collins determined that, based on the ruins found at Native Point, the Sadlermiut were likely the last remnants of the Dorset culture, or Tuniit.[24] The Sadlermiut population survived up until winter 1902–03, when exposure to new infectious diseases brought by contact with Europeans led to their extinction as a people.[25]

In the early 21st century, mitochondrial DNA research has supported the theory of continuity between the Tuniit and the Sadlermiut peoples.[26][27] It also provided evidence that a population displacement did not occur within the Aleutian Islands between the Dorset and Thule transition.[28] In contrast to other Tuniit populations, the Aleut and Sadlermiut benefited from both geographical isolation and their ability to adopt certain Thule technologies.

In Canada and Greenland, Inuit circulated almost exclusively north of the "Arctic tree line", the effective southern border of Inuit society. The most southern "officially recognized" Inuit community in the world is Rigolet[29] in Nunatsiavut.

South of Nunatsiavut, the descendants of the southern Labrador Inuit in NunatuKavut continued their traditional transhumant semi-nomadic way of life until the mid-1900s. The Nunatukavummuit people usually moved among islands and bays on a seasonal basis. They did not establish stationary communities. In other areas south of the tree line, Native American and First Nations cultures were well established. The culture and technology of Inuit society that served so well in the Arctic were not suited to subarctic regions, so they did not displace their southern neighbors.

Inuit had trade relations with more southern cultures; boundary disputes were common and gave rise to aggressive actions. Warfare was not uncommon among those Inuit groups with sufficient population density. Inuit such as the Nunatamiut (Uummarmiut), who inhabited the Mackenzie River delta area, often engaged in warfare. The more sparsely settled Inuit in the Central Arctic, however, did so less often.

Their first European contact was with the Vikings who settled in Greenland and explored the eastern Canadian coast. The Norse sagas recorded meeting skrælingar, probably an undifferentiated label for all the indigenous peoples whom the Norse encountered, whether Tuniit, Inuit, or Beothuk.[30]

After about 1350, the climate grew colder during the period known as the Little Ice Age. During this period, Alaskan natives were able to continue their whaling activities. But, in the high Arctic, the Inuit were forced to abandon their hunting and whaling sites as bowhead whales disappeared from Canada and Greenland.[31] These Inuit had to subsist on a much poorer diet, and lost access to the essential raw materials for their tools and architecture which they had previously derived from whaling.[31] The changing climate forced the Inuit to work their way south, forcing them into marginal niches along the edges of the tree line. These were areas which Native Americans had not occupied or where they were weak enough for the Inuit to live near them. Researchers have difficulty defining when Inuit stopped this territorial expansion. There is evidence that they were still moving into new territory in southern Labrador when they first began to interact with Europeans in the 17th century.

Postcontact history


Early contact with Europeans

The lives of Paleo-Eskimos of the far north were largely unaffected by the arrival of visiting Norsemen except for mutual trade.[32] Labrador Inuit have had the longest continuous contact with Europeans.[33] After the disappearance of the Norse colonies in Greenland, the Inuit had no contact with Europeans for at least a century. By the mid-16th century, Basque whalers and fishermen were already working the Labrador coast and had established whaling stations on land, such as the one that has been excavated at Red Bay.[34][35] The Inuit appear not to have interfered with their operations, but they raided the stations in winter for tools and items made of worked iron, which they adapted to their own needs. Martin Frobisher's 1576 search for the Northwest Passage was the first well-documented post-Columbian contact between Europeans and Inuit. Frobisher's expedition landed in Frobisher Bay, Baffin Island, not far from the settlement now called The City of Iqaluit which was long known as Frobisher Bay. Frobisher encountered Inuit on Resolution Island where five sailors left the ship, under orders from Frobisher, and became part of Inuit mythology. The homesick sailors, tired of their adventure, attempted to leave in a small vessel and vanished. Frobisher brought an unwilling Inuk to England, possibly the first Inuk ever to visit Europe.[36] The Inuit oral tradition, in contrast, recounts the natives helping Frobisher's crewmen, whom they believed had been abandoned.

The semi-nomadic eco-centred Inuit were fishers and hunters harvesting lakes, seas, ice platforms and tundra. While there are some allegations that Inuit were hostile to early French and English explorers, fishers and whalers, more recent research suggests that the early relations with whaling stations along the Labrador coast and later James Bay were based on a mutual interest in trade.[37] In the final years of the 18th century, the Moravian Church began missionary activities in Labrador, supported by the British who were tired of the raids on their whaling stations. The Moravian missionaries could easily provide the Inuit with the iron and basic materials they had been stealing from whaling outposts, materials whose real cost to Europeans was almost nothing, but whose value to the Inuit was enormous and from then on contacts in Labrador were far more peaceful.

The Hudson's Bay Company Ships Prince of Wales and Eddystone with Inuit boats off the Upper Savage Islands, Hudson Strait, Canada
Hudson's Bay Company Ships bartering with Inuit off the Upper Savage Islands, Hudson Strait, 1819

The European arrival tremendously damaged the Inuit way of life, causing mass death through new diseases introduced by whalers and explorers, and enormous social disruptions caused by the distorting effect of Europeans' material wealth. Nonetheless, Inuit society in the higher latitudes had largely remained in isolation during the 19th century. The Hudson's Bay Company opened trading posts such as Great Whale River (1820), today the site of the twin villages of Whapmagoostui and Kuujjuarapik, where whale products of the commercial whale hunt were processed and furs traded. The British Naval Expedition of 1821–3 led by Admiral William Edward Parry, which twice over-wintered in Foxe Basin, provided the first informed, sympathetic and well-documented account of the economic, social and religious life of the Inuit. Parry stayed in what is now Igloolik over the second winter. Parry's writings, with pen and ink illustrations of Inuit everyday life, and those of George Francis Lyon, both published in 1824 were widely read.[38] Captain George Comer's Inuit wife Shoofly, known for her sewing skills and elegant attire,[39] was influential in convincing him to acquire more sewing accessories and beads for trade with Inuit.

Early 20th century

During the early 20th century a few traders and missionaries circulated among the more accessible bands, and after 1904 they were accompanied by a handful of Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP). Unlike most Aboriginal peoples in Canada, however, the lands occupied by the Inuit were of little interest to European settlers — to the southerners, the homeland of the Inuit was a hostile hinterland. Southerners enjoyed lucrative careers as bureaucrats and service providers to the north, but very few ever chose to visit there. Canada, with its more hospitable lands largely settled, began to take a greater interest in its more peripheral territories, especially the fur and mineral-rich hinterlands. By the late 1920s, there were no longer any Inuit who had not been contacted by traders, missionaries or government agents. In 1939, the Supreme Court of Canada found, in a decision known as Re Eskimos, that the Inuit should be considered Indians and were thus under the jurisdiction of the federal government.

Native customs were worn down by the actions of the RCMP, who enforced Canadian criminal law on Inuit, such as Kikkik, who often could not understand what they had done wrong, and by missionaries who preached a moral code very different from the one they were used to. Many of the Inuit were systematically converted to Christianity in the 19th and 20th centuries, through rituals like the Siqqitiq.

Second World War to the 1960s

World War II and the Cold War made Arctic Canada strategically important for the first time and, thanks to the development of modern aircraft, accessible year-round. The construction of air bases and the Distant Early Warning Line in the 1940s and 1950s brought more intensive contacts with European society, particularly in the form of public education, which traditionalists complained instilled foreign values disdainful of the traditional structure of Inuit society.[40]

In the 1950s the High Arctic relocation was undertaken by the Government of Canada for several reasons. These were to include protecting Canada's sovereignty in the Arctic, alleviating hunger (as the area currently occupied had been over-hunted), and attempting to solve the "Eskimo problem", meaning the assimilation and end of the Inuit culture. One of the more notable relocations was undertaken in 1953, when 17 families were moved from Port Harrison (now Inukjuak, Quebec) to Resolute and Grise Fiord. They were dropped off in early September when winter had already arrived. The land they were sent to was very different from that in the Inukjuak area; it was barren, with only a couple of months when the temperature rose above freezing and several months of polar night. The families were told by the RCMP they would be able to return within two years if conditions were not right. However, two years later more families were relocated to the High Arctic and it was to be thirty years before they were able to visit Inukjuak.[41][42][43]

By 1953, Canada's prime minister Louis St. Laurent publicly admitted, "Apparently we have administered the vast territories of the north in an almost continuing absence of mind."[44] The government began to establish about forty permanent administrative centres to provide education, health and economic development services.[44] Inuit from hundreds of smaller camps scattered across the north, began to congregate in these hamlets.[45]

Regular visits from doctors, and access to modern medical care raised the birth rate and decreased the death rate, causing an enormous natural increase. In the 1950s, the Canadian government began to actively settle Inuit into permanent villages and cities, occasionally against their will (such as in Nuntak and Hebron). These forced resettlements were acknowledged by the Canadian government in 2005.[46] By the mid-1960s, encouraged first by missionaries, then by the prospect of paid jobs and government services, and finally forced by hunger and required by police, most Canadian Inuit lived year-round in permanent settlements. The nomadic migrations that were the central feature of Arctic life had become a much smaller part of life in the North. The Inuit, a once self-sufficient people in an extremely harsh environment were, in the span of perhaps two generations, transformed into a small, impoverished minority, lacking skills or resources to sell to the larger economy, but increasingly dependent on it for survival.

Although anthropologists like Diamond Jenness (1964) were quick to predict that Inuit culture was facing extinction, Inuit political activism was already emerging.

Cultural renewal

In the 1960s, the Canadian government funded the establishment of secular, government-operated high schools in the Northwest Territories (including what is now Nunavut) and Inuit areas in Quebec and Labrador along with the residential school system. The Inuit population was not large enough to support a full high school in every community, so this meant only a few schools were built, and students from across the territories were boarded there. These schools, in Aklavik, Iqaluit, Yellowknife, Inuvik and Kuujjuaq, brought together young Inuit from across the Arctic in one place for the first time, and exposed them to the rhetoric of civil and human rights that prevailed in Canada in the 1960s. This was a real wake-up call for the Inuit, and it stimulated the emergence of a new generation of young Inuit activists in the late 1960s who came forward and pushed for respect for the Inuit and their territories.

The Inuit began to emerge as a political force in the late 1960s and early 1970s, shortly after the first graduates returned home. They formed new politically active associations in the early 1970s, starting with the Inuit Tapirisat of Canada (Inuit Brotherhood and today known as Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami), an outgrowth of the Indian and Eskimo Association of the '60s, in 1971, and more region specific organizations shortly afterwards, including the Committee for the Original People's Entitlement (representing the Inuvialuit),[47] the Northern Quebec Inuit Association (Makivik Corporation) and the Labrador Inuit Association (LIA) representing Northern Labrador Inuit. Since the mid-1980s the Southern Labrador Inuit of NunatuKavut began organizing politically after being geographically cut out of the LIA, however, for political expediency the organization was erroneously called the Labrador Métis Nation. These various activist movements began to change the direction of Inuit society in 1975 with the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement. This comprehensive land claims settlement for Quebec Inuit, along with a large cash settlement and substantial administrative autonomy in the new region of Nunavik, set the precedent for the settlements to follow. The northern Labrador Inuit submitted their land claim in 1977, although they had to wait until 2005 to have a signed land settlement establishing Nunatsiavut. Southern Labrador Inuit of NunatuKavut are currently in the process of establishing landclaims and title rights that would allow them to negotiate with the Newfoundland Government.

Canada's 1982 Constitution Act recognized the Inuit as Aboriginal peoples in Canada, but not First Nations.[13] In the same year, the Tunngavik Federation of Nunavut (TFN) was incorporated, in order to take over negotiations for land claims on behalf of the Inuit living in the eastern Northwest Territories, that would later become Nunavut, from the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, which became a joint association of the Inuit of Quebec, Labrador, and the Northwest Territories.

Inuit cabinet members at the federal level

On October 30, 2008, Leona Aglukkaq was appointed as Minister of Health, "[becoming] the first Inuk to hold a senior cabinet position, although she is not the first Inuk to be in cabinet altogether."[48] Jack Anawak and Nancy Karetak-Lindell were both parliamentary secretaries respectively from 1993 to 1996 and in 2003.


In the United States, the term "Eskimo" is still commonly used, because it includes Inuit, Aleut, Iñupiat, and Yupik peoples whilst distinguishing them from American Indians. The Yupik do not speak an Inuit language nor consider themselves to be Inuit.[10] However, the term is probably a Montagnais[49][50][51] exonym as well as being widely used in[49][52][53][54] folk etymology as meaning "eater of raw meat" in the Cree language.[12][55] It is now considered pejorative or even a racial slur amongst the Canadian and English-speaking Greenlandic Inuit.[12][55]

In Canada and Greenland, "Inuit" is preferred. Inuit is the Eastern Canadian Inuit (Inuktitut) and West Greenlandic (Kalaallisut) word for "the people."[6] Since Inuktitut and Kalaallisut are the prestige dialects in Canada and Greenland, respectively, their version has become dominant, although every Inuit dialect uses cognates from the Proto-Eskimo *ińuɣ for example, "people" is inughuit in North Greenlandic and iivit in East Greenlandic.

Cultural history

Main article: Inuit culture


Inuktitut dialect map with labels in Inuktitut inuujingajut or local Roman alphabet
Distribution of Inuit dialects
Main article: Inuit languages

Inuit speak Inuinnaqtun, Inuktitut, Inuvialuktun, and Greenlandic languages, which belong to the Inuit-Inupiaq branch of the Eskimo–Aleut language family..[5] The Greenlandic languages are divided into: Kalaallisut (Western), Inuktun (Northern), and Tunumiit (Eastern).[56]

Inuktitut is spoken in Canada and along with Inuinnaqtun is one of the official languages of Nunavut and are known collectively as the Inuit Language.[57] In the Northwest Territories, Inuvialuktun, Inuinnaqtun and Inuktitut are all official langues.[58] Kalaallisut is the official language of Greenland.[59] As Inuktitut was the language of the Eastern Canadian Inuit and Kalaallisut is the language of the Western Greenlandic Inuit, they are related more closely than most other dialects.[60]

Inuit in Alaska and Canada also typically speak English. In Greenland, Inuit also speak Danish and learn English in school. Canadian Inuit may also speak Québécois French.

Finally, Deaf Inuit speak Inuit Sign Language, often called Inuiuuk, which is a language isolate and almost extinct as only around 50 people still speak it.[61]


Main article: Inuit diet

The Inuit have traditionally been fishers and hunters. They still hunt whales (esp. bowhead whale), walrus, caribou, seal, polar bears, muskoxen, birds, and fish and at times other less commonly eaten animals such as the Arctic fox. The typical Inuit diet is high in protein and very high in fat – in their traditional diets, Inuit consumed an average of 75% of their daily energy intake from fat.[62] While it is not possible to cultivate plants for food in the Arctic, the Inuit have traditionally gathered those that are naturally available. Grasses, tubers, roots, stems, berries, and seaweed (kuanniq or edible seaweed) were collected and preserved depending on the season and the location.[63][64][65][66][67] There is a vast array of different hunting technologies that the Inuit used to gather their food.

In the 1920s anthropologist Vilhjalmur Stefansson lived with and studied a group of Inuit.[68] The study focused on the fact that the Inuit's low-carbohydrate diet had no adverse effects on their health, nor indeed, Stefansson's own health. Stefansson (1946) also observed that the Inuit were able to get the necessary vitamins they needed from their traditional winter diet, which did not contain any plant matter. In particular, he found that adequate vitamin C could be obtained from items in their traditional diet of raw meat such as ringed seal liver and whale skin (muktuk). While there was considerable skepticism when he reported these findings, they have been borne out in recent studies and analyses.[69][70] However, the Inuit have lifespans 12 to 15 years shorter than the average Canadian's, which is thought to be a result of limited access to medical services.[71] The life expectancy gap is not closing.[71][72][73] Furthermore, fish oil supplement studies have failed to support claims of preventing heart attacks or strokes.[74][75][76]

Transport, navigation, and dogs

Photograph of an Inuit man seated in a kayak, holding a paddle
Inupiat in a kayak, Noatak, Alaska, c. 1929 (photo by Edward S. Curtis)
Urbanization in Greenland

The natives hunted sea animals from single-passenger, covered seal-skin boats called qajaq (Inuktitut syllabics: ᖃᔭᖅ)[77] which were extraordinarily buoyant, and could easily be righted by a seated person, even if completely overturned. Because of this property, the design was copied by Europeans and Americans who still produce them under the Inuit name kayak.

Inupiat baleen basket, with an ivory handle, made by Kinguktuk (1871–1941) of Barrow, Alaska. Displayed at the Museum of Man, San Diego, California.

Inuit also made umiaq ("woman's boat"), larger open boats made of wood frames covered with animal skins, for transporting people, goods, and dogs. They were 6–12 m (20–39 ft) long and had a flat bottom so that the boats could come close to shore. In the winter, Inuit would also hunt sea mammals by patiently watching an aglu (breathing hole) in the ice and waiting for the air-breathing seals to use them. This technique is also used by the polar bear, who hunts by seeking holes in the ice and waiting nearby.

In winter, both on land and on sea ice, the Inuit used dog sleds (qamutik) for transportation. The husky dog breed comes from Inuit breeding of dogs and wolves for transportation. A team of dogs in either a tandem/side-by-side or fan formation would pull a sled made of wood, animal bones, or the baleen from a whale's mouth and even frozen fish,[78] over the snow and ice. The Inuit used stars to navigate at sea and landmarks to navigate on land; they possessed a comprehensive native system of toponymy. Where natural landmarks were insufficient, the Inuit would erect an inukshuk.

Dogs played an integral role in the annual routine of the Inuit. During the summer they became pack animals, sometimes dragging up to 20 kg (44 lb) of baggage and in the winter they pulled the sled. Yearlong they assisted with hunting by sniffing out seals' holes and pestering polar bears. They also protected the Inuit villages by barking at bears and strangers. The Inuit generally favored, and tried to breed, the most striking and handsome of dogs, especially ones with bright eyes and a healthy coat. Common husky dog breeds used by the Inuit were the Canadian Eskimo Dog, the official animal of Nunavut,[79] (Qimmiq; Inuktitut for dog), the Greenland Dog, the Siberian Husky and the Alaskan Malamute. The Inuit would perform rituals over the newborn pup to give it favorable qualities; the legs were pulled to make them grow strong and the nose was poked with a pin to enhance the sense of smell.

Industry, art, and clothing

Inuit woman's parka, Canada.
Traditional clothing; left: seal, right: caribou.
Main article: Inuit art

Inuit industry relied almost exclusively on animal hides, driftwood, and bones, although some tools were also made out of worked stones, particularly the readily worked soapstone. Walrus ivory was a particularly essential material, used to make knives. Art played a big part in Inuit society and continues to do so today. Small sculptures of animals and human figures, usually depicting everyday activities such as hunting and whaling, were carved from ivory and bone. In modern times prints and figurative works carved in relatively soft stone such as soapstone, serpentinite, or argillite have also become popular.

Inuit made clothes and footwear from animal skins, sewn together using needles made from animal bones and threads made from other animal products, such as sinew. The anorak (parka) is made in a similar fashion by Arctic peoples from Europe through Asia and the Americas, including the Inuit. The hood of an amauti, (women's parka, plural amautiit) was traditionally made extra large with a separate compartment below the hood to allow the mother to carry a baby against her back and protect it from the harsh wind. Styles vary from region to region, from the shape of the hood to the length of the tails. Boots (mukluk or kamik[80]), could be made of caribou or seal skin, and designed for men and women.

Inuit building an igloo

During the winter, certain Inuit lived in a temporary shelter made from snow called an igloo, and during the few months of the year when temperatures were above freezing, they lived in tents, known as tupiq,[81] made of animal skins supported by a frame of bones or wood.[82][83] Some, such as the Siglit, used driftwood,[84] while others built sod houses.[85]

Gender roles, marriage, birth, and community

Inupiat woman, Alaska, circa 1907

The division of labor in traditional Inuit society had a strong gender component, but it was not absolute. The men were traditionally hunters and fishermen and the women took care of the children, cleaned the home, sewed, processed food, and cooked. However, there are numerous examples of women who hunted, out of necessity or as a personal choice. At the same time men, who could be away from camp for several days at a time, would be expected to know how to sew and cook.[86]

The marital customs among the Inuit were not strictly monogamous: many Inuit relationships were implicitly or explicitly sexual. Open marriages, polygamy, divorce, and remarriage were known. Among some Inuit groups, if there were children, divorce required the approval of the community and particularly the agreement of the elders. Marriages were often arranged, sometimes in infancy, and occasionally forced on the couple by the community.[87]

An Inupiat family from Noatak, Alaska, 1929.

Marriage was common for women at puberty and for men when they became productive hunters. Family structure was flexible: a household might consist of a man and his wife (or wives) and children; it might include his parents or his wife's parents as well as adopted children; it might be a larger formation of several siblings with their parents, wives and children; or even more than one family sharing dwellings and resources. Every household had its head, an elder or a particularly respected man.[88]

There was also a larger notion of community as, generally, several families shared a place where they wintered. Goods were shared within a household, and also, to a significant extent, within a whole community.

The Inuit were hunter–gatherers,[89] and have been referred to as nomadic.[90] One of the customs following the birth of an infant was for an Angakkuq (shaman) to place a tiny ivory carving of a whale into the baby's mouth, in hopes this would make the child good at hunting. Loud singing and drumming were also customary after a birth.[91]


Virtually all Inuit cultures have oral traditions of raids by other indigenous peoples, including fellow Inuit, and of taking vengeance on them in return, such as the Bloody Falls Massacre. Western observers often regarded these tales as generally not entirely accurate historical accounts, but more as self-serving myths. However, evidence shows that Inuit cultures had quite accurate methods of teaching historical accounts to each new generation.[92] In northern Canada, historically there were ethnic feuds between the Dene and the Inuit, as witnessed by Samuel Hearne in 1771.[93] In 1996, Dene and Inuit representatives participated in a healing ceremony to reconcile the centuries-old grievances.[94]

The historic accounts of violence against outsiders does make clear that there was a history of hostile contact within the Inuit cultures and with other cultures.[95] It also makes it clear that Inuit nations existed through history, as well as confederations of such nations. The known confederations were usually formed to defend against a more prosperous, and thus stronger, nation. Alternately, people who lived in less productive geographical areas tended to be less warlike, as they had to spend more time producing food.

Justice within Inuit culture was moderated by the form of governance that gave significant power to the elders. As in most cultures around the world, justice could be harsh and often included capital punishment for serious crimes against the community or the individual. During raids against other peoples, the Inuit, like their non-Inuit neighbors, tended to be merciless.[96]

Suicide, murder, and death

A pervasive European myth about Inuit is that they killed elderly (senicide) and "unproductive people",[97] but this is not generally true.[98][99][100] In a culture with an oral history, elders are the keepers of communal knowledge, effectively the community library.[101] Because they are of extreme value as the repository of knowledge, there are cultural taboos against sacrificing elders.[102][103]

In Antoon A. Leenaar's book Suicide in Canada he states that "Rasmussen found that the death of elders by suicide was a commonplace among the Iglulik Inuit."[104] He heard of many old men and women who had hanged themselves.[104] By ensuring they died a violent death, Inuit elders purified their souls for journey to the afterworld.[104]

According to Franz Boas, suicide was "...not of rare occurrence..." and was generally accomplished through hanging.[105] Writing of the Labrador Inuit, Hawkes (1916) was considerably more explicit on the subject of suicide and the burden of the elderly:

Aged people who have outlived their usefulness and whose life is a burden both to themselves and their relatives are put to death by stabbing or strangulation. This is customarily done at the request of the individual concerned, but not always so. Aged people who are a hindrance on the trail are abandoned.
Antoon A. Leenaars, Suicide in Canada[106]

People seeking assistance in their suicide made three consecutive requests to relatives for help.[107] Family members would attempt to dissuade the individual at each suggestion, but with the third request by a person, assistance became obligatory.[107] In some cases, a suicide was a publicly acknowledged and attended event.[107] Once the suicide had been agreed to, the victim would dress him or herself as the dead are clothed, with clothing turned inside-out.[107] The death occurred at a specific place, where the material possessions of deceased people were brought to be destroyed.[107]

When food is not sufficient, the elderly are the least likely to survive. In the extreme case of famine, the Inuit fully understood that, if there was to be any hope of obtaining more food, a hunter was necessarily the one to feed on whatever food was left. However, a common response to desperate conditions and the threat of starvation was infanticide.[108][109] A mother abandoned an infant in hopes that someone less desperate might find and adopt the child before the cold or animals killed it. The belief that the Inuit regularly resorted to infanticide may be due in part to studies done by Asen Balikci,[110] Milton Freeman[111] and David Riches[112] among the Netsilik, along with the trial of Kikkik.[113][114] Other recent research has noted that "While there is little disagreement that there were examples of infanticide in Inuit communities, it is presently not known the depth and breadth of these incidents. The research is neither complete nor conclusive to allow for a determination of whether infanticide was a rare or a widely practiced event."[115]

Anthropologists believed that Inuit cultures routinely killed children born with physical defects because of the demands of the extreme climate. These views were changed by late 20th century discoveries of burials at an archaeological site. Between 1982 and 1994, a storm with high winds caused ocean waves to erode part of the bluffs near Barrow, Alaska, and a body was discovered to have been washed out of the mud. Unfortunately the storm claimed the body, which was not recovered. But examination of the eroded bank indicated that an ancient house, perhaps with other remains, was likely to be claimed by the next storm. The site, known as the "Ukkuqsi archaeological site", was excavated. Several frozen bodies (now known as the "frozen family") were recovered, autopsies were performed, and they were re-interred as the first burials in the then-new Imaiqsaun Cemetery south of Barrow.[116] Years later another body was washed out of the bluff. It was a female child, approximately 9 years old, who had clearly been born with a congenital birth defect.[117] This child had never been able to walk, but must have been cared for by family throughout her life.[118] She was the best preserved body ever recovered in Alaska, and radiocarbon dating of grave goods and of a strand of her hair all place her back to about 1200 CE.[118]

During the 19th century, the Western Arctic suffered a population decline of close to 90%, resulting from exposure to new diseases, including tuberculosis, measles, influenza, and smallpox. Autopsies near Greenland reveal that, more commonly pneumonia, kidney diseases, trichinosis, malnutrition, and degenerative disorders may have contributed to mass deaths among different Inuit tribes. The Inuit believed that the causes of the disease were of a spiritual origin.[119]

Traditional law

Inuit traditional laws are anthropologically different from Western law concepts. Customary law was thought non-existent in Inuit society before the introduction of the Canadian legal system. Hoebel, in 1954, concluded that only 'rudimentary law' existed amongst the Inuit. Indeed, prior to about 1970, it is impossible to find even one reference to a Western observer who was aware that any form of governance existed among any Inuit,[120] however, there was a set way of doing things that had to be followed:

If an individual's actions went against the tirigusuusiit, maligait or piqujait, the angakkuq (shaman) might have to intervene, lest the consequences be dire to the individual or the community.[121]

We are told today that Inuit never had laws or "maligait". Why? They say because they are not written on paper. When I think of paper, I think you can tear it up, and the laws are gone. The laws of the Inuit are not on paper.
Mariano Aupilaarjuk, Rankin Inlet, Nunavut, Perspectives on Traditional Law[122]

Traditional beliefs

Some Inuit believed that the spirits of their ancestors could be seen in the aurora borealis

The environment in which the Inuit lived inspired a mythology filled with adventure tales of whale and walrus hunts. Long winter months of waiting for caribou herds or sitting near breathing holes hunting seals gave birth to stories of mysterious and sudden appearance of ghosts and fantastic creatures. Some Inuit looked into the aurora borealis, or northern lights, to find images of their family and friends dancing in the next life.[123] However, some Inuit believed that the lights were more sinister and if you whistled at them, they would come down and cut off your head. This tale is still told to children today.[124] For others they were invisible giants, the souls of animals, a guide to hunting and as a spirit for the angakkuq to help with healing.[124][125] They relied upon the angakkuq (shaman) for spiritual interpretation. The nearest thing to a central deity was the Old Woman (Sedna), who lived beneath the sea. The waters, a central food source, were believed to contain great gods.

The Inuit practiced a form of shamanism based on animist principles. They believed that all things had a form of spirit, including humans, and that to some extent these spirits could be influenced by a pantheon of supernatural entities that could be appeased when one required some animal or inanimate thing to act in a certain way. The angakkuq of a community of Inuit was not the leader, but rather a sort of healer and psychotherapist, who tended wounds and offered advice, as well as invoking the spirits to assist people in their lives. His or her role was to see, interpret and exhort the subtle and unseen. Angakkuit were not trained; they were held to be born with the ability and recognized by the community as they approached adulthood.

Inuit religion was closely tied to a system of rituals integrated into the daily life of the people. These rituals were simple but held to be necessary. According to a customary Inuit saying,

The great peril of our existence lies in the fact that our diet consists entirely of souls.

By believing that all things, including animals, have souls like those of humans, any hunt that failed to show appropriate respect and customary supplication would only give the liberated spirits cause to avenge themselves.

The harshness and unpredictability of life in the Arctic ensured that Inuit lived with concern for the uncontrollable, where a streak of bad luck could destroy an entire community. To offend a spirit was to risk its interference with an already marginal existence. The Inuit understood that they had to work in harmony with supernatural powers to provide the necessities of day-to-day life. Before the 1940s, Inuit had minimal contact with Europeans, who passed through on their way to hunt whales or trade furs but seldom had any interest in settling down on the frozen land of the Arctic. So the Inuit had the place to themselves. They moved between summer and winter camps to always be living where there were animals to hunt.

But that changed. As World War II ended and the Cold War began, the Arctic became a place where countries that did not get along were close to each other. The Arctic had always been seen as inaccessible, but the invention of aircraft made it easier for non-Arctic dwellers to get there. As new airbases and radar stations were built in the Arctic to monitor rival nations, permanent settlements were developed around them, including schools and health care centres. In many places, Inuit children were required to attend schools that emphasized non-native traditions. With better health care, the Inuit population grew too large to sustain itself solely by hunting. Many Inuit from smaller camps moved into permanent settlements because there was access to jobs and food. In many areas Inuit were required to live in towns by the 1960s.


In total there are about 134,241 Inuit living in four countries, Canada, Greenland, Denmark, and the United States.[1][2][3][4]


Although the 50,480[1] Inuit listed in the 2006 Canada Census can be found throughout Canada the majority, 44,470, live in four regions.[126][127][128][129]

As of the 2006 Canada Census there were 4,715 Inuit living in Newfoundland and Labrador[126] and about 2,160 live in Nunatsiavut.[130] There are also about 6,000 NunatuKavut people (Labrador Metis or Inuit-metis) living in southern Labrador in what is called NunatuKavut.[131]

As of the 2006 Canada Census there were 4,165 Inuit living in the Northwest Territories.[127] The majority, about 3,115, live in the six communities of the Inuvialuit Settlement Region.[132]

As of the 2006 Canada Census there were 24,640 Inuit living in Nunavut.[128] In Nunavut the Inuit population forms a majority in all communities and is the only jurisdiction of Canada where Aboriginal peoples form a majority.

As of the 2006 Canada Census there were 10,950 Inuit living in Quebec.[129] The majority, about 9,565, live in Nunavik.[133]


According to the 2013 edition of The World Factbook, published by the Central Intelligence Agency, the Inuit population of Greenland is 89% (51,365) out of a total of 57,714 people.[2] Like Nunavut the population lives throughout the region.


The population size of Greenlandic people in Denmark varies from source to source between 15,000 and 20,000. According to 2015 figures from Statistics Denmark there are 15,815 people residing in Denmark of Greenlandic Inuit ancestry.[3] Most travel to Denmark for educational purposes, and many remain after finishing their education ,[134] which results in the population being mostly concentrated in the big 4 educational cities of Copenhagen, Aarhus, Odense, and Aalborg, which all have vibrant Greenlandic communities and cultural centers (Kalaallit Illuutaat).

United States

According to the 2000 United States Census there were a total of 16,581 Inuit/Inupiat living throughout the country.[4] The majority, about 14,718, live in the state of Alaska.[135]


According to the 2010 Russian Census there were a total of 1,738 Inuit/Eskimo living throughout the country, mostly in the East of the Far Eastern Federal District.


Map showing the members of the Inuit Circumpolar Conference.

The Inuit Circumpolar Council is a United Nations-recognized non-governmental organization (NGO), which defines its constituency as Canada's Inuit and Inuvialuit, Greenland's Kalaallit Inuit, Alaska's Inupiat and Yup'ik, and Russia's Siberian Yupik,[136] despite the last two neither speaking an Inuit dialect[10] or considering themselves "Inuit". Nonetheless, it has come together with other circumpolar cultural and political groups to promote the Inuit and other northern people in their fight against ecological problems such as climate change which disproportionately affects the Inuit population. The Inuit Circumpolar Council is one of the six group of Arctic indigenous peoples that have a seat as a so-called "Permanent Participant" on the Arctic Council,[137] an international high level forum in which the eight Arctic Countries (USA, Canada, Russia, Denmark, Iceland, Norway, Sweden and Finland) discuss Arctic policy. On 12 May 2011, Greenland's Prime Minister Kuupik Kleist hosted the ministerial meeting of the Arctic Council, an event for which the American Secretary of State Hillary Clinton came to Nuuk, as did many other high-ranking officials such as Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt and Norwegian Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Støre. At that event they signed the Nuuk Declaration.[138]

Regional autonomy in Canada

Map of all Inuit regions

The Inuvialuit are western Canadian Inuit who remained in the Northwest Territories when Nunavut split off. They live primarily in the Mackenzie River delta, on Banks Island, and parts of Victoria Island in the Northwest Territories. They are officially represented by the Inuvialuit Regional Corporation and, in 1984, received a comprehensive land claims settlement, the first in Northern Canada, with the signing of the Inuvialuit Final Agreement.[139]

The TFN worked for ten years and, in September 1992, came to a final agreement with the Government of Canada. This agreement called for the separation of the Northwest Territories into an eastern territory whose Aboriginal population would be predominately Inuit,[140] the future Nunavut, and a rump Northwest Territories in the west. It was the largest land claims agreement in Canadian history. In November 1992, the Nunavut Final Agreement was approved by nearly 85% of the Inuit of what would become Nunavut. As the final step in this long process, the Nunavut Land Claims Agreement was signed on May 25, 1993, in Iqaluit by Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and by Paul Quassa, the president of Nunavut Tunngavik Incorporated, which replaced the TFN with the ratification of the Nunavut Final Agreement. The Canadian Parliament passed the supporting legislation in June of the same year, enabling the 1999 establishment of Nunavut as a territorial entity.

With the establishment of Nunatsiavut in 2005, almost all the traditional Inuit lands in Canada, with the exception NunatuKavut in central and South Labrador, are now covered by some sort of land claims agreement providing for regional autonomy.


Main articles: Kalaallit and History of Greenland

In 1953, Denmark put an end to the colonial status of Greenland and granted home rule in 1979 and in 2008 a self-government referendum was passed with 75% approval. Although still a part of the Kingdom of Denmark (along with Denmark proper and the Faroe Islands), Greenland, known as Kalaallit Nunaat in the Greenlandic language, maintains much autonomy today. Of a population of 56,000, 80% of Greenlanders identify as Inuit. Their economy is based on fishing and shrimping.[141]

The Thule people arrived in Greenland in the 13th century. There they encountered the Norsemen, who had established colonies there since the late 10th century, as well as a later wave of the Dorset people. Because most of Greenland is covered in ice, the Greenland Inuit (or Kalaallit) only live in coastal settlements, particularly the northern polar coast, the eastern Amassalik coast and the central coasts of western Greenland.[142]


Alaska Native Regional Corporations

Currently Alaska is governed as a State within United States with very limited autonomy for Alaska Native peoples. European Colonization of Alaska started in the 18th century by Russia. By the 1860s, the Russian government was considering ridding itself of its Russian America colony. Alaska was officially incorporated to United States on January 3, 1959.

The Inuit of Alaska are the Inupiat (from Inuit- people – and piaq/piat real, i.e. 'real people') who live in the Northwest Arctic Borough, the North Slope Borough and the Bering Straits region. Barrow, the northernmost city in the United States, is in the Inupiat region. Their language is Iñupiaq (which is the singular form of Inupiat).

Modern culture

Inuit art, carving, print making, textiles and Inuit throat singing, are very popular, not only in Canada but globally, and Inuit artists are widely known. Canada has adopted some of the Inuit culture as national symbols, using Inuit cultural icons like the inukshuk in unlikely places, such as its use as a symbol at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver. Respected art galleries display Inuit art, the largest collection of which is at the Winnipeg Art Gallery.

Some Inuit languages such as Inuktitut, appears to have a more secure future in Quebec and Nunavut. There are a surprising number of Inuit, even those who now live in urban centres such as Ottawa, Montreal and Winnipeg, who have experienced living on the land in the traditional life style. People such as Legislative Assembly of Nunavut member, Levinia Brown and former Commissioner of Nunavut and the NWT, Helen Maksagak were born and lived the early part of their life "on the land". Inuit culture is alive and vibrant today in spite of the negative impacts of recent history.

An important biennial event, the Arctic Winter Games, is held in communities across the northern regions of the world, featuring traditional Inuit and northern sports as part of the events. A cultural event is also held. The games were first held in 1970, and while rotated usually among Alaska, Yukon and the Northwest Territories, they have also been held in Schefferville, Quebec in 1976, in Slave Lake, Alberta, and a joint Iqaluit, Nunavut-Nuuk, Greenland staging in 2002. In other sporting events, Jordin Tootoo became the first Inuk to play in the National Hockey League in the 2003–04 season, playing for the Nashville Predators.

Although Inuit life has changed significantly over the past century, many traditions continue. Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit, or traditional knowledge, such as storytelling, mythology, music and dancing remain important parts of the culture. Family and community are very important. The Inuktitut language is still spoken in many areas of the Arctic and is common on radio and in television programming.

Well-known Inuit politicians include Premier of Nunavut, Peter Taptuna, Nancy Karetak-Lindell, former MP for the riding of Nunavut, and Kuupik Kleist, Prime Minister of Greenland. Leona Aglukkaq, current MP, was the first Inuk to be sworn into the Canadian Federal Cabinet as Health Minister in 2008. In May 2011 after being re-elected for her second term, Ms. Aglukkaq was given the additional portfolio of Minister of the Canadian Northern Economic Development Agency. In July 2013 she was sworn in as the Minister of the Environment.[143]

Inuit seal hunter in a kayak, armed with a harpoon.

Visual and performing arts are strong. In 2002 the first feature film in Inuktitut, Atanarjuat, was released worldwide to great critical and popular acclaim. It was directed by Zacharias Kunuk, and written, filmed, produced, directed, and acted almost entirely by the Inuit of Igloolik. In 2009, the film Le Voyage D'Inuk, a Greenlandic language feature film, was directed by Mike Magidson and co-written by Magidson and French film producer Jean-Michel Huctin.[144] One of the most famous Inuit artists is Pitseolak Ashoona. Susan Aglukark is a popular singer. Mitiarjuk Attasie Nappaaluk works at preserving Inuktitut and has written the first novel published in that language.[145] In 2006, Cape Dorset was hailed as Canada's most artistic city, with 23% of the labor force employed in the arts.[146] Inuit art such as soapstone carvings is one of Nunavut's most important industries.

Recently, there has been an identity struggle among the younger generations of Inuit, between their traditional heritage and the modern society which their cultures have been forced to assimilate into in order to maintain a livelihood. With current dependence on modern society for necessities, (including governmental jobs, food, aid, medicine, etc.), the Inuit have had much interaction with and exposure to the societal norms outside their previous cultural boundaries. The stressors regarding the identity crisis among teenagers have led to disturbingly high numbers of suicide.[147]

A series of authors has focused upon the increasing myopia in the youngest generations of Inuit. Myopia was almost unknown prior to the Inuit adoption of western culture. Principal theories are the change to a western style diet with more refined foods, and extended education.[148][149][150]

David Pisurayak Kootook was awarded the Meritorious Service Cross, posthumously, for his heroic efforts in a 1972 plane crash.


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