Nunavut Culture and History
Nunavut’s vast size and harsh climate enabled its sparse Inuit population to preserve their traditional nomadic lifestyle as hunters and fishers for centuries after Europeans settled in southern Canada. Nunavut’s Inuit have also managed to maintain their intricate carving skills, unique music, and Inuktitut language, the mother tongue of about 65 percent of Nunavut’s population.
History Nunavut Culture
Nunavut may have always been a vast land with a small population, but the Inuit have called the area home for at least 4,000 years. Originally whale hunters, the Inuit adopted their current seal and caribou hunting lifestyle about 500 years ago. The Nunatta Sunaqutangit Museum (Building Number 212, Iqaluit) is the best place to learn more about Inuit culture, especially on days when resident elders share firsthand stories.
Although some people believe the Viking explorers who briefly settled in northern Newfoundland made it as far north as Baffin Island around the year 1000, this has yet to be officially confirmed despite archeological discoveries of European artifacts at Cape Banfield in 2008. Nunavut’s first documented European visitor was English explorer Martin Frobisher, who believed he discovered gold ore near the bay which now bears his name during his 1576 Northwest Passage quest.
Robert Bylot, Henry Hudson, and William Baffin also ventured into the far north during the 16th century in an attempt to find the elusive Northwest Passage leading to Asia’s riches. However, no European would successfully sail across until Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen’s voyage between 1903 and 1905. Visitors can learn more about Amundsen and his relationship with the local Inuit at the Northwest Passage Trail (Gjoa Haven).
The Inuit continued to live their traditional lifestyle for centuries until the early 1950’s, when the Canadian government forcibly relocated several tribes from northern Québec to two isolated High Arctic communities called Grise Fiord and Resolute. Many of these people starved and had great difficulty adjusting to their permanent new homes. The government formally apologized for their involvement in 2010.
Although discussion of a separate Inuit territory began in 1976, official agreements were not finished until 1992. The Nunavut Land Claims Agreement Act officially became law in 1993, and Nunavut became Canada’s newest territory in 1999. Although Nunavut suffered some growing pains during its first decade as a separate territory, its people have always been proud and its future has never looked brighter.
Nunavut’s Inuit have done a tremendous job of preserving their culture throughout the centuries. Inuktitut is Nunavut’s dominant language and the territory has its own Inuit Broadcasting Corporation. Traditional arts such as soapstone carving, throat singing, and dancing to the beat of ancient drums are all very much alive in Nunavut.
However, Nunavut’s Inuit have also branched out into more modern media. Fiddles, accordions, and other European instruments have been mixed into musical performances. The Nunavut Animation Lab offers animation training workshops in three Nunavut communities, while Igloolik’s Artcirq circus troupe has performed at the 2010 Winter Olympics and countless other venues around the world. Throat singer Tanya Tagaq has collaborated with the likes of Björk and the Kronos Quartet.
People of Nunavut
The total current population of Nunavut (as of 2011) is estimated to be around 33,330 people, the vast majority (84%) of whom are Inuit. Of the approximately 28,000 Inuit living in Nunavut, more than half of them reside in the eastern Qikiqtaaluk region of the territory and, remarkably, they are mostly young people. Nearly three quarters of all the Inuit living in Nunavut today are less than 40 years old.
The Inuktitut word ‘Inuk’ is the singular of ‘Inuit.’
Indigenous People of Nunavut
Nunavut has supported a continuous indigenous population for over 4,000 years. Archaeologists and geneticists are now certain that the predecessors of today’s Inuit originated in the area of the Bering Strait, which separates Asia from North America. The first indigenous group, known as Paleo-Eskimos, crossed the Bering Strait sometime around 3000 BC and moved into the Canadian Arctic Archipelago around 2500 BC, apparently because of a change in climate. From there they followed marine mammals and herds of big game land animals across all of Nunavut to Greenland.
Paleo-Eskimo Culture: 2500 BC to 1500 BC
Pre-Dorset Culture (‘Saqqaq’): 2500 BC to 500 BC
Dorset Culture (‘Tuniit’ or ‘Sivullirmiut’): 500 BC to 1500 AD
Thule Culture (Proto-Inuit): 1000 AD to 1600 AD
Inuit Culture (Eskimo): 1600 AD to present-day
Paleo-Eskimo people inhabited the entire Arctic from Chukotka in present-day Russia across North America to Greenland prior to the rise of the ancient Thule and modern Inuit. The first known Paleo-Eskimo culture in Nunavut developed around 2500 BC.
In 2010, using fragments of hair 4,000 years old, scientists from the National Museum of Denmark and Beijing Genomics Institute sequenced nearly 80% of an ancient Paleo-Eskimo man’s genome.
He was found in Greenland and he belonged to the Saqqaq culture. Based on his genome, scientists conclude that his people migrated from Siberia to North America 5,000 years ago, then to Greenland 500 years later. This ancient man — dubbed ‘Inuk’ — had A+ blood type and genes suggesting he was adapted to cold weather, with brown eyes, brownish skin and dark hair, with a likelihood of male pattern baldness in his old age.
Ancient Nunavut descendants of Paleo-Eskimo people include the Pre-Dorset and Dorset cultures. The Dorset people were the last major Paleo-Eskimo culture living in the Arctic before the migration east from present-day Alaska of the Thule, the direct ancestors of the Inuit.
The Pre-Dorset culture was a Paleo-Eskimo group of people who settled on the islands of the Canadian Arctic Archipelago and in northern Greenland around 2500 BC, lasting to around 500 BC. The names ‘Dorset’ and ‘Pre-Dorset’ come from Cape Dorset, Baffin Island. This place was the location of archaeological remains that, in 1925, the Canadian anthropologist Diamond Jenness identified as originating from a previously unknown ‘Dorset’ culture.
In central Nunavut, they fished with barbed spears and hunted muskoxen and caribou with bow and arrow.
Near the coast they hunted seals, walruses and small whales by throwing harpoons from the shore and sea ice. They lived in temporary settlements of skin tents and perhaps also constructed snow houses. Their tools and weapons had remarkably small cutting edges chipped from stone, which has led some archaeologists to refer to the Pre-Dorset culture and the related Denbigh Flint Complex in Alaska as the ‘Arctic Small Tool tradition.’ They developed into the Dorset culture around 500 BC.
The Dorset culture (also called the Dorset Tradition) was a Paleo-Eskimo descendent group of people living in Nunavut from 500 BC to 1500 AD who preceded the arrival of the Thule people. Through contact with the more advanced Thule culture, and potentially also through intermarriage, some anthropologists believe that modern Inuit are at least related culturally and perhaps also biologically to the ancient Dorset.
Dorset culture used unique technology related to hunting and tool making.
They made distinctive triangular blades, soapstone lamps and engraving tools called burins. Scholars believe that the Dorset (and later the Thule) had contact with Norse sailors who visited Baffin Island from 1000 AD to 1450 AD. The Vikings derisively called these people ‘Skræling’ yet they outlasted the ancient Norse!
The Dorset were, however, nearly extinct by 1500 AD. They had difficulty adapting to the Medieval Warm Period (950 AD – 1250 AD) and were largely displaced by the superior Thule culture. Certain Inuit legends describe their ancestors driving away the people they called ‘Tuniit’ or ‘Sivullirmiut’ (first inhabitants). According to Inuit legend, they were timid giants, people who were taller and stronger than the Thule, but who were easily scared off.
The last vestige of Dorset people disappeared in the early 20th century. A small, isolated community of Dorset known as the Sallirmiut survived until the winter of 1902-1903 on Coats, Walrus and Southampton Islands in Hudson Bay near the present-day Nunavut community of Coral Harbour. DNA testing has confirmed these people were directly related to the Dorset.
The Thule people, sometimes called proto-Inuit, were the direct ancestors of all modern Inuit. They were established in coastal Alaska by 1000 AD and expanded eastwards across Canada, reaching Greenland by the 13th century. In the process, they replaced people of the earlier Dorset culture that had previously inhabited the region.
The name ‘Thule’ originates from the community of Thule (renamed Qaanaaq in 1953) in northwestern Greenland where the archaeological remains of these unique people were first discovered.
The links between the Thule and the Inuit are biological, cultural, and linguistic.
Archaeological evidence has demonstrated that the Thule (and also the Dorset, but to a lesser degree) were in contact with the Norse, who had reached the shores of Canada by 1000 AD. In the Viking Sagas, this indigenous Nunavut people was also called ‘Skræling.’
Some Thule people migrated southward in the ‘Second Expansion’ or ‘Second Phase’ of their history. From 1200 AD to 1300 AD, the Thule occupied the entire area currently inhabited by the Central Inuit. By 1400 AD, the Thule had effectively replaced most of the Dorset culture. Contact with Europeans intensified in the 18th century, disrupting Thule traditions. Compounded by the climatic effects of the Little Ice Age (1650 AD – 1850 AD), many Thule communities broke apart and this nomadic indigenous people became known to Europeans and Americans as Eskimo and later, more correctly, as Inuit.
The Thule people are recognized historically for using slate knives, umiaks, sealskin floats and toggling harpoons. Their technology was superior to the Dorset culture. Thule people subsisted primarily on marine wildlife species — especially large sea mammals.
Thule winter settlements usually had one to four houses sheltering up to ten people each.
Some Thule settlements had more than a dozen houses, but were rarely used by more than fifty people at any one time. Their houses were constructed of whalebones covered with hides and sod. Archaeological remains of these ancient Thule structures, including food cache sites, kayak stands, hunting blinds, fox traps and other artifacts are found all across Nunavut.
The Inuktitut word ‘Inuit’ means ‘human beings’ or ‘the people.’ This name refers to the indigenous people of Nunavut, as well as those living in the Northwest Territories, Greenland and Alaska.
The traditional lifestyle of the Inuit is remarkably adapted to extreme arctic conditions.
Their essential skills for survival have always been hunting, fishing and trapping. Agriculture was never possible in the enormous tundra landscapes and icy coasts stretching across the top of the world from Siberia to Greenland. (The ancient Norse of Greenland tried agriculture and failed.)
Hunting is at the core of Inuit culture. Everyday life in modern Inuit communities, some established only a few decades ago, still reflects the five thousand year old history of a nomadic hunter-gatherer tradition that allowed the Inuit people and their great ancestors to achieve one of the most remarkable human accomplishments of all time — the successful population of the Arctic!
Some Europeans and Americans still refer to the Inuit as Eskimos, but the Inuit people consider that term to be pejorative. European colonists and explorers adopted this old Algonquin name for the Inuit, but the correct Inuktitut term is ‘Inuit’ — the name they call themselves, the plural word for all the Inuit people. The proper singular Inuktitut term for an individual Inuit person is ‘Inuk.’