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Snow Owl October, 2003


Current President: Jose A. Kusugak
Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami


     Welcome to the ITK web site. It will be one year that this edition of the ITK site is on the Internet as of June 21st, the day it was launched in 2002. Since that time weve had visits from thousands of people, in many countries. Weve answered many questions about Inuit culture, and some students have obtained excellent grades as a result of asking questions, and getting some answers.

    There is plenty to explore in this site. Check out the buttons at the top of the screen. Under each button is a treasure of information. The Inuit of Canada button tells the story of our history. The Inuit Tapiriit button provides you with the information about our organization, Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami (which means Inuit are united in Canada ). Youll find most of the information under those two buttons.

     Please enjoy your visit.

     Quyanami (thank you)
Jose A. Kusugak

Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami



Photo by: Eric Loring

       For 5,000 years, the people and culture known throughout the world as Inuit have occupied the vast territory stretching from the shores of the Chukchi peninsula of Russia , east across Alaska and Canada , to the southeastern coast of Greenland . It is here, based on our ability to utilize the physical environment and living resources of this geographic region known as the Arctic, where our culture developed and our history unfolded.

      Inuit are a founding people of the country now know as Canada , and our history represents an important and fascinating story. It is not just a story about an early chapter of Canadian history. Indeed it is an epic tale in the history of human settlement and the endurance of culture. Each chapter of our story provides valuable lessons and insights about issues that matter to cultures everywhere.

     We will start by explaining that Inuit are not the only people living in the Arctic . We share the polar region with other indigenous cultures. As Canadian Inuit we have close ties with the Yupik and Inupiat of Alaska and Russia and with the Inuit of Greenland. We have more distant biological and linguistic links with the Aleut. There are other indigenous cultures occupying the circumpolar regions of Europe and Russia each having a distinct history and cultural tradition. Recently, however, there has been a movement to unite indigenous peoples throughout the circumpolar world based on shared concerns especially about the Arctic environment and the benefits to be derived from economic cooperation and cultural exchange.

Origin and Migratory Map



     The origin of what we now know as the Inuit way of life began about 10,000 years ago in a region of the Arctic world called the Bering Strait . Evidence points to the fact that our very earliest ancestors crossed from what is now Asia into what is now North America not by water as we have to do at the present time, but rather by land. This land crossing was made possible because at that time the large glaciers that once covered so much of North America and northern Europe had still not melted completely. Because so much of the world is water, supply was locked up in glaciers. Sea levels were lower than they are today creating a land connection between Siberia and Alaska . This large area of exposed land is called the Bering Land Bridge.

      If we could travel back in time and visit this region about 8500 years ago, we would probably find a population living in small communities along the coastline of the Bering Land Bridge. We would have observed a way of life based on marine mammals, and other species of animals, birds, and fish that were hunted along the shorelines and islands of the ice-free waters. During certain seasons of the year we would have observed hunters and their families moving inland to hunt in the valleys and to fish in the freshwater lakes and rivers.

     As the population of this area grew and new territory was needed, the settlements gradually spread north along the coast and probably inland using the large river valleys. Eventually these regions spread north of the Seward peninsula until they reached as far as the northern coast of Alaska . This was a very different environment since during the winter the sea was covered by a thick layer of ice. It was here that a remarkable shift in the way of life took place as our ancestors developed the knowledge, skills and technology needed to utilize the winter sea ice environment to hunt marine mammals. This adaptation endures as one of the defining characteristics of Inuit culture from Alaska to Greenland . On the origin and migration route map you will learn more about where our very early ancestors came from, where they were living and the possible routes of movement to the coast of north Alaska .

      These early groups that learned to live on the sea ice must have been very successful hunters since it looks as though their population started to grow and eventually expand eastwards. As they did so, new settlements were created. This movement east took place about 5000 years ago by a people we refer to as the Sivullirmiut which means the first people. In our legends these early people were often called Tunnit. Archeologists use the terms Predorset, Independence and Dorset to identify the Sivullirmiut.

      In less than a thousand years, groups of Sivullirmiut traveled from the north coast of Alaska , east across Canada as far as southern Greenland . In Canada , early Inuit settled as far east and south as the Strait of Belle Isle on the coast of Newfoundland . As they moved, our early ancestors established villages and hunting territory. Like their ancestors to the west they were able to utilize the resources of the coast as well as those further inland. Although both land and coastal marine resources were important for our survival, as Inuit both then and now, we always relied on the harvest of marine mammals in every season of the year.

     On the origin and migration route map you can see the possible routes that were used by the first Inuit to move east to create what is now the Inuit territory of Canada . As our early ancestors began to establish living places and hunting areas they began a process of continuous use of these areas year after year and generation after generation. Over time, patterns of regional groups started to develop and these have remained reasonably stable up to the present time. On the Sivullirmiut map you will see some of the important places where they actually lived. What is interesting is to compare this land use map of our earliest ancestors with current land use so you can understand how we continue to use the same territory.

     The tools and weapons used by the Sivullirmiut were very small and delicate and were made of stone, ivory or bone. Implements made of antler, ivory, bone, or driftwood were tipped or edged with chipped and sometimes polished stone blades. One of the most interesting things that the Sivullirmiut contributed to our cultural heritage were beautiful small carvings. Today, we still find these carvings to be very magical and they must have been used for spiritual purposes. Even our most skilled stone carvers of today are amazed by the beauty of these small tools and carvings. Perhaps the skills of our modern carvers goes back to this time.

     By putting together information from archeology, from our stories and from our constant observations of the landscapes in which we live we can begin to understand the life of the people who made and used these weapons and mystical carvings. We know for example that they lived in small groups and used skin tents in summer and in the winter they used partly underground houses probably with walls of fitted stone or of blocks cut from the sod. The houses were probably protected by a roof made from their summer skin tents.

     Maybe these groups even knew how to build the snow house. When we are traveling and hunting we often come across the places where these early Inuit made their home. They did not disturb the land even though they were here for over a thousand years. Our elders tell us that they came in silence and left in silence and that the Inuit living today must respect their deeds.

     The camps of the Sivullirmiut were located in the places where they could most easily find and harvest the animals they needed. The bones left behind tell us they hunted seals, walrus, and caribou; they fished, hunted birds and water fowl, and depending on the season of the year they collected clams or mussels, sea weed, bird eggs and berries. The Sivullirmiut used delicate bird bone needles to make skin boots and clothing from the skins of seal, caribou and polar bear. They made and used lamps from soap stone to provide some heat and light and maybe to cook meat in a stone pot. Today we still use some of their quarries to get stone for carving.

    The Sivullirmiut probably had skin boats but nothing is yet known about the exact type or design. Maybe they were like the kayaks that almost any older person can remember using. Our earliest ancestors also had to travel in winter and they did this by using small sleds that they could pull by hand. Maybe they had dogs but probably for hunting rather than for pulling a sled. Many elders tell about using polar bear skins rather than sleds to haul things in winter.

    The Sivullirmiut are our earliest real ancestors, but many stories can be told about another group of people living in our land that we call Tunnit. Some of the stories describe the Tunnit as not being the same as the real Inuk while other stories describe them as just a different kind of Inuk. Stories may describe the Tunnit as being very big, almost like giants, while in other stories they are described as being very small. All the stories tell of the Tunnit as being very strong. They could carry huge stones and there are places where they made circles from these stones just for fun.



    In olden times the Inuit were not the only inhabitants of the country in which they live at the present time. Another tribe similar to them shared their hunting ground. But they were on good terms, both tribes living in harmony in the villages. The Tornit were much taller than the Inuit and had very long legs and arms. Almost all of them were blear eyed. They were extremely: strong and could lift large boulders, which were by far too heavy for the Tunit. But even the Inuit of that time w ere much stronger than those of today, and some large stones are shown on the palm of Miliaqdjuin, in Cumberland Sound, with which the ancient Inuit used to play, throwing them great distances. Even the strongest men of the present generations are scarcely able to lift them, much less to swing them or throw them any distance.

     The Tornit lived on walrus, seals, and deer, just as the Eskimo do nowadays, but their methods of hunting were different. The principal part of their winter dress was a long and wide coat of deerskins, similar to the jumper of the Eskimo, but reaching down to the knees and trimmed with leather straps. When sealing in winter they wore this garment, the lower edge of which was fastened on the snow by means of pegs. Under the jacket they carried a small lamp, called tumiujang (literally, resembling a footprint) or quming over which they melted snow in a small pot. Some Eskimo say that they opened the seals as soon as they were caught and cooked some meat over these lamps. When the seal blew in the hole they whispered, "Kapatipara" (I shall stab it) and, when they had hit it, "Igdluiliq." Frequently they forgot about the lamp and in throwing the harpoon upset it and burned their skin.

     All their weapons were made of stone. For the blades of their knives they used green slate (uluqsaq, literally material for women's knives), which was fastened by ivory pins to a bone or ivory handle.

     The points of their harpoons were made of bone, ivory, or slate; those of their lances, of flint or quartz, which was also used for drill heads; and they made neither kayaks nor bows.

     Their method of hunting deer was remarkable. In a deer pass, where the game could not escape, they erected a file of cairns across the valley and connected them by ropes. Some of the hunters hid behind the cairns , while others drove the deer toward them. As the animals were unable to pass the rope they fled along it, looking for an exit, and while attempting to pass a cairn were lanced by the waiting hunter, who seized the body by the hind legs and drew it behind the line.

    This tale is related as a proof of their enormous strength and it is said that they were able to hold a harpooned walrus as the Eskimo hold a seal.

    The Tornit could not clean the sealskins so well as the Inuit, but worked them up with part of the blubber attached. Their way of preparing meat was disgusting, since they let it become putrid and placed it between the thigh and the belly to warm it.

    The old stone houses of the Tornit can be seen everywhere. Generally they did not build snow houses, but lived the whole winter in stone buildings, the roofs of which were frequently supported by whale ribs. Though the Eskimo built similar structures they can be easily distinguished from one another, the bed of their huts being much larger than that of the Tornit.

    Though both tribes lived on very good terms, the Inuit did not like to play at ball with the Tornit, as they were too strong and used large balls, with which they hurt their playfellows severely.

     A remarkable tradition is told referring to the emigration of this people.

     The Tornit did not build any kayaks, but as they were aware of the advantages afforded by their use in hunting they stole the boats from the Inuit, who did not dare to defend their property, the Tornit being by far their superiors in strength. Once upon a time a young Tuniq had taken the kayak of a young Inung without asking him and had injured it by knocking in the bottom. The Inung got very angry and ran a knife into the nape of the Tuniq's neck while he was sleeping. (According to another tradition he drilled a hole into his head; this form is also recorded in Labrador .) The Tornit then became afraid that the Inuit would kill them all and preferred to leave the country for good. They assembled at Qernirtung (a place in Cumberland Sound), and in order to deceive any pursuers they cut off the tails of their jumpers and tied their hair into a bunch protruding from the crown of the head.

     In another form of the tradition it is said that while playing with the Tornit a young Inung fell down and broke his neck. The Tornit feared that the Inuit might take revenge upon them and left the country.

     Many old ditties are sung which either treat of the Tornit or are reported to have been sung by them. Some of them will be found in the linguistic account connected with my journey.



    Although there are still many important questions to be answered, the available evidence tells us that within the vast geographic regions of the Arctic, our distant and more recent ancestors carved out a homeland and established a way of life that has retained a cultural identity, social coherence, and territorial integrity throughout each and every stage of our history. We think that it is true to say that no other living culture has maintained such a continuous and consistent way of life for such a long period of time over such a large territory.

    When we speak about the origins and history of our culture, we do so from a perspective that is different from that often used by non-Inuit who have studied our past. For example, in our culture we do not divide the past from the present so we do not like to use terms such as "prehistory." Our history is simply our history and we feel that the time has come for us as Inuit to take more control over determining what is important and how it should be interpreted. To be of value, our history must be used to instruct our young and to inform all of us about who we are as Inuit in today's world. We do not want our history to confine us to the past.

     Our past is preserved and explained through the telling of stories and the passing of information from one generation to the next through what is called the oral tradition. Inuit recognize the importance of maintaining the oral tradition as a part of our culture and way of learning. At the same time we realize that there are other ways to understand the past through activities such as archeology and the study of historical documents. Both ways of knowing must now be used by Inuit and it is our elders and our schools that will provide the necessary tools.

     Archeology has been one of the important ways for discovering our past. Every summer archeologists from down south come to our land. Inuit often travel with them, giving advice about where to go and answering questions about the things they are finding. Now archeologists are actually being joined in their work by young Inuit who will someday take over their research. Now the challenge is ours to begin to rebuild an understanding of our past by using all of the information we now have from our legends, our real life stories, our knowledge about the Arctic environment and it's wildlife and from information now available to us through archeology.




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