Baffinland Inuit

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Baffinland Inuit


Identification. The Baffinland Inuit constitute the Easternmost group of what is commonly referred to as the Central Eskimo, a designation that also includes the Copper, Iglulik, Netsilik, and Caribou Inuit. The Baffinland Inuit are a hunting people who have occupied their land for over four thousand years. They refer to their territory as Nunaseak, which means "beautiful land." Today, the Baffinland Inuit are under the jurisdiction of the Northwest Territories government. There is, however, an active movement toward a reinterpretation of their political status within Canada, which is based on the settlement of land claims, the creation of a system of self-government, and the recognition of aboriginal rights within the constitution of Canada. The rather massive changes that have occurred over the last twenty-five years have resulted in many disruptions to traditional social patterns that must be dealt with by all segments of the Population as the Baffinland Inuit struggle to reconcile tradition with change and to create a new form of adaptation.

Location. The Baffinland Inuit occupy the southern two-thirds of Baffin Island. Their territory extends from approximately 62° to 72° N. The northeastern sector of their Territory is mountainous with small glaciers, the southern sector has rolling terrain, and to the west the surface becomes flat. The climate is marked by intense cold in the winter with daytime temperatures averaging about -30° F. Summer temperatures average 50° F and except for the areas of glaciers most of the snow melts each season. The sea freezes in October and begins break-up in July. In some years, however, pack ice never clears from the area.

Demography. In 1988 the population of the Baffinland Inuit was approximately 7,200. The largest community, Iqualuit (Frobisher Bay), is the transportation, supply, and government center for the territory and has a population of 3,625. The Davis Strait communities of Kangitugaapiq (Clyde) and Qikitarjuaq (Broughton Island) have populations of approximately 550 and 450, respectively; Pangnirtung, about 1,100; Kingmiruit (Lake Harbor), about 350 and, farther west, Kingait (Cape Dorset), about 1,100. The population is growing at a rate of 2.8 percent per year, which is a significant decrease from earlier estimates of over 4 percent. In all communities there is a predominance of young people, with almost 45 percent of the total population under eighteen years of age. The existence of settlements of even 400 people, coupled with this shift in age composition, is a new development with major social and economic consequences.

Linguistic Affiliation. The Baffinland Inuit speak Inuktituk, which is the language spoken from northern Alaska to Greenland. Although there are dialects and changes from Region to region, the Baffinland Inuit can communicate with all the Central Eskimo groups as well as with the Inuit of Quebec and Labrador. Inuktituk is now written by using syllabic symbols that were developed by missionaries. English is the Second language of most young Baffinland Inuit, but there is a deep concern about maintaining the language and ensuring its use in the workplace as well as in the home.

History and Cultural Relations

The Baffinland Inuit have prehistoric origins that date back to approximately 2200 b.c. Many material culture traits as well as the seasonal use of territory have remained amazingly consistent over this long period of time. The earliest Inuit to occupy the territory are referred to as the pre-Dorset and Dorset cultures. The Inuit usually refer to this cultural phase as Tunit. Dorset adaptation was based on small, well-crafted stone, ivory, and bone implements used to harvest and process marine and land mammals, freshwater fish, and migratory birds. Sometime during the first thousand years the kayak, snowhouse, and dogsled came into use through a process of diffusion combined with local development. Around a.d. 1200, a different cultural adaptation called the Thule culture became evident throughout the territory and centered on the hunting of whales. Archaeological findings indicate that the Thule culture, like the population that preceded it, originated in Alaska and spread rapidly eastward. The Thule Inuit are the direct ancestors of the Baffinland Inuit of today.

Sustained contact with Europeans began around 1750, when whalers first entered the area. They introduced trade goods and disease and altered to some extent the general pattern of seasonal adaptation, especially after 1850, when they began to overwinter near the present-day communities of Pangnirtung and Kingmiruit. Whalers were the primary European presence until the early 1900s, when the decline of whales ended this activity. Whalers were replaced by fur Traders, who first entered some parts of the territory around 1910 and remained a powerful economic and social force until about 1965. Although whalers introduced bartering and the seasonal employment of Inuit as crew members, it was the fur traders who instituted formal exchange and a system of Economic control based on debit and credit. The trading era brought about occasional periods of prosperity, especially in the 1920s, but for the most part resulted in difficult economic times and a deterioration of the Baffinland Inuit's independent pattern of subsistence. Nevertheless, when the elders of today refer to traditional times, or even to "the good old days," they mean life during the fur trade era.

Around 1912, the first missionaries entered the region and the evidence points to a rapid replacement of a shamanistic-based system of belief by that of Anglican Christianity. The missionaries were soon followed by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police who represented the government of Canada and looked after Canadian sovereignty of the Territory. A more active government representation started to develop in the late 1950s when it became apparent that the living conditions and health of Inuit had deteriorated. Tuberculosis was the major health problem, although influenza and even common colds could cause hardship and death. By the mid-1950s, a medical ship would visit all Baffinland Inuit communities each year and seriously ill Individuals of any age were evacuated to spend one to several years recuperating in a southern hospital or sanatorium. By the 1970s, small nursing stations were built in the Communities, with a regional hospital in Iqualuit. The rate of tuberculosis has been significantly slowed, but evacuation, now carried out by airplane, is still relied upon.

The development of the six present-day communities began in 1960 when the government started to implement a wider range of programs. The first communities comprised shacks without water, sewage treatment, or other services. By 1965, government housing programs were initiated and as services accumulated the community became more Permanent. Schools were created for primary grades, but some teenage youth would be sent to boarding schools outside the region for vocational training or academic upgrading.


The settlement pattern of the Baffinland Inuit was based on small reasonably permanent winter encampments that were the primary residence for family groups ranging in size from twenty-five to fifty individuals. Family groups identified themselves geographically and socially by the suffix -miut which means "the people of a particular place." The territory utilized by Inuit was defined geographically through the designation of many place names, and there was a network of trails and travel routes, indicating the potential for the movement of people over long distances. The winter residence was the central point from which smaller, seasonal camps would be established in order to harvest specific resources. The pattern of occupation was formed by groups of related families living within a region. Certain activities such as the late Winter breathing-hole hunting of the seal could support larger groups and tended to bring people together. At other times, especially during inland trips for caribou, smaller social units, usually composed only of male hunters from closely related families, were more productive. During much of this century, the presence of fur traders throughout the region had an Influence on settlement since they encouraged or coerced Inuit to maintain smaller social groups over a larger territory and to locate their settlement with respect to potential benefits from trapping rather than hunting.

The settlement pattern and territoriality of particular Baffinland Inuit groups did not necessarily exclude other Individuals or family groups from using territory, but since Kinship linkages within one particular area were better defined than between areas, there was a tendency to maintain loose boundary distinctions. Certain of these boundary distinctions are still maintained today through the arrangement of family housing units within the new settlements. Older patterns can also be recognized in the political structure and Influence of particular individuals or families on the economic and social life in these new communities.

Today, the Baffinland Inuit live in six centralized Communities and practice a mixed economy of hunting and wage labor. Children attend primary and secondary schools, the families are housed in centrally heated government-built dwellings that are serviced for water and sewage, and there is access to social programs and basic health services. All the communities are linked together and to southern Canada by a system of air transport, but there has been no substantial migration to southern Canada.


The traditional economy of the Baffinland Inuit was based on seasonal harvesting that took place within the framework of settlement and territoriality described above. Marine mammals were the primary species harvested by the Baffinland Inuit, including, in general order of importance, ringed and bearded seals, beluga whale, walrus, and polar bear. A very generalized description of the seasonal economic cycle can be applied to the Baffinland Inuit as a whole, though each area had a particular pattern. In the winter, the primary activity was hunting for seals at their breathing holes or along the floe edge where permanent ice gives way to open water. Winter was the time of lowest productivity, and traditionally the ease of survival was often a function of the amount of food that could be stored from fall hunting and fishing. As winter gave way to spring, seals began to sun themselves on top of the ice, making them easier to find and harvest. In May, beluga whale and migratory birds would begin to move into the region and anadromous fish move to the ocean. Spring was an important hunting time, since surpluses of food could be obtained. When dogsleds were in wide use, these surpluses would be stored for dog food. During the summer families relied on fishing near coastal or inland lakes or rivers and on the gathering of seaweed and clams, as well as berries and roots. By September, the weather often made coastal travel difficult, so people moved to fishing sites for Arctic char, but on calm days seal hunting was often productive. Early fall was marked by long inland hunts for caribou, with caribou fur at its best for the preparation of winter clothing. The transition from fall to winter was marked by the movement of beluga whale and, in certain areas, walrus along the coast. These species could often be harvested in large quantities and stored for winter use.

Dogsleds were the primary means of land transportation until about 1965, when the snowmobile was introduced. Introduction of the snowmobile, along with the motor-powered freighter canoes and, most recently, the four-wheel drive overland vehicles, meant that new economic strategies needed to be created since this technology had to be Purchased and supported through large sums of money. At Present, it costs an Inuit hunter approximately thirty thousand dollars (Canadian) to obtain and operate the minimal equipment needed. Since the Arctic environment is hard on equipment, full replacement, at least of snowmobiles, is necessary every two to three years. The types of economic activity used to generate income have changed over time. The reliance on the debit and credit system of the fur trade began to disappear around 1965. At that time, universal programs of social assistance such as family allowances and old-age benefits were applied to the Inuit, and there was also the creation of more permanent wage employment in the new settlements.

The transition between the reliance on trapping and the employment patterns of today was bridged for many Inuit by the creation of an industry based on Inuit soapstone carving. This industry still flourishes in some of the Baffinland Communities, especially Kingait and Kingmiruit. The economy of Iqualuit is based on the provision of services to the inhabitants of this community and the region. The economy of Pangnirtung has recently been supported through the Development of a tourist industry based on the creation of a unique national park supplemented by commercial fishing in winter. The national park has also affected Broughton Island on Davis Strait. Throughout the territory, there continues to be an emphasis on hunting in part because of its importance to the food economy but also because of its values for maintaining and enjoying a more traditional life-style. The sale of furs and sealskin has been badly damaged by pressures from the animal rights movement. Even though many Inuit now participate in wage employment that may range from driving trucks or heavy equipment to serving as community mayor or administrator, many jobs are still held by nonnatives. The development of schools and the creation of academic vocational programs should bring about a shift in this situation. It is now possible for Inuit to look forward to employment as pilots, managers, and politicians, and a number of small business ventures have been attempted. Nevertheless, the Economic outlook is still not secure, and there is the persistent question of how the youth of today will be able to support themselves.


Kin Groups and Descent. The pattern of social cohesion, or division, within Baffinland Inuit society is determined to a large measure by the density and type of kin-based relationships that exist within any one segment of the population. The nuclear family is a primary social unit, but it is the extended family that is the most important social entity when considering the integration that occurs between the social and economic roles of individuals. Extended families are also linked through kinship to form the larger territorial group that is often referred to as a band. The Baffinland system of kinship is bilateral and recognizes positions for two ascending and two descending generations. The kinship system encourages interpersonal behavior based on respect, affection, and obedience. Although these categories of behavior apply only to pairs of individuals, they also play a part within the larger system since they help to regulate or channel the sharing of food and materials including money, the flow of information, the age or sexual division of roles, and the expression of Leadership within a social group. The structure of kinship groups indicates a bias toward relationships between males, yet not to the extent that could be called a patrilineal form of social organization.

Kinship Terminology. Within Baffinland Inuit society, two types of terminological processes operate to create a Kinship network. The first is that which establishes the formal or ideal set of terms that identify fixed kinship positions in relationship to a speaker. These positions are based on the consanguineal ties of biological family and on the affinal ties acquired through marriage. The second, and in relation to everyday usage, the more important process, is the alternative way in which the terms of the formal or ideal system are incorporated into an alternative, or "fictive," system of relationships. Because of this second process, there is often a major distinction between the true consanguineal or affinal relationship and the term that is actually used. The name is the primary factor that creates this apparent contradiction. Throughout Baffinland, newborn children are named after a deceased person or personsa child can have as many as seven names. A speaker will therefore refer to this child on the basis of the kinship relationship that existed between the speaker and the deceased person. Because of this process, most individuals are recognized by many different fictive Kinship terms. The fictive kinship established through the name also means that the behavior follows the fictive rather than the actual kinship designation, and this can cross sexual lines. Although such reckoning is often used in a symbolic sense, especially as the child grows older, it is nevertheless important and persistent.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Traditionally, marriage took place through an arrangement made for children by adults when the two Children were young. Since the rigors of life could not guarantee the eventual joining of these individuals, it was not uncommon for parents to create such an arrangement just prior to the marriage. Men usually moved to the village of the wife's parents. The duration of this depended on the social position and economic circumstances of the two families and on the overall availability of either eligible males or females. Polygamous unions existed, and there could be unions that represented significant age differences between the partners.

Domestic Unit. New domestic units were created when a couple had their first child. This nuclear unit usually remained within the parental dwelling, but as the number of children increased, a new residence would be created usually close to the parental home. Since adoption of grandchildren by grandparents was common, the actual development of new nuclear families could be delayed. In the new communities there has been a breakdown of arranged marriages, and young adults often express their independence through exercising their own choice of partner. There is also a tendency especially for young women to remain unmarried, but pregnancies often occur and the child is usually adopted by parents or other members of the extended family.

Socialization. The socialization of children has undergone significant change since the creation of modern Communities. In the past, the immediate family, including especially the grandparents, was responsible for much of the socialization. Children were involved in a continuous process of education that tended to shift its emphasis as the child matured. The early stages of development were defined by tolerance and affection. As a child grew older, affection was replaced by a stress on independence. Learning took place by example and was often integrated with play. Male roles and female roles were part of this play. As a child grew older, play gave way to more useful work, and there was an emphasis on tasks that would be incorporated into their older and more productive stages of life. The productive stage could begin before marriage and lasted until age set limits on the type of activities a male or female could carry out. At this point they moved into a stage in which they became more valuable as possessors of information, including family history and myth. In today's world the complexity of community life means that this process has broken down. The primary exception is during the spring and summer when children, parents, and elders are often together in smaller hunting camps. For the most part, however, the school, television, and other imported Institutions have either replaced or, more often, come into conflict with traditional ways of socializing the young.

Sociopolitical Organization

In traditional Inuit society there was no active political level of organization. The kinship system operated to maintain Social control and resolve conflict. The leadership noted above was neither persistent nor acquired through any formal process. Most leadership was exercised most effectively only within the extended family. Territory did not carry political connotation or boundaries. Again, it was social organization that tended to limit or facilitate access to territory. There was no ownership of either land or resources. A tendency toward possessing "rights" to a particular territory was simply a function of the size of a social unit and the time in which it had persisted in the use of a particular territory. Rights to resources were part of everyone's heritage, and these rights were best expressed through the almost universal process of sharing. The lack of traditional political and leadership roles within the culture of the Baffinland Inuit has meant that the development of new political realities within the areas of land claims, self-government, or community organization has been difficult to create. Although young people have attempted to develop politically, it is still hard for them to express Leadership across a large segment of the population.

Religion and Expressive Culture

In the traditional world of the Baffinland Inuit, spirits permeated every aspect of life. Some of these spirits were benevolent and helpful; others were not. The powers of certain spirits were integrated with the powers of certain individuals in order to create a shamanistic power. Ceremonies, feasts, and celebrations were held, most of which were linked to different phases of the ecological or natural cycle. Amulets were widely used and a wide range of taboos observed. Direct intervention between the spirit world and living Inuit was carried out through the shaman. The change to Christianity within the framework of the Anglican church began in the early 1900s and rapidly spread through all of the population. The role of the Christian religion has continued to develop, and the Bible remains the only piece of literature that is available to the Inuit in their own language.


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