Caribou Inuit refers to five independent groups (Qairnirmiut, Harvaqtuurmiut, Hauniqtuurmiut, Paallirmiut, and Ahiarmiut) of central Canadian Inuit located on and inland from the west shore of Hudson Bay between 61° and 65° N and 90° and 102° W. The name "Caribou" was applied by Europeans on the Fifth Danish Thule Expedition (1921-1924) and reflects the groups' reliance on the caribou for food and raw materials. The five groups did not view themselves as part of any larger overarching group. The Caribou Inuit today number about three thousand located in the villages of Chesterfield Inlet, Rankin Inlet, Whale Cove, Eskimo Point, and Baker Lake. They speak dialects of the Inuit-Inupiaq language.
The prehistory of the Caribou Inuit is unclear. First contact with Whites was in 1612-1613, although regular contact began only after the founding of what was to become Churchill, Manitoba, in 1717. From then on, the Caribou Inuit have undergone a slow but steady acculturation into Canadian society, involving the use of guns in hunting and the introduction of trapping, regular trade, and whaling. Acculturative pressure intensified following resettlement in the permanent villages after 1950 and the introduction of Canadian schools, television, and wage labor. In response to these forces and White claims on traditional Inuit land, the Caribou Inuit have been actively involved in Inuit political organizations.
The traditional winter dwelling was the snow house, replaced by the skin-covered snow house and then the conical skin tent in the warmer months. Camps numbered from a few people to as many as fifty, and split or coalesced as food supplies allowed. Beginning in 1950, the Caribou Inuit along with some Netsilik and Iglulik Inuit were settled by the Canadian government in prefabricated housing in the five villages listed above.
The traditional economy centered on the caribou, which was the primary source for food and raw material for clothings, tents, tools, and containers. Caribou hunting remains an important activity, though the traditional methods of herding and lancing from kayaks have been replaced by rifles and snowmobiles. Fishing was and is also important, again with traditional methods and equipment giving way to modern ones. Although each group was associated with a particular region, land was generally open to all who wanted to exploit it. Today, wage labor, craft production for the tourist trade, and welfare have become important sources of income.
The patrilocally extended family residing in one large or several adjacent dwellings was the basic social unit. The oldest capable male was the group leader (ihumataq). Polygynous marriage (especially sororal polygyny) was common, and polyandry has been reported. Intermarriage between different groups was evidently common. Patrilocal residence was the norm, though other arrangements were permitted.
No centralized authority existed for any of the five groups nor for the Caribou Inuit in general. Cooperation in hunting and trade was based on kinship and residential patterns. Partnerships of various types common in other Inuit groups were relatively unimportant.
Caribou Inuit myths are similar in focus to those other central Inuit groups, though somewhat less elaborated. The caribou figured centrally in the supernatural world; it was protected by Pingna (a female supernatural figure who also protected other living things) and was the object of various taboos. Hela (air) was the source of misfortune. Shamans treated illness and predicted the future. Singing and song feasts were important and frequent expressive activities.
Arima, Eugene Y. (1984). "Caribou Eskimo." In Handbook of North American Indians. Vol. 5, Arctic, edited by David Damas, 447-462. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution.
Birket-Smith, Kaj (1929). The Caribou Eskimos: Material and Social Life and Their Cultural Position. Report of the Fifth Thule Expedition, 1921-24. Vol. 5, Pt. 2. Copenhagen, Denmark.