Copper Eskimo

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Copper Eskimo

ETHNONYMS: Kidlineks, Killinirmiut, Nagyuktogmiut, Qidliniks


Identification. The people of the Canadian Arctic most often referred to as "Copper Eskimos" had no name for themselves as a whole group, but rather referred only to local groups. All names for the entire population are those used by outsiders. Their nearest neighbors to the west, the Mackenzie Eskimo, called them "Nagyuktogmiut" (the people of the caribou antler). Their eastern neighbors, the Netsilik Inuit, called them "Killinirmiut" (also rendered "Kidlineks" or "Qidliniks," people of the boundary). The American explorer Schwatka appears to have first used "Copper Eskimo," an association clearly based on the deposits of copper in their Region and their use of copper implements. Recently some anthropologists and popular writers have used "Copper Inuit."

Location. The Copper Eskimo occupied the coastal and adjoining inland regions of much of Victoria Island and the opposite shores of the Canadian Arctic mainland. Some also hunted off the southeastern shores of Banks Island. Extremes of their normal hunting range were 66° to 72° N and 101° to 122° W. Temperatures for the coldest month, February, average from 25° to 30° F and almost all Copper Eskimo country lies north of the July 50° F isotherm. Gulfs and straits are ice-free for only about three months of the year and snow covers the ground usually from some time in September until June. Although not a region of extremely high winds, the frequent storms pack the snow firmly throughout winter. The sun remains below the horizon for varying periods around the winter solstice and there are also substantial periods of continuous daylight. Much of the treeless land is flat with Numerous lakes. Several large rivers reach the coasts. Here and there hills or small mountains interrupt the monotony of the landscape.

Demography. Estimates and censuses from the early twentieth century suggest about 800 people, a figure that may well represent an average for the precontact period. Later, during the fur trade era beginning in 1916, there was a slow growth in numbers until improved health facilities and the abandonment of infanticide brought a rapid expansion after about 1950. By 1980 there were about 1,750 Copper Eskimo.

Linguistic Affiliation. The Copper Eskimo speak a dialect of Inuit, one of the three major languages of the Eskaleut Language family.

History and Cultural Relations

Archaeological evidence indicates a derivation from the Thule culture with a regional focus based on seal and caribou hunting as opposed to the classical Thule association with whaling. First European contact came when Samuel H. Hearne reached the mouth of the Coppermine River in 1771. Contacts with explorers during the nineteenth century were so limited that when the ethnologist Vilhjalmur S. Stefansson entered the area in 1910 he encountered natives who had not previously seen White men. This may have been the last such encounter in North America. During the first quarter of the twentieth century trading schooners and some Western Eskimos entered the area from the west. Relations with other Eskimo peoples were of a fleeting nature. Earlier contacts with the Mackenzie Eskimo were broken off before the middle of the nineteenth century, and those with their Netsilik Neighbors to the east were often tense with woman stealing and other hostilities intermingled with trade. Caribou Eskimo were also contacted for trade. The massacre of Copper Eskimo by Hearne's Indian companions was only one of several such bloody encounters. In the summer of 1910 Stefansson brought some of the Copper Eskimo together with some Slavey Indians, producing more harmonious relations.


Aboriginally, the Copper Eskimo were nomadic. During Winter months the snowhouse villages built on the sea ice were shifted about once a month as locales were hunted out. These aggregations averaged about one hundred people and split into smaller groups in spring. During the summer months, units as small as the nuclear family often shifted their camps on an almost daily basis. Longer stays of perhaps two weeks were spent by somewhat larger aggregates at fishing places. In the autumn, groups of fifty or more people gathered at points of land for periods of two to four weeks.

The Copper Eskimo had no permanent dwellings, using the snowhouse in winter, skin tents in summer, and a combination of snow walls with tents in spring. Men built snowhouses by cutting blocks vertically from a drift and arranging them in a circle around the builder and then cutting a slanting section from the first tier to commence a spiral of blocks which culminated in a keystone block, thus forming an unsupported dome. Tents were made from either caribou skin or sealskin and could be of tipi or ridged form. Canvas quickly replaced skin as summer tent material after the advent of the fur trade, but some inland dwelling people then used wall tents of caribou skin in the winter. With the concentration of most Copper Eskimo into large communities of both Whites and natives in the 1950s and 1960s, government-sponsored building programs provided oil-heated, insulated, wooden houses.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. Vegetable Products played practically no role in Copper Eskimo life. Though heather and brush were used as fuel in summer, the seal oil lamp was the most important source of heat and light for most of the year. Seals were hunted by a group of men stationed over breathing holes in the ice located by their dogs. They also hunted polar bears and musk-oxen, but these animals were available in only a few locales. As spring approached, the people moved inland to fish through lake ice and hunt small game and migrating wild fowl. About the end of July, caribou hunting began as the animals fattened and their hides reached a condition suitable for clothing. These hunts, which extended through the period of the southward migrations of caribou in the fall, were interrupted by a short period of intensive weir fishing about the end of August as arctic char returned upstream. After a period of living on stored food, the winter sealing season began again in December.

This seasonal cycle was changed in most places by the Introduction of rifles, nets, steel traps, and small wooden boats. In some mainland locales caribou hunting was especially successful with firearms, and camps were located at sites of big caribou kills, with nets placed under river or lake ice and traps set for the arctic fox. These people often remained inland for most of the year. Elsewhere, as on Victoria Island, sea mammal hunting became important year-round with seals hunted from small boats that replaced the kayak, a craft that has not been used in the sea in this area. Trading arctic fox furs provided access to these important fishing and hunting tools as well as to tea, tobacco, and flour, commodities that became necessities in the 1920s. With centralization, some hunting and trapping continued outward from the large settlements, and a few outpost camps still survived.

Attempts were made to develop local craft industries, and together with export of frozen fish, they provided modest sources of income. More significant amounts of money came from wage labor and social legislation funds. For a brief period in the 1960s a sharp rise in the price of sealskin and sealskin products brought a time of modest prosperity for the Copper Eskimo, but this relative affluence was short-lived as the price of skins fell once more.

The Eskimo dog was of great importance, but given the marginal subsistence of the aboriginal period, few men owned more than two. They served both for hunting and for Transport. In winter travel, because of the scarcity of dogs, women and men pulled ahead or beside sleds together with their animals. In summer, both dogs and humans carried packs. After the establishment of the fur trade and the corresponding general economic improvement, men were able to support teams of five or more dogs, which greatly increased mobility.

Industrial Arts. Women sewed clothing, and each man made his own hunting gear including harpoons, lances, bows and arrows, and sleds. Men also manufactured lamps and pots from steatite (soapstone), which was found in quantity in various places as was the copper that was used for most of the tools with cutting edges.

Trade. Within Copper Eskimo country, trade of local materials such as copper and steatite was lively as was trade in wood and wooden products, which were accessible at the southern limits of the normal range of Copper Eskimo hunting grounds. Trade with the Netsilik Eskimos to the east brought iron objects into the country after the abandonment of Sir John Ross's ship Victory, which was locked in ice, stimulated intertribal trade in that item. The Netsilik were eager for wood items, as their territory was without trees. Before posts were established in their own country, some Copper Eskimo also traded fox furs to the Caribou Eskimo for guns, ammunition, and other European goods.

Division of Labor. The major subsistence animalsseal and caribouwere killed by men only, with women participating in fishing at the weirs as well as with hooks through the ice and the snaring of fowl and small game. Women and Children served as beaters in caribou hunts. Men did the actual work of snowhouse building, cutting and placing the blocks, but women filled the chinks between blocks with soft snow and arranged furnishings inside. Tents were struck and set up by women and men together, and women made them as well as all the clothing. Cooking and other domestic chores were the province of women. There was no specialization of labor beyond that related to sex and age. Today, fox trapping is men's work as is most wage labor and craft production in the centralized communities.

Land Tenure. Although groups of Copper Eskimo were identified by name with their summer hunting ranges or other locals by the affix -miut, there was no actual sense of ownership or defense of territory. The membership of groups who inhabited specific regions changed frequently, and locales could be abandoned for periods of a year or longer.


Kin Groups and Descent. The basic kin group was the nuclear family with little development of any group that could be labeled an extended family. On the other hand, in the large winter encampments on the sea ice, there was a network of continuous bilateral kinship links created in part by extensive marriage ties. The smaller summer hunting groups contained various combinations of kin or nonkin. The kinship system is bilateral with a recognized kindred (ilagiit ) composed of both consanguines and affines, but with no definable limits. The concept of descent is lacking.

Kinship Terminology. All cousins are distinguished from siblings, but the children of the father's brother have a separate term. Each sex distinguishes between older and younger siblings of their own sex and have separate sets of terms for the children of brothers or sisters, which are also extended to male or female cousins. There are four aunt/uncle terms, all separate from parental designations, and some terms in the parental generation are also applied to spouses of some of these relatives. There is a complex set of affinal terms that show complementary variations between males and females.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Although they do not state so explicitly, the Copper Eskimo appear to prefer marrying people classed as cousins of varying degrees of closeness. Getting married was informal, with the couple merely setting up a separate domicile. Most marriages were arranged while the potential spouses were still children. Because of the shortage of women, owing to female infanticide, there was often a considerable gap in age between bride and groom. In such cases a young man might live in the household of a prospective Father-in-law for a period of several years while waiting for a girl to reach puberty, working in a form of premarital bride-service. At other times, gifts of important objects like sleds could be used as bride-purchase. Before the birth of children, young couples often separated in a casual fashion with the woman simply transferring her household articles. On the other hand, given the shortage of women, marriage was sometimes broken through wife stealing, a practice that often led to homicide and the likelihood of a blood feud. Tensions created by this demographic imbalance resulted in short-lived polygynous marriages, with polyandry even more rarely practiced.

Domestic Unit. Since it was considered normal for the newly married to break away from parents, residence was Usually neolocal. Sometimes single or dependent relatives might attach themselves to such units, forming stem nuclear family households. At times such nuclear or stem nuclear units joined their snowhouses or tents with those of others, but there was no regular pattern of relationships that persisted in such arrangements, and indeed the arrangements were often contracted between units lacking kinship ties.

Inheritance. There was little inheritable property, and valuable objects were often buried with the deceased. Those goods that were passed on were transferred (usually to close relatives) according to no special pattern.

Socialization. Children were treated with considerable indulgence. Disciplining took the form of ridicule or threats of supernatural punishment similar to the "bogey man" phenomenon. Parents taught adult pursuits patiently over long periods. Imitation of male and female occupations like dog driving, care of infants, archery, or cooking were encouraged. When a boy killed his first seal, the body of the animal was dragged over him by his father or another close male relative at the scene of the hunt, marking his graduation to the status of a hunter. For females, puberty usually coincided with marriage.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. Although the ties of kinship beyond the nuclear family were less pronounced than in other Eskimo societies, there were several ways of extending such linkages. One was spouse exchange, as the children of couples engaged in this practice were regarded as quasi siblings. Adoption also served to create ties between the parental donor and recipient couples. There were, in addition, a number of dyadic relationships that taken together created a multiplicity of ties exclusive of or incidental to kinship. Partnerships in dancing, Together with the creation of spouse exchange partnerships, provided mechanisms whereby travelers could gain peaceful entry into aggregations of Copper Eskimo other than their usual groups of association. Joking partnerships and song partnerships were other means of formalizing friendships. Given the absence of compulsory sharing of meat beyond the nuclear family, the system of seal-sharing partnerships was the most important insurance against shortages. Each hunter had a roster of men with whom he exchanged specific parts of the seal, a practice that helped compensate for the vagaries of the hunt. Meat was also shared through communal eating, which, though not compulsory, was widely practiced within local groupings during any season.

Political Organization. The Copper Eskimo cannot be said to have had anything that could be properly labeled Political organization or government. There were no chiefs. Shamans were believed to have supernatural powers, but their secular influence was limited. Certain men were respected for their judgment or helped organize hunts, but such status did not extend automatically beyond the immediate situation.

Social Control and Conflict. Certain men were feared for their aggressiveness or violent tendencies, but they almost invariably met with violent ends themselves. The high rate of homicide among the Copper Eskimo attests to the ineffectiveness of social control mechanisms. The vengeance acts of the blood feud were one area of kinship that extended beyond the nuclear family. During the earlier years of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) presence, a number of homicides were investigated and several individuals punished under Canadian law. But in traditional times, about the only means of social control were executions of especially troublesome individuals, derision singing, and, simply, withdrawal from local groups where one might feel antagonisms. In the recent period of centralized living the Copper Eskimo have been involved in only a few conflict situations, most related to alcohol-induced violence. While early contacts between Whites and Copper Eskimo were usually of a peaceful nature, there were several early homicides that did involve priests, traders, and the RCMP.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. One central theme of Copper Eskimo beliefs relates to the separation of sea and land animals. The sea goddess, Arnapkapfaluk, was believed to be in control of sea creatures and certain precautions had to be observed to keep them from contamination by land animals. Most Important was the custom of sewing the caribou skin garments only in the period before the seal-hunting season began. There were other deities, but most Copper Eskimo beliefs revolved around threats of witchcraft and fear of ghosts.

Religious Practitioners. The shaman acted as an intermediary between the human and the spirit world. Powers were believed to come from the deity of the air, Hilap Inui. Some sort of visionary experience was needed to qualify as a shaman, with training from established practitioners also Important. In addition to the main functions of controlling weather, bringing game, and healing, the shaman had to perform certain feats from time to time such as those involving ventriloquism, in order to prove his powers.

Ceremonies. Aside from shamanistic performances, most social events centered around recreational activities involving singing, dancing, or athletic events and were accompanied by communal eating in times of plenty.

Arts. The Copper Eskimos wore ceremonial garments more elaborate in design than those of most Eskimo groups. Women also practiced tattooing for cosmetic purposes and to mark marriage or marriageability. Far more developed was the oral literature of the Copper Eskimo. The Danish ethnologist Knud Rasmussen, who visited nearly every Eskimo group from Greenland to Siberia, proclaimed the Copper Eskimo the most poetically gifted of any of these far-flung people. From his recordings and the work of Diamond Jenness we have available a large body of material on the songs, legends, and mythology, which gives important insights into their psychology and worldview.

Medicine. In addition to attempts to combat sickness through supernatural means, shamans also used some practical medical skills, such as setting and splinting broken or dislocated bones, lancing swellings, and amputating frozen limbs. Headaches were treated by bleeding.

Death and Afterlife. Copper Eskimo beliefs concerning the afterworld were vague, but there was a definite belief in and fear of ghosts of the recently deceased, and places of death were quickly abandoned. In winter, a corpse might be left in a snowhouse or snowblock enclosure and in summer within a tent, which was also abandoned. In either case some implements that might be useful in a possible afterlife were usually left in the grave, though in many cases these objects were in miniature, given the value of actual implements.


Damas, David (1984). "Copper Eskimo." In Handbook of North American Indians, Vol. 5, Arctic, edited by David Damas, 397-414. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution.

Jenness, Diamond (1922). The Life of the Copper Eskimos. Report of the Canadian Arctic Expedition, 1913-1918. Vol. 12. Ottawa: F. A. Acland (King's Printer).

Rasmussen, Knud (1932). Intellectual Culture of the Copper Eskimos. Report of the Fifth Thule Expedition, 1921-24. Vol. 9. Copenhagen: Gyldendalske Boghandel.

Stefansson, Vilhjalmur (1913). Life with the Eskimo. New York: Macmillan.