Labrador Inuit

views updated

Labrador Inuit

ETHNONYM: Labrador Eskimo


"Labrador Inuit" refers to the native Inuit people of Labrador, a section of Canada that is now within the provinces of Quebec and Newfoundland. Scholars have recently suggested that the Inuit of Labrador are more accurately classified as two groups: the Labrador Inuit, on the coast of the Labrador Sea in Newfoundland, and the Inuit of Quebec, on the coasts of Hudson Bay and Hudson Strait and in the interior of Labrador. Aboriginally, the Labrador Inuit lived along the coast of the Labrador Sea from the Button Islands south to Cape Charles. In 1772-1773 there were about 1,460 Labrador Inuit in this region. Today, they live primarily north of Cape Harrison, in the villages of Postville, Makkovik, Hopedale, and Nain and number about 2,000. Also found in this region are people labeled "Settlers" who are descendants of Inuit-White marriages that occurred with considerable frequency after 1763. Settlers are generally not considered Inuit and have had greater access to European-Canadian society and a more stable socioeconomic position than the Inuit. Aboriginally, the Inuit of Quebec were composed of three regional bands: the Siqinirmiut on the coastline of Ungava Bay; the Tarramiut in the northernmost section of Quebec Labrador; and the Itivimiut on the coast of Hudson Bay and inland, south of the Tarramiut. In the early nineteenth century, they numbered about 2,000 and in 1969, numbered 3,561.

History and Cultural Relations

Contacts with the Labrador Inuit before 1700 generally involved hostilities with European whalers and fishermen. Initial relations with French traders who began arriving in 1700 were also characterized by hostility, but eventually gave way to peaceful trade, with the Inuit supplying cod and seal to the trading posts in southern Labrador. From 1763 to 1949, the Inuit were in contact with the British, and over that period the culture was transformed from an isolated hunter-gatherer one to one reliant on European-Canadian society. The Moravian missionaries who established a mission in 1771 were a key influence, and effectively replaced the traditional religion with Christianity and involved the Inuit in a trading post-based settlement and economic system. After 1926 the Hudson's Bay Company replaced the mission store as the central trading post.

As regards the Inuit of Quebec, the first trading post was established near their territory in 1750. From then on, the Inuit were slowly drawn into the European-Canadian Economy, a process that was essentially completed by the twentieth century. Central players in this were the Anglican missionaries, the Hudson's Bay Company, and whaling and fishing stations. After 1900, the Inuit were caught in the middle of fur trade competition involving the Hudson's Bay Company and the French fur company, Révillon Frères, which further involved the Inuit in the fur trade.

Since the 1950s in Labrador and the 1960s in Quebec, the Inuit have been drawn further into European-Canadian society and enmeshed in an administrative and economic framework involving both the two provincial and the national governments. Among major changes are the formation of permanent communities, involvement in commercial fishing and wage labor, compulsory education, and English or French replacing Inuit as the primary language.


The Labrador Inuit were seminomadic, usually spending the winter months in small villages of multifamily semisubterranean dwellings and the warmer months in tents. The Inuit of Quebec made more extensive use of snowhouses than did those in Labrador who used them only occasionally. Today, the Labrador Inuit are mostly settled in a number of villages and towns.


The traditional economy rested on the hunting of sea mammals (whales, seals, walruses) on the coast and caribou inland. These activities were supplemented by fishing, collecting of shellfish, and hunting of birds and small animals. Men hunted, women gathered, and both men and women fished. Although there was no ownership of land, specific bands or regional groupings might have priority to certain territories and such groups might coalesce at various times to hunt caribou. After the entrance of fur traders, trapping became an important activity, and the Labrador Inuit became progressively more dependent on European trade goods. Travel was by umiak, kayak (for hunting sea mammals), and dogsled; these have now been largely replaced by motorboats and snowmobiles, and the rifle has replaced the harpoon, darts, and bow and arrow.

Marriage and Family

Marriage was preferentially polygynous, and many such marriages were reported by early explorers, traders, and missionaries in the area. Postmarital residence was patrilocal, though kin ties were maintained with the wife's family as well. The typical domestic unit was either a polygynous family or a nuclear family with various other relatives added on. Winter dwellings housed about twenty people. Under the pressure of the fur trade, European settlers, and missionaries, there has been a shift to smaller, nuclear family domestic units.

Sociopolitical Organization

Neither the Labrador Inuit nor the Inuit of Quebec were organized as distinct cohesive units. Rather, the families, multi-family settlements, bands, and sometimes regional groupings of bands were the basic sociopolitical units. Leadership by older men was recognized at the household and family levels, and sometimes a broader leadership role might be given a man recognized as a great hunter or as a powerful shaman. Disputes at the local level were usually settled in informal village councils composed of the older men in the village. After establishment of the Moravian church, the elected church councils served as the governing bodies of the Labrador communities. After 1970, community councils and various committees replaced the church councils. Since 1973 the Labrador Inuit Association has been involved in fighting for aboriginal rights as well as serving as a forum for the joining of Inuit and Settler concerns. As regards the Inuit in Quebec, the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement of 1975 led to a division in the group between the majority who favored acceptance of compensation for giving up aboriginal rights and those who opposed the settlement. The agreement resulted in the formation of various Inuit corporations, some of which have failed, and others that have been successful.

Religion and Expressive Culture

The Labrador Inuit and, perhaps more so, the Inuit of Quebec had a rich mythology and spirit world, with giants, guardian spirits, animal spirits, dwarfs, and other mythological forms. Important spirits included Torngarsoak, the spirit of seals and whales, Superguksoak, the spirit of land animals, and Nerchevik, the sea goddess. Shamans were central figures in Labrador Inuit life. Men or women could be shamans, though they were more often men. Shamans invoked their guardian spirits to cure the sick, increase hunting success, and predict and control the weather. The Labrador Inuit came under the influence of the Moravian missionaries in the late 1700s, and by the mid-1800s, virtually all had been converted to Christianity. Traditional beliefs and practices continued for some years, often in secret, but have now been largely replaced by Christianity.


Brantenberg, Anne B., and Terje Brantenberg (1984). "Coastal Northern Labrador after 1950." In Handbook of North American Indians. Vol. 5, Arctic, edited by David Damas, 689-699. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution.

Saladin d'Anglure, Bernard (1984). "Contemporary Inuit of Quebec." In Handbook of North American Indians. Vol. 5, Arctic, edited by David Damas, 683-688. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution.

Saladin d'Anglure, Bernard (1984). "Inuit of Quebec." In Handbook of North American Indians. Vol. 5, Arctic, edited by David Damas, 476-507. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution.

Taylor, J. Garth (1984). "Historical Ethnography of the Labrador Coast." In Handbook of North American Indians. Vol. 5, Arctic, edited by David Damas, 508-521. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution.

About this article

Labrador Inuit

Updated About content Print Article