A Brief History of the Inuit

Where do the Inuit come from?

This is often the first question asked. Archaeologists and historians are still not a completely certain but most now agree that the Inuit originated somewhere in Siberia, maybe even Mongolia. Perhaps someday you will be an archeologist and discover their exact place of origin?

Take a look at the map below:


As you can see, the Inuit may have come from Siberia over to Chukotka, the most eastern part of Russia. There are still some Inuit living here, but only about 1500.

The current theory notes that, from here, they either walked over the land-bridge over what is now the Bering Strait.

Sea levels were much lower about 10,000 years ago so people could actually walk across. Later, when the water covered the land, they could walk over the ice or sail across in boats to what is now called Alaska. Then about 4,500 years ago, they started to migrate further east. These Inuit, called Paleoeskimos, arrived in Nunavik about 4,000 years ago and started to live along the coast of Hudson Bay and Ungava Bay:


For about 1,500 years, they roamed the territory which is now Nunavik and then disappeared. However, about 2,000 years ago, a new population of Inuit arrived from the west. These were the Dorset and the Thule people. The Pre-Dorset Eskimos (about 2,500 BCE to 800 BCE) were nomadic hunters who came into Canada from Alaska.


In the winter, they lived either in tents or in pits dug in the ground; they may have invented igloos and they hunted seals, walruses and fished using stone weirs which is an enclosure of stakes set in a stream as a trap for fish. They had very small sleds pulled by people, as they didn’t use dogs yet. They had small “quilliqs” (blubber burning lamps) and made tools of bones.

They may have met the Vikings as they are mentioned in the Icelandic sagas. The term used by the Norsemen for the indigenous people they met was Skræling. In support of this theory, some very small bone or ivory sculptures, made by the Dorset Eskimos, have recently been found that resemble Vikings. Between 900-1,300 CE, it is thought that their range extended from Alaska all the way to Greenland.

They were then replaced by the Thule people who originated in the Bering Strait region of Alaska. The Thule people were quite advanced as they had kayaks and umiaqs (larger boats for transporting women and children), and they used dogs to pull their sledges, thereby become very mobile.

They also had access to iron allowing them to make much needed tools such as needles, small knives and harpoons.


Seal-hunters: In the autumn, they’re always on the alert to throw the harpoon that lies ready at their right hand. The seal is brought home on the deck of the kayak, and the arrival is always followed by a feast of raw seal meat for all. Courtesy of Moravian Missions

Their advanced technology allowed them to not only hunt seals but also whales. So with their improved technologies and equipment, such as the kayak and the dog sledge, it was easier for them to adapt and survive in the harsh environment of the Canadian Arctic. Their territory soon grew to include most of Arctic Canada and along the coasts of Greenland.


And the dog sledge was extremely useful…

With these technologies which are very adaptable to the arctic climate, they were able to move around more quickly and to follow the animals that were their food.

The Inuit in Canada were nomads, meaning that they moved from place to place usually following their food sources – the animals – as well as the seasons. So in the summer they might live near a lake with many fish and then in the winter close to the caribou migration.

Often they erected an Inukshuk to indicate the way or point to where the animals were.


Inukshuk watching over the land
Image © hans-ludwig blohm c.m. mpa

Being nomads meant that they did not have lot of possessions or settled houses because they had to move around all the time. They lived in tents, made out of animal skins, or in igloos made out of snow and ice. Very strong and sophisticated architectural structures that though it sounds strange are very warm and cozy. This is an example of a tent used over a hundred years ago.


Inuit in front of their skin tent (tupiq), Okak, Labrador, 1896.
Courtesy of the Centre for Newfoundland Studies (Hettasch Collection), Memorial University of Newfoundland Library, St. John’s, Newfoundland.

However, the most famous Inuit house is the igloo which is completely made out of ice and snow. It is a very elegant and very strong dwelling which can be made small to accommodate only a few people or larger to accommodate a whole family. On a journey, an igloo could be made quite quickly out of the snow and ice at a new place and provided both shelter and warmth.

Depending on where they lived in the Arctic, it might be until the beginning of the 20th Century or maybe even later before the Inuit saw a white person.


The largest Igloo ever built. In Igloolik for the celebration of the creation of Nunavut.
Image © hans-ludwig blohm c.m. mpa

The first white people, called Kaallunat, were the Arctic explorers. Then over the years came whalers from New England, Holland or the Basque areas. After that, the Missionaries arrived to convert the Inuit to Christianity. The first missionaries were the Moravians, a German protestant sect that arrived in Labrador in 1752. Many fur traders and also Hudson Bay traders came who set up trading post many places in the arctic.

In 1873, a police force known the North-West Mounted Police was established to keep order in the Canadian North, both in the Arctic and further south among the Indian tribes. This force was later renamed in 1920 to become the well-known Canadian symbol the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (the RCMP).

In some places, all of these outsiders arrived within a small period of time, in other places it could have taken over a hundred years.


Mission station Hebron, Labrador, ca. 1860.
Courtesy of Hans Rollmann. From a lithographic reproduction by Leopold Kraatz. Original drawing by Moravian bishop Levin Theodor Reichel (1812-1878).

All of these people from the outside, sometimes referred to as the colonialisers- introduced many new ways of life and many new ideas to the Inuit. Some were good such as reading and writing, medical services, new kinds of food and some were quite disastrous such as small pox and alcohol which to this day is a curse.

The interaction with outsiders took place at different times in different areas of the Arctic, so the development and changes did not take place at the same pace everywhere.

In Nunavik and in the eastern part, off Nunavut, people lived off the land, as it is called, meaning in tents and igloos and hunting for their food until the 1970’s – which is not that long ago – the time of your parents or grandparents.

Then, because the government wanted to provide medical and educational services as well as for other reasons, the Inuit were slowly moved into villages and settlements, now often called municipalities. This movement into villages brought some good things with it (schools, hospitals, trading posts) but also created social, economic and cultural problems as the Inuit’s centuries’ old way of life was disrupted.

They also changed their name from Eskimos which is an Indian word for “eaters of raw meat” to Inuit which means “real human beings” in their own language of Inuktitut.

Since the early 1970’s, there has been a growing awareness among Inuit concerning the need to safeguard their language and culture as the intrusion of “white people” and the movements to villages had disrupted their old way of life.

The Inuit created a number of societies such as the national organisation, Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, or ITK, which addresses many of their concerns and the Inuit Broadcasting Corporation which creates television programming in Inuktitut, for Inuit and by Inuit.

Internationally, they are included in organisations such as the Inuit Circumpolar Council which represents them on many international issues. Please refer to the section on Inuit and Indigenous organizations for more information and for related links.


Hudson Bay Company Post on the Kent Peninsula. Circa 1925.
L.T. Burwash/National Archives of Canada/PA 176434