Alternative names: Eskimo, various tribal names
Location: Greenland, Alaska, Canada, Siberia (USSR)
Population: approximately: 45,000, 30,000, 25,000, 1,500 respectively
of population: 85% of Greenland’s population; tiny minorities in USA, Canada, USSR
Religion: Christianity, Inuit beliefs
Language: Kalatadisu, Inupiaq; Inupiak, Yupik; Inuktitut

Inuits are the indigenous people of Siberia, Alaska, Canada and Greenland. In the circumpolar world there are approximately 100,000 Inuit: 1,500 in Siberia, 30,000 in Alaska, 25,000 in Canada and 42,000 in Greenland. Their languages are of the Eskaleut language family: Yupik in Siberia and south-west Alaska and Inupiaq from north Alaska right across to Greenland. Both languages have common origins but are mutually unintelligible.

Before contact with Europeans the Inuits lived as semi-nomadic hunters, moving from camp to camp to follow game. Camps were usually made up of several related families. They depended on game, mostly marine mammals and occasionally on caribou and fish for their food and clothing. The important social unit was the family. Although they had no written language they had a rich oral tradition. The underlying themes of their tribal social and legal structure were collective responsibility and loyalty. Their government was a flexible system based on consensus.


Greenland is the world’s largest island with an area of over 2 million square kilometres, although only 15% of this is ice-free. It has a population of 53,000 of which more than 45,000 are Inuits. Before the late eighteenth century, when Denmark began to trade with the Inuits, the people depended on a natural economy of seal hunting which supplied all of their needs. Today there remain only a few Inuit families living in the north-west and east of the island who are largely self-sufficient.

The beginning of trade with Denmark in the eighteenth century led to severe food shortages and Denmark undertook measures to protect not only its own economic interests but also to shield the Inuits from further exploitation and contact with the industrial world. This policy remained in effect until after World War II when the Greenlanders declared to the United Nations that they wished to remain attached to Denmark, but that the isolationism, colonialism and trade monopoly must end.

In 1953 Greenland became a Danish county with a provincial council and with direct representation of two members in the Folketing in Copenhagen. It gained self-rule in 1979 and today the Inuit majority exercises democratic control through the electoral system. Greenland’s parliament, the Landsting, with 17 members, is responsible for industry, taxation, education, and cultural affairs, but matters of defence, foreign policy, the courts and police still remain in the hands of Denmark, and Green-landers remain Danish citizens. However, there have been moves towards decolonization and in 1985 the Landsting exercised its rights of veto and Greenland withdrew its membership from the European Economic Community. The elections of

1987 affirmed the position of the Siamut and Inuit Ataquatigiit parties under Prime Minister Jonathan Motzfeldt.

Following the political reforms of 1953 attempts were made to improve the living conditions of the Inuits, and in 1956 an educational system similar to the one in Denmark was introduced. Both Inuit and Danish are taught at the primary and secondary level and the younger generation of Inuits is bilingual. However there is no university in Greenland and Inuit students wishing to pursue higher education normally study at Danish institutions. A continuing problem is the situation of the Inuit who were relocated in 1953 to make way for the US air base at Thule (Qanaq), who have never received compensation. They have presented their demands to a Review Committee of the Danish Parliament which was due to report before the end of 1989 but to date does not appear to have begun substantive work to review the case.


Alaska was part of the Russian empire from the mid-eighteenth century to the nineteenth century and was purchased by the US from Russia in 1867. It became the 49th and largest US state in 1959 and today it is the largest source of US oil. Alaska has an estimated population of 382,000, of which fewer than one eighth is native to the state. Although Alaska has extensive fur, salmon and forestry industries, participation in these industries by the indigenous peoples is minimal. In addition energy which is abundant in Alaska is expensive for rural villages.

The Inuit, Aleuts and Indians are the indigenous peoples of Alaska. The Inuit, who number 30,000, are the largest of the three groups. The tribes derive their names from geography and economy of the regions where they live, e.g. South Alaskan (salmon). Prior to contact with whites the Inuit lived in skin tents in the summer and sod or drift wood houses in winter. A semi-nomadic people, most lived and hunted in the inlets and coast of Arctic Alaska while some lived further inland and hunted caribou to survive. Of the estimated 3,000 caribou hunters only 50 remain.

Aleuts and Indians

The Aleuts are native to the Aleut islands in the Bering Sea. These bleak frostless lands are prone to high winds and deep fog. The Aleuts call themselves “unangan” which means “people”. They were a self-sufficient race whose economy was based on hunting a variety of animals including seals, sea-lions and whales. They lived in semi-subterranean houses built up and roofed with sod and buried their dead in the numerous volcanic caves about the islands. The Aleut language is of the same family as the Inuit, but both are mutually unintelligible. When education was formalized in Alaska in the 1880s a Cyrillic alphabet had already been designed for the Aleuts some 50 years earlier. Today there are less than 4,000 Aleuts, 300 of whom live on the Commander Islands which remain attached to the Soviet Union.

In 1942 during the Japanese attack on the islands many Aleuts were removed to the mainland. In 1988 the US Congress agreed that survivors of the removal should be compensated up to $12,000 per person. The whaling conservation efforts have also affected the Aleut economy as much of their livelihood depends on the limited annual catch. They have argued at the International Whaling Commission that their catch should not be subsumed into an annual US quota but should be calculated separately.

The Indians have a hierarchical culture similar to some other Pacific Coast Indians. The root of their language is Na Dene, of which the largest group is Athabascan to which most sub-groups in Alaska belong. The Tlingit inhabit the southern coast of Alaska and originally stretched down into California. Theirs was an agricultural and fishing economy and they had a caste system with a slave class as well as a monotheistic faith supported by lesser spirits.

The Tinneh live further inland along the Yukon River and its tributaries. Their economy was based on hunting and salmon fishing. They are more assimilated than the Tlingit but their participation in the thriving salmon industry is still minimal.

Land rights

From the 1880s to 1890s prospectors arrived in Alaska seeking gold, copper and silver, but most migration took place after 1950. There was a surge of immigration when oil was discovered in 1968. This led to the formation of the Native Land Claims Movement (NLCM). The Alaskan oil pipeline proposal elicited a strong outcry from ecological conservationists and the NLCM was able to lay claims for recognition and compensation.

In 1971 the US Congress passed the Alaskan Native Claims Settlement Act (ANSCA). The Act extinguished aboriginal land titles in Alaska, and mandated that modern profit-making corporations be established to administer and manage the cash and land award totalling $962.5 million and approximately 44 million acres of land. Individual and tribal entities received relatively small amounts of money and no land. Instead all indigenous persons of more than one quarter native blood born before December 18,1971 received shares in these newly formed co-operations.

The provisions of ANSCA have been criticized by indigenous activists. Those born after 1971 have no legal interest either directly or indirectly in the land except by inheritance. In 1991 shares can be legally sold to outsiders which will most probably lead to corporate takeover and large tracts of Alaskan wilderness being opened up for mineral and other development. The land-holding corporations also face the threat of bankruptcy in which case a corporation’s assets, including land, could be attached by creditors. In addition, 20 years after the establishment of ANSCA lands, even undeveloped lands may be taxed by the state. Rural villages will most likely fail to meet these tax obligations and the land could pass to the state. ANSCA also extinguished subsistence rights of hunting and fishing and today state and federal laws often restrict subsistence activities, which many native communities still rely on in order to survive. Forced acceptance of the profit motive and the attendant requirements of individualism and competition may undermine long-standing cultural values which operate to minimize conflict. The establishment of new corporate institutions with a hierarchical organization of technicians, managers and executive decision-makers has replaced traditional leadership patterns that bonded natives into cohesive groups.

Native dissatisfaction with the ANSCA resulted in the amendments passed by the US Congress (Public Law 100-241 1988) in February 1988. These amendments resolved the questions of extending stock restrictions in order to restrict the likelihood of outside takeovers, allowed stock to be issued to those born after 1971 and to those who had missed out in the original settlement, and extended protection against taxation on undeveloped land. However the corporate system itself remained in place and there is likely to be increasing pressure on developed native lands. The amendments to the ANSCA were supported or accepted by the statewide umbrella organization, the Alaska Federation of Natives, but were vigorously opposed by the Alaska Native Coalition which withdrew from the AFN in 1987 on this issue.


The Canadian Arctic was first granted to the Hudson’s Bay Company, the most important commercial interest in the fur trade. In 1870 it was given by the company to the Canadian government, which renamed the area the Northwest Territories (NWT). With this annexation the Inuit became Canadian citizens.

American and Scottish whalers were the first Europeans to have a substantial economic interest in the north and thus had a substantial effect on the Inuit who lived along the coast. In less than a decade they were successful in almost wiping out several whale populations. During their stay the Inuit, who were knowledgeable about the water and the whales in the area, were pressed into service on the European and American ships, and were paid in wages. Trade was practised and some whites took Inuit wives.

When the economic value of the whale hunt declined, the fur trade, which had been the economic foundation of Canada, slowly turned northwards as traders increasingly searched for new sources of fur. During the nineteenth century trade was established between the Inuit and the Canadians. The Inuit abandoned traditional hunting ways, in which trapping was unimportant, in order to get the furs to barter for trade goods. As they began to depend more and more on trade items such as guns, old hunting techniques were no longer used. In 1940 when the fur industry collapsed and most of the posts closed, the Inuits were unable to return to their original way of life so they subsisted precariously in a mixed economy: some hunting, some trapping, occasional work for wages with the white people and trading for such staple goods as guns, flour and tea.

The 1950s brought widespread starvation and death to the Inuit as a result of the epidemics which swept through their camps in the 1940s and the change of animal migration patterns in the 1950s. The government which had in the past left the welfare and education of the Northwest Territories to the missionaries and traders began to move groups away from their camps to places where they could be properly administered. They moved the Inuit from their semi-nomadic camps of about three families to settlements of 50 families or more. The government then embarked on creating housing, schools, improving health care and setting up local Eskimo Councils to encourage the growth of community government. The efforts proved successful and from 1941 to 1971 the infant mortality and death rate among the Inuit dropped.

White men came later to the western Arctic than to the east coast. The whaling industry brought alcohol and diseases which decimated the Inuit. By 1910 the population of 2,000 Mackenzie Inuit had been reduced to about 130. Because of the abundance of certain types of furs, the west remained affluent even during the 1930s and 1940s which were so disastrous for Inuit in other areas. The fur industry in this area gave way eventually to oil and gas development.

Labrador and Quebec

Areas like Labrador were always more appealing to white men because the climate and topography were more familiar to settlers and it was easier to make a living from fishing and whaling in these areas. Therefore the impact on these communities in these areas was considerably greater. Labrador was colonized in 1770 by Moravian missionaries. The Moravians traded with the Inuits but kept goods like liquor out of the territory. By the 1800s white settlers had begun to move into the territory and by 1900 they were an important element. However, both whites and Inuits respected each other and both lived from the resources of the land and had similar economic systems. The Inuit of Labrador remained under British rule until 1949, at which time they joined the confederation as part of Newfoundland.

In Quebec the provincial government did not take up its responsibility for the Inuit in its area until 1963. It had won a court battle which classified the Inuits in that area as Indian, and therefore the responsibility of the federal government. Thus in the Northwest Territories the Inuit were an entirely federal responsibility while in Quebec and Labrador responsibility for the Inuit was divided between the province and the federal government. This arrangement led at times to tensions and different standards being applied to the Inuit depending on the area in which they lived.

The Newfoundland government was reluctant to consider the question of aboriginal rights and refused to admit that the native people could have special status even after 1973, when the federal government had admitted that these rights existed. The provincial government of Quebec came into direct conflict with Inuits in the 1970s when it called for sovereignty for Quebec and came close to demanding outright separation from Canada. It passed a bill to restrict the use of English and the Inuit, who had been educated in English, protested.

The Innu are the original inhabitants of the Quebec-Labrador peninsula. Today there are approximately 9,000 living in Labrador. In September 1988 many were arrested for participating in sit-ins which were staged to protest the refusal of the government to negotiate their land claims. They assert that they never gave up their land to the government nor did they permit their territory to be used by NATO airforces for low-level flying, which seriously disrupts the wildlife, especially caribou, on which the Innu economy depends. In April 1989 the courts found the Innu not guilty. However the NATO flights and the protests continue.

Political and legal developments

In 1960, when native people were finally given the right to vote in federal elections, the Inuits were already wards of the federal government. They could no longer return to their old way of life because they were now too dependant, and their right to hunt freely was slowly eroded by the restrictive quotas set by the government on the hunting of some animals. In 1967 the government of the Northwest Territories in Yellowknife was established under the authority of the federal Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development, which was responsible for all Inuit and Indian affairs. This new government took over the administration of some federal services and immediately concentrated on the development of local government.

When oil was discovered in Alaska in 1968 this led to a rush of speculation in Canada. As a result, the Inuit of the Beaufort Sea area where exploration had been stimulated formed in 1969 a political organization called the Committee for Original People’s Entitlement (COPE). It was the first organization of its kind in the Arctic. Its purpose was to defend the rights of the Inuit before they were swamped in the rush of development. In 1971 The Tapirisat of Canada (ITC), a national organization with essentially the same purpose, was also formed.

The same year that COPE was formed a government policy document White Paper was issued. It refused to recognize aboriginal rights. It argued that native people had no special rights which entitled them to anything different from other Canadians. That same year the Nishga Indians brought the government of British Columbia to court and the case reached the Supreme Court of Canada. Though the case was dismissed on a technicality it forced the government to re-evaluate its position on aboriginal rights and it committed itself to settling outstanding claims. COPE and the ITC formulated proposals which stated that their rights had never been surrendered by conquest or by treaty and that they were entitled to compensation of various kinds. The proposal was ratified at a general assembly representing all the Inuit in the NWT in November 1975 and finally presented to the Canadian Government for negotiation in February of 1976.

The Cree and the Inuit of James Bay are the beneficiaries of the first major modern land claims agreement negotiated by the Canadian Government. In April 1971 the James Bay hydro-electric project was announced. The project would generate 30% of Canada’s power by damming all the major rivers flowing into James Bay from the eastern side. The land in the area would be flooded, yet the provincial government had not consulted the Inuit who lived in the eastern area, and had done little research into the environmental effects of such a scheme. The Cree and the Inuit in the area attempted to stop the project. They were unsuccessful politically, but they were able to gain an injunction from the court. Eight days later the injunction was overturned on appeal; however the government became worried that future work could be suspended so negotiations took place and an agreement was reached a year later in 1974. This agreement freed the land for development by exchanging native rights for a package of benefits, which included $C90 million in cash, title to 5,250 square miles of hunting grounds, exclusive hunting and fishing rights on a further 60,000 square miles, and various social programmes that carried a perpetual governmental responsibility. Some Inuit communities could not be consulted by their representatives and became upset that their aboriginal rights had been given up in exchange for the benefit package. They rejected the agreement and they are now lobbying to have their rights restored to them.

After the agreement, there was a feeling in the government that the Inuit peoples were rich and therefore no longer needed to have programmes and services to which they were still in fact entitled. Health care standards dropped after the signing of the agreement and are only now recovering. Also the $225 million cash payment to be shared between the Cree and Inuit was to be paid out in instalments until 1977 which made the actual value much lower because of inflation. The Inuit eventually took grievances about the agreement to a committee of the Canadian Parliament in March 1981 and gave evidence which so embarrassed the federal government that it immediately ordered a review of its responsibilities in the implementation of the agreement. In February 1982 the review committee agreed that there was a serious problem. The government committed some funds to improve its performance and agreed to honour the spirit of the agreement in a more constructive way.

COPE and the ITC also proposed that the NWT be divided and administered under two different governments. They argued that a natural division existed along the treeline which ran from the Mackenzie Delta diagonally to the NWT Manitoba border and separated the tundra land of the Inuit from the forest of the Dene (Indians). They also argued that the regions had two different climates and geography and the peoples had different cultures. They proposed not only the division but a new government in the eastern territory which would be called Nanavut. The proposed area of Nanavut has a 75% Inuit population and the Inuit hope that this will ensure that the new government would be representative of the Inuits. They also proposed that participation in Canadian elections be limited to those with residence of three years. This would limit the ability of the north’s large transient white population, who stayed an average of only two years, to exercise undue influence in the north. This remains the most controversial aspect of the proposal. In 1979 a native majority was elected to the NWT government. They established a Unity Committee which held hearings across the North to evaluate the need for division. Sixty per cent of the Inuit population wanted the NWT to be divided. The Council and the native groups, now working closely together, carried the results to Ottawa and in November 1982 the Minister of Indian and Northern Affairs announced that, subject to certain conditions, the NWT would be divided. However, to date this division has not been carried out.

Education and social developments

At the end of the nineteenth century missionaries transported a syllabic writing system to the eastern Arctic, and the native population was at the time more literate than most of the white men who arrived in the north. The missionaries trained teachers, and up to 1949 when Labrador joined Canada all schools in the area were taught in Inuk-titut. In 1974 the ITC set up the Inuit Language Commission which proposed a dual orthography so that roman and syllabic systems could be used interchangeably. At an international level, Inuit have expressed hope that a pan-Inuit writing system and language would be developed.

The government did not start to build schools in the NWT until the 1940s. Before then it had left this responsibility to the missionary groups. In 1944, 80% of Inuit children were not taught in schools, which used curricula from the south and did not teach in the native languages. In 1967 after the NWT government was established in Yellowknife, individuals in the Department of Education began to push for native language and Inuit culture to be included in the curriculum. In 1972 the first Inuit teacher graduated and the Inuit cultural programme was set up in some schools. After the native peoples gained control of the NWT Council in 1979 a committee was elected to make a systematic evaluation of education. The committee recommended that control of education be decentralized, that the government support the use of native languages in the schools through programmes of training for native teachers, that there be development of relevant curricula in the native languages and that the system of adult education be vastly improved. Inuit children are now taught in Inuk-titut through to grade three, and since 1980 a teacher education programme in Forbisher Bay has been training Inuit teachers. Thirty-seven of the 359 teachers in Inuit schools have graduated from the programme. The number of Inuit students going on to post-secondary education has jumped from 16 in 1978-79 to 154 in 1983-84.

In 1975 the ITC proposed the Inukshuk project to make Inuktitut TV programmes available. After a six-month experiment which proved successful the Inuit Broadcasting Corporation (IBC) was formed. The IBC now produced five half-hours of Inuktitut programming including current affairs cultural programmes and sports, out of five production centres across the north. With government funding of over one million dollars a year the IBC is helping to draw together the scattered Canadian Inuit communities into a political and cultural force.

In spite of government efforts to involve them in wage labour the Inuit have stubbornly refused to give up their feeling for the land and for the land-based renewable resources economy. The marketing of Inuit crafts have been successful, yet the government has done very little to organize and support hunting and trapping which are fundamental to a successful land-based way of life. The Inuits insist that it is possible to create a local and regional economy based on products of the hunt, which would allow the hunters greater self-sufficiency, and they are now urging the government to consider ways to support the land-based economy in a systematic way.

Trapping is the only source of income for most native people and to the Inuit seal hunting is truly a subsistence activity as compared to the commercial seal-pup harvests in other parts of Canada. The Inuits disagree with the commercial culling methods, and feel victimized by the European seal skin ban. The economic consequences of the ban have been drastic and have forced some Inuit to give up hunting. They continue to lobby the European Parliament for an exemption to the ban, but without success.


Despite their scattered numbers and division between a four different governments, Inuit communities face many common problems. School dropout, teenage psychosis, suicide and alcoholism have been high. A large part of the problem came from removing children from traditional village life, where values of non-aggression and non-competitiveness contrast with the white image of educational and business success. Even in Greenland with its Inuit majority the destruction of the old ways of hunting and fishing and their replacement by small towns also gave way to boredom and drinking. Alcoholism remains a problem as does suicide. The suicide rates in Greenland, generally among young people, are four times the rate in Denmark which itself has one of the highest suicide levels in the world. In Alaska alcoholism in native communities is held responsible for high levels of suicides, murders, rapes, child abuse and fatal accidents. But alcoholism itself is a symptom of the hopelessness and alienation of a people wrenched away from their traditional beliefs and way of life.

Despoilation of the environment is another common factor. Formerly inaccessible areas are being opened to mining and hydro-electric power. Oil companies provide 85% of the state revenue of Alaska. An Alaskan oil spill from a tanker in Prince William Sound, Alaska, in early 1989 polluted large areas of sea and shore. The “Greenhouse effect” may yet produce further changes in the environment with serious consequences for the Inuit.

Inuit from all states have created a common forum in the Inuit Circumpolar Conference (ICC) which was established in Barrow Alaska in 1977 by Inuit from Alaska, Canada and Greenland, to address concerns about oil and gas developments in Alaska and Canada. In 1981 the ICC was successful in postponing hearings on the proposed Arctic Pilot Project (APP), a proposal to ship liquefied natural gas from the Canadian high Arctic to Southern Canada. In 1983 it was granted Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) status at the United Nations.

(See also Saami in Western Europe and Scandinavia)