Religious belief and practice were based on spirit entities found in nature and needing to be treated with respect. Rituals showing respect to an animal just killed focused on these beliefs, which were also the basis of most taboos and the use of amulets. People could acquire the spirits of objects as protectors. There were also more overarching, generative spirits identified with natural forces and cycles. These were largely female identified. Souls were said to be reincarnated.
Male and female shamans (angakok) provided religious leadership by virtue of their direct connection with guardian spirits. They led group religious activities. They could also cure disease and see into the future. Illness was perceived as having to do with soul loss and/or the violation of taboos. Curing methods included interrogation about taboo adherence, trancelike communication with spiritual helpers, and dramatic performance.
There was no formal political organization; instead, nuclear families combined to form villages in distinct geographical areas (- miuts). Villages occasionally came together as small, fluid, kinship-related bands. The bands were also geographically identified—the - miut suffix—although other groups were not specifically excluded. Larger but ill defined population regions included the Sikosuilarmiuts, Akuliarmiuts, Qaumauangmiuts, Nugumiuts, Oqomiuts, Padlimiuts, and Akudnirmiuts.
Band leaders (isumataq) were usually older men with little formal authority and no power. Leaders embodied Inuit values, such as generosity, and were also good hunters.
Sharing was paramount in Inuit society. All aspects of a person's life were controlled by kinship relationships. People married by announcing their intentions, although infants were regularly betrothed. Some men might have more than one wife, and divorce was easy to obtain. Wife exchange was practiced as part of formal male partnerships. Infanticide was rare and usually practiced against females. Names were taken from deceased people and given by elders. A person might have several names, each denoting a kinship relationship and particular behaviors. Names were not sex specific. Children were generally raised gently.
The sick or aged were sometimes abandoned, especially in times of scarcity. Corpses were wrapped in skins and covered with rocks. People brought weapons and food to the grave after four days. No work, including hunting, was performed during the days of mourning. Tensions were relieved through games, such as feats of strength, and duels of drums and songs, in which one person tried to outdo another in parody and song. Joking relationships also helped keep people's emotions in check. Ostracism and even death were reserved for the most serious cases of socially inappropriate behavior.
Domed snow houses were used in the winter, although people might also build stone houses covered with skin and plant material. Entry through a tunnel kept the warm air inside. These houses sometimes had more than one room and had storage porches as well. Beds were raised snow platforms covered with branches and skins. The people also built some larger snow or sod and bone houses for ceremonial purposes. Skin tents were generally used in the summer.
The Baffinland Inuits were nomadic hunters. The most important marine animals were seals and beluga whales, but they also hunted walrus, narwhal, and polar bear. Seals were hunted at their breathing holes and also on floe ice. In the summer, the people traveled inland to hunt caribou and birds (and eggs) as well as some small game. They fished year-round and gathered some berries, roots, and shellfish.
Men used bone knives to cut snow blocks for houses. Hunting equipment included harpoons, lances, spears, and the bow (driftwood or antler) and arrow. Wood and leather floats and drags were also used in whale hunting. Birds (their bones made excellent needles) were caught with wood and leather nets as well as whalebone snares; fish were caught with hooks and stone weirs. Most tools were made of caribou antlers as well as stone, bone, and driftwood. Sinew served nicely as thread. Other important items included carved soapstone cooking pots and lamps that burned seal oil/blubber and carved wooden trays, dishes, spoons, and other objects.
The Baffinland Inuits engaged in some trade and other intercourse with nearby neighbors; for instance, the people of Cumberland Sound were in contact with the Iglulik Inuits and those of southern Baffin Island with the Inuits of Labrador (Ungavas), where they obtained wood for their kayaks and umiaks. Other trade items included copper and ivory. Some groups carved wooden and ivory figurines. Storytelling was also considered a high art. Drum dancing, a performance art, combined music, story, dance, and song. Some Inuit women also practiced a form of singing known as throat singing.
Men hunted using one- or two-person kayaks of driftwood frames and sealskin. Umiaks were larger, skin-covered open boats. Wooden sleds carried people and belongings to and from the interior. Dog traction dates generally from the early twentieth century to the 1960s.
Most clothing consisted of caribou skin and seal-skin clothing and boots. Women's sealskin parkas had a larger hood for accommodating an infant. Some people were able to acquire pants made of polar bear skin. Waterproof seal intestine suits, partially lined with dog fur, were used for whale hunting. Women coiled or braided their hair.
Parts of Baffin Island were settled over 4,000 years ago. The Thule, or pre-Inuit culture, entered the region about 1200. Norsemen may have visited Baffin Island around the year 1000, but definite contact with non-Natives was not established until the people met early explorers in the late sixteenth century.
Non-Native whaling began in the east (Davis Strait) in the eighteenth century. The Inuit people shortly began to experience high rates of tuberculosis and other diseases, such as measles. Whaling centers established in the nineteenth century employed Inuits and slowly changed their economy, marking the shift to dependency.
Anglican missionaries arrived in the early twentieth century and conducted the first baptisms. A missionary-derived syllabary was created and persisted well into the twentieth century. The Hudson's Bay Company built trading posts from 1911 on, signaling the end of whaling and the beginning of fur trapping as the most important economic activity. This period also saw the beginning of the outside control of the people's lives by traders, missionaries, and police.
The far north took on strategic importance during the Cold War, about the same time that vast mineral reserves became known and technologically possible to exploit. The federal Department of Northern Affairs and Natural Resources (1954) encouraged the Inuits to abandon their nomadic life. It saw to the construction of housing developments, schools, and a general infrastructure. Local political decisions were made by a community council subject to non-Native approval and review. Inuits found generally menial and poorly paying employment. With radical diet changes, the adoption of a sedentary life, and the appearance of drugs and alcohol, health declined markedly.
The Baffin Regional Association was formed to press for political rights. In 1993, the Tungavik Federation of Nunavut (TFN), an outgrowth of the Inuit Tapirisat of Canada (ITC), signed an agreement with Canada providing for the establishment in 1999 of a new, mostly Inuit, territory on roughly 36,000 square kilometers of land, including Baffin Island.
The people never abandoned their land, which is still central to their identity. The traditional and modern lifeways coexist, sometimes uneasily, for many Inuits. Although people use television (there is even radio and television programming in Inuktitut), snowmobiles, and manufactured items, women also carry babies in the traditional hooded parkas, chew caribou skin to make it soft, and use the semi-lunar knives to cut seal meat. Full-time doctors are rare in the communities. Housing is often of poor quality. Most people are Christians. Culturally, although many stabilizing patterns of traditional culture have been destroyed, many remain. Many people live as members of extended families, and adoption is widely practiced. Decisions are often made by consensus.
Politically, community councils gained considerably more autonomy around the turn of the century. There is also a significant Inuit presence in the Northwest Territories legislative assembly and some presence at the federal level. The disastrous effects of government-run schools have been mitigated to some degree by the local control of education, including more culturally relevant curricula in schools. Many people still speak Inuktitut, which is also taught in most schools, especially in the earlier grades. Children attend school in their community through grade nine; the high school is in Frobisher Bay. Adult education is also available.