American Indian Heritage Month: Commemoration vs. Exploitation
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Inuit, Copper

"Copper Inuit," meaning "People," is a name bestowed by non-Native explorers who found them using Native copper in tools and weapons. (See also Netsilik.) In the eighteenth century the Copper Inuits were living between Cape Parry and Queen Maude Gulf, especially on southern Victoria Island and along Coronation Gulf. The region is almost entirely tundra, except for some forest to the south and along the Coppermine River. Many Copper Inuits still live in this area of the central Arctic, known as Kitikmeot. The Native population was probably between 800 and 1,300 in the late eighteenth century. Copper Inuits speak a dialect of Inuit-Inupiaq (Inuktitut), a member of the Eskaleut language family.

Religious belief and practice were based on the need to appease spiritual entities found in nature. Hunting and specifically the land-sea dichotomy were the focus of most rituals and taboos, such as that prohibiting sewing caribou skin clothing in certain seasons. The people also recognized generative spirits, conceived of as female and identified with natural forces and cycles.

Male and female shamans (angakok) provided religious leadership by virtue of their connection with guardian spirits. They could also control the weather, improve conditions for hunting, cure disease, and divine the future. Illness was due to soul loss, the violation of taboos, and/or the anger of the dead. Curing methods included interrogation about taboo adherence, trancelike communication with spiritual helpers, and dramatic performance.

Nuclear families were the basic economic and political unit. Families were led by the oldest man. They were loosely organized into small local groups associated with geographical areas (- miuts). Local groups occasionally came together as perhaps six or seven small, fluid bands. The bands were also geographically identified, their names carrying the - miut suffix as well.

Sharing was paramount in Inuit society. All aspects of a person's life were controlled by kinship relationships. The people recognized many types of formal and informal partnerships and relationships. Some of these included wife exchanges. People came together in larger group gatherings in late autumn; this was a time to sew and mend clothing and to renew kinship ties. Men hunted, made and repaired weapons and tools, and built kayaks, sleds, and shelter. Women prepared skins and made clothing, sewed hides for coverings, caught and prepared fish, raised children, and gathered moss, berries, and other items.

Descent was bilateral. People married simply by announcing their intentions, although infants were regularly betrothed. Prospective husbands often served their future in-laws for a period of time. Men might have more than one wife, but most had only one. Divorce was easy to obtain. Names were taken from deceased people and given by elders.

People often adopted orphans. Children were highly valued and loved, especially males. When a boy killed his first seal, the seal's body was ritually dragged over his. The sick or aged were sometimes abandoned, especially in times of scarcity. Corpses were wrapped in skins and buried in stone or snow vaults or, later, left outside within a ring of stones. 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.

Men built domed snow houses in the winter. Entry through a straight-sided, flat-topped tunnel kept the warm air inside. Some houses had more than one room. Snow platforms covered with the skins of caribou, musk ox, or bear served as beds. The people used larger snow or sod-and-bone houses for ceremonial purposes. They also used caribou skin and sealskin tents built over raised sod rings in the summer and over pits in the autumn.

Copper Inuits were nomadic hunters. The most important game animals were seals and whales. Some polar bears were caught in the winter as well. The people also hunted caribou, musk ox, small game, and fowl, mainly in small groups in the summer and autumn. One- or two-person kayaks, propelled with a double-bladed paddle, were generally used for hunting. Several men could hunt whales in umiaks, which were larger, skin-covered open boats. Fishing was a year-round activity. Some berries were available in the summer.

The summer was trade season. The people exchanged goods, particularly copper and drift-wood, with the Inuvialuits, the Caribou Inuits, and the Netsiliks. There were occasional contacts with Athapaskan Indians to their south. Dogs carried burdens in the summer and pulled wooden sleds in the winter. The sleds had wooden runners covered with whalebone, mud, or peat and then ice. Toboggans were occasionally made of skin. The most important artistic traditions were carved wooden and ivory figurines.

Women sewed most clothing from caribou skins, although sealskins were commonly used on boots. Apparel included men's long, gut sealing coats and light swallowtail ceremonial coats. The people wore a double skin suit in the winter and only the inner layer in the summer. Women's clothing featured large shoulders and hoods for accomodating infants as well as one-piece, attached leggings and boots. Men wore small loon beak dancing caps with weasel skin tassels. Both sexes wore tattoos and ivory or bone snow goggles. Clothing decoration consisted mainly of bands of white fur or skin. There was some skin fringing.

Historical Copper Inuit people are descended from ancient pre-Dorset, Dorset, and Thule cultures. They first encountered non-Natives in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Although they obtained some non-Native trade goods, such as iron, and caught new diseases, traditional life remained relatively unchanged for some time thereafter.

Local trading posts were established in the 1920s, bringing items such as rifles, fish nets, and steel traps as well as cloth, tea, and flour. These material changes had the result of extending the caribou season and generally reorienting the people away from the sea. This development, plus the regular presence of trade ships, began to undermine traditional self-sufficiency and social structures. The region's first missionaries arrived at about the same time, as did a permanent presence of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP).

It was not until the 1950s, however, that the root aspects of traditional culture began to disappear. Some mixing with western Inuit newcomers occurred during that time. 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. These two industries offered some wage labor and contributed to the decline of the nomadic life. Other factors contributed as well, such as the decline of the caribou herds.

The federal Department of Northern Affairs and Natural Resources (1954) began constructing wood-frame housing developments, clinics, and schools and encouraged resettlement in these permanent communities. Local political decisions were made by a community council subject to non-Native approval and review. Population centralization was largely completed by the 1970s. Most job opportunities for Inuits were unskilled and menial, although hunting and trapping remained important. With radical diet changes, the adoption of a sedentary life, and the appearance of drugs and alcohol, health declined markedly.

The people never abandoned their land, which is still central to their identity. Traditional and modern coexist, sometimes uneasily, for many Inuit. 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. Adoption is widely practiced. Decisions are often made by consensus.

Politically, community councils have gained considerably more autonomy over the past decade or two. There is also a significant Inuit presence in the Northwest Territories legislative assembly and some presence at the federal level. 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 the new, mostly Inuit, territory of Nunuvut on roughly 36,000 square kilometers of land, including Kitikmeot.


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