American Indian Heritage Month: Commemoration vs. Exploitation
Teaser Image


"Inuvialuit" is the Inuit name for the people formerly known as Mackenzie Delta Eskimos or western (Canadian) Arctic Eskimos. The homeland of this group is the Mackenzie Delta region, specifically from Herschel Island to the Baillie Islands, northwest Northwest Territories. From between 2,000 and 2,500 people in the mideighteenth century, the Inuvialuit population was reduced to about 150 in 1910 and perhaps ten in 1930. Inuvialuits 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. 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 perceived as stemming from soul loss, the violation of taboos, and/or the anger of the dead. Curing methods included interrogation about taboo adherence, trancelike communication with spirit helpers, and dramatic performance.

Nuclear families were loosely organized into local groups associated with geographical areas (- miuts). These groups occasionally came together as perhaps five small, fluid bands or subgroups: Kittegaryumiuts, Kupugmiuts, Kigirktarugmiuts, Nuvouigmiuts, and Avvagmiuts. The bands were also geographically identified. Informal or ad hoc village leaders (isumataq) were usually older men, with little formal authority and no power. They embodied Inuit values, such as generosity, and were also good hunters, perhaps especially good whalers.

Contact with neighboring Inuit groups may have influenced the development of a somewhat stronger village leadership structure, including inheritance in the male line, around the time of contact. The Inuvialuit population was generally less dispersed than that of other Inuit groups. Their largest summer village, for instance, contained up to 1,000 people.

Descent was bilateral. Intermarriage was common among members of the five bands. People married simply by announcing their intentions, although infants were regularly betrothed. Men might have more than one wife, but most had only one. Divorce was easy to obtain. Some wife exchanges took place within defined partnerships between men; the relationship between a man and his partner's wife was considered a kind of marriage.

Infanticide was rare and, when practiced, usually directed against females. Children were highly valued and loved, especially males. Their names generally came from deceased relatives and were bestowed by shamans. Male adolescents had some teeth filed down and their cheeks and earlobes pierced. The sick or aged were sometimes abandoned, especially in times of scarcity. Corpses were not removed from houses through the door but rather through a specially made hole in the wall. They were then placed on the ground and covered with driftwood.

Tensions were relieved through games, through duels of drums and songs, in which the competing people tried to outdo each other in parody, and through "joking" relationships. Ostracism and even death were reserved for the most serious cases of socially inappropriate behavior, such as murder, wife stealing, and theft. Relations between the Inuvialuits and their Indian neighbors were both cordial, including intermarriage, and hostile.

The typical winter dwelling was a semiexcavated, rectangular, turf-covered, log-frame house. Each one held about three families. Sleeping chambers were appended, giving the structure a cross shape. Each family had a separate cooking area as well. Entry was via an underground tunnel. Houses were named. Windows or skylights were made of gut. Storage was located along the tunnel or in niches inside.

The people occasionally used temporary domed snow houses in the winter, mainly when traveling. Entry was gained through a door. There were some larger open-roofed sod-and-wood houses as well for ceremonial purposes, although these may reflect a later Inupiat influence. Conical caribou skin tents used in the summer were strengthened by a hoop lashed to the frame about six feet from the ground. Also, each village had a men's house (kashim) up to sixty feet long.

The Inuvialuits were nomadic hunters. The most important game animals were seals and baleen whales, especially beluga. Whales were hunted communally by driving up to 200 of them into shallow water with kayaks. Seals were netted on the edges of ice floes and hunted at their breathing holes in the winter.

The people also hunted caribou, moose, mountain sheep, hares, bears, musk ox, muskrat, beaver, and birds. Fishing took place especially in the spring and summer, mainly for whitefish and herring. Other foods included berries and some roots. People generally drank water or stock.

Goods were exchanged with the Kutchin and Hare Indians as well as with the Inupiats to the west. Individual formal trade partnerships were a part of this process. The people exported wood, which they procured in the southern part of their territory. Sewn clothing and carved wooden and ivory figurines were developed to artistic levels. One- or two-person kayaks were used mostly for sea mammal hunting. Several men hunted whales in umiaks, or large open boats covered with beluga skin. Overland travel was facilitated by the use of wooden dogsleds with iced-over runners of bone or antler.

Clothing consisted mainly of sewn caribou skins. Men and women wore two layers, the under layer with the hair turned in and the outer layer with the hair turned out. Coats and pants were trimmed with fur, as were parka hoods. Men's hoods were made from caribou or wolf-head skin, the latter with the ears left on. Women's parkas were knee length and double flapped, as opposed to mens', which ended at the hip. Women's parka hoods were also made bigger to cover their double bun–shaped hair-styles. Other clothing included caribou leg boots with beluga skin soles and caribou mittens.

In the summer, most people wore old inner garments with the hair turned out. Men who had killed a bear wore pieces of stone or ivory through their cheeks. Most men also wore polished stone or ivory labrets in their lips. Both sexes wore ornaments in pierced ears and nasal septa. Both men and women applied small tattoos on their faces and bodies. Children who had reached puberty had their teeth filed down; boys' cheeks and ears were pierced as well.

The people offered a generally friendly reception when they first met non-Native traders in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. However, relations soon soured. Missionaries were active in the region by the midnineteenth century, although few Inuvialuits accepted Christianity before 1900.

The heyday of the whaling period began in 1888, when some 1,000 non-Native whalers wintered near the Mackenzie River; the region soon became a trade center as well as a haven for "frontier living" that included alcohol abuse, sexual promiscuity, and death from firearms. Traditional life declined sharply, as did the population, which was further beset by a host of hitherto unknown diseases such as scarlet fever, syphilis, smallpox, and influenza. By 1920 the Inuvialuits had all but disappeared from the Yukon. Most modern Inuvialuits are descended from Inupiat groups who moved east from Alaska about that time. Indians and non-Natives moved in as well.

The far north took on strategic importance during the Cold War. In 1954, the federal Department of Northern Affairs and Natural Resources encouraged the Inuits to abandon their nomadic life. The department oversaw the construction of housing developments, schools, and clinics. Local political decisions were made by a community council subject to non-Native approval and review. In 1959, the "government" town of Inuvik was founded as an administrative center.

Inuits generally found only unskilled and menial work. They also survived through dependence on government payments. With radical diet changes, the adoption of a sedentary life, and the appearance of drugs and alcohol, health declined markedly. The Committee for Original People's Entitlement (COPE), founded in 1969, soon became the political voice of the Inuvialuits. Oil and gas deposits were found in the Beaufort Sea in the 1970s.

The people never abandoned their land, which is still central to their identity. Traditional and modern 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 semilunar 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.

Politically, community councils have gained considerably more autonomy over the past generation. 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 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.


©2011 ABC-CLIO. All rights reserved.

  Chronological Essays
  People and Groups
  Southwest Nations
  California Nations
  Northwest Coast Nations
  Great Basin Nations
  Plateau Nations
  Great Plains Nations
  Northeast Woodlands Nations
  Subarctic Nations
  Arctic Nations
ABC-cLIO Footer