Inuit Country

Article excerpt

THIS YEAR'S "INDIAN COUNTRY" THEME issue of Canadian Dimension deals with a specific group of indigenous people in Canada, the Inuit. Inuit are indigenous occupants of the arctic in Canada, the US, Russia and Greenland. They have a distinct land base, distinct legal status, distinct culture and distinct colonial history. In the US they are still referred to as Eskimos (which does not mean "eaters of raw meat" as is commonly thought) and as a result that word still has global currency, though Canada and Denmark have both replaced the word with "Inuit," a self-designation. Geographically, in Canada Inuit occupy the northernmost regions (beyond the tree line) in the NWT, Nunavut, Labrador and northern Quebec. Culturally, Inuit are hunting peoples whose traditional life was built almost entirely around snow, bone, skin and ice. For archaeologists, Inuit are descendants of a migration across the Bering Strait that took place about 1,000 years ago, whereas most indigenous Americans are likely descended from people who migrated 10 to 12 thousand years ago. Inuit traditionally have been gatherers and hunters, like many other indigenous peoples, but have their own distinct cultural expressions of this embodied in stories, games, artworks, tools, clothing and so on that are immediately recognizable.

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Historically, the Inuit engagement with colonial capitalism has also been distinct. In Canada, although early contact with Inuit took place in the 16th century, sustained contacts did not happen until the mid and late 19th century, with the search for the Franklin expedition and the arctic whale hunt being the major drivers of the process. "Missionary activity in arctic Canada becomes a sustained force at this time, and by the early 20th century a fox fur trade becomes important. The Canadian state's involvement in the arctic was sporadic and fitful until the postwar period; in the late 1950s a policy of neglect transformed dramatically as the welfare state moves to take control of many aspects of Inuit peoples' lives.

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The Indian Act has only very briefly regulated Inuit. Hence, to this day, Inuit communities do not have the chief and council structure that First Nations deal with, there are no Inuit reserves, and Inuit have not had to deal with the vexing problem of legal "status." However, Inuit are constitutionally recognized as indigenous peoples with Aboriginal rights. Inuit never signed historic treaties, but have been leaders in negotiating comprehensive land claims or modern treaties.

Politically, Inuit are represented internationally by the Inuit Circumpolar Conference, nationally in Canada by the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, and in the separate provinces and territories by land-claims-based groups, such as the Inuvialuit Regional Corporation in the Beaufort Sea area of the NWT, or Makivik in northern Quebec. In Canada an Inuit women's organization, Pauktuutit, represents Inuit women from all the regions. Inuit have been involved in struggles that parallel those of First Nations and Metis in other parts of Canada, struggles over resource development/destruction, to assert land title, to achieve self-determination and self-government. Although in Greenland a strong socialist movement exists among Inuit, socialism in Canada has not been able to establish itself in any sustained way. Similarly, the various Inuit struggles have not generated the kind of non-Aboriginal support activities or drawn upon civil disobedience actions that other indigenous activist communities have sometimes engaged.

Yet Inuit have a remarkable history of resistance to the Canadian State and in one part of arctic Canada have established a public government and territory that they democratically control: Nunavut. …