Inuit History - The Inuit and Canada
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The Inuit and Canada

May 2016 - In 1500 AD, the Inuit had recently finished conquering the Arctic from the Tuniit or Dorset Culture people who had lived there before them. Because of a cooling trend known as the Little Ice Age, the Inuit were finding it difficult to get enough food in the Arctic, and they had been gradually expanding their territory to the south, reaching as far south as Labrador in modern Canada (which is still pretty far north). They had succeeded in taking over Greenland from the Vikings around 1400 AD.

Inuit village 1575
An Inuit village in 1575 AD

Now in 1530 AD more Europeans arrived. Basque men came first from Spain and built little forts along the coast of Labrador to fish and hunt whales. Inuit people didn't try to stop the Basque men, but they did raid their forts to get tools, especially iron tools, for themselves. Then Martin Frobisher and John Davis came from Britain in the 1570s and 1580s to sail around the Arctic looking for what they called the "Northwest passage" - a way through from Greenland to Alaska by boat, so that Europeans could ship things from Europe to China without having to travel all the way around Africa and India. Inuit people met with these men and told them they didn't know any Northwest Passage. Frobisher took one Inuit man back to England with him to visit.

By 1600, the Basque sailors had stopped coming to Labrador, probably because the whales had also stopped coming there. But the Inuit began to meet occasional French and English explorers and traders. They caught many serious diseases from these French and English visitors, and many people died of smallpox, measles, tuberculosis, and other sicknesses. On the other side of the Americas, in Alaska, Inuit people also traded with people in Siberia, selling furs and buying metal tools and buckles.

Gradually more European and Central Asian people came to visit Inuit villages or stayed to show that the Canadians or the United States government ruled the Arctic. In 1766, Catherine the Great sent Russian explorers and settlers to Alaska and claimed Alaska as part of Russia. In the late 1700s, trying to counter this Russian claim, Protestant missionaries from Europe came and converted many Inuit people to Christianity. These missionaries also gave people lots of iron tools like sewing needles and knives that were very useful to them. Some Inuit people began to trade furs to European traders in exchange for steel knives and other tools, and for food. The competition between Russia, the United States, and Britain for control of Inuit land caused more and more explorers to come to Alaska and northern Canada. Finally in 1867, the Russian Czar Alexander sold Alaska to the United States (as if it were really his and didn't belong to the Inuit!).

row of inuit girls in western clothes sitting at desks
Canadian residential school for Inuit girls

About 1940, Canadian people had developed good enough airplanes and helicopters to be able to visit Inuit territory even in the wintertime. The Canadians began to interfere more with the lives of Inuit people, forcing their kids to go away to boarding school to learn Canadian ways of doing things, and forcing grown-up Inuits to settle down in towns instead of being nomads. At the same time, Canadian doctors and nurses saved many babies and children who would have died, and so there got to be many more people living in Inuit territory than there had been before. There were too many to feed by traditional hunting and gathering and fishing. Many Inuit became poor and angry.

inuit people marching with signs
Inuit protest (1990s)

But in the 1960s kids in the boarding schools made friends and decided to fight for better treatment for their people. When they grew up, they went back to their families and insisted that Inuit people should be treated by Inuit doctors and nurses, and have Inuit policemen and governors in their towns.

Other Native people in Canada: the Blackfoot

Bibliography and further reading about Inuit history:

Early Inuit history
Chinook people
Blackfoot people
Cree people
American History home

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Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram or Twitter, or buy her book, Vandals to Visigoths.
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  • Carr, K.E. . Study Guides, . Web. 23 April, 2017