Some of us are hunters all the time, but all of us are hunters some of the time” (Semeniuk 1982:51).
Inuit are a hunting culture; in the past they lived in hunting groups, whose size and location depended upon the season and the migratory patterns of wildlife. Meat provided food, heat, and light. Whale bone was used to make sled runners. Baleen (plastic-like strips from the whale’s mouth) was made into bows. Sealskin was used to make boots and mittens, and caribou skin was transformed into parkas, pants, and bedding. Every part of the animal was used. Even with most modern conveniences available, many people still spend at least part of the year hunting in ways surprisingly similar to those of their ancestors whose very survival depended upon the success of the hunt.
Times may have changed, but hunting is still important and local wildlife remains the dietary staple of most Inuit who continue to live as much as possible in rhythm with the seasons. In some areas, many families move out on the land to hunt, fish, or trap, and even those employed in jobs in the community find time to hunt.
According to Henry Kudluk of Coral Harbour: “People hunt all the time. Some all year round. People who have regular jobs still go out on the weekends or for the day. Especially in the spring. That is when we take two to six weeks to go to the camps and ice fish and goose hunt. Spring is really the big time for that” (oral communication 1996).
Because the hunting of sea mammals was of special importance, a complex technology based on sea-dwelling life was developed. Sea-going boats, called kayaks and umiaks, were built out of skin, driftwood, and bone. The articulated harpoon and the avataq, an inflated bag made from skins, necessary to keep prey afloat after it had been speared, were invented. Today, snowmobiles are the preferred mode of transportation for getting to and from hunting grounds, and the rifle has largely replaced the harpoon and bow and arrow of the Inuit. But even with these modern inventions, a lot of skill is required to be a northern hunter.
As Gayle Gruben from Tuktoyaktuk explains: “Yes, we have rifles now, but a harpoon is still used to kill a seal or whale, and fish are still speared with a kakivak (combination hook and spear). That has not changed” (oral communication 1996).
The hunting theme can be found in every aspect of Inuit culture, especially art. Many of the tools and weapons used in the past were decorated with hunting images, as were objects used by shamans. Many stories revolve around hunting. Alootook Ipellie, formerly of Iqaluit, Nunavut (now deceased), wrote that so many Inuit are good carvers because “they come from a very visual culture. Their very livelihood depended solely on dealing with the landscape every day during hunting or gathering expeditions. They were always visualizing animals in their thoughts as they searched the land, waters, and skies for game” (1998:97).
Outsiders might be surprised to learn what a modern-day arctic hunting expedition is like. Here is one description written in 1993: “Next week we’re going out to get food for the people of Arctic Bay. We hope to get about 20,000 pounds of fish and caribou meat … There will be eight or nine of us if there are no breakdowns, going by Skidoo … The fish will be brought back by Skidoo, but the caribou meat will be airlifted. We will have a radio-telephone so that we can call Resolute to charter the DC-3 to bring back the meat as soon as we have it. Right now, I’m working on my sleds, making them ready for the trip, getting gas and supplies. Some of our supplies will be taken out by plane, but we will carry the rest. I think we’ll be gone for about two weeks” (Andre 1993:29).
The introduction of trading changed Inuit life in a profound way. Before contact with outsiders, Inuit hunters took from the land what they needed and no more. When the fur traders came, pelts could be used to purchase goods at the trading posts. Money was not in common use in the North until the 1960s. Until then, wooden – and later, brass or aluminum tokens – were used in trade. James Houston described a typical transaction: “Arctic traders had always practiced direct trade. ‘Give me a skin and I’ll trade you for it.’ That was their method. Using brass tokens, they would lay out what the Company [Hudson's Bay Company] considered the worth of half a dozen white foxes that the hunter had brought in to trade. For example, one white fox fur for one box of cartridges, or four white foxes for enough canvas to make a tent; three white foxes and a skin bag full of walrus tusks for a small rifle” (1995:86).
The Hudson's Bay Company fur traders encouraged Inuit to stay out on the land and hunt and trap, travelling into the posts once or twice a year to trade their furs for goods imported from the South. To increase their own business, traders introduced the animal trap to the Inuit.
The concept of community began to erode with the introduction of the fur trap. Previously, work and profit had been shared among community members, but with the advent of trapping, hunters worked alone for a private income. In the early 1900s, posts were commonplace in most areas of the Arctic, as were guns and traplines. Their widespread use greatly changed northern practices as the trapping way of life was in direct conflict with the old way of hunting, which was done in groups with proceeds being shared.
Eventually, the market for furs declined to such an extent that many trading posts closed. The Fur Trade Department of the Hudson’s Bay Company changed its name to the Northern Stores Department, and shifted its focus to the retailing of goods and services (Mitchell 1996:93). Now called, simply, "Northern," the local posts still buy fur from local trappers, but the previously relatively steady and strong sealskin market has been undermined by the international sealskin lobby. Inuit organizations are working to counter this lobby and to inform world markets that the seal hunt is not for sport, but is, rather, vital to the northern economy.
Even though the economic advantages of hunting, fishing, and trapping are slimmer now, their cultural and practical value remains strong:
“It is somewhat of a luxury to be able to go hunting nowadays,” says Henry Kudluk of Coral Harbour, “because it costs so much more for the supplies, like gas and things, and a lot of people have regular jobs and can’t get away. But everyone still hunts when they can. Shopping in Northern stores is expensive and you can’t get country food (local meat) there. Hunting was and still is … the way we prefer to put food on the table” (oral communication 1996).
1993 Sewing for Survival: Inuit Wall Hangings from the Canadian Arctic. Baltimore: Baltimore Museum of Art
1995 Confessions of an Igloo Dweller. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart Inc.
1998 “Land, Spirituality, and Mythology in Inuit Art,” The 1998 Nunavut Handbook, ed. Marion Soublière. Iqualuit: Nortext Multimedia Inc.
1996 From Talking Chiefs to a Native Corporate Elite: The Birth of Class and Nationalism Among Canadian Inuit. Montreal/Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press
Semeniuk, Robert S.
1982 “Inuit Mecca: Life with the People of Igloolik,” Equinox, vol. 1, no. 6 (November/December)
Brought to you by the Inuit Art Foundation