Looking Back
The Early Years
The Road to Nunavut
What Price Nunavut?
The Next Generation
Inuit and The Land As One
Living with Change
Our Language, Our Selves

Inuit Art: The New Reality
Hunters and High Finance
The Subsistence Economy
A Public Government
The First MLAs
The World Looks North
What's In A Name?

Map of Nunavut

Inuktitut - Nunavut 99

"I remember looking around the room at all the faces of all the people who played some role in it over the years. And I thought of some of the people who weren't present . . . of how many people it had taken for this to be achieved."
—Chief federal negotiator Tom Molloy, on the signing of the
final agreement in Iqaluit, May 1993
Love of family, appreciation of the seasons, respect for another's isuma: such cornerstones of Inuit society have triumphed over recent drastic changes, and will continue to survive uncompromised

By Rachel Attituq Qitsualik

[Respect and family] [Leadership by consensus] [Children] [Drastic change] [Inuit values prevail]

hile the landscapes and wildlife bespeak Nunavut's magnificence, it is the territory's longtime inhabitants — the Inuit — who are the land's manifestation of warmth and humanity. Though an ancient people, Inuit today live in modern homes, surf the Internet, and argue fine legal points over coffee and donuts. Yet lying just under the surface of their industrialized existence thrives a millennial culture and tradition.

Prior to the large-scale movement of Inuit to permanent settlements in the 1950s, Inuit society existed much as it had since time immemorial. A superb example of ingenuity, adaptability, and perseverance in one of the world's most unforgiving environments, Inuit life in the pre-settlement era focused upon a cycle of activities coinciding with the availability of wildlife, and the changing seasons.

Respect and family

The heart of Inuit society was ever the family, a unit based upon mutual respect. If there is a single characteristic that typifies Inuit culture, it is the concept known as isuma. As with so many concepts unique to Inuit, isuma is difficult for non-Inuit to grasp. It refers to the innermost thoughts and feelings a person has — their mindset. A fundamental tenet of Inuit society was the sacred nature of isuma: that another's mind was not to be intruded upon.

Young children were thought not to have fully developed isuma, and were consequently considered exempt from adult responsibilities. Misbehaving children were not scolded or punished — the parents instead distracted or ignored them. This was not casual indifference, but rather the belief that the child was simply not old enough to be taught how to behave.

This dynamic of respect runs throughout Inuit society and lies at its very core. Its influence can be seen in the unwillingness of Inuit to offer opinions as to what others may be thinking, or in the quiet contemplation of Inuit during a meeting or general discussion.

Leadership by consensus

Traditionally, leadership was flexible, and based largely upon consensus. For example, if several families were living in the same camp for a period, the best caribou hunter might be consulted in planning the next caribou hunt. If a berry-picking or fishing expedition was being planned, the woman with the most experience might be consulted. The leadership that did exist tended to be temporary and based upon required skills alone.

Ultimate cultural authority rested with the elders. Not only were elders held in high regard, but they also represented a vast wealth of traditional — and vital — knowledge. Without a written language, Inuit preserved their culture through oral history. Consequently, they excelled at storytelling. Adults and children alike once snuggled together, in the light of the qulliq (seal-oil lamp), to eagerly await stories. Such stories contained important themes and knowledge that served to educate the younger people.

New games and old — Iqaluit's Nicki Eejeesiak at bat  

  and Kugluktuk's June Klengenberg absorbed in a string game

Each family spent much of the year travelling, setting up camps wherever food was available, before moving on when it became scarce. While immediate family formed the basic unit, extended families were very important and would gather together with others when the seasons and availability of food permitted. These were times of great joy and feasting — times for stories, singing, drumming, eating, playing, and chatting.

Tremendous love for children

The parents bore primary responsibility for providing food, clothing, and shelter for the other members. Here, there was true gender equality. While the husband was the primary provider of food staples, such as large animals, the wife played an equally vital role as food preparer, seamstress, care-giver, and maintainer of heat and fire. As well, all family members contributed wherever they could, with older children looking after younger ones.

Inuit love their children. This seems like a truism, but it's reinforced by a great degree of open and very physical affection that is showered upon young children: from mothers carrying their babies in their amautit (baby-carrying parkas), to the "aaaaahs" and cooing that seem to arise every time Inuit with young children meet friends and relatives. Childhood is traditionally a wonderful time for Inuit. Children's young wants and needs are tolerated more than in most southern Canadian children. Everybody wants to cuddle and kunik (kiss) them.

The love of children is also reflected in Inuit customary adoption practices. Inuit families with an abundance of children may allow a family member or close friend to adopt one of their children — perhaps the greatest gift of all. The child is usually raised knowing her birth mother, who often plays an active role in the raising of the child. Such generosity, consideration, and empathy are hallmarks of Inuit culture.

Drastic changes

Today, the complexity of everyday life increases with an unprecedented rapidity. Although one of the elements that has enabled Inuit to survive the rigors of life in the Arctic has been their incredible ability to adapt, the speed and degree of change in our society has taken its toll on the people and culture. The most dramatic and pervasive changes have perhaps occurred as a result of the wage economy. Whereas Inuit in pre-settlement days were always fully "employed" in the day-to-day business of survival, the modern unemployment rate in some communities can now exceed 60 per cent. This problem stems from past errors and cross-cultural difficulties, and it has had a devastating impact on a great number of Inuit families. The acquisition of southern skills has been slow. The strain that this places on Inuit society remains one of the indelible legacies of the imposition of a community lifestyle.

First light on Iqaluit's
main drag

As well, the relationship between youth and elders has undergone considerable change. Inuit youth are today educated in classrooms, watch WWF wrestling and the latest sitcoms, and listen to the Spice Girls and Marilyn Manson. Their grasp of the Inuktitut language has faded, and has limited their ability to communicate with their elders, who are the source of traditional knowledge. It is an unfortunate fact that much of the information needed to thrive in the modern world can be found not through elders, but through texts, CD-ROMs and the Internet. While elders continue to play an important and respected role in Inuit society, that role is now endangered.

Inuit values prevail

Despite the massive changes that have at times threatened to overwhelm Inuit society, Inuit have endured without compromising their basic values. While many things have changed in their society, Inuit continue to relish time spent talking with friends and relatives, exchanging a bit of gossip, or hearing about recent events in town. Sensitivity to the feelings and rights of others remains a fundamental Inuit trait.

The Inuit of Nunavut today revel in an increasingly official recognition of their culture. Customary adoption, for example, has been recognized by the territorial government, and Inuit are learning to identify and guard their rights. On the community level, one may still find children playing through the extended daylight of an arctic summer, long after southern children have been put to bed. Still, one may find a man, woman, or youth chatting pleasantly over tea with some elder they had approached for advice, eyes respectfully lowered, as in tradition. Still, one may see families joyfully laughing together as they pack for a camping trip out on the land, ever to Inuit what the backyard is to southerners. Still, one may watch a husky patiently waiting as his master harnesses him, preparing him and his pack mates for this season's hunting trip.

Even today, Inuit enjoy a special sense of time dictated, as of old, by elemental needs: the love of family, feasts, the pleasures brought with the seasons, and especially Nunavut — the land itself. For these reasons, despite their modernity, their ancestors would recognize in them the spirit and freedom that once they lived.


Rachel Attituq Qitsualik is a freelance writer, her career in Inuit issues spanning approximately 25 years. Raised in a traditional lifestyle in Pond Inlet, she has witnessed the full transition of her culture into modernity.

Editor's note: The word "pijariiqpunga" has no English equivalent. In traditional Inuit culture, each speaker is allowed his or her own isuma. Others won't interrupt until a speaker indicates that they've said all they needed to. There is no time limit: a speaker can sit in silence for quite a while, yet no one will speak until he or she ends with "pijariiqpunga." It means that they're finished, and someone else can have a turn to speak.

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