Inuit hunter


The Native People of North America

Arctic Culture Area

Introduction | Historical Overview | Defining Features
Reading Assignment | Resources



The Arctic culture area is the aboriginal homeland of the Inuit and Yuit (both previously called "Eskimos.") and Aleut. The area is vast, more than 5,000 miles stretching across the circumpolar region and embraced by the political boundaries of four nations: Russia, the U.S.A., Canada, and Denmark (Greenland). Despite the geographical size, the area supports a population of less than 110,000. Most of the aboriginal people lived (and still live) along the coastline and in the more favorable river valleys.

Two items concerning the Arctic peoples stand out: their cultural homogeneity over such a tremendous geographical area and their considerable range of local adaptations. From Siberia westward to Greenland, the Arctic peoples shared a very similar basic material and social culture, reacting in many of the same fundamental ways to social and ecological pressures. However, because of the myriad of eco-niches found in the Arctic and the demand for extreme technological and demographic flexibility, there existed extensive local variation in Inuit culture.

Winters in the Arctic are long and severe while summers are short and only midly warm and Inuit and Yuit (and to a lesser extent Aleut) life was/is characterized by residence in the Arctic and extreme dependence on marine resources, with two important exceptions. Many Inuit groups had a riverine emphasis, building large permanent settlements near river mouths and wooded valleys of large rivers where they harvested migratory fish. Another exception to the usual pattern was found among the Nunamiut ("people of the land"), and the Caribou Eskimos, both well adapted to inland hunting. The latter people lived across the Barren Grounds in the central Canadian Arctic and subsisted on vast herds of migratory caribou and fish taken from streams and lakes.

The Arctic has low biological activity and a small biomass, and because most of it lies beyond the northern tree limit, there are few trees. The Arctic is the land of permanently frozen subsoil, called permafrost and when the topsoil thaws during the short summer, it turns into muddy mire over the frozen lower layer, through which water cannot drain away, creating vast wetlands and bogs, favorite places for migrating waterfowl. Vegetation communities are sometimes dived into Polar Desert (or High Arctic) and tundra (or Low Arctic). The Polar Desert is permanently frozen and support few plants, mostly lichens. The Low Arctic is a landscape of rolling plains called tundra, and supports a low-growing vegetation (dwarf willow, alder, birch trees, low shrubs, some grasses, lichesn, mosses, and many flowering plants). And in some areas of the Arctic, such as northeastern Canada, there is hardly any soil, the land having been scraped down to bedrock by the Ice Age glaciers.

A number of land animals live in the Arctic including the gregarious caribou, the most important animal for the native peoples. Caribou are fairly large (up to 400 pounds) reindeerlike animals that migrate in big herds ascorss vast tracts of the Arctic and Subarctic, grazing on the short Arctic vegetation, particularly lichens. In other parts of the Arctic there are musk ox, bears (grizzly, black, polar), wolves, wolverines, lynx, foxes, weasels, mink, hares and rabbits, and many rodents. The Arctic Ocean supports a wide variety of marine mammals including nineteen whale species, numerous seal species, walrus, dophins and porpoise. Of these, seals and walrus were probably the most important marine mammals, and the pre-European native peoples subsisted off the bounty of these two species, developing specialized toolkits for sea mammal hunting throughout the Arctic.

In addition, more than one hundred bird species (such as ptarmigan, ducks, geese) nest in the Arctic during the summer, and many were hunted as well as sought out for their eggs. Fish, including salmon, char, trout, pike, smelt, herring, whitefish, halibut, and cod were prevalent and many Arctic peoples make use of them.


Historic Overview

The history of the Arctic is long and complex, especially the western part which was, presumably, the region through which the first migrants into the Americas must have passed on their way to the rest of North and South America.

The Paleo-Indian Period (before about 10,000 years ago). Very little is known about this period. Most of Alaska was ice free during the last Ice Age and connected to Siberia by the now-submerged landbridge (called Beringia). Undoubtedly, many sites of this period were buried by rising sea levels at the end of the Ice Age, perhaps many of them in places where people exploited coastal and marine resources and lived in somewhat permanent base camps. For example, people were living on Prince of Wales Island, Alaska, over 9,000 years ago and eating a diet heavy in seafood, rather than relying on the meat of abundant deer or bear. Unfortunately, such sites are rare--most sites from this time period are temporary land hunting camps with limited cultural remains.

The Archaic Period (from about 10,000 years ago to contact with Europeans-- the Russians in the western Arctic and the Norse and French in the eastern Arctic). Up until about 10,000 years ago, Alaska was still a cultural province of Siberia, occupied by peoples whose ultimate cultural roots lay to the west, in Siberia. After about 10,000 years ago, a greater diversity of hunter-gatherer cultures begain to flourish in Alaska. These cultures are subsumed under the Paleo-Arctic tradition, a shadowy entity composed of a patchwork of local immediate post-Pleistocene cultural traditions that flourished throughout Alaska and as far east as the west and southwest Yukon Territory, and persisted for at least 3,000 years. The tradition is known mainly from stone artifacts, the most distinctive of which are tiny blades (usually less than 2.5 inches long) and the small wedge-shaped cores for making them. Archaeologists assume the blades were used as sharp-edged barbs for hunting weapons, mounted in wood, antler, or bone points with slotted sides.

Exactly who the carriers of the Paleo-Arctic tradition were is open to question. Some anthropologists believe that the late Paleo-Indian period people who remained in the northwestern Arctic after others had journeyed southward or eastward or both developed a generalized early Paleo-Arctic economy, and that these folks were the ancestors of the Na-Dene (speakers of Athapaskan languages). Others suggest that at the very end of the Ice Age, around 12,000 to 14,000 years ago, after several earlier migrations, ancestral Na-Dene speakers moved across the land bridge, pursuing thin-skinned animals like the caribou, using their microblade-barbed hunting weapons. Over time, they spread south and west to Kodiak Island, to the Pacific Northwest Coast, far into the interior (where they became the Athabaskans), and later, some of them split off and moved southward to become the modern-day Navajos and Apaches. At some later time (anywhere from as much as 10,000 years ago to 7,000 years ago), a second migration brought the maritime-oriented ancestors of the Aleuts and Eskimos to Alaska who replaced earlier Paleo-Arctic people in the Arctic culture area and have occupied that territory every since.

The Western Arctic. By about 7,000 years ago sea mammal hunting was established in the western Arctic and by at least 4,000 years ago, early Eskimo people inhabited the previously unoccupied northern portion of the Arctic. Some of these people stayed in the western Arctic, developed into the archaeological culture called Norton, oriented toward both maritime and inland resources. Around 2,700 years ago the Norton culture along the Bering Strait in western Alaska evolved into the Thule, a specialized maritime adapted culture. The Thule may be the ancestors of the Western Eskimo. About 1,700 years later, other Thule people split off from the Western Thule, expanded eastward, replaced an older archaeological culture called the Dorset, and eventually became the Eastern Eskimo or Inuit.

The Eastern Arctic. People had begun moving into the eastern Arctic some 4,000 or more years ago. The first immigrants lived in highly mobile bands composed of a few people (certainly less than a dozen), and hunted musk ox and other animals. Then after several thousands of years, the region was abandoned due to increasingly cold climate conditions. The region was reoccupied around 2,500 years ago by the so-called Dorset people, who lived in large villages, hunted seal with harpoons, and created some of the most spectacular art in the Arctic. Then around 1,000 years ago, the Dorset people "disappeared," perhaps due to a warming of the climate which decreased seal populations. They were replaced by an expansion of Thule (Eskimo) from the western Arctic. Apparently the Thule were better adapted to the Arctic than the Dorset--they hunted a broader range of animals, perhaps had a more flexible sociopolitical organization, and had a generally more technologically efficient culture which included dogsleds, bows and arrows, and boats.

The Contact Period.

Sometime shortly after 1,000 years ago, the Inuit of the eastern Arctic were the first Native Americans to come into contact with Europeans, encountering the Norse who were moving west from Iceland to Greenland. Contacts were probably sporadic and of brief duration, although we have no way of substantiating this. The Norse sagas mention the native people of Greenland but say next to nothing about them.

The first sustained contact between the eastern Arctic peoples and Europeans occurred in 1576 when some Inuit were captured and taken to Europe as curiosities. Martin Frobisher, an Englishman backed by private investors in London set sail for the North American Arctic in search of the elusive Northwest Passage, a water passage that would allow ships to sail directly through the continent from the Atlantic to the Pacific oceans. In June Frobisher found his way into the great bay on the southern part of Baffin Island, where he was greeted by Inuit in their summer camp on Niountelik Island. They swarmed out to his ship in their kayaks, welcoming the Englishmen and offering to trade fish and sealksin clothing for European goods. The next month Frobisher erected a cairn on a hill to assert England's possession of the area and opened trade with a group of Inukt who appeared. When the trading was finished, Frobisher decided to acquire interpreters for his expedition and, after a brief skirmish, captured one Inuit.

In the western Arctic, contact with Europeans began in 1732 when a Russian naval expedition landed in Alaska. Nine years later, a second Russian naval expedition, under Vitus Bering, sailed to Alaska and claimed it for Russia. Over the next three decades the Russians repeatedly visited the Aleutian Islands, the coasts of southeastern Alaska, and eventually reaching northern California. Unlike the other Europeans powers, the Russians were not seeking land to settle, but the sleek furs of sea otters and seals. For nearly three decades they invaded Aleut villages, seizing and abusing the women and children, and holding them hostage for months while their husbands, fathers, and brothers were forced to hunt until they had enough pelts to ransom their families. And when the sea mammals had been depleated in one area, the Russians would move on to a new area. And everywhere, the native people fought back: first the Aleuts, then the Alaskan coastal Eskimo, then the Tlingit and other peoples of coastal Canada. And over the years, thousands of native people lost their lives--14,000 Aleuts between 1750s and 1850s attempting to rid their homeland of the invaders.

In the 1840s, American whalers began visiting the Arctic and intensively hunted whales. By about 1900 whale populations were so depleated that the Eskimo were having trouble finding any. Furthermore, the whaling ships often stopped at coastal native villages, where the sailors infected the natives with venereal and other communicable diseases. They also distributed rum and made rifles available, which had a profound effect on the Eskimo, both by increassing their reliance on whites for new guns (the Eskimo lacked the technology to repair guns) and ammunition and by depleting game populations.


Defining Features


Assigned Readings From the Texts


Web Resources on the Arctic North

Aboriginal Multi-Media Society of Alberta

Alaska Office of History and Archaeology - Alaska Dept of Natural Resources

Archaeology in Arctic North America

Arctic Circle

Arctic Studies Center - Smithsonian Institution

Canadian First Nations - Native and Inuit InterNet Resources

Canadian Museum of Civilization

CHIN Canadian Heritage Information Network

Canadian Native Art

CreeNet Crees of James Bay

Dene Cultural Institute

Dig Afognak Home Page

Elisha Kent Kane Historical Society

Evenki Society

First Nations: Inuit, Arctic Peoples


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Native Peoples of North America
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Cultures Areas
Arctic | Subarctic | Northwest Coast

Plateau | California | Great Basin
Southwest | Plains
Northeast Woodlands | Southeast Woodlands

Updated: 09 Mar 2000