Inuit Origins: Thule to Inuit transition

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    Interviewing elders at Avvajja, another site included in the Limited Choices, Lasting Traditions project that is located just west of Igloolik. Many of the elders remember living at this site as young children before their families settled in Igloolik. © S. Rufolo, Canadian Museum of Nature

    Exploring the Inuit past in the Foxe Basin

    From the biased perspectives of many people living in warm climes, much of the Arctic environment may appear — at a distance — extreme and even resource-scarce. Those Southerners fortunate enough to experience the North firsthand, however, understand that the land-, sea- and icescapes of Canada’s Arctic are not only breathtakingly beautiful, but ecologically rich and dynamic. Visitors are also often deeply affected by the gracious and welcoming people of Inuit Nunangat who maintain a wealth of traditions rooted in the productive Arctic environment. As archaeologists who hail from points south of the Arctic Circle, it is these powerful and lasting cultural traditions that generally fascinate us most. Many archaeologists are introduced to Inuit culture through artifacts made of bone, antler or ivory seen in museum exhibits and university classrooms; a single summer spent in the Arctic working closely with Inuit is often enough to instill the desire to return year after year. 

    For one of us (Sean, a postdoctoral researcher with the Arctic Centre of the University of Groningen in the Netherlands), that desire led to a university-based career as a specialist in Arctic archaeology; for the other (Scott), it led to a museum position as the collections manager for part of the archaeological holdings of the Government of Nunavut, currently stored at the Canadian Museum of Nature in Ottawa. Together, we are involved in an ongoing project that explores the development of contemporary Inuit identity and traditions by examining the archaeological and historical evidence recording the transition from Thule Inuit to modern Inuit cultural practices (from around AD 1300 to present). 

    Launched in 2019 under Sean’s direction and with funding from the Dutch Research Council, the project — Limited Choices, Lasting Traditions: How Colonialism and Climate Change Have Affected Traditional Inuit Life — integrates archaeo logical investigation of ancient hunting camps; a planned series of community exhibits, workshops, and educational kits that will highlight results to audiences in Nunavut; as well as ethically-collected Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit (IQ) (Inuktitut for “things long known to Inuit”, or Inuit traditional knowledge) about recent-historic household life and hunting practices in the northern Foxe Basin region of Nunavut, near Igloolik. Ethical considerations of this work are of paramount importance. We understand the contentious history of archaeological research in Inuit Nunangat, and we are committed to improving the relationship between researchers and Inuit rights-holders of their cultural heritage. Most importantly, we understand the nature and implications of our positions as settlers, and the importance of building meaningful research partnerships through co-creation of research projects in the North as the work moves forward. 

    Archaeology in the Arctic — and in Foxe Basin, in particular — holds tremendous potential for two reasons. First, the cold, dry climate preserves artifacts and other evidence of human activity very well. Second, modern Inuit continue to practice many of the same hunting traditions as their descendants in years past; there is also a rich body of IQ about these practices extending back into the deep past. Such a combination of conditions exists in few other parts of the world. Surveying the archaeological record for evidence of such cultural practices over time, as well as interviewing elders for their perspectives on hunting and house construction, greatly expands our understanding of past cultural development. Inuit of Igloolik (Iglulingmiut) are only about 60 years removed from a seasonally mobile lifestyle, and many elders are able to share the ways in which traditional houses were once built and how animals were hunted prior to settlement in Nunavut’s modern communities. 

    Additionally, the highly-productive ecology of certain areas in the Arctic, characterized by a concentration of resources long valuable to human subsistence, further enhances the extent of our reach into the past. With annual patterns of sea ice development that support large numbers of various marine mammals, particularly walruses, the coastlines of Foxe Basin have been attractive places to settle seasonally and hunt productively for people for thousands of years. The Limited Choices, Lasting Traditions project focuses on the last 800 years or so of that record. At the beginning of this period, people of the Thule culture moved into the Foxe Basin from the west, occupying territory previously populated by other groups (the Tuniit of Inuit oral history). As the direct ancestors of today’s Inuit populations, the Thule Inuit represent one point on a cultural continuum that leads from Thule through historic pre-contact Inuit society into modern Inuit culture. This transition entailed significant shifts in many cultural practices following inter action with Europeans, which in the Foxe Basin occurred relatively late. The first non-Inuit arrived in the region in 1822, with sustained contact involving the Canadian government, the Hudson’s Bay Company, and Christian missionaries only beginning in the early 20th century. 

    During the summer of 2019, fieldwork was conducted at the ancient campsite Uglit, around 47 kilometres south of Igloolik. The site is a complex of semisubterranean whale-bone houses (“sod houses”), tent rings and caches that may have been constructed from the later Thule Inuit period into the 19th century. House remains were documented and mapped, and several middens (piles of animal bones representing kitchen waste) were investigated further. (No sod houses were disturbed during our work.) The resulting data will help us address two important aspects of traditional life in the Foxe Basin: annual residential patterns, and the nature of the local diet from ancient times to present. 

    Understanding the emergence of modern Inuit cultural identity requires exploring how certain culturally defining traditions and practices established during the Thule phase of Inuit society were affected by external forces over the last 500 years, particularly shifts in climate and interaction with Europeans and Euro-Canadian institutions, such as the RCMP, the Hudson’s Bay Company and the Roman Catholic and Anglican Churches. In the Foxe Basin, traditional sod house architecture was abandoned as a more sedentary life style was imposed upon communities. Despite this decrease in residential mobility and disruption of long-standing annual patterns of movements across the landscape, as well as a changing climate that reduced the availability of many important animal species, hunting practices and dietary patterns remained largely unchanged until very recent times. Even so, hunting remains an important and significant component of modern Iglulingmiut culture. 

    With fieldwork currently suspended due to the Covid-19 pandemic, it will be another three to four years before the Limited Choices, Lasting Traditions project is complete. The results will not only add additional detail to the archaeological culture history of the Arctic, but also hopefully deepen appreciation in the South of the dynamic and resilient social evolution underlying contemporary Inuit culture. We are using the time made available through the interruption caused by the pandemic to move ahead with plans to present our research to the public in collaboration with our Inuit partners. Artifacts from Uglit are now on display at the Canadian Museum of Nature, and a permanent exhibit in Igloolik is in development. These will be followed by educational kits designed for use in schools, libraries, and cultural centres in Nunavut. We hope these efforts will instill in others a fascination for the cultures of the North that inspired us years ago.