Recording Inuit Names

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    A band of Inuit raise their hands as if to say, ‘we are here’. Circa 1884, glass plate photography. Band of Inuit at Stupart Bay by Robert Bell of First Canadian Hudson Bay Expedition 1884-1885: Nunavut Archives, N-1993-006

    Genealogy of Nunavut

    Genealogy, also known as family history, is the study of families and tracing their history. Genealogy research requires the careful study of textual, visual, and audio records. In Nunavut, these include records from census, military, regional immigration, land use reports, re-settlement programs, government projects, missionary and church, trading company, ethnographic literature, and explorer literature.

    The Family Relations and Genealogy Strategy 2010-2014, developed by the Government of Nunavut’s Department of Culture and Heritage, initiated a series of Family Relations and Genealogy workshops across Nunavut from 2010 to 2012. From these workshops, Elders identified family genealogy as one of the project’s chief strategic action items for Nunavut to undertake.

    Undertaking genealogical research in Nunavut is not without obstacles. Genealogists studying southern Canadians often study historical immigration records from foreign regions including Europe, the Middle East and Asia to determine family roots. Nunavut’s family history is distinct from Southern Canada because it predominately consists of regional migration within the Arctic, and, up until the recent past, people did not keep detailed or consistent records of individuals.

    Genealogy in Nunavut can be completed by studying records that detail regional migration, including the federal re-settlement phase of the 1950s and 1960s. Before 50 years ago, births, marriages, deaths and adoptions were not recorded consistently for Inuit by governmental and church institutions, or by the trading companies. Another difference between genealogical research on southern Canadians and Inuit is that Inuit traditionally did not have surnames, and so it is common to find only one name to represent a person in archival records.

    Genealogy starts with the individual conducting the research and then works backwards. First, research begins with a historical survey of names, or atiit in Inuktut. Genealogy uncovers the way names used today were not used in the past. Changes in surnames and given names range from spelling variances to completely different names. For example, if an individual was adopted, they would have a different name than their biological family.

    In Nunavut, Inuit names have undergone significant changes over a short span of time. In addition, the complexity of the Inuit concept of the lifecycle, inuusiq, has a central focus on the name, atiit. These names are not gender specific and newborns are often named after recently deceased family members; this custom gives vitality to the soul of the deceased who becomes the child’s namesake. Namesakes can be attributed to more than one child, linking the children with the same namesake and forming a strong bond between them, through a special designation called atiqatigiik.

    Beginning in the 1930s, federal policies affected Inuit names. The Government established a platform for providing health and social services, including income support, that required names to be registered. Due to the difficulties in maintaining a consistent administrative system for Inuit, who at the time did not customarily have surnames, identification by the use of disc numbers was introduced in 1935. The first phase of the disc numbers was implemented before the first Northwest Territories census carried out in 1941 where identification numbers were used in conjunction with first names.

    By the early 1960s, the identification of Inuit shifted from disc numbers to formalized surnames. In 1963, the Northern Service Officer Keith Crowe (1927-2010) produced the prototype Project Surname for Pangnirtung. He established a local committee to verify spellings. Crowe was fluent in the Inuktut language and subsequently reported to the Department of Northern Affairs and Natural Resources his concerns on how formalized last names might affect the naming culture of deceased souls given to newborns.

    However, due to criticism of the disc system, the Canadian government and the Northwest Territories Council initiated a program in 1970 to replace disc names with surnames known as Project Surname. It was argued that identifying the Inuit by last names rather than a series of numbers was more humane. Other parts of the Arctic such as Greenland and the Soviet Union began similar renaming projects. Northwest Territories councilor Abraham “Abe” Okpik, an Inuit leader, was hired to carry it out.

    Part of Okpik’s mission was to travel the North and explain the new system to locals, answering their questions and reassuring them that their surnames were to be their choice. Most Inuit chose to be registered under their ancestors’ names. From this project, genealogy of family members can be ascertained by an individual’s last name corroborated with historical records in which Inuit first names are found.

    Koonoo (b. 1892) interviewed by Father Guy Mary-Rousselière (a.k.a. Ataata Maari) for Pond Inlet and region genealogy. ca. 1970. Pond Inlet Archives

    Genealogy looks at various places to determine family histories. Research in family’s locations include where people lived, worked, were born, married, died, came from, and went. The information on places is important because historical records of those places may provide information about your family. In Nunavut, it is especially important to note that place names in records can have variant spellings, pronunciations and alternate between English and Inuktut names for the same location.

    In your own genealogical research, you will need to rely on gazetteers, maps and atlases which illustrate the places you research. Inuit Heritage Trust is an excellent source for Inuit place names maps. Additionally, ethnologists such as Franz Boas and Knud Rasmussen included gazetteers that provide rich descriptions of locations and what they were traditionally used for around the North. Of special interest, Boas and Rasmussen had Inuit informants who were able to produce hand drawn maps from memory with remarkable accuracy.

    Genealogical research must also include dates such as birth and marriage records that can be inaccurate. When Inuit moved into settlements, local and federal public authorities wanted to log specific dates of birth for health records, social assistance applications and other administration purposes. Only the most basic personal information was collected from Inuit before 1940.

    As an example of record keeping prior to 1940, take Igloolik’s Zipporah Innuksuk, who lived from 1923 to 2008. The year of her birth was determined by her family answering the following question: at the time of Zipporah’s birth, how many full year cycles had lapsed since the time she was born to when the famed Greenlandic explorer Knud Rasmussen came to Igloolik in 1921? For Zipporah, two years were added to 1921.

    Although names, places, and dates are a primary starting point, learning about historical events assist you in shaping your family tree. In this view, becoming familiar with local historical events is useful in your research. The early foreign explorers to Nunavut all created detailed reports of their search of the Northwest Passage and whaling grounds. Their journals included references to Inuit with whom they had made contact and who helped them survive.

    Aivillik woman Niviatsinaq, also known as Shoofly, in traditional regalia. A.P. Low Expedition, 1903-1904: Library and Archives Canada PA-053548

    The Greenland-based Knud Rasmussen’s Fifth Thule Expedition of 1921 to 1924 documented the largest ethno-cultural record of the Eastern Arctic up to that time period. His 10 volume journals were an account of ethnographic and archaeological data representing communities from Canada’s Eastern Arctic to Alaska, all by dog-team. Useful to genealogists are the names of families and individuals which Rasmussen recorded from across the North.

    Various missionary, explorer, whaler, and trader literature contain information about Inuit as well. The Igloolik and Pond Inlet archives both house extraordinary missionary literature that have detailed pedigree charts useful for genealogy.

    The whaler Captain George Comer sailed Cumberland Sound between 1875 and 1895; and, Hudson Bay from 1895 to 1912. He hired Kivalliq Inuit as whaling hands as well as tailors for caribou skin clothing and he recorded their names in the process.

    At Southampton Island, Comer came to know Niviatsinaq, a woman also known as Shoofly, as beaded on her famous amauti housed at the American Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC. Niviatsinaq had a son named Oudlanak who later was given the name John Ell. The son John Ell travelled with Captain Comer. Local folk lore attributes the name ‘John Ell’ to the American boxer of the day, John L. Sullivan.

    Between 1910 and 1926, the Hudson Bay Company opened posts all across the North. These posts produced ledgers that recorded the sales of fur and the purchase of goods between Inuit and traders. These records provide names of Inuit by location and identify family relationships among the Inuit who visited the posts and who were employed.

    Additional sources of records come from the RCMP. From 1924 to 1968, the RCMP conducted patrols to monitor the general status of Inuit in traditional camps, and later the outpost camps attached to permanent settlements. These reports contain general information of names and families across the North.

    Despite the Arctic’s short history of written records, oral histories have emerged as reputable and helpful sources for information. The Department of Culture and Heritage has undertaken many projects and initiatives that aim to make archives, along with oral histories, accessible to the public so that Nunavummiut can research their own rich family histories, narratives that make up the diverse and interesting story of Nunavut.

    Condensed from the Government of Nunavut, Department of Culture and Heritage.