The Inuit are relatively recent arrivals to the Canadian Arctic. Their ancestors crossed the Bering Land Bridge to North America after the retreat of the Laurentide ice sheet, roughly 5000 years ago. (The multiple groups known as "Amerindians" or "First Nations Peoples" entered North America as much as 40,000 years ago.) The "Eskimoid" groups came later, migrating east across the Arctic coast. These people have been called "Eskimos" from a Cree word meaning "eaters of raw meat". It was this ability that ensured their survival in a harsh land. Those who ate their meat uncooked were able to make many needed vitamins within their bodies, thus avoiding nutritional diseases that affected the early explorers. In Canada, the preferred term is now "Inuit", which means "the people".
Various groups have occupied the Arctic since the coming of the Denbigh or "Arctic Small Tool Tradition" people, but the immediate ancestors of today's Inuit were the Thule people. These were bowhead whale hunters who had to change their lifestyle when the climate cooled significantly in the 1500s (AD), and there was less open water (leads), and thus fewer large whales. Along the Hudson Bay coast, the Thule became the modern Caribou Inuit, hunting smaller sea mammals and migrating inland to hunt caribou in the summer. Several Caribou Inuit groups are the ancestors of the Inuit who live in the Kivalliq communities today.
Ancestors of today's Inuit, the Thule who appeared about 900 AD were hunters of large whales and followed the bowhead whales which expanded their range across the Arctic during a warming period. The Thule reached the Rankin Inlet area by about 1200 AD. In fall and early winter, they lived in semi-subterranean autumn houses (qarmat) made of stones and turf, roofed (in our area) by layers of caribou skin with grass in between. In summer, they used caribou skin tents and in winter, moved to snow houses (igluit) on the sea ice.
By the late 1700s, the Caribou Inuit culture appeared. These people depended less on large whales and more on caribou. People traveled long distances inland in summer, using the kayak (qajaq) to hunt caribou at inland crossing places, and returning to the coast for the runs of Arctic char in the Meliadine and Diane Rivers. They spent the winters on the coast, hunting seals on the sea ice, hunting caribou when they could.
There is an excellent example of an extensive Thule to modern Inuit campsite at Qamaviniqtalik in Iqalugaarjuup Nunanga Territorial Park about 8 km north of Rankin Inlet. Signs and a printed site guide help visitors understand the culture.
Explorers, Traders, and Whalers
As the ability to navigate the open ocean developed, European explorers began entering the North American Arctic. After Henry Hudson sailed into Hudson Bay in 1610, many others followed, seeking a sea passage to the Orient, trade routes, minerals, and whales. By the late 1600s, the Hudson's Bay Company was sending trading ships into Hudson Bay, and establishing trading posts. In 1719, an expedition led by James Knight disappeared along the west coast of the bay. It was fifty years before the fate of Knight's party was discovered - they were shipwrecked on Marble Island (about 16 km east of the mouth of Rankin Inlet, and, despite the efforts of the local Inuit to help, died of scurvy and starvation.
In the late 1800s, commercial whalers had a major impact on Inuit from Baffin Island to Hudson Bay. By 1903, the whale stocks were played out, but the fur trade continued to prosper while the prices of white fox skins were high. Missonaries followed the traders, establishing little mission churches near the posts. The missionaries provided medical services to the people, as well as some education, which included the development of a written system for Inuktitut. Despite the intervention of World War I, the trade era continued with many fluctuations in prices due to fashion trends, especially in Europe. With the growth of the animal rights movement in the 1960s, fur prices decreased to the point that the industry was only barely sustainable. At the same time, the HBC trading posts had morphed into retail stores, and were doing a different kind of business across the North. They exist today as the Northern Store in the communities, a sort of grocery plus department store.
Hudson's Bay Company
Established in 1670, the "Governor and Company of Adventurers of England Trading into Hudson's Bay" were soon making contact with the local people, encouraging mineral exploration and trade in furs and establishing a series of small trading posts around the south end of the bay, including York Factory, Moose Factory and later, Fort Prince of Wales near the modern community of Churchill. After years of struggle with France over trading territories and rights, and a major sea battle on Hudson Bay, the HBC was firmly established in the eastern Arctic, and the local people were learning about foreign cultures, and helping the traders in many ways. For more HBC history, visit the HBC Company website: www.hbc.com/hbcheritage
Although most whaling in Hudson Bay was by American ships, there were also Scottish whaling ships, and some with crews from Portugal and the Azores. Whale hunting in Hudson Bay had a tremendous effect on Inuit. Helping with whale hunting, flensing, rendering the oil, and with hunting to supply food for wintering whaling ships, the Inuit acquired metal and trade goods, guns and ammunition, needles, kettles, and knowledge of new technologies. They learned scrimshaw and ivory carving, which developed into the wonderful stone, bone, antler and ivory carving skills used today. They learned to play the fiddle, concertina, and accordion, learned Scottish round dancing that evolved and is enthusiastically embraced today as "square dancing". But the whalers also introduced diseases for which the Inuit had no immunity, resulting in death and hardship for people throughout the eastern Arctic. Many whalers took Inuit wives, fathering children, and adding to the genetic diversity of the people around Hudson Bay.