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The Caribou Inuit


The Caribou Inuit, one of the many Inuit groups in Canada, historically occupied the western shore of Hudson Bay and the adjacent interior west and north in a northwest angle north of the tree line called the Kivalliq Region.


They were given the name “Caribou Inuit” by members of the Fifth Thule Expedition between 1921 and 1924 due to the group’s economic emphasis and cultural dependence on the caribou. The Fifth Thule Expedition, a Danish expedition conducted from 1921-1924, aimed at discovering the origins of Inuit and Eskimo groups by collecting different kinds of data including ethnographic, biological and archaeological data. It was clear to the members of the Fifth Thule Expedition that caribou was vital to the Inuit, as not only was caribou meat their main food, but parts of the caribou were used for clothing, tents, and tools.


The Caribou Inuit are a group within the larger umbrella of Canadian Inuit. The Caribou Inuit are also made up of several independent groups that share many cultural and technological characteristics. It is the Caribou Inuit who made use of Arvia’juaq. The different groups of Caribou Inuit include the Paallirmiut, Qairnirmiut, Hauniqtuurmiut, Ahiarmiut, and the Kivahiktut.

Presently, the Caribou Inuit live in the hamlets of Arviat (previously Eskimo Point), Kangiqliniq (Rankin Inlet), Qamanittuaq (Baker Lake), and Tikirarjuaq (Whale Cove).


The Caribou Inuit were largely hunters, primarily of Caribou, which they hunted inland at the spring and fall migration. In one method of hunting caribou, they would await the migratory herds at river and lake crossings and kill the caribou from kayaks, using spears. Other methods included using hunting blinds and trap pits. In addition to a diet that was heavily reliant on caribou meat, they used the skin, bones, fat and all other parts of the animal for nearly all their daily needs. Additionally, the Caribou Inuit caught fish by way of weirs, spears, and hook and line, and hunted migratory birds using harpoons, lances, bows and arrows, and snares. Muskoxen were also hunted for meat, as were seals and walrus.

Today, the Caribou Inuit continue to harvest food from the land and sea, including caribou, seal, beluga and fish to supplement the food often purchased at grocery stores in the communities in which they live. The hunting of polar bear is also practiced in the present day, for pelts as a part of an economy of guiding and tourism and also for meat.

Settlement Pattern

The Caribou Inuit were a mobile people whose annual cycle of residence was tuned to the migration of the Caribou and the expectation of when and where foods would be most plentiful. The spring and summer brought the people to the coast of Hudson Bay to harvest marine foods at locations like Arvia’juaq National Historic site. In the autumn, the people would return inland to intercept the annual caribou migration. The caribou spent the winter south of the tree line and migrated north in the spring to calve on the tundra. In the autumn the caribou would migrate back south of the treeline. It was in intercepting the autumn migration that the Caribou Inuit would stock up on caribou meat to see them through the winter.

From 1950-60, in response to declining caribou populations among other pressures, the Caribou Inuit became concentrated in four settlements: Arviat (formerly Eskimo Point), Kangiqliniq (Rankin Inlet), Qamanittuaq (Baker Lake), and Tikirarjuaq (Whale Cove). Today, instead of living life on the land with the occasional visit to a trading post, they live in trading centres and make expeditions onto the land to hunt and fish, though many may spend part of the year hunting or fishing from family camps.


In the winter the Caribou Inuit lived in the domed snow houses that come to mind when one thinks of the term igloo. In the summer they lived in a conical caribou hide tent supported by long tent poles and they transported the tent poles whenever they moved camp. The term igloo applies to a snow house. Iglurjuaq is a wooden house, and a stone house is Ujjarak qarmaq. The Paallirmiut used sea mammal oil in stone lamps for light and for cooking, although wood, driftwood, willow and moss was more commonly used due to availability.

Today the Inuit in Arviat live in western style heated homes with kitchens just like other Canadians.

Baby Caribou. Photo by Billy Ukutak

Baby Caribou


The clothing of the Caribou Inuit was made almost entirely out of Caribou, though seal skin was used as well. The upper portion consisted of a loose fitting pullover parka of caribou hide, which hung to the knee, and the lower portion was made up of pants sewn out of caribou hide. For the parka, two hides were sewn together: one would eventually be on the wearer’s front and the other on the wearer’s back.

Winter dress consisted of two parkas worn on top of each other. The inner layer was worn with the hair facing inwards, touching the skin of the wearer, while the outer layer had the caribou hair facing outwards. The entire suit consisted of the pullover parkas with hood, pants, boots and gloves, all of which were made of fur and double layered. In the summer, the outer layer was removed and only the inner layer was worn.

The women’s clothing had an enlarged hood, shoulders and space at the back in which to carry a baby, which allowed the woman to pull the infant around from back to front for nursing without exposing the child to the cold air.

Today, people wear the same store-bought western clothes as other Canadians, though many parkas are still homemade. Though the homemade parkas are now made out of modern woven material, the women’s parkas are often still made with an enlarged hood for carrying infants. Skin boots for winter are also sometimes still hand made.

Domestic and Political Organisation

Caribou Inuit societies were made up of extended family groups. These extended family groups were known by naming and kinship terms for the family line. Marriages were arranged by the families, and a young person would be betrothed to someone from another family who was not closely related. The division of labour amongst the Caribou Inuit was mostly based on gender. As a rule the men worked with wood, metal and bone, whereas the women had the tasks of preparing skins and sewing. However, this rule would bend to pragmatic considerations.

Hierarchical status differences among the Caribou Inuit were largely based on age and gender. The Caribou Inuit had no chiefs, but there were leaders besides the shamans. Those who were middle aged or elderly carried influence over others. Furthermore, influence and authority was granted not only by way of greater age, but also by competence and demonstrated hunting skill. Shamans did stand as a class apart and they wielded a high level of influence over the lives of others.

The RCMP began to establish control of Caribou Inuit territory early in the twentieth century, though most families were autonomous until the relocation to settlements occurred in the 1950s and 1960s.


The Caribou Inuit practiced a religion that centred on the spirit world and the belief that every animal and thing possessed a spirit. Shamans were the intermediaries with the spirit world. Their duties involved communicating with the spirits and when an accident or famine or other misfortune occurred their duty was to perform a ceremony and ask the spirits for the source of the problem. Often the answer was that a taboo had been broken, often a previously unknown taboo. This new taboo was added to the existing taboos. A taboo is a rule that restricts or prohibits certain kinds of social conduct, and many taboos were in place to control perceived risks.

Most disease was believed to be caused by supernatural forces, and the healing of this kind of disease was in the hands of the shamans. If a member of the group were ill the shaman would enter into a trance to consult with the spirits, and the spirits would dictate to the shaman what rules the patient must follow in order to recover.

In the early 20th century Christian missions were established with the goal of converting the Caribou Inuit. The missions aggressively sought to eradicate the traditional spiritual beliefs as well as the authority of shamans. Today the Inuit are widely Christian, though with a strong undercurrent of traditional belief.


As a rule, in the winter travel was by sled and in the summer travel was by kayak or on foot. In the summer the dogs wore backpacks and aided their owners in carrying all their belongings on foot for long overland journeys, while in the winter the dogs pulled the sleds. These long sleds (qamutiik) were made of wood with horizontal slats and the dogs were harnessed to the sled in a fan shape, with each dog having its own trace that led back to the sled. The specialised travel technology for the summer season was the qajaq (kayak). Qajaqs were made of a wooden frame with skins stretched over them, these skins were sewn carefully and painted with fat and blubber to make them watertight. To move multiple people or many things it was common to lash several kayaks together.

Today many people use ATVs for transportation in the summer, and snowmobiles in the winter. Often, modern means are mixed with more traditional styles, and today in Arviat many people have qamutiiks which they pull behind their modern snowmobiles. For transportation on the water most people today use small open aluminium boats with outboard motors.

Modern transportation in Arviat - Snowmobiles used to pull qamutiiks (traditional style wooden sleds)

Modern transportation in Arviat - Snowmobiles used to pull qamutiiks (traditional style wooden sleds)

Current Situation

On April 1st 1999, due to the Nunavut Act and the Nunavut Land Claims Agreement Act, the new territory of Nunavut was carved out of the eastern portion of the Northwest Territories. Inuit, including the Caribou Inuit, comprise approximately 80% of the population of Nunavut which gives more decision-making power to the Inuit when it comes to electing representatives to office. The Caribou Inuit are full Canadian citizens.

The Government of Nunavut controls education, and English, French and Inuktitut are all official languages of Nunavut. Modern medical health care is provided to all citizens of Nunavut, like in the rest of Canada, but for major hospital care individuals are sent to southern Canada.

The largest employers in Nunavut are governmental services, followed by private businesses owned both by Inuit and non-Inuit. Welfare is common and unemployment in Nunavut was at 14.5% as of April 2016. Income is also gained by making and selling art, clothing, carvings and other crafts, as well as by selling fur, and hunting and selling food from the land and sea.

    Further Reading

  • Birket-Smith, Kaj
    1929   Report on the Fifth Thule Expedition 1921-24 1. Descriptive Part. W.E. Calvert, transl. Volume V. Copenhagen: Gyldeddalske Boghandel, Nordisk Forlag.
  • Burch, Ernest
    1978   Caribou Eskimo Origins: An Old Problem Reconsidered. Arctic Anthropology 15(1):1-35.
  • Fossett, Renee
    2001   In Order to Live Untroubled: Inuit of the Central Arctic, 1550-1940. Winnipeg, Manitoba: University of Manitoba Press.
  • Lee, Richard B., and Richard Daly
    1999   I.I.7 The Caribou Inuit. In The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Hunters and Gatherers. Cambridge University Press.
  • Nunavut Bureau of Statistics
  • Tester, Frank, and Peter Kulchyski
    1994 Tammarniit (Mistakes): Inuit Relocation in the Eastern Arctic, 1939-63. UBC Press