If you’ve ever visited or researched Alaska, you know that many of their indigenous people are Inupiat Indians. The Inupiat people are very loyal to their culture but have also modernized with time. Let’s take a step back to find out how these people got to where they are today and what inspired them along the way.
Although the Inupiat people are now spread out in various regions of the world, it is believed that their origins lie in north-western Alaska. Their culture is very much dictated by the cold climate that surrounded them and they hunted the seals, walrus, whales and caribou that were native to their climate for survival. The Inupiat lived in houses made of driftwood and sod and spoke an early version of the Inuit language known as Inuktitut.
Starting around the 11th century, they began to move East into Arctic Canada. This was probably due to the rich whaling grounds the area had to offer. The Inupiat people were very reliant on whales for subsistence as they were large animals that had a lot of meat and could feed an entire village for days.
However, when temperatures continued to drop during the years ranging from 1300-1500, many of the people to shifted further southward. In the 1800’s, the Inupiat living in the Arctic would come into contact with many explorers. The Europeans brought them iron which enabled them to make tools like harpoons and knives. They also began to learn more about the outside world. Eventually, Europeans and Americans began to open operations in the Arctic area to take advantage of the whaling industry. Many of the Inupiat were hired to work on their boats.
However, by the early 1900’s the whaling industry began to die off. Many Inupiat Indians became subjects or citizens of the Canadian state. But because many had no power over their own lives, a lot of Inupiat people slipped into poverty. Fortunately, after the second world war, Canada started taking an active interest in Inupiat well-being. They created settlements with inexpensive housing where the Inupiat could live. Although this improved the Inupiat’s living situation, the people wanted to further improve their circumstances by creating self government among their people. This was a wish that was brought to fruition when a new territory of Nunavut was established in Canada in 1999.
Inupiat living outside of Canada also had success creating their own settlements, one of which was established in 1984 and located in the Arctic coast in the Northwestern Territories set up under the Committee for Original People’s Entitlement. Even earlier than that, in 1975, the Northern Quebec Inupiat Association established land ownership and other rights in Arctic Quebec. However, these settlements are comprehensive land claims only and are not as broad as the Nunavut claim which include the establishment of a public, territorial government.
Today the Inupiat have seen much success in establishing self government and own much of the Arctic outright. However, the Arctic is still largely undeveloped and job opportunities are limited. Fortunately, they have a young and vibrant population that have inherited a sense of resiliency from their ancestors. This is a spirit that will help them to thrive as time goes on.
And if you’re ever in Barrow, be sure to stop by the Inupiat Heritage Center if you would like to view more of the Inupiat’s history!