University of Connecticut Supplements for Secondary Education in
Aquatic Science: Arctic Continental Shelf Ecosystem

Research Articles: Unit 1 - The Inuit of the Arctic




















Unit 1: The Inuit of the Arctic

Section 1: Who are the Inuit?

Section 2: History of Inuit Territories 

Section 3: Inuit Use and Impact on Arctic Resources 

Section 4: Inuit Health

The rates of personal and family dysfunction far exceed those of their non-aboriginal neighbors.  Teenage Inuit girls are four times as likely as their white counterparts to become pregnant.  Aboriginal infants are three to four times less likely to reach adulthood.  Rates of reported sexual assaults among northern aboriginal people are about five times the national average.” (

Section 1: Who are the Inuit?

According to Inuktitut, the language of the Inuit, Inuit means “the real people.”   Inhabiting small enclaves in the coastal areas of Greenland, Arctic North America (including Canada and Alaska), and northeastern Siberia, the Inuit are the most sparsely distributed people on Earth, and therefore contribute to the broadest geographical range of any other aboriginal people.  Only ten percent of the Inuit live inland.  In more general terms, Inuit can be defined as a group of culturally similar indigenous peoples of the Arctic. 



Geographically, the Inuit can be separated into several divisions (left). The Canadian Inuit include the Labrador, Central, Banks Island Inuit, and the Western Arctic Inuit (Inuvialuit).  Most of the Canadian Inuit live in the newly formed Nunavut Territory. 



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Due to the cold and harsh Arctic climate, the Inuit have had to adapt.  It is believed that the Inuit contain metabolic and circulatory adaptations in order to survive.  Another advantage is the fact that the average height of the Inuit is 163 cm (or 5 feet, 4 inches), with a variance of 5 cm.  In the summer, homes are made out of walrus or seal skin tents, while the huts for winter are constructed out of stone, with a driftwood or whalebone frame and covered with moss or sod.  These designs are intended to keep the natives comfortable regardless of the outside weather.  The well-known igloos are only built during long journeys. 

The social life of the Inuit is centered on the family, which is considered the most significant social unit.  The idea of family consists of the nuclear family, nearby relatives, and relations by marriage.  Although polygamy and polyandry have been observed, most marriages are monogamous and are usually open to individual choice.  Marriage is based on strict division of labor.  Husband and wife retain their own tools, household goods, and personal possessions.  The Inuit males are in charge of building houses, hunting, and fishing, while the females cook, dress animal skins, and make clothing.  The obligation to help ones kin is the underlying social law of Inuit communities.  Furthermore, game and fish are considered community possessions even though certain families come to be associated with particular hunting or fishing sites and trapping sites belong to individuals.  

According to the religion of the Inuit, all people, animals, things, and forces of nature have spirits.  When the spirits die, they live in a different world.  The aboriginals follow rules to please the spirits.  For example, the Inuit keep the bladder of the animals that they kill, and then they return it to the sea.  In the community, there are Angekoks, who are individuals who are believed to be able to communicate with the spirits.  Shamans are able to control the spirits and are consulted to heal illnesses and resolve serious problems.  Spirits can be controlled by magical charms and talismans.  Unlike most religions, no emphasis is given on the after-life.   

Section 2: History of Inuit Territories

In Canada, there are four distinct regions that the Inuit occupy:

  1. Nunavik: This territory has a population of 8,000.  Nunavik was established on November 11, 1975 by way of the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement.  This was the final agreement between the Inuit of Nunavik, the provincial and federal governments, the Grand Council of the Cree, and several corporate entities.  The treaty allows the Inuit to have special rights to land ownership and use, harvesting rights, and environmental protection.  Regional public institutions such as government, schools, and hospital boards were created.  Nunavik is located in the northern Quebec region.
  2. Inuvialuit:  Five thousand Inuit live in this territorial boundary.  On June 5, 1984, The Final Agreement was signed, creating Inuvialuit in the western Arctic coast of Canada.
  3. Labrador:  This territory has an Inuit population of 4,500.  The economic mainstay includes the harvesting of land and sea resources.  The Labrador Agreement in Principle was ratified in 1999, allowing the Labrador Inuit to own and govern 15,800 sq km (6% of Labrador) as well as to receive 3% of the mining tax.  On May 26, 2004, the Labrador Final Agreement was ratified by 76.4% of eligible voters.  This agreement was filed in 1977 and took 27 years to negotiate.  Unfortunately, these Inuit have high rates of alcoholism and suicide, as well as prevalent racism for non-aboriginals. 
  4. Nunavut:  Nunavut is home to 23,000 Inuit and is the newest formed territory.  This area contains 85% of Canada’s Inuit population, and 85% of its population is indigenous.  56% of the population is under 25 years of age and therefore forms the youngest population in Canada.  Regions in Nunavut include Baffin (eastern), Kivalliq (central), and Kitikmeot (western).  Twenty-six communities of around 1,000 citizens make up this huge area.  Nunavut takes up one-fifth of Canada’s landmass and 60% of the former Northwest Territories, including most of the Arctic islands. 






Text Box: Inuit Territory

Text Box: Inuit Population
Created on April 1, 1999, the Nunavut Territory treaty provided Inuit with a form of self-government.  The Inuit now own 1,994,000 sq km of land.  The Canadian federal government is giving Nunavut $1.148 billion over 14 years.  The Inuit gain shares of resource royalties and hunting rights, as well as being able to manage the land and protect the environment.  However, they gave up future claims to aboriginal rights and titles to Nunavut’s remaining lands and water.  Through this agreement, Nunavut citizens will be in charge of education, health, social services, language, culture, housing, and justice.  Furthermore, a 19-member legislative assembly was formed, which included a cabinet and single-level territorial court.  This agreement followed a May 27, 1993 accord, which was called The Nunavut Land Claims Agreement.  This set aside 352,40 sq km of land in the Northwest Territories for the Inuit and declared clear rules of ownership, as well as rights and obligations towards the land, water, and resources of Nunavut.  Inuit have the right to 10% of the subsurface minerals in this subset.

Section 3: Inuit Use and Impact on Arctic Resources

The Canadian Arctic has an abundance of natural resources which are available for Inuit use.  The Inuit diet is based mainly on marine mammals, including seals and whales.  They also eat a lot of fish.  Seal is the staple winter food and the most valuable resource.  It is used for dog food, clothing, material for making boats, tents, harpoon lines, and fuel for light and heat.  In the summer, the Inuit hunt the caribou in the interior of Alaska and Canada.  Animals are also used for making houses and kayaks, the main mode of transportation in north Canada. 

In the Hudson Bay area, resource harvesting activity hits its peak in the spring, prior to the break up of the sea ice.  Ringed seals and migrating geese are hunted on the sea ice, while the walrus are killed in the open water, near the edge of land-fast-ice.  Sea ducks, as well as the white whale, are seen when the sea ice begins to break up.  Arctic char are killed through holes in the ice.  Eggs of geese, gulls, and colonial seabirds are also gathered by the Inuit.

During the summer, the widest range of hunting and fishing activities are observed.  Some families end up moving inland to hunt the caribou and wildfowl, as well as fish at lakes.  Some marine mammals that are sought after include the narwhal, walrus, harp seal, ringed seal, and bearded seal.  The late summer sees the hunting of the caribou and walrus, which used to be used as dog food.  Arctic hare, ptarmigan, non-migratory eider duck, and polar bear (only in certain places) are hunted in the fall.  In the winter, white and colored foxes, polar bears, and ringed seals are hunted.  Overall, marine mammals provide the bulk of the harvest of the Inuit, while in some places, caribou, waterfowl, and fish do as well.

Even though there is an abundance of wildlife in the Arctic, animals are being threatened.  The clearing of land for farms and towns, lumbering, building dams, and draining wetlands have all affected the habitats of animals which the Inuit lives depend on. 

Climate change has also affected the Inuit environment.  For example, rising temperatures have caused changes in lifestyles that are focused on hunting for seals, whales, walruses, and polar bears.  Results include thawing permafrost, heavier snowfalls, and longer ice-free seasons.  (This topic will be discussed more in depth in Unit 3.) 

Section 4: Inuit Health     

There are major problems in the Canadian Arctic, however, and these include serious health issues.  Statistics state that in Nunavut, teenage Inuit girls are four times more likely to get pregnant than their white counterparts.  Aboriginal infants are three to four times less likely to reach adulthood as well.  The suicide rate is six times that of the Canadian national average.  This high rate may be due to the bad economic conditions that are seen throughout the Canadian north.  For example, in the Northwest Territories, Inuit, who make up half the population, account for three-fourths of the unemployed.  In Nunavut, if one is unemployed, there is a 99% change that you are Inuit.  Furthermore, the high-school graduation rate is the lowest in the entire country. 

Regarding diseases, sixty percent of cancer deaths in the Inuit are caused by lung cancer.  There is an existence of stomach and bowel cancer.  On the other hand, breast cancer is not a huge concern.  The overall incidence of any cancer in a male Inuit is below the Canadian average.  On average, the overall incidence of female Inuit cancer is above the Canadian average.  Cancers attributing to this include the lung, cervix, kidney, as well as leukemia. 

The rate of diabetes in aboriginal people is three to five times higher than the general Canadian population.  Children are being diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes.  In order to help deal with this problem of diabetes, $115 million has been provided to the Inuit.  This rise of diabetes may be related to the fact that store-bought food is making its way into the Inuit diet which used to be completely comprised of traditional foods.  This food may make up twenty to forty percent of the average family diet.  This change in diet is also believed to aid in the increase of obesity, heart disease, dental problems, anemia, and infections.  

Extensive research has been done in this area of Inuit health.  In regard to Inuit suicide, Tester and McNicoll (2004) believe that suicide is the most prevalent health issue in Nunavut, Canada’s newest territory.  Most at risk include males ages 15 to 29.  They believe that in order to assess the problem of suicide, one most look at the colonial relations of ruling (i.e. institutions, social relations, communication styles, content of communication) and the autonomy given to the Inuit youth.  Both of these influences sharply contrast with the traditional knowledge and practices of the Inuit.  Therefore, suicide reflects their inability to adapt to changing circumstances.  Parenting problems that began in the period of colonial ruling are being passed down from generation to generation, causing a rise of Inuit youth suicide in the 1970’s, 1980’s, and 1990’s.  Furthermore, “Low Inuit inuusittiaqarniq (self-esteem) is an important factor in Inuit suicide, but rather than a psychological problem, has its roots in a history of colonialism, paternalism and historical events” (Tester et al., 2004).   

The so called “Organic/quasi-organic model” refers to the genetic or biological approach of attempting to explain suicide.  Tester and McNicoll (2004) believe that this method leaves unanswered questions regarding the circumstances that lead to suicide, such as the neurosis or psychosis.  Most likely these states of mind have there origins in social circumstances, but several authors do not consider this viewpoint.  Moreover, this model, they believe, does not put enough emphasis on the historical circumstances.  “The dynamic of historical experience, played out in the mind and in practice, remains unexplored” (Tester et al., 2004). 

The second model is that of social change-social disorganization, which deals with demographic research and anthropological and social explorations.  Reasons for suicide that fall into this category include World War II, rapid cultural and social change, economic changes, including industrialization and changing lifestyles, and the abuse of the Inuit by individuals working for the State.  Tester and McNicoll’s (2004) opinion is that most authors present a passive and benevolent process where the dominant culture leads to a variety of changes in the non-dominant culture.  Also, it is portrayed that these changes are unavoidable and therefore just unfortunate. 

The last model is the socio-psychological model, which relates to the psychological approach and has been studied the most in the past decade in regards to the rising rate of suicide.  According to Tester and McNicoll (2004), risk assessment is focused on the circumstances that surround the individual, as well as the individual’s emotional state.  After World War II, it became common for Inuit to harbor suicidal thoughts if one had a relation of power, fear of rejection, and shyness when it came to expressing one’s opinions at the expense of others.  Furthermore, the forcing upon them of the new modern culture, such as participating in the latest forms of social organization, demand that the Inuit have personalities and behaviors that are not natural to them and that go against their traditional knowledge. 


Graph 1: Suicide rate and number of suicides by year from 1982 to 1996 among the Inuit in Nunavik, northern Quebec. Linear (rate) refers to the simple linear regression line showing trend in suicide


In “Completed suicides among the Inuit of northern Quebec, 1982-1996: a case-control study,” Boothroyd et al. (2001) studied the characteristics of Inuit people who killed themselves in Nunavik from the years 1982 to 1996.  (See Graph 1)  Out of 71 suicides, 83.1% were males.  Out of these males, 70.4% were ages 15 to 24 and 82.8% were single.  Overall, the male to female ratio was 5:1.  The main modes of death were by hanging, gun shot, carbon monoxide poisoning, and drowning.  According to the study, the case subjects were 3.5 times more likely than the controls to have a psychiatric history, as well as a 4.3 more likely chance of having a psychiatric diagnosis.  Also, the case subjects were 5.5 times more likely to have been in contact with health care services in the year before their death, and seemed to have experienced more severe medical illnesses and injuries.  Overall, factors that brought about suicide include recent precipitants, such as relationship breakdown, history of emotional distress/depression, alcohol or drug abuse, including intoxication at time of death, previous help-searching for mental/social problems, and criminal behavior.  The largest increase was of that in males ages 15 to 24.  Due to the fact that suicide rates rose during this period, they suggest that suicide rates will continue to climb.  Their results also indicate that medical personnel in these communities are in a position to be able to detect people with a high risk for suicide. 

Another health issue in the Arctic is Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).  SAD is usually correlated with increasing winter darkness and latitude.  Haggarty et al. (2002) studied this by randomly selecting 111 people from households in an Inuit community above 70°N and surveyed them for depression.  (See Table 1) Their goal was to determine the rate of seasonal-pattern depression in an Inuit community.  Results showed that one in five (22.6%) of the community sample was depressed.  Out of these, seven (6.3%) had SAD. Six of the seven (5.4%) had the fall onset form of the disease.  One (0.9%) individual had spring onset of SAD.  11.7% of the studied population has subsyndromal SAD (SSAD), while seasonality (any effect of the seasons) occurred in 39.6%.  Older people generally displayed symptoms of SSAD or seasonality, and women were usually more affected than males. Based upon other research, Haggarty et al. (2002) believe that the rates of seasonal mood changes in this Inuit group are higher than other studies show. 

Table 1: Demographics and clinical patterns of seasonal effects

Another study of the Inuit health included the risks of adverse pregnancy in Inuit women in Quebec from 1985 to 1997 by Luo et al. (2004).  Results show that the Inuit have a lower multiple birth rate (1.7%) than French, English, and other language women.  Inuit mothers were usually younger than non-aboriginal mothers, single, and not as educated.  Inuit women had shorter gestation periods than the Indians, French, English, and other groups.  Their preterm birth rate was 60% higher than that of the other groups.  Overall stillbirth and infant mortality rates were also extremely high in the Inuit.  Inuit stillbirth rate was six fold higher than that of the French.  Neonatal and post neonatal mortalities were higher in the Inuit than the other groups.  Inuit infants had a higher risk of death due to immaturity-related conditions (6.3/1000), SIDS (6.0/1000), and infections (2.8/1000).

In other research, Suk et al. (2004) recommend that communities set up programs to help the Inuit deal with the problem of contamination in children and adults.  These programs will incorporate community-based participatory research.  They state that it is imperative that there be a central data center which collects, analyzes, and distributes information for the project.  The Inuit must decide who will be in charge of this research.  “Launching a culturally appropriate orientation program in each community that is overseen by community members to help outsiders appreciate cultural ways and differences (i.e., history, tradition, language) could also be an activity for consideration, and one that would introduce an important educational element” (Suk et al., 2004).  Health care needs which the program may address include prenatal, maternal and child health services, primary care, dental are, sanitation services, and environmental assessment and monitoring.  They may also determine pathways for persistent organic pollutants, heavy metals, and radionuclide.  Improvement of public health including smoking cessation, alcohol abuse intervention, and cancer and heart disease screening will be included in the programs.  According to the researchers, these programs will help the community as a whole.  


Aboriginal Diabetes Initiative Program.

All Things Arctic.

Boothroyd, Lucy J., Kirmayer, Laurence J., Spreng, Sheila, Malus, Michael, Hodgins, Stephen. (2001) Completed
    suicides among the Inuit of northern Quebec, 1982-1996: a case-control study.  CMAJ 165 (6), 749-55.

Comparison of Cancer Rate for Inuit and Dene to Canadian Average.   

Environmental News Network.

Haggarty, J.M., Cernovsky, Z., Husni, M., Minor, K., Kermeen, P. & Merskey, H. (2002) Seasonal affective disorder in
    an Arctic community.  Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica 105 (5), 378-384.  doi: 10.1034/j.1600-0447.2002.1o185.x



Inuit Circumpolar Conference.

Inuit-Eskimo Religion.

Inuit Regions of Canada.

Labrador Inuit Association.  <>

Lanken, Dane, Vincent, Mary.  (1999) Nunavut: up and running.  Canadian Geographic 119 (1), 34.

Leading Causes of Cancer Death by Cultural Group.

Luo, Zhong-Cheng, Wilkins, Russell, Platt, Robert W. & Kramer, Michael S. (2004) Risks of adverse pregnancy outcomes among Inuit and North American Indian women in Quebec, 1985-97.  Paediatric & Perinatal Epidemiology 18 (1), 40-50. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-3016.2003.00529.x

Martin, I.P.  Canadian Inland Seas.  Elsevier Science Publishing Company Inc., 1986.

Suk, William A., Avakian, Maureen D., Carpenter, David, Groopman, John D., Scammell, Madeleine, Wild, Christopher P.  (2004) Human exposure monitoring and evaluation in the Arctic: the importance of understanding exposures to the development of public health policy.  Environmental Health Perspectives 112 (2), 113.

Tester, Frank James, McNicoll, Paule.  (2004) Isumagijaksaq: mindful of the state: social constructions of Inuit suicide.  Social Science and Medicine 58 (12), 2625.

The North Divides.

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