Copper Eskimo

Kitikmeot Region, NU, Canada

First Contact:


gather% / fish % / hunt %
fat % / protein % / carb%

A rough estimate to help us understand how carnivorous and how ketogenic these people were before being exposed to western civilization


Click this Slide deck Gallery to see high quality images of the tribe, daily life, diet, hunting and gathering or recipes

About the Tribe

By George Wilkins - Canadian Museum of History, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Copper Inuit (or Kitlinermiut[pronunciation?]) are a Canadian Inuit group who live north of the tree line, in what is now Nunavut's Kitikmeot Region and the Northwest Territories's Inuvik Region. Most historically lived in the area around Coronation Gulf, on Victoria Island, and southern Banks Island.

Their western boundary was Wise Point, near Dolphin and Union Strait. Their northwest territory was the southeast coast of Banks Island. Their southern boundary was the eastern shore of Great Bear Lake, Contwoyto Lake and Lake Beechey on the Back River. To the east, the Copper Inuit and the Netsilingmiut were separated by Perry River in Queen Maud Gulf. While Copper Inuit traveled throughout Victoria Island, to the west, they concentrated south of Walker Bay, while to the east, they were concentrated south of Denmark Bay.[2]

As the people have no collective name for themselves, they have adopted the English term, "Copper Inuit".[3] It represents those westernmost Central Inuit who used and relied on native copper gathered along the lower Coppermine River and the Coronation Gulf.[4]

According to Rasmussen (1932), other Inuit referred to Copper Inuit as Kitlinermiut, as Kitlineq was an Inuit language name for Victoria Island.[5]

Early millennia[edit]

Copper Inuit are descendants of Thule culture. Changes in the local environment may have resulted in the transition from prehistoric Thule culture to Copper Inuit culture, a modern people.[2]

For approximately three millennia[6] Copper Inuit were hunter-gatherer nomads. Their settlement and acculturation to some of European-Canadian ways has occurred only since the 1940s, and they have also continued the hunting and gathering lifestyle.[7]

They lived in communal snowhouses during the winter and engaged in breathing-hole (mauliqtoq) seal hunting. In the summer, they spread out in smaller, family groups for inland caribou hunting and fishing.[1]

The people made copper arrows, spear heads, ulu blades, chisels, harpoons, and knives for both personal use and for trade amongst other Inuit. In addition to the copper products, Copper Inuit soapstone products were highly regarded in the Bering Strait trade network.[8] Other trade partners included Inuvialuit from Avvaq and Caribou Inuit to the south.[9] Many Copper Inuit gathered in the Cambridge Bay area in the summertime because of plentiful game.[10]


Importance of Animal Products

Habitat and diet

Historically, Copper Inuit lived amongst tundra, rocky hills, outcrops, with some forested areas towards the southern and southwestern range. Here they hunted Arctic ground squirrel, Arctic hare, caribou (barren ground and Peary's herds), grizzly bear, mink, moose, muskox, muskrat, polar bear, wolf, and wolverine. They fished in the extensive network of ponds, lakes, and rivers, including the Coppermine, Rae, and Richardson Rivers, which sustained large populations of fresh water Arctic char (also found in the ocean), grayling, lake trout, and whitefish. The marine waters supported codfish, bearded seal, and ringed seal.[16] Ducks, geese, guillemots, gulls, hawks, longspurs, loons, plovers, ptarmigans, and snow buntings were also part of the Copper Inuit diet. They liked raw but not boiled eggs.[19] They used and cooked food and products from the sea, but kept them separate from those of the land.[20]

Importance of Plants


shutterstock_300666986 (1).png
Untitled design (17).png

Transition to Industrialized Food Products

Post-Euro-Canadian contact[edit]

According to Robin McGrath there are Inuit stories that show there was a history of conflict between the Inuit and the Dene, as well as others which may have involved Europeans. This conflict seems to have been instigated by both the Dene and the Inuit and possibly was caused by trade disputes but sometimes due to raids for women.[11] One of the better known of these battles was recorded by European explorer, Samuel Hearne. In 1771, Samuel Hearne was the first European to explore the Coppermine River region. It was here that Hearne's Chipewyan Dene companions massacred a Copper Inuit group at Bloody Falls.[1] Further exploration did not take place until the period of 1820–1853, which included the Sir John Franklin expeditions of 1821 and 1825. John Rae encountered Copper Inuit at Rae River in 1847, and at Cape Flinders and Stromness Bay in 1851.[12] During the McClure Arctic Expedition, Irish explorer, Robert McClure abandoned his ship, HMS Investigator, at Mercy Bay on Banks Island in 1853 during his search for Franklin's lost expedition. It provided extensive amounts of wood, copper, and iron which the Copper Inuit used for years. Richard Collinson explored the area in 1850–1855.

20th century[edit]

Believing that the Copper Inuit had migrated to Hudson Bay for trading at various outposts, the Canadian government's 1906 map marked Victoria Island as "uninhabited".[1] It was not until the early years of the 20th century that trading ships returned to Copper Inuit territory. They followed Vilhjalmur Stefansson's discovery and report of the so-called Blond Eskimos amongst Copper Inuit[13] from his Arctic exploration trip of 1908–1912.[14] During the Canadian Arctic Expedition of 1913–1918, Canadian ethnographer Diamond Jenness spent two years living with and documenting the lives of Copper Inuit. He sent thousands of artifacts of their material culture to the Geological Survey of Canada.[15]

Along with trade, European contact brought influenza and typhoid. These newly introduced infectious diseases likely weakened resistance of the natives. Between 1929 and 1931, one in five Copper Inuit died from a tuberculosis epidemic. Around the same time, the whaling industry deteriorated. Alaskan Inupiat and Mackenzie Delta Inuvialuit came into the Coronation Gulf area to co-exist with the Copper Inuit.[9] The first Holman-area (Ulukhaktok) trading post was established in 1923 at Alaervik, on the north shore of Prince Albert Sound, but it closed five years later. The post relocated to Fort Collinson on Walker Bay, north of Minto Inlet. Two other stores opened in Walker Bay but closed by 1939, in the years of the Great Depression.


In 1960, the federal government shipped three housing units to Holman, and another four in 1961. In the years to follow, some families moved to Holman permanently, while others lived there seasonally. Some Copper Inuit moved to the communities of Coppermine (Kugluktuk) or Cambridge Bay. Still others gravitated to outposts along Bathurst Inlet, Contwoyto Lake, Coronation Gulf, and on Victoria Island.[16]

The Copper Inuit have gradually adopted snowmobiles, satellite dish television service, and Christian churches. Many young people now speak English rather than Inuinnaqtun. Together, these introductions have created social change among the Copper Inuit.[1]

Jan 1, 1906

Letters of the present rector of St. Peter's-by-the-Sea, of Sitka, the Reverend Henry H. Chapman.


Eskimo natives had a range of cooking styles and mostly carnivorous diets but did not suffer from cancer until modern foods entered their diet.

In reply to a further query, the rector wrote again from Sitka on September 16, 1958. He confirmed that he had lived at Anvik all but three of the years between his birth in 1895 and his first journey in 1908 when he went out to become a graduate of Middlebury College, Vermont. “I returned to Anvik as a missionary in 1922 and lived there until 1948, except for furloughs and the four years I was in Fairbanks.

“The native people of the Anvik area are Athapaskans. During my youth the main parts of their food were meat (caribou, rabbits, grouse, waterfowl, beaver, porcupine, black bear and lynx) and fish (salmon, whitefish, shellfish, loche and lampreys). The loche has a large liver which is said to be even richer in vitamins than ordinary cod liver. The Indians also ate raw foods such as berries, wild rhubarb, and a root which they called ‘mouseberries’ because it was gathered and hoarded by field mice.

“They obtained fat from caribou, black bear, and beaver tails. The lampreys were rich in oil, which was highly prized. They also bought seal oil from the Eskimos. Even in my boyhood they supplemented their native diet with white man's food, including lard ...

“The usual way of cooking meat was either boiling or frying. As a boy I was once invited by a party of Indians to eat bear meat with them. It was boiled and well done ... I do not know that any flesh foods were eaten raw, except for dried fish ...”

Neither does the published literature on the forest Indians report that any flesh foods were customarily eaten raw by the forest Indians of Alaska or northern Canada. Indeed, the name “Eskimos” is believed by many to have been derived from an Algonquin expression meaning “they eat their meat raw.”

When I went down north along the Mackenzie, in 1906 and 1908, I now and then heard talk of how horrified the Athapaskans had been when they first saw white men of the Northwest Company and Hudson's Bay Company eating the customary British underdone roast meats. In 1910, when we met the Athapaskans northeast of Great Bear Lake — Dogribs, Slaves, and Yellowknives — we found that they were still mildly horrified to see the Hudson's Bay Company Canadian Joseph Hodgson and the Old Country British John Hornby and Cosmo Melvil, who were then living among them, eating rare caribou steaks and roasts.

In a presentation of evidence regarding the views of frontier doctors on the incidence of cancer, it is of consequence to make clear that early testimony regarding the rarity or absence of malignancies is as clear and strong for the forest Indian north as for the grassland Eskimo country. Some of the early medical missionaries — notably Dr. Hutton in Labrador — have inclined to credit a diet of raw flesh with that former absence of cancer in which they believed. To emphasize this point let me quote again Dr. Hutton's book Health Conditions (1925), Page 35:

“Some diseases common in Europe have no t come under my notice ... Of these diseases the most striking is cancer ... In this connection it may be noted that cookery holds a very secondary place in the preparation of food — most of the food is eaten raw ...”

If only Eskimos are considered, in relation to the alleged former absence of cancer, and of these only the Labradorians, then the logical deduction for one who believes nutrition to be fundamental in relation to malignancy, is that actual rawness of food may be the crucially important cancer-inhibiting factor. But the force of this logic diminishes as we go westward from Labrador, among the Eskimos. Without cancer's appearing at all, cooking grows steadily more important as we move west. From Dr. Hutton's and other accounts, the Labradorians, east of Hudson Bay, were the greatest raw-flesh eaters of the whole Eskimo world. West of the Bay the boiling of flesh increases; and inland from the Bay, among the Caribou Eskimos, the roasting of caribou supplements the boiling. At Coronation Gulf, near where Dr. Jenness and I spent the first years during which the Copper Eskimos ever associated closely with Europeans, the years 1910 to 1915, there was considerable summer use of roasting, though the winter cooking, if any, was by boiling. Among the Mackenzie Eskimos, as described from the 1860's by Father Emile Petitot and from the early 1900's by myself, boiling and roasting were both considerable. These methods were even a bit more common in northern Alaska, as described by John Simpson in the 1850's and Murdoch in the 1880's. In southwestern Alaska as described by Dr. Romig in the manuscript he submitted to our Encyclopedia Antarctica, for the last decade of the nineteenth century and the first one of the twentieth, the cooking of flesh foods reached its Eskimo high point.

Yet the mission testimony, starting from Labrador, remains equally clear, from east to west: the medical missionaries all looked for cancer, and they never found it among the “primitive,” though they did find it among the “modernized.”

Thus clarification is important for whoever expects a nutritional key to this Eskimo cancer situation. Among the Athapaska and western Eskimos cooking was hardly ever carried to the point of “well done,” or “boiled to pieces.” Instead the native meats resembled our fashionable roasts, which have a well-done layer on the outside, medium done just under that, and the center pink or red. And so it was with the forest Indians — at least with those Athapaskans from Great Bear Lake to just west of the Mackenzie, with whom I hunted and lived — though they insisted on some cooking, they were in practice as careful as Eskimo cooks to see that the centers of most pieces were pink.

To sum up the raw and cooked-food elements of northern medical missionary theorizing about cancer:

During the time when large numbers of non-Europeanized northern natives were allegedly free of cancer, there was little cooking of flesh foods beyond the degree which we call medium. Among grassland and coastal Eskimos raw flesh eating ranged from a great deal in northern Labrador to a good deal in southwestern Alaska. Only among forest Indians were raw flesh foods avoided, and even among these there was little use of overcooked flesh.

Vegetable foods, where eaten at all, were always raw, among prairie and woodland natives alike. Among Eskimos, vegetable foods were important only in the farthest west — along the west coast of Alaska, among the Aleutians, and along the south coast of Alaska. In the most northerly region from Baffin Island, Canada, to Point Barrow, Alaska, vegetable eating was negligible, except in time of famine. Among woodland Indians, vegetables were negligible with the Athapaskans from the west shore of Hudson Bay to beyond the Mackenzie. In Alaska the eating of raw vegetables by forest Indians increased westward along the northern belt and then increased still more southward, into the country of the Tlingit.

During the time when the medical missionaries reported cancer difficult or impossible to find among large numbers of primitive natives, there was no usual cooking of any vegetables, whether among grassland or forest natives. The cooking of vegetables is part of that Europeanization which is considered by some missionaries to be responsible for the introduction of cancer, or for the change from its being hard to find to its being impossible not to notice.

The European-style application of intense heat to food through frying was new to all northern North American natives.

Jan 1, 1910


The Copper Eskimos taste sugar for the first time in 1910.


Among Eskimos, Europeanization has been longest delayed in the Canadian eastern Arctic, that great region which begins on the mainland about 500 miles east of the Mackenzie at Dolphin and Union Strait and extends to Hudson Bay. There, in Coronation Gulf and Victoria Island, our second expedition, the one of 1908-12, found more than 500 of what are now called Copper Eskimos, most of whom had never seen a white man. A decade later, in the 1920's, the Danish explorer Knud Rasmussen found on the eastern edge of the Copper Eskimo district about twenty who had missed seeing us, and who told him he was the first white man they had ever seen.

The Copper Eskimos, so named because many of their weapons and tools were of native copper, had never dealt with any traders before 1910. They did not even know tea, used no salt, and lived exclusively on flesh foods, eating roots and such only in time of famine. In 1910, they for the first time tasted sugar, given them by the first trader to reach Coronation Gulf, Joseph Bernard. They disliked it. Ten years later they were beginning to use material amounts of European foods, including both sugar and salt. Farther east, in the same section of arctic Canada, are people who first met whites long ago; but, even including them, the Eskimos of this section still are, with respect to food, the least Europeanized of all North Americans.

Jun 23, 1915

The Northern Copper Inuit - A History


Jenness describes the hunting and fishing habits of the Northern Copper Inuit and was impressed by their ability to endure long walks without food in the hunt for caribou. The effect of the white men's economic habits start to make the Eskimos dependent upon civilization for survival, while making famines less likely.


Jenness did not make it to Prince Albert Sound But he had satisfied his curiosity that the Prince Albert people were as to language and culture very similar to The Copper Inuit of Dolphin and Union Strait. Toward the end of the summer Jenness and his adopted family made the slow migration back to the southern coast fishing and hunting caribou along the way. At that time of year food shortages were common and the Inuit would go for days without sighting caribou or catching fish. Jenness was impressed by the endurance and patience of his traveling companions the experience [of starvation] was no novelty in their lives they merely tighten their belts trudge steadily forward a dozen or 15 miles and said smiling smiling lately if we sight no Caribou today we will tomorrow or if not tomorrow certainly the day after (Jenness 1928:219).

After his extended research visit to the land of the copper Inuit, Jenness wrote two definitive books about the people with whom he lived and traveled: The Life of the Copper Eskimo(1922) and The People of the Twilight(1928). Stefannson, working to the north, and Jenness, to the South, documented well the traditional culture of the Copper Inuit. The scholarship was completed just in time, for the isolation of the Copper Inuit was soon shattered permanently by the activities of traitors, missionaries, and other representatives of southern culture. As Jenness wrote years later in his epilogue to The People of the Twilight:

Even as we sailed away traders enter.e their country seeking fox-furs; and for those pelts so useless for real clothing they offered rifles, shot-guns, steel tools, and other Goods that promise to make life easier so the Eskimos abandoned their communal seal hunts and scattered and isolated families along the coast in order to trap white foxes during the winter when the fur of that animal reaches its prime. Their dispersal loosened the old communal ties that had held the families together. The men no longer labored for the entire group, but hunted and trapped each one for his family alone... The commercial world of the white man had caught the Eskimos and its mesh destroying their self-sufficiency and independence, and made them economically its slaves. Only in one respect did it benefit them: it lessened the danger of those unpredictable famines which had overtaken them every 10 or 15 years, bringing suffering and death to young and old without distinction (Jenness 1928:240).

Jan 2, 1922

The Northern Copper Inuit - A history


Jenness is amazed at the Copper Inuit's energy and patience and endurance, perhaps indicating the results of their superb diet, but also the skills needed to thrive in such an inhospitable place.


Early chroniclers of Copper Inuit culture were also impressed with their energy, patience, and endurance. As Jenness (1922:235) wrote:

The Copper Eskimos think nothing of spending 24 hours on a hunt, tramping continually over stony hills without a morsel of food, and with only a few short halts to rest their limbs and look about them. In Spring I've seen them spend whole days fruitlessly digging one hole after another through the thick ice of the lakes and drinking their lines without ever getting a bite. In Winter they sit for hours over there seal holes even in howling blizzard where the temperature is 30 and more below zero Fahrenheit. The patience instilled in them by hunting become so ingrained in their very natures and permeates all their social life, so that tolerance and forbearance are two of the most marked features in Eskimo Society.