Historical Events

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The Copper Inuit people operate in a remote and frigid landscape and have unique habits to hunt seals and polar bears on the ice. They split up to cover more area and thus share kills between group members, separating seals up into 14 pieces while building large snowhouse communities with many families.

January 1, 1911

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The Northern Copper Inuit - A History

Facultative Carnivore
Hunter-Gatherer
Eskimo
Carnivore Diet

Despite uniformity of culture and language, the various miut displayed minor differences, based upon their adaptation to local resources. While some groups were primarily dependent on seal and polar bear, others focused on caribou and musk oxen. Although people exploited whatever resources happened to be available in their particular region, the pattern of subsistence and social organization was fundamentally the same. At the time of contact the total population of Copper Inuit was probably no more than 800 to 900, scattered over a vast territory of Arctic tundra, probably exceeding 80,000 square miles.


Environment

The environment of the Copper Inuit is mostly treeless Arctic tundra, although some wooded areas can be found in the southernmost reaches of Copper Inuit territory. The climate is severe, with winter temperatures frequently reaching -50 degrees Fahrenheit(-45 degrees C) in some areas. The monthly mean of the coldest month of the year, February, is between -20 and -28 Fahrenheit (-29 degrees C and -33 degrees Celsius) and the monthly mean of the warmest month, July, is in the high forties 7 to 10 C. Precipitation is minimal. Most of this falls as snow and accumulates in high drifts as a result of blowing winds. The amount of sunlight varies dramatically by season. In the Holman reason, for example, the sun drops below the horizon in the third week in November and stays down until January 16th or 17th. During these two months, there is only a brief daily period of twilight at midday which becomes progressively darker and shorter until the winter solstice. In summer, the sun stays above the horizon for an equivalent period, providing, as it circles, long hours of sunlight for people to hunt, fish and travel.

As is true of much of the Canadian Arctic, the tundra ecosystem is characterized by extremely low biological productivity. Significantly less energy is absorbed by the arctic ecosystem, compared with more temperate regions. Almost no energy is absorbed in winter. Even in summer, with the sun above the horizon 24 hours a day, the sun's rays are extremely weak, contributing little radiant energy to either the time or the Marine ecosystem. The net result Arctic operates under a significant energy deficient, with great implications for plant and animals and for the people who depend upon them for survival.

In winter, the straits, sounds, and gulfs in Copper Inuit territory are frozen in a continuous sheet of ice from October or November until July. This is ideal habitat for ring seals, which prefer solid, land fast ice with the early formation in fall and late Break Up In Summer.

Seasonal round

Since the environment was marked as it still is by dramatic seasonal fluctuations in temperature, light duration, snowfall, ice conditions, and game availability, copper Inuit families had to display great flexibility and economic and social organization in order to adapt successfully to the demands of each season. One of the most important phases of copper Inuit life was the winter season of breathing hole sealing. this was the coldest and the darkest time of year and it tested the Inuits ability to survive such harsh conditions large snow house communities typically formed out on the sea ice in locations close to good sealing grounds.  movement onto the ice was accomplished as soon as ice conditions became stable enough for travel and camping, ideally by late November or early December. These snow house Villages buried in size from about 50 individuals to as many as 150. Damas (1984:400)  estimates that the mean size range from about 91 to 117. Most of the people who resided in the snow house Villages were related, either closely or distantly, but many non-relatives were included as well. Villages moved when sealing became unproductive, with smaller groups occasionally splitting off.

Camping in Winter

Ruth Nigiyonak. I remember camping in the winter season out on the Frozen sea ice. As a child, during the winter, the people never stayed on land. When winter came, the people moved out on the ice. For the winter, the people would build large snow house with a big work space in the center. From the sides, they would build tunnels. At the end of each tunnel, a family would built their living quarters. The center was a workspace or a place to gather for games, drum dances, and stories. That was repeated each year.

During the winter, an elaborate system of seal-sharing among both kin and nonkin was the dominant form of food distribution. Breathing-hole sealing requires a degree of cooperation among hunters, who dispersed over a wide area to cover as many breathing holes as possible. Since each seal maintains a number of breathing holes, this strategy maximizes the chances that at least one hunter from a group would be successful. Once caught, the seal is divided into 12 to 14 Parts, each part given to a predetermined exchange partner who would reciprocate sometime in the future with the same body part. Names were applied to seal sharing Partners based on the animal part exchanged: flipper companion, liver companion, and so forth. A man's co-sharing partners were usually assigned by parents and other adults at the time of a hunter's first kill. Kinship factors were irrelevant to such partnerships since both kin and nonkin could be included in these networks.

Winter subsistence pursuits also included polar bear hunting and some areas, the importance of which for subsistence varied from year to year depending upon availability. The Copper Inuit who entered between Banks Island and Northwestern Victoria Island relied more heavily upon polar bear than other Copper Inuit groups.

Winter was an important time for Community social festivities, which were included in a large ceremonial snow house or qagli.  Because cold, darkness, and the frequent blizzards limited the amount of time that men could stay out hunting, people would pass their time playing games, drum dancing, and occasionally observing shamanic performances. Given the size of some snow house communities, it was not unusual for the qigli to be bursting with observers and participants. The copper Inuit spent much of the spring, summer, and early fall wandering on the tundra and small family groups, and winter presented the climax of community social life.

With the arrival of warmer weather and longer daylight hours in April and May, the Copper Inuit started hunting for basking seals. This was a more individualistic pursuit, requiring the hunter to walk and crawl great distances to Harpoon seals basking next to a crack or seal hole. Breathing hole ceiling, as well, continued into May, and some copper and you it made excursions to hunt polar bears as their hibernation ended. By Spring, the large snow house communities usually started to break into smaller groups each headed in a different direction. Movement was initially along the coastline, because the tundra would still be wet and unpleasant for travel. Eventually, the ocean ice was abandoned altogether, marking the beginning of the Inland phase of the yearly cycle. The abandonment of snow houses in Spring is understandable. As warmer weather conditions made the interior wet and uncomfortable, modified snow houses were made. He's consisted of the lower half of a snow house with a skin roof over it. As the year progresses, skin test tents replaced those these modified snow houses as people moved up to the land.