The word Inuvialuit, in the Inuit language, quite literally means ‘the real people’. Indeed, the Inuvialuit are a resilient population who have successfully adapted to the challenges presented by the arctic region of Western Canada. The Inuvialuit have long called the Yukon North Slope home.
Four thousand years ago, a people whose ancestry can be traced back to the Siberian Neolithic appeared on what is now known as the Yukon North Slope. Archaeologists identify these people as the Paleo-Eskimo. These people, and their Inuit descendants, were the first to successfully adopt a way a life that allowed for survival in this severe environment.
These original inhabitants lived on the mainland of the Yukon North Slope, and survived by hunting and fishing. Around the year 1000, it is thought that a new group of people – the Thule – migrated eastward and displaced the original inhabitants.
The Western Thule are believed to be the ancestors of the present-day Canadian Inuit population. The Inuit include many closely related groups who share traditional knowledge, tools and skills related to hunting and fishing.
The Inuvialuit, or ‘the real people’, are one sub–group of the Canadian Inuit population. The history of the Inuvialuit is largely unwritten, and is dependent upon traditional oral accounts. The rich oral history of the Inuvialuit is an important counterbalance to our limited scientific and empirical knowledge of the Yukon North Slope.
Looking Toward the Future
The Inuvialuit are a hardy people who have successfully weathered many seasons, and have managed to thrive amidst a turbulent sea of change.
Much of this change was the result of contact with the western world, which first occurred about a hundred and fifty years ago. Since that time, there has been outside interest in the Inuvialuit traditional lands for many different reasons, some positive and some negative. Despite outside influences, the Inuvialuit have found refuge in their time-honoured way of life.
The Inuvialuit of the Yukon North Slope continue to rely upon local wildlife for a large part of their subsistence, just as their ancestors did. The harvesting of sea mammals is particularly important. Hunting and whaling are two ongoing traditions that are the basis of the Inuvialuit life, even today.
In 1984, the signing of the Inuvialuit Final Agreement (IFA) marked a significant milestone for this exceptional population. The IFA is proof positive that the Inuvialuit are the true guardians of their traditional land, and ensures that Inuvialuit customs are not hastily relegated to the past. Instead, the Inuvialuit have been given formal recognition by the Canadian federal government, and are respected as a distinct culture within modern Canadian society.
To be sure, the Inuvialuit have much knowledge to share - knowledge that is just as relevant today as it was many years ago. The modern Inuvialuit way-of-life combines respect for the past with an optimistic outlook. There is little doubt that this extraordinary community will continue to flourish, despite the ever-present changing tides.