Inuit Trade in the Central Arctic

Arctic Landscape

Historic Inuit settlement areas and language groups.
These groups eventually became the Inuit of today.

Regional trade has always been an important part of Inuit life. Before European explorers, trade companies, and whalers began commercial trade with the Inuit, there was already a trade network which connected all Inuit and Inupiaq peoples from Siberia to Greenland; most of these groups traded with others on all borders, so it was possible for materials to travel large distances. By the time artifacts were traded 3 or 4 times, they could have travelled halfway across the Arctic.

Historic Inuit

The period from AD 1600 to AD 1850 is often referred to as 'The Little Ice Age.' It was a time when the temperatures were much colder than they are today. The people adapted to this more harsh climate.

At the same time, strangers from Britain began to appear in the eastern Arctic. This contact along with the climate change led to the development of Historic Inuit society.

Items which were traded the furthest distances were those which were most the most rare and valuable. These included natural deposits of copper and iron, which were used to make metal tools and ornaments.

Metal was highly valued, because it is harder than the bone, ivory, and stone tools which Inuit generally used for most tasks. Even small pieces of metal were used many times over, and sometimes were passed on through generations of the same family.

Archaeologists often find metal artifacts at archaeological sites in the Arctic, such as harpoon blades, needles, knives, and ulus.

Finding metal artifacts is highly valuable to archaeologists; they are able to analyze the chemical content of the metal to find out the location that the material originally came from. This helps to reconstruct trade patterns, see how far artifacts travelled, and which Inuit groups were in contact with each other.

Copper

Copper came from the Kitikmeot Region, around the Coronation Gulf and Coppermine River. Cobbles of copper could be pounded (or ‘cold hammered’) into a functional shape.

In order to strengthen the material, they would first pound the material into a sheet, then fold it over on itself, and repeat the process until the material was a satisfactory size and hardness.

Meteoritic Iron

In Greenland, there are several locations where meteorites, containing iron, were available to the Inuit. One was called the ‘Iron Mountain’ which had three large fragments of a meteorite that landed there (one weighed 34 tons).

Most of the meteoritic iron in the arctic probably came from this example. It has little chip marks all over, where Inuit removed pieces to use and trade. The meteorite was called Ahnighito which means ‘tent’. It was removed by Robert Parry, who sold it to the American Museum of Natural History, New York.

Artifacts made of meteoritic iron from Iron Mountain have been found in archaeological sites as far away from Greenland as Northwest Hudson Bay.

Norse Iron

Another source of Iron for Inuit people came from Norse peoples who settled in Greenland after 960 A.D. Rivets from ships, along with carpentry tools, and even chain mail armour, have been found at archaeological sites in Ellesmere Island, are occasionally found as far away as Chesterfield Inlet in the Kivalliq.

Soapstone

Soapstone was also a valuable material which was traded amongst Inuit groups. The Kitikmeot and Netsilingmiut specialized in making soapstone containers and pots, which they traded to other Inuit in return for furs, sinew, and sometimes copper or iron.

Vilhjamjur Stefansson, an anthropologist who visited the Kitikmeot in 1914-18, reported that most of the soapstone dishes used by households from the Kivalliq to Alaska had been traded from the Kitikmeot.

Places to Trade

Inuit often had to travel long distances in order to meet other Inuit and trade. As a result, they sometimes met at central locations. One such example is a place called Akilineq, on the Thelon River.

Inuit traders would gather from all over the central Arctic, and then return with trade goods to the Aivilingmiut, Netsilingmiut, Kitikmeot, Kivallingmiut, and Iglulingmiut, who in turn traded with other Inuit that they shared borders with. In this way, all Inuit group were interconnected, and information and materials could pass between them.

Inuit Trade in the Central Arctic

Trade was a very important part of Inuit subsistence. The Arctic environment is highly unpredictable; some years, one area has an abundance of animals, while another area has a shortage. Trade partially functioned as a security measure. If there was a scarcity of animals, meat and furs could be procured by trading useful items to others who had plenty.

Inuit Value of Generosity

All forms of sharing is extremely important for Inuit. A person gained status in the group based on their willingness to share information, equipment, food and wise counsel.

When society is founded in a belief of interdependence and connectedness, sharing becomes both a tool to build those relationships and a measure of a successful person in that society.

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