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Inuit, Capitalism, and Colonization: A Foreign Affair

Suzie Napayok-Short is the author of the children’s book Wild Eggs. She is a professional English-Inuktitut translator and was the secretary-treasurer for the Nunavut Planning Commission from 1999 to 2005. She lives in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories.

By Suzie Napayok-Short

The Inuit lived nomadically according to their scientific knowledge of the natural cycles of wildlife and the seasonal availability of different species. For Inuit it was imperative to know these cycles professionally—to know when the caribou came, for example, by studying in depth where and when they migrate to specific areas—and to determine their calculations based upon years of observation and careful study.

Inuit had to understand the science of snow and ice—the texture, its mass, the seasons affecting it, the potential (or lack thereof) for purposeful architecture, the safety and danger zones—all by heart. Nothing was written down to refer to later on; thus, everything was diligently embedded in the mind. The Inuit are experts of their own environment, the wildlife species and their cycles, and the weather. The complexities of their traditional language reflect this, too. But today, Inuit traditions are fading due to modernization in the communities. Although on-the-land programs are becoming accessible to more and more students, there is no long-term curriculum included in the current education systems about such things.

Inuit didn’t know what colonization was, nor were they aware of how it would change their lifestyles forever. The arrival of Qallunaat (people who are not Inuit, typically white people) began to change this way of living that had been in place for eons and introduced an alien system of values based on capitalism.

From the onset of this introduction, Inuit were at a disadvantage for not knowing the vastly different system and worldview on which the global economy was based. Therefore, they put huge amounts of time and work into trapping wildlife for the furs desired by the Hudson’s Bay Company, which, knowing the Inuit had no outside trading experience, manipulated them into receiving goods at extremely inflated rates in exchange for the furs. Because the local traders determined payment based on foreign economic trends of the day, the United Kingdom received $70 for each pelt, while the Inuit were only paid in some flour, tea, tobacco, and bullets. Similarly, in the 1950s, the Inuit were introduced to mining without pre-education and without knowing or understanding its purpose.

Serious life changes for the Inuit began when they first started working at a mine in the Kivalliq region. Intimidated by these seemingly powerful people, they quickly adapted to the rules of the Qallunaat who came in to take the contents of the earth away for their own financial gain. Unbeknownst to them, Inuit miners were paid lower rates than other mineworkers in the rest of Canada, while working in the harshest of environments.

A new film, Beneath the Surface, by Frank Tester, illustrates these effects. This film helps us to see what was expected of Inuit under the new rule of colonization, what the consequences were for Inuit, and over time, how Inuit began to understand some of the ways of the “white man’s world” under its rule, based on their own experience. There was no formal education to prepare them for the task.

This film teaches us about the values of Inuit, our susceptibilities, and our determination to find peaceful ways to move forward in spite of the disadvantages we began with and continue to experience.

It reminds us of our duty to look after our environment and to balance our needs to create income on our lands for our own benefit. We must have our rights as Inuit respected within our lands, where we determine our own destination and terms of cooperation, as well as find the best way of reconciling the traditional ways of our people and our need to build a life in today’s financial world. We must find the balance between these two worlds and know when to draw the very fine line necessary for the health of our people and our future.

*****

*****

[Photos courtesy of Suzie Napayok-Short]

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