Quantum Gypsies

The tragedy of Inland Eskimos

Out of Asia

The earliest signs of man found in the barrengrounds are some flint arrowheads lodged in the remains of Caribou dated to some four thousand years ago. Nothing is known about these first inhabitants, but it has been suggested that they may have been the ancestors of the Athapascan Indians, the remnants of whom now live in forests to the south.

About three thousand years ago, a new people entered the land across the land bridge from Asia and spread out across the whole of northern Canada. They were driven from the inland plains of Siberia by encroaching hordes from the west, probably Mongols on one of their early invasions towards China. These newcomers crossed the Baring straight by a narrow strip of tundra near what is now called Brooks range, Alaska and their stories tell of settling first by two large lakes. These could have been the Great Slave and Great Bear lakes. They called themselves Innuit, meaning simply the people or mankind. According to the Eskimo ethnologist, Knud Rasmussen, it was from this reservoir of inland Eskimos that many of the coastal and sea-culture Eskimos later developed. This is supported by the fact that inland Eskimos have no recollection in their stories or legends of ever living by the sea. The name Eskimo, by the way, was given to them by Indians that came into contact with them and means eaters of raw meat.

One group of Innuit moved eastwards and by 900 C.E at the latest, they reached their final settling place in the heart of the barrengrounds. It is a large plateau around three lakes, Dubawnt, Yathkyed and Angikuni, in the district now called Keewatin. Here they remained, inviolate and at peace for more than seven centuries to develop their very special form of social order. They called themselves Ihalmiut, for which there are two possible translations. For some, it means the other people, but others translate it as people of the little hills.


By the middle of the seventeenth century, the Idthen Eldeli (eaters of the deer), a major segment of the Chipewayan group of Athapascan Indians, were being pushed north by the Crees. The Crees, living to the south-east had obtained guns from white traders and with the help of these were extending their territory and hunting grounds, goaded on by the lure of fat profit from fur trapping in the forests of the Idthen Eldeli. The latter retreated out over the tundra in front of the Cree expansion and in turn displaced the Ihalmiut, who had never needed to develop warfare skills. The Ihalmiut moved north until they found the relative safety of the twin valleys of the Thelon and Back rivers. In 1770, when Samuel Hearne made his first journey on foot across the barrengrounds, the area was in the hands of the Idthen Eldeli and he never made contact with the Ihalmiut.

During the final decade of the eighteenth century, the first major effect of white colonization came to the plains of northern Canada. A smallpox epidemic spread from traders around the Great Slave lake and decimated the tribes of Idthen Eldeli. In a few years, they were reduced from several thousand to a few hundred and by 1800 they had disappeared from the tundra, to cluster in near starvation around the trading post at Churchill. The Ihalmiut, spared contact with the disease, returned to the plains via the Dubwant river to the inland sea called Tulemaliguak.

For another half-century they remained cut off from the dubious benefits of civilisation, but in 1867 they received their first taste of European culture. An Oblate priest, father Gaste, reached the camps of the most southerly tribes, the Kekeretarahatormiut. He stayed there for one summer in an futile attempt to convert the people to Christianity.

The Ihalmiut were very friendly and listened to him with great interest, even though they could not understand a single word of his language. But, even when you have breached the language barrier, how do you teach a people who have no word for theft, nor any European sense of individual ownership, not to steal. How do you teach a people who have never fought anyone, to love their enemies. In the end, he gave up and fled the barrengrounds in fear of his life, although it unlikely that the Ihalmiut threatened him with violence.

Father Gaste was, however, important to the history of the Ihalmiut. He persuaded some of the hunters to travel south to the Hudson Bay company post at Reindeer lake to trade, and thus started the process of weaning the people of the little hills away from their old way of life, with disastrous results.

The most complete study of the region during this period was made by J B Tyrrell, a geologist and government explorer, who travelled the barrens between 1892 and 1894. He found the Ihalmiut to be a very hospitable people, with a well developed culture and a happy and relatively prosperous life, well above subsistence level. The deer, upon which the whole economy depended, were plentiful, disease was almost unknown and the well fed people were fertile and could reproduce their race with ease. Tyrrell estimated the total Ihalmiut population at this time to be several thousand: which is borne out by a missionary who, in 1906, estimated it at something over two thousand. The attempt by this priest, father Turquetil, to convert the people, met with no more success than earlier attempts. In desperation, he set himself against the Angeokoks (Shaman, or wise men of the Ihalmiut) in a contest of magic. He lost and fled the country with the peoples laughter ringing in his ears.

Peaceful Extermination

In 1912, the contact made with white men through trade bore terrible fruit. One of the Ihalmiut hunters returned from the trading post carrying disease, probably flu, and it spread like wildfire. The people called it the great pain and an estimated seven hundred died in the first outbreak. There was no real recovery from this catastrophe.

As well as spreading disease, indiscriminate hunting by whites and Indians to the south was decimating the once uncountable herds of Caribou. The Ihalmiut were finding it difficult to supply their own needs just as the bottom dropped out of the fur market. The traders pulled out and the people could no longer obtain ammunition for the guns on which they had become dependant. Starvation became commonplace and this lessened their resistance to disease, which began to appear with appalling regularity. By 1948 the population had been reduced from several thousand to little more than a hundred and during the next ten years, the tragedy was completed. Some eleven families, huddled in abject and lifeless poverty on a reservation were all that remained of the Ihalmiut.

In just fifty years, without lifting a finger in anger against them, European colonists had managed to exterminate a complete race of people. A brutal example of genocide by progress.

Last updated 4 January 2009