The Netsilik, an overview

Aboriginal life

-          Numbered, perhaps, 700 at the time of European encounter.

-          Little or no contact with outsiders

-          In a typical life, an individual would see no more than 200 other Netsilik.

-          Illness was caused by evil spirits.

-          Intermittent hunger was a fact of life.

-          Knowledge verbally transmitted/non-literate culture

-          Basic unit of habitation was the nuclear family

o   Moved from camp to camp depending on availability of food, no permanent settlements.

o   Carried what they owned, owned one pair of garments.

o   Families banded together during seal hunting season and worked together to collect the harvest.

-          Life expectancy of 30 years

o   Starvation, suicide and hunting accidents as main causes of death

Origin Myths

-          A series of contradictory anecdotes…

-          Earth always existed, in the beginning there was no pleasure or suffering.

-          The people sailed across a body of water, spotted land, an orphan girl in the party was thrown into the water but clung to the rafts, and her fingers were cut off.

o   The fingers turned into seals.

o   The girl turned into the Sea Goddess, controls the bounties of the sea.

-          Weather God, controls the fortunes of the hunt.

-          Moon Good, sympathetic to the people.

-          The Sun and Moon were brother and sister who had an evil mother, who tried planned to kill them. The siblings murdered the mother instead, and ascended into the sky (source of heaven).

-          All people died in a flood except for two male shamans, who survived, mated and gave birth to the human race.

Material Culture

-          Tailored garments of caribou fur

o   Often were styled as parkas with hoods and decorative panels of light colored fur.

o   Women’s parkas were often styled with a back pouch for carrying young.

-          Wore boots and donned fur mittens

-          Tattooing was common amongst female, usually done around puberty. Basic line art was common on the face, while more elaborate tattoos could be found elsewhere.

-          Staple resources: flexible (sinew and skins), solids (antler, bone, snow, stone, wood), blood-based glue.

-          Women prepared skins

o   Sealskin was used for kayak covers, tent covers, oil containers, packsacks, and thongs (binders), caribou skin for tents and garmnets.

-          Snow was a key raw material in the construction of snow houses (or during warmer periods, the foundation of tented structures), the only structures which proved sustainable during winter. Snow was also used to create windbreaks during the hunt to protect hunters from deadly winds.

-          As the treeline was far to the south of most settlements, and wood was only common as driftwood, antler emerged as a major alternative.

-          Soapstone was used to construct precious vessels such as lamps and cooking pots, the latter of which was the most prized possession of the women.

-          Constructed sleds composed of densely bound fish wrapped in seal skins and bound together by sinews and antler.

o   Sleds were used in transport during migration.

o   Used dogs, usually not exceeding two, to propel the sleds.

-          Kayaks were about twenty feet long and were commonly made of driftwood.


-          Inhabited what is currently the Canadian territory of Nunavut

-          Nunavut is a tundra north of the treeline dominated by lichens, mosses and other low growing plants.

-          North of the Arctic Circle

-          Continuous daylight in midsummer, continuous darkness in winter.

-          Winters are long and cold, averaging -20 to -40 degrees F.

-          Twenty frost-free days

-          Inuit are biologically resistant to cold.

-          On the map above, Netsilik ranged from Arctic Bay to Pelly Bay, to Cambridge Bay.


-          Senior hunters guided the extended families, but ultimately decisions were made by consensus of all adult males.

o   Age, specific kin ties and personalities were weighed.

-          Extended families represented a blood-line of males, but could be added into by adoption.

-          Gossip and ridicule used to uphold status quo

-          Inter-personal conflict was rare, as the people were not aggressive, and would withdraw rather than engage eachother.

o   An escalated form of conflict was a “Song duel,” essentially an Inuit version of a freestyle battle.

§  Whoever insulted the other better, as determined by applause, would win.

  • Further escalation included a boxing match, in which individuals would punch eachother back and forth without defending, and whoever could resist the most punishment would win.

-          No sense of tribal identity.

-          Nine bands, each corresponding to a hunting area.

o   Autonomous.

o   Fluid membership, lack of oneness.

o   Generally were hostile toward one another.

§  Derives from late prehistoric war which included massacre and raiding.

-          Newcomers obligated to get permission to live in a camp.

-          Execution was decided upon by consensus for deviants who threatened the band welfare.

o   No concept of blood revenge.

-          Polygamy was possible, although not common.

-          Common cause of murder was the lusting after of wives.


-          A business of opportunistic interception rather than pursuit of quarry.

-          During the fall families fished for char.

o   Used two-pronged leister (fish spear).

o   By November the river ice froze over and fishing became unrewarding, and families survived on caches of Caribou and Char until January.

-          January: Local families would unite with extended family to sled onto the sea ice, which had now frozen to become strong, and began the process of hunting for seals by ambushing the animals near breathing holes.

o   Families involved shared the catch.

o   Periodically encountered polar bears and hunted them

§  The man who killed the bear received the skin, all involved shared the meat.

-          By late Spring the families returned from the sea ice to the coast, via sled, and after constructing summer tents, resumed the seal hunt.

-          During the summer subsistence survival relied upon locally available edibles including seagull eggs, lake trout, fishing for char at constructed stone weirs, hunt musk ox and pick berries.

-          During the fall as caribou began to migrate south, entire families banded together and ambushed caribou en masse by routing, encircling and ambushing them, when available, sharing the harvest.

-          Although the food harvests were bountiful, they were not common. If Caribou did not appear as predicted, entire families could starve to death, as locally edible options were limited.

-          Starvation did lead to cannibalism.


-          In early times, no economy and no significant interaction outside of local band.

-          No currency.

-          Dependant on fur trade post-European contact, to obtain goods.

-          Fur trade collapsed in the face of modern animal welfare sentiments

-          Contemporary markets for carved artworks, reliance on Canadian federal dollars.


-          Highly mobile society, capable of breaking down settlements hastily and relocating according to food prospects.

-          Durable boots and clothing allowed for foot mobility

-          Constructed rafts with driftwood, antler, bound by animal sinew.

-          Constructed kayaks

o   For fishing, primarily trout.

-          Constructed sleds

o   Powered by dog, usually 1-2

o   Used for migration purposes, moving of personal goods, as well as transporting small children


-          No dogma, but superstition dominated their lives.

-          The three gods (Sea Goddess, Weather, Moon) were the most prevalent everyday actors, although a host of lesser spirits existed.

-          Most supernatural forces were hostile to humanity and instilled fear in the people.

-          Amulets (bone) were crafted and prized for protecting the people from angry spirits.

-          Belief in an immortal soul

o   Granted man his vitality, but was vulnerable to evil spirit attacks.

o   Reincarnation after death.

-          Belief in a rigid network of taboos.

o   Taboos were subtracted or added during certain periods of life, such as puberty, pregnancy, menstruation etc.

-          Two classes of supernatural mediums:

o   Head-lifters: Lifted the head of someone afflicted by a evil spirit or suspected of violating a taboo by lifting their head with sinews.

o   Shamans: Specialists who spoke a forbidden language, attempted to protect the band with protective tunraq spirits and to destroy evil tupiliq spirits, which often infected bodies after taboos had been broken, or people became sick.

§  Capable of astral projection.

§  Performed publically to convince the people of powers.

Family and Society

-          Very similar to modern Euro-American family structure

-          Kinship ties through both parents (bilateral descent system)

-          Blood relatives belong to personal kindreds

-          Close ties to blood relatives

-          Typically non-aggressive, bashful, shy people.

-          Hostility is strongly disapproved.

-          Humor: pervasive laughter, found different languages and strange sounds amusing.

-          Affection valued, especially feeding the hungry, warming cold people, safeguarding people from harm etc.

-          Happy experiences included play, telling stories, sharing company.

-          Basic social unit was nuclear family.

o   Integrated into an extended family for purposes of large hunts, typically up to 15 individuals.

-          Men were hunters, women cared for children, cooked, processed skins.

-          Built dance houses while at sea on the ice hunting seal with extended family, communal snowhouses where song and dance would be shared.

-          Multiple extended families occupied a winter sealing camp, up to 50 individuals.

-          Hunters formed into institutionalized partnerships by sharing of a seal.

-          Family members were usually referred to by one another by affectionate nicknames.

Life Cycle

-          As a pregnant woman became ready to give birth, she was isolated in a snowhouse for 4 days and, unassisted, giving birth on her knees.

-          Spent the next month in a newly constructed snowhouse

o   Observed a set of rigid taboos

-          Female infanticide was common

o   As many as half born were killed.

o   Why? Females offered no hunting ability and local group solidarity increased if wives were not married off to outsiders.

o   Life and death decisions were family matters, not religious or moral issues.

-          More boys than girls, but adult sex ratio was balanced, as numerous males died in hunting, and were more likely to commit suicide or die from starvation.

-          Children were unruly and demanding

o   Adults appeased children rather than discipline them, rarely saying ‘no,’ and treated them as if they had no reason.

o   By age six, children were considered reasoned.

o   Instruction was by example, and failure produced laughter.

-          By age 10 girls were aids to mother, by 12 a boy was a neophyte hunter.

-          Social problems focus on female infanticide, accidental death among males, deaths from starvation, low population numbers and the physical proximity of mates.

-          Marriage

o   Mothers arranged marriages between newly born boys and girls, or to girls not yet born.

o   Outstanding hunters attracted multiple wives.

o   Marriages were preferably between 1st cousins.

o   Women were expected to be married by age 15.

o   Unstable until offspring was born, trial marriages were common.

-          Marriage life:

o   Men dominated but wives were active partners.

o   Loving and caring, but promiscuity was common.

§  Male friends/partners arranged swapping with female cooperation.

§  Practical aspect: the domestic services of a woman were granted to a swapped husband during times in which his wife was unavailable, i.e. long hunts.

-          Routine adult life was dominated by children and locating food.

o   Each year’s subsistence was capricious, no matter how productive last year’s yield was, starvation was a real possibility.

o   The day was spent hunting or processing resources, the common family time was at night, as the family went to sleep.

o   The people could not stockpile food in any meaningful way.

§  Rather than becoming bitter, the people tended to be genial.

-          Suicide was a major cause of death.

o   Married men were the main perpetrator.

o   Main reasons include death of loved ones, personal illness or other misfortunes.

o   Suicide is a viable option because those who meet violent deaths inhabit the greatest of the three afterlives.

o   Few suicides derive from older people feeling worthless, which is more respective of the larger Eskimo demographic.

-          During the winter the dead were sledded onto the sea ice by relatives and abandoned without ceremony.

-          During the summer the dead were placed in the tundra amidst stones, a primitive cairn.

o   After a death, the family moved to another location.


-          Netsilik/Netsilingmiut means “people of the ringed seal.”

-          Spoke Inuit.

o   Sixteen dialects, ranging from Greenland to the Bering Strait.

o   Related to Yupik, derives from Aleut, of the Aleutian Islands.

European Contact

-          Unlike their unfortunate brethren to the south, the Netsilik did not suffer from European contact.

-          First European contact was in 1829, by the British John Ross expedition, in search of the northwest passage.

-          Over the next hundred years the Netsilik eagerly adopted the goods and technologies of the whalers and explorers penetrating the region, trading furs.

o   The people were technological empiricists and gave up inferior aspects of material culture to better survive in their harsh climate.

-          Introduction of the gun lead to the diminishment of cooperative large scale hunting, as a single man could kill seals and caribou without the aid of the band.

o   Sharing of harvest shifted to a culture of individual gains.

-          The gill net allowed passive fishing, greatly enhancing food yields.

-          Missionaries visiting the region by 1876 had aided in the development of the Eskimo (Inuit) syllabary.

o   Literary was rapidly achieved outside of formal education.

-          In the 1930s the Roman Catholics built a mission at Pelly Bay and rapidly converted the population without resistance.

o   Offered the locals trade opportunities and greatly expanded Western stuffs into everyday life.

o   The Netsilik interpreted the Catholics as powerful white shamans

-          Continued to adopt modern innovations up until contemporary times, replacing dog sleds with snowmobiles.

-          Animal rights movement of the 1980s and the banning of jaw traps greatly impacted local economy

o   Fur trapping became uneconomical.

o   Contemporary shift toward tourism and soapstone carved artworks.

-          In 1999 the Canadian government created the vast territory of Nunavut and granted local legislative autonomy to the Eskimo living there, as well as granting federal funding.

One reply on “The Netsilik, an overview”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.