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They live in a land about the size of Mexico that is frozen solid most of the year. With no roads to connect their tiny villages, they are dependent entirely on the air and the sea for physical contact with the outside world. Their suicide rate is six times higher than the rest of Canada and they have the highest rates of family violence, unemployment, sexually transmitted disease, alcoholism, and substance abuse. Nevertheless, the native people of Canada's eastern Arctic embrace life in one of the most inhospitable places on Earth, just as their ancestors have for centuries.

Eye in the Sky

Last month the Inuit—the term they prefer to Eskimos—marked the first anniversary of the Canadian government's latest experiment to improve their lives: the newly created, largely self-governing territory of Nunavut (pronounced NOO-nah-voot)—"Our Land" in their language, Inuktitut.

"We must not give way to pressure from the surrounding world to change," Nunavut Premier Paul Okalik told an audience during a swearing-in ceremony in the capital of Iqaluit that coincided with the anniversary.

Okalik was referring to the traditional Inuit way of life centered on nomadic hunting—not to the social pathologies that have haunted the Inuit ever since the Canadian government's first experiment with their lives half a century ago.

The Inuit's plunge into the depths of human misery, and the salvation that they hope their new form of government heralds, is a classic story of good intentions gone wrong.


British seamen searching in the 19th century for a northern passage between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans were among the first Westerners to encounter the Inuit. They employed them as guides and hunters—and consultants on how to dress for survival in one of the coldest regions on Earth. Five Inuit accompanied Robert Peary and Matthew Henson in their 1909 expedition to the North Pole by dogsled.

Nevertheless, these latte-skinned, Asiatic people for the most part were regarded as inferior: They had no written language and—to Western eyes—no technology. It is understood now that Inuit adaptations to the cold, their ingeniously warm clothing, and durable equipment, represent technology of a high order.

Westerners also took note of the Inuit's habits of silence and passivity. Even today, visitors from "the South" (anywhere south of the tree line above Manitoba) complain of feeling uncomfortable around people who abstain from social chatter. Anthropologists now believe these behaviors are adaptations to a life that included long stays in dark, cramped igloos—Inuit traditional shelters—where rowdy individuals risked being thrown out into the howling Arctic night.

The first real European legacy was disease, followed by Christianity. But the gift that many authorities now believe truly devastated the Inuit was the concept of planned communities. During the late 1950s and early 1960s, the Canadian government, through encouragement and coercion, induced the Inuit to abandon their small, widely scattered nomadic hunting groups, and settle in permanent villages. Prefabricated houses were provided, along with diesel fuel to heat them, and other trappings of civilization such as medical services and schools.

Critics of these well-intentioned policies trace the disintegration of Inuit culture to these beginnings. Now, they say, there is a whole generation of Inuit that neither fits into the social and economic fabric of the South, nor has the skills to live off the land in the traditional way.


However, well-heeled tourists in increasing numbers are finding the Inuit's old ways attractive enough to spend money on them. A variety of Arctic experiences are offered by tour operators, such as wildlife-watching expeditions to see narwhals, beluga whales, walruses, seals, polar bears, musk oxen, and caribou. Some of these animals can be hunted. Hiking, camping, and sea kayaking are other popular activities; and for around U.S. $100,000, not counting transportation to the staging area in Resolute Bay, the seriously adventurous can ski to the North Pole.

Ecotourism is part of the hope of authorities for a comeback—along with oil and other mineral deposits placed under Inuit control by the agreement that created Nunavut.

Inuit leaders like Premier Okalik—a 34-year-old lawyer who himself is a recovering alcoholic—say that a wholesale return to life on the land as in the old days is impossible: The Inuit will never trade their electricity and diesel heat back for igloos. But they hope that a revival of traditional values, plus education and training needed to take advantage of these new economic opportunities, will be the keys to preserving an ancient culture.

Eye in the Sky is a weekly series that brings you the story behind the headlines using satellite imagery, remote sensing, aerial photography, and maps. This feature is developed by National Geographic News with the sponsorship of the National Imagery and Mapping Agency (NIMA) and Earth-Info. Check out maps and imagery at

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• At 770,000 square miles (2 million square kilometers), the one-year-old territory of Nunavut covers 20 percent of Canada, stretching from Hudson Bay to Ellesmere Island—the last land before the North Pole.
• Nunavut's 27,000 residents are 85 percent Inuit (the term they prefer to Eskimo). A young population, 56 percent are under the age of 25.
• Some trace the Inuit's social problems to the late 1950s and early 1960s, when the Canadian government pressured them to abandon their nomadic hunting for permanent villages, complete with prefabricated houses, diesel fuel, medical services, and schools.
• With few natural resources, Nunavut receives 90 percent of its annual $640 million (U.S. $440 million) budget, plus about $200 million (U.S. $140 million) for other programs, from the federal government in Ottawa.

More Information

  • Established by a stroke of the pen on April 1, 1999, Nunavut is Canada's newest territory-a unit of government with considerable powers of self-government, but without the same powers of provinces, especially in the area of taxation. The deal was a settlement of native claims.
  • Nunavut, population 27,000, was carved out of the old Northwest Territories-which still exists in diminished form. Citizens of Nunavut elect a 19-member local parliament and a premier, and have representation in the federal parliament in Ottawa.
  • Also as part of the settlement, Nunavut was granted certain mineral rights, and is to receive $1 billion (U.S. $670 million) over the next 14 years. In exchange, the Inuit agreed to give up all other land claims.