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Valuing Elders: Preserving their Influence within the Family and Community

by Nicola on 2013-05-08

Preserving the Influential Role of Elders within the Family and


By Dr Nicola Davies

The family is at the heart of the traditional Inuit community. However, in the 1950's modernisation and the introduction of Western education presented a challenge to the old ways, leading inevitably to deep shifts within Inuit society. These changes threatened to undermine the importance of the family, and the influence which Inuit elders had traditionally wielded. This article explores Inuit family bonds, with a focus on preserving the influential role of elders. 

Photo courtesy of David Ho.

Close Family Units

Within Inuit families it is customary for parents, children, and grandchildren to live together, with the head of the household traditionally being a male elder who held considerable power over what went on within the family unit. The traditional model of Inuit society saw this family unit as being placed at the centre of a wider network that consisted firstly of a number of other families, and beyond that a network of small interconnected communities. The small size of these groups ensured flexibility in times of adverse conditions.

The family formed the smallest, but also the closest part of these social structures. The strength of the family bond came from the closeness of its blood ties. Larger groups would be prone to splintering in the face of shortage, but the close relationship between family members would act to bind them together. The family bond was therefore crucial in ensuring Inuit survival, and the elders were crucial to this bond, acting as the central column holding everything together.


The traditional Inuit lifestyle was as hunter gatherers, which meant that there was little scope for building up reserves of food. The inhospitality of the Arctic as a home shaped the way Inuit society developed, with the ever present threat of food shortages and extreme weather making strong familial and communal bonds essential. Given the special importance of food to Inuit survival, the sharing of food came to play an important role in cementing bonds between family members, and between the family and the wider community. Since food sharing took place under the authority of the elders, it also buttressed their authority.

For young Inuit, the importance of the family was twofold. It was the primary source of food and shelter and, historically, it was the source from which they assimilated their culture, learned the correct way to behave within Inuit society, and acquired the hunting and other skills needed to survive. These skills were acquired by a process of observation and copying the actions of the elders. This learning process maintained the influence of the elders within the family and wider society.

Family Cohesion and Stability

The role of the elders within Inuit society was one of respect and authority. Although the elders may not have had the capacity to be productive hunters or providers, they earned their share of food by providing cohesion and stability to the family unit. Also, by virtue of their age - and therefore their long memories - they were often able to contribute knowledge, skills or advice that could help preserve the family in times of stress. Elders mediated in disputes, and their consent was often needed before a divorce could take place, especially if there were children in place. They taught and guided the young, and their wisdom and experience were valued by both children and adults.

Photo courtesy of David Ho.

Inuit Resilience

In the 1950's, Western education was imposed upon Inuit. The use of English in classes was enforced, and there were strong efforts made to enforce assimilation. This threatened to break down the old social system, by ending the process of learning by example which had sustained the influence of Inuit elders, and by undermining their authority. 

However, the longstanding social structures of Inuit proved unexpectedly resilient in the face of this challenge. The education system was forced to change, as it became apparent that cultural continuity was essential for successful teaching. Residential schooling proved unsuccessful, as the children did not thrive away from their communities. New schools were therefore constructed within Inuit villages, and the resulting education system was increasingly Inuit influenced. This trend increased as Inuit were given increasingly more control over their government and education.  

Changing Communities

Unfortunately, some aspects of elder influence did diminish. In part this resulted from the adoption of Western education, but it also stemmed from the building of larger, fixed communities, rather than small, seasonally mobile ones. Without the isolation that came from living in small, far-flung communities, the influence of the elders became compromised. It was further compromised by increased exposure to Western society.

Factors such as the availability of alcohol, and the general turmoil created by the transformation of the local economy, also brought about changes. Social housing, welfare benefits, and a general reorganisation of communities along Western lines all contributed to the waning of elder influence, and the loss of their status. A further factor has been that the transformation of Inuit society has reduced the relevance of the advice and experience that the elders are able to offer, since they grew up in a different cultural and economic context.

Traditionally, elders had been protected from these practises due to their high status, and the respect accorded to them.  In more modern times, however, incidents of elder abuse have increasingly occurred. These are different from the rare killing or abandonment of elders in the past. Today's incidents focus more on financial abuse and housing related issues. They are linked to poverty and housing shortages, and are often carried out by the elder's own grandchildren. Drug and alcohol abuse also contributed to these occurrences.

Accepting the Valuable Contribution of the Elders

The fact that the culture and economics of Inuit society has changed does not mean that the wisdom and experience of the elders is without value. Life experience and maturity are important, wherever they have been gained. The types of problems seen in Western society, such as the breakdown of family relationships and growth of youth crime, are the very things which the elders have traditionally been good at controlling. The elders therefore have an important contribution to make. There is a conscious effort now in some quarters of Inuit society to remind Inuit youth of the benefit to be had from seeking advice from elders. Initiatives in place that are helping to re-establish and maintain elder contributions within the community include elder involvment in the Kugluktuk Community Wellness Plan and, of course, elder involvment in The Society for Building a Healthier Kugluktuk - well respected elder, Joseph Niptanatiak, is the President on the Board of Directors for The Society. There is also The Department of Cultural and Heritage, which was established to provide leadership within the Government of Nunavut in the development and implementation of initiatives aimed at strengthening the culture, language and heritage of Nunavummiut; as part of this, effort has been made to encourage ongoing dialogue between eders and youth, as well as elders and the government.

Despite the introduction of Western ideas and ways of living, the wisdom and value of the elders remains strong. Indeed, respecting the important contribution that elders make within families and communities is fundamental if tradition is to be preserved.

 Photo courtesy of David Ho.

Author Bio:

Dr Nicola Davies is a Psychology Consultant and Freelance Writer with an interest in health and well-being.  Her publications can be viewed at Alternatively, you might like to sign up to her free blog:







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