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Recovering and Maintaining Inuit Traditions in the 21st Century

by Nicola on 2013-08-04

Recovering Lost Traditional Skills and Practices:

A Guide for 21st Century Inuit

Dr Nicola Davies

The past few decades have seen several initiatives being launched with the intent of restoring the cultural identity of Inuit. In the early 1990’s, the federal government of Canada created the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples to facilitate the growth of traditional Inuit culture. This commission formed the Aboriginal Healing Foundation in 1998 as a means of addressing the intergenerational loss of traditions.

While the Canadian government no longer represents a draconian institution hell-bent on the effective destruction of Inuit culture, statistics show that not enough is being done to repair the damage of previous administrations. In response to the majority of the current generation not being able to speak Inuktitut, there has been a growing movement to revive Aboriginal cultural beliefs and values. The suicide rate among Inuit children has spiraled out of control in recent years, becoming one of the most recent factors to influence the urgency of Canadian government in attempting to restore the traditional Inuit way of life.

Photo courtesy of David Ho.

The Importance of Recovering Lost Traditions

Ancient Inuit oral traditions were, up to the colonization of the Americas, the most important method used by Inuit to convey and preserve the ideas of their communities. For thousands of years the traditional heritage of Inuit was passed down from generation to generation, preserving stories, songs, and even carvings as part of their rich cultural history. The oral traditions, which survived the wrath of the residential schools, portray the imaginative and resourceful nature of Inuit, serving as testament to the way of life that was denied to entire generations. While many Inuit traditions have been lost, those which remain could hold the key to preserving the cultural identity of Inuit for new generations.

The Impact of Residential Schools

From the turn of the 20th century until the mid-1970s, tens of thousands of Aboriginal children were removed from their family homes to be placed in residential schools. It is estimated that a total of 150,000 First Nations children attended the now disgraced residential school system between the mid-1870s and the early 1990s (The Canadian Press, 2013). It is now known that countless students were abused, hundreds died of illness and starvation, and some chose to commit suicide rather than endure the ordeal of the residential school system. In addition, none of the students were allowed exposure to their cultural heritage for more than two months a year. 

Today, it is estimated that over 80,000 of the Inuit population attended residential schools (Health Canada, 2013). While this may seem like a small number to an outsider, it represents more than 50% of the global Inuit population. The out of removing children from their homes was that it prevented the transmission of language and culture, resulting in many Aboriginal people no longer speaking the language of their elders; they no longer had a sense of belonging within their culture or their families.


Cultural Identity for the Future

The absence of a cultural identity has led to a significant loss of self-sufficiency within Inuit communities, causing once traditional families to become reliant on the knowledge and skills of western civilization. It is fortunate, however, that not all of the traditional skills of Inuit have been lost. New publications, like “Birth on the Land – Memories of Inuit Elders and Traditional Midwives” by Beverely O’Brien, represent attempts by modern authors to commit oral traditions to text. Books like these aim not only to preserve what remains of Inuit traditions, but also to give new generations of Inuit access to their heritage. By interviewing elders who still remembered the old Inuit ways, authors have been able to record traditional food preparation, midwifery, childrearing, cosmology, and even shamanism practices for prosperity. Websites like Strong Nations, have also attempted to aid Inuit communities in being able to afford such publications by providing a variety of books on culture and heritage to Inuit people at discounted prices.


The move to use western media to preserve and spread Inuit culture has not been limited to the printed word. The National Aboriginal Radio Network of Canada, which launched in 1998, represents one of the only nationwide mediums that regularly broadcast information on traditional Inuit lifestyle and practices. Wisdom of the Elders, broadcast every Sunday, is a public radio talk show which focuses on native Inuit culture, musicians, storytelling, drumming practices, and flute playing. This radio station seeks to give a distinctly Aboriginal service to the majority of the Aboriginal people, providing entertainment alongside culturally relevant Aboriginal programming. Programs are broadcast in English as well as Inuktitut, allowing both parents and children who have not yet learned to speak Inuktitut to learn about their culture and hear their native language.

Cultural Revival from Within

Aboriginal leaders have recently been attempting to create an enhanced sense of belonging for Inuit youth by using the circle of connectedness. These circles place the child at the center of a family, surrounded by his or her parents, who are also surrounded by their community and elders. These circles allow entire communities to share their knowledge with children through a network of community members. Some communities have also set up parent circles, which allow parents to share their own experiences and learn from each other. This gives Inuit parents a medium to focus on their strengths rather than their weaknesses. Such initiatives allow parents to both learn and teach traditional Inuit skills, and are now commonplace in many Inuit communities.

The key message, then, is for all 21st Century Inuit to join together in efforts to recover lost traditions and maintain those traditions not yet lost. Together, Inuit communities have the power to keep their cultural identity alive and strong!

 Photo courtesy of David Ho.


Health Canada (2013). Indian residential schools. [Last accessed 04/08/2013].

O’Brien, B. (2013). Birth on the Land – Memories of Inuit Elders and Traditional Midwives. Nunavut Arctic College.

The Canadian Press (2013). At least 3,000 died in residential schools, research shows. [Last accessed 04/08/2013].


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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