November 10, 2004

Clothing, footwear and territory of the Caribou Inuit


Caribou Inuit live in the District of Keewatin in the communities of Chesterfield Inlet, Baker Lake, Rankin Inlet, Whale Cove, and Arviat.

They hunt primarily caribou, which provides materials for their food, clothing, shelter, and tools.

Fish is also a major food resource, and some coastal families hunt sea mammals.

Regional Overview

The Keewatin landscape varies from lowlands and mudflats in the southeast to hilly rocky terrain in the north, where sinuous eskers provide valuable navigational aids and ideal fox trapping areas.

A few isolated patches of black spruce and arctic willow grow up to three feet tall in sheltered locations in the southern region, and the treeline is about 100 miles west of the most southern community, Arviat.

Large lakes, shallow tundra ponds and rivers dominate the region.

The Keewatin is home to the Beverly and Kaminuriak caribou herds as well as dispersed populations of arctic hare, arctic ground squirrel, arctic fox, wolf, ptarmigan, and geese.

Muskox are limited to the Thelon Game Sanctuary west of Baker Lake.

The inland waters support arctic char, lake trout, whitefish, and grayling. The marine waters sustain ringed seal, bearded seal, beluga, and polar bear.

Walrus inhabit the west coast of Hudson Bay north of Rankin Inlet.

In the eighteenth century, Caribou Inuit had very little contact with the outside world. They traded for iron, beads, and other supplies from floating Hudson’s Bay Company posts (Burch 1986a) until 1790, when the company’s ships stopped going up the Keewatin coastline.

From that time on, Paallirmiut (coastal Caribou Inuit in southern Keewatin) journeyed to Fort Prince of Wales to trade.

A century later, inland and coastal groups from southern Keewatin travelled between Brochet in northern Manitoba and Bathurst Inlet near the arctic coastline, where they traded with Copper and Netsilik Inuit (Tyrrell 1897, Hudson’s Bay Company Archives A.12/FT MISC.207 28 July 1913, Jenness 1922, Arima 1984, Burch 1986b).

From 1860 to 1904, Caribou Inuit traded with overwintering American whalers and Aivilingmiut (a southern group of Iglulik Inuit) in the northwestern Hudson Bay area (Low 1906, Birket-Smith 1929).

Historical Clothing

In the nineteenth century, parkas with beaded decoration as well as long, broad front and back tails were distinctive items of Caribou Inuit clothing (Birket-Smith 1929, Driscoll 1980).

Kamiks made before 1900 appear to be made of two pIeces, a leg section and a sole. There may have been a center front seam extending from the leg section to the toes, and the sole was a separate piece sewn to the leg section without any pleating.

Detailed information on historical styles is available in several sources (including Birket-Smith 1929, Marsh 1976, Driscoll 1980, Oakes 1991a, Hall et al. 1994).

Women’s footwear consisted of boots worn with thigh-high stockings (Birket-Smith 1929). The boots had a vamp, leg section, inner sole, and outer sole.

The top of the leg section tapered to a small point at the upper thigh and was fastened with a loop or bone button to a belt.

A side pouch, similar to the one used by Iglulik Inuit, was also a feature of Caribou Inuit boots. Birket-Smith (1929) suggested that the side pouches were used to carry small children, and Greenlandic Natives are known to do so according to McGrath (1986-89).

Ulayok Kaviok (1985-87) said the pouches were used to store and dry caribou skin diapers.

A diaper was a large section of caribou neck skin that was set under a naked baby carried in the mother’s parka pouch.

When the baby soiled a diaper, the mother replaced it with a clean diaper that she kept in one of her other boot pouches. She then freeze-dried the soiled diaper, cleaned with a caribou brow tine or dull scraper,
and placed it in the empty boot pouch to dry.

A third diaper was stored in the other boot pouch, ready for use while the second diaper was drying. In addition, a mother usually placed her mitts in a boot pouch for safekeeping while she breast-fed her baby.

These boots with pouches are worn occasionally today for theatre and Halloween costumes (Oakes 1991a).

Contemporary Clothing

Over the last sixty years, many changes have affected traditional Caribou Inuit lifestyles and clothing (Oakes 1992b).

During the 1920s, Anglican and Roman Catholic missions and private trading posts were first established throughout the Keewatin.

Today, communities have indoor skating rinks, small shopping malls, Arctic Co-operatives, Northern stores, nursing stations, scheduled air flights, regular mail delivery, and many other facilities and services.

These changes have increased the availability of mass-produced fabric clothing such as sweatshirts, blue jeans, sweaters, and jogging suits. However, people of all ages continue to wear caribou and seal skin clothing, as well as fabric clothing made in traditional styles.

Hunters still wear inner and outer layers of caribou skin clothing in extremely cold winter weather.

Some seamstresses decorate parkas with beaded pieces purchased from craft stores, combining these beaded pieces with rickrack, bias tape, and other trim to create innovative, modern variations of the traditional beaded parka.

Caribou Footwear

Inuit wear haired caribou skin boots whose soles are made of caribou rather than seal skin.

This style of boot is also made by Iglulik and Baffinland Inuit, but Caribou Inuit use it more extensively.

Caribou Inuit are also the primary makers of the caribou skin boot worn with all the hair to the inside, bu they seldom make caribou leg skin boots.

According to Sally Qimminu’naaq Webster (1994), Caribou Inuit call short kamiks ‘saaluqitiq’ and call kamiks for everyday wear ‘kubluuq’. She also says that in the past they used fish oil to waterproof kamiks called ‘ipirausiq’.

Seal skin boots made in the southern part of the Caribou Inuit region are very similar to those of other communities, but there are noticeable differences.

The straight leg section is much narrower than the full, gathered leg section of the Iglulik and Baffinland Inuit.

The height of the back heel seam is slightly lower than that used by Labrador Inuit and much higher than that used by Inuit in Greenland.

The geometric decorative designs on the section are simpler than those on Iglulik and Baffinland Inuit boots.

Soles made by Caribou Inuit have diffused pleats that are larger and bulkier than those made by Baffinland Inuit.

Caribou Inuit rarely use ankle straps on their boots, but they do use ties on their over slippers.

The Symbolism of Footwear

Footwear is often refered to symbolically when discussing social issues such as religious devotion or community spirit.

For example, an Anglican minister in Arviat gave a sermon in which he drew parallels between different degrees of devotion shown by church-goers and the different amount of wear seen on the skin, hair, and seams of winter boots.

Ekuma Parr, an elder from Cape Dorset, drew a similar parallel between the stitches holding boots together and the importance of community members working together to maintain their informal economy.

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