Around 15,000 years ago, people began crossing the Bering Strait from Asia into what is now Alaska and eventually settling in every part of North America. The environment in which people settled influenced the adaptations they invented and the development of their culture. For thousands of years, indigenous peoples have lived in the Arctic and Subarctic regions of North America adapting to their challenging homeland with ingenious and innovative ways to use the natural resources to build shelter, find food, make clothing, and develop complex cultures, traditions, art, and religion that are rooted in harmony with the land and sea.
The Arctic Region lies in the northernmost parts of North America, Asia, and Europe circling the North Pole. The Arctic in North America stretches from present-day northern Alaska, northern Canada, and Greenland. The land is a vast tundra that is very cold and flat. This harsh landscape is covered with ice, snow, and frozen water year round. Because it is a frozen desert there is very little vegetation—only brush and tundra plants. The winters are very long and extremely cold with an average temperature of -18°F. Because of the tilt of the earth, for months during the winter there is little to no sunlight, these days are known as polar nights. The summers have an average of 37°F and experience the opposite effect of increasing daylight where there are a few months of 24 hours of sunlight, earning the nickname: Land of the Midnight Sun. The stunning aurora borealis, or northern lights, are visible in the arctic and subarctic regions. This phenomenon is a natural light display of brilliant colors in the earth’s sky. There are dozens of different Indigenous peoples in the Arctic including: the Athabascan (Dene), Aleut, Yup’ik, and Inuit (Iñupiat) in Alaska, Inuit (Inuvialuit) in Canada, and Inuit (Kalaallit) in Greenland.
The Subarctic Region is south of the Arctic region and includes much of Alaska and Canada stretching from the Bering Sea off the coast of Alaska past the Hudson Bay to the Labrador Sea. The area also has long cold winters and short, mild summers. The ground below the surface of the earth in the Subarctic region is permanently frozen or called permafrost. However, the top layer of the soil melts in the spring and summer revealing grasses, shrubs, mosses, lichen, and some flowering plants like the purple mountain saxifrage. The Subarctic region has a taiga or boreal forest which is a forest of coniferous trees like pines, spruces, and larches. Indigenous peoples of the Subarctic region include the Athabascan (Dene), Cree, Ojibwa, Atikamekw, Innu and Beothuk among many others.
Despite the challenging environment, these regions have extremely diverse wildlife. Many animals make their home living on the frozen tundra, in the boreal forests, or in the icy sea. Some examples of animals include the Arctic: fox, ground squirrel, hare, tern, and wolf. There are also caribou (reindeer), polar bears, bald eagles, walruses, harp seals, orca, beluga whales, sharks, narwhals, dall sheep, ermine (stoat), puffins, sea otters, and wolverines. Many animals like the arctic fox have fascinating adaptations to the environment such as the change in color of their fur. In the summer, arctic foxes have a brown and grey coat to match the grasses and rocks in the thawed region. In the winter the arctic fox has a coat that is as white as the snow so that it will not be seen by predators.
Because of the harsh terrain and climate, farming was not possible and therefore Indigenous peoples of the Arctic and Subarctic were nomadic: moving from place to place in search of natural resources to meet their needs of food, clothing, and shelter. In the warmer months, they would gather berries, roots, herbs, bulbs, and seaweed and also collect wild bird eggs for nourishment. Indigenous peoples of the Arctic and Subarctic also relied heavily on fishing and hunting animals like seals and walruses. Whales were even hunted using a large boat called an umiak. Umiaks were constructed with a frame of driftwood, walrus ribs or whalebones, covered with walrus or seal skins, and covered with oil to make the boat water-tight. Umiaks were very large and could carry many people for whaling or for transportation. Another boat invented by the Indigenous peoples of the arctic were kayaks. These were built to be used by one person and rowed using a double-paddled oar. Kayaks were swift and silent in the water and useful for hunting or travel. After a hunt, a tool called an ulu would traditionally be used by women to clean, skin, and prepare the animal for cooking. An ulu is a short-handled knife with a wide and flat crescent-shaped blade.
Seal hunting could be done by a small group or individual hunter and his dogs. Dogs are very important to the Inuit and other cultures. More than just pets and companions, dogs were vital to survival. Dogs could carry packs and help with hunting by using their noses to sense where the seals were located under the ice. Hunters give many thanks to the “sea goddess” when they catch a seal. The seal provides much of what is needed to survive the harsh winters: meat for food, blubber for fuel for cooking, light, and warmth from a fire, as well as fur for clothes, shoes, blankets, and homes. Indigenous peoples like the Inuit greatly respect the seal and all the animals they hunt and no part was ever wasted. Likewise if a whale is caught, it can provide enough sustenance for an entire village for the winter. Their dogs are given thanks as well for the help they provide. Dogs are loved and treated with respect for the vital role they play in survival.
Another important use for dogs by the Inuit and other indigenous peoples of the Arctic are as sled dogs. Packs of dogs were raised and trained to pull sleds made from animal bone and seal rope that carry their owners and goods across the icy tundra. Traveling by sleds and walking were the main forms of transportation across the snow and ice covered land. Drivers of dog sleds are called mushers. Dogsled racing has also become a popular sport. The Iditarod is a famous 1,000 mile dog sled race that occurs in Alaska each year.
In addition to seals, whales, and walruses, elk, arctic hare, arctic fox, and mountain dall sheep were also hunted. Caribou or reindeer was another important animal to the Indigenous peoples of the Arctic and Subarctic. Caribou fur was used to make clothing such as coats, pants, hats, and gloves. Coats would often be artistically and beautifully decorated with glass beads, caribou teeth, and walrus tusks. Another warm item of clothing are special boots called mukluks. Mukluks or kamik are soft, high, warm boots, traditionally made of caribou skin or sealskin. For 2000 years, snow goggles have been carved from wood, bone, or ivory walrus tusks. They were important to protect the eyes and decrease the glare of the sun off the bright snow. First nations like the Cree of the Subarctic crafted snowshoes out of wood and animal-hide for walking through the deep drifts of snow in the winter.
Indigenous peoples’ survival was dependent on their cooperation with one another. Therefore when a hunter brought home a seal or other catch, he gladly and proudly shared with his neighbors. Villages were made up of between 6 and 30 homes. Homes were temporary shelters as Indigenous peoples needed to move seasonally to hunt, fish, and gather. In the winter, people like the Inuit built igloos made from thick blocks of ice and snow. They had a tunnel for an opening that would help trap out the cold. Inside the main portion of the dwelling could reach 60°F. Igloos could comfortably house up to twenty people. In the spring and summer, homes were traditionally tents constructed from a driftwood or bone frame wrapped with caribou fur or seal skin. These skin tents were similar to the tipis constructed by their southern neighbors.
Indigenous peoples of the Arctic and Subarctic are experts in storytelling, using myths and legends to teach morality and how to live harmoniously with the earth. They are skilled artisans carving hunting charms from walrus ivory, bone or caribou antlers in the shape of seals or other animals. They also crafted religious icons and wooden masks that resembled animals to pray for successful hunts. Religious leaders called shamans would communicate with spirits to pray for good health and hunting. Singing, dancing, storytelling, and poetry were present during social and religious gatherings. Respecting the animals they hunted was central to their religion. They believed that when animals were killed their spirit would move on to another animal. For entertainment, traditional games like knuckle hop and blanket toss were played and continue in communities today.
Inuit and other Indigenous cultures of the Arctic have displayed the affectionate greeting of rubbing noses with their loved ones. This was naturally because much of the face and body was covered in the cold. This is most commonly done by mothers with their children and not a formal greeting as some misconceptions have implied. Another example of misinformation is the term Esk*mo, which, while widely known, is considered offensive by many and should not be used. The term was a word given by European explorers and colonizers to describe the Indigenous peoples of the north they encountered and not a term Indigenous peoples would traditionally use for themselves. Therefore, it is always better to be more specific with the group of people you are describing using their correct name such as the: Kalaallit in Greenland, the Inuvialuit in Canada, and the Inuit (Iñupiat), Aleut, or Yup’ik in Alaska, for example.
Indigenous peoples of the Arctic and Subarctic found ways to explore, adapt and thrive in an extremely challenging environment. The land rich with unique geographical features and diverse wildlife is the lifeblood of the people who survived for a millennia on a sustainable hunting culture that has been passed down from generation to generation. As with other indigenous peoples, they were greatly impacted with the arrival of European colonizers and cessation of their lands by the United States and Canada. By the late 19th century, the colonization of the land, discrimination and diseases brought by outsiders decimated the native populations. Both the United States and Canada promoted a policy that would force indigenous peoples into boarding schools where the goal was to forget the language and culture of their birth and replace it with the dominant western culture. The erasure of culture and discrimination that these ‘residential schools’ created negatively impacted indigenous peoples across the United States and Canada for generations.
Like much of the world, the Arctic is facing severe threats due to climate change. Global warming is causing the sea ice and glaciers to melt and the permafrost to thaw. This threatens coastal villages with flooding, bigger storms, and erosion. Despite these many hardships, Indigenous peoples continue to thrive today, maintaining their culture and also living in modern ways. Indigenous peoples are extremely diverse and can never be considered one monolithic group. People of indigenous heritage have contributed and continue to contribute greatly to all facets of life: art, architecture, agriculture, science, government, and much more. Many live in modern style houses, use snowmobiles, GPS, and even have developed apps to help teach their children their native language. While many Indigenous people live in different ways than their ancestors, there are many that practice their traditional customs to preserve their way of life for future generations.
With the activities in this lesson plan, students will demonstrate what they’ve learned about the Indigenous Peoples of the Arctic/Subarctic Region. They’ll become familiar with their environment, resources, traditions and culture.