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TAISSUMANI: Around the Arctic September 26, 2014 - 10:17 am

Taissumani, Sept. 26

How “–miut” Was Used a Century Ago


Last week I wrote about how the suffix “-miut” is used in Inuktitut today, to describe “the people of” a certain place (for example, Iglulingmiut) but often used too, in a general geographical sense (like Nunavummiut.)

But before Inuit largely abandoned camp life and moved into the settlements that exist today, the suffix -miut was used quite differently, to describe regional groupings of people.

As explorers’ and anthropologists’ knowledge of Canadian Inuit groupings coalesced, scientists generally called all Canadian Inuit “The Central Eskimos,” because they occupied a central position in the Inuit circumpolar world.

(It is worth noting that that classification generally excluded the Inuit of the Mackenzie Delta, the majority of whom were immigrant Alaskans.)

Since about 1923, when the Fifth Thule Expedition described the last of the Canadian Inuit to be identified by scientists as a distinct identifiable group, Inuit in Canada have been considered to comprise eight distinct but related groups: Labrador, Quebec, Baffin Island, Iglulik, Caribou, Netsilik, Copper and Mackenzie.

This classification was meaningless to the Inuit themselves, but within each of these “discrete cultural-linguistic units” were smaller groupings that the Inuit did recognize. White men often called these smaller groupings “tribes,” a term that is inadequate; think of them instead simply as “territorial groups” or “regional bands.”

One definition of a regional band reads like a boring technical definition, but nonetheless I find it helpful. It is “the largest discrete socio-territorial group occupying a territory with sufficient resources to support its members over many generations, and… sharing a recognized genetic or affinal kinship.”

This was the Inuit “–miut group,” a group small enough to self-identify “in terms of a specific feature of the territory it occupied.

The scholar, Renee Fossett, in her brilliant master’s thesis on the Keewatin (Kivalliq) Inuit in 1989, noted that:

“Members of a miut recognized a common genetic inheritance and had kinship ties with nearly all other members of the group, although temporary residents from other miuts… were common. The marriage universe was almost entirely contained within the regional band.”

Let’s look at the -miut groups that made up the territorial group that the archaeologist Therkel Mathiassen of the Fifth Thule Expedition called the “Iglulik Eskimos.”

Three regional bands (or -miut groups) made up that larger group. They were the Tununirmiut of north Baffin Island, the Iglulingmiut (proper) of the northeast coast of the Melville Peninsula, and the Aivilingmiut of the south-east coast of that peninsula and extending as far south as Cape Fullerton.

The late priest and ethnographer, Father Guy Mary-Rousselière, described these three groups as follows:

“The Tununirmiut were first and foremost the inhabitants of Tununiq, in Milne Inlet; but in a broader sense this term designated all the inhabitants of the Pond Inlet region… The name Iglulingmiut comes from the old village of Igloolik, on the same island but distinct from the present settlement of Igloolik. Its meaning has been broadened to include all the inhabitants of northern Foxe Basin… The Aivilingmiut, also called Nauyarmiut [Naujarmiut], were the inhabitants of Aivilik in Repulse Bay and its surrounding area…”

Of course, members of each of these groups lived dispersed in smaller sub-groups. And so, for example, the Tununirmiut could describe themselves as being Tasiujarmiut (the southern part of Eclipse Sound), or Sanirarmiut (the southeast coast of Bylot Island, Eclipse Sound and Pond Inlet), or Igluamiut (Navy Board Inlet), or Tununirusirmiut (Admiralty Inlet).

These were the people’s own names for their regional groupings. To confuse matters — for you, the modern reader, but not for Inuit living a century ago — other groups might call a certain group a name quite different than their own name for themselves.

So, for example, the Tununirmiut (people in the Pond Inlet area) might call the Iglulingmiut by the name Itivingmiut (people on the other side of the land.)

For the Copper Inuit, Stefansson, writing in 1919, defined 19 –miut groups or regional bands. Writing in 1932, Rasmussen narrowed that down to 14.

The Fifth Thule Expedition identified the main –miut groups of the “Caribou Eskimos,” to whom today we refer generically as the Kivallirmiut.

They are the Qairnirmiut, the Hauniqtuurmiut, the Harvartuurmiut and the Paallirmiut.

There is a fifth group, not identified by science until much later – the mysterious Ahiarmiut of the Upper Kazan River. More on them next week.

Taissumani recounts a specific event of historic interest. Kenn Harper is a historian, writer and linguist who lives in Iqaluit. Feedback? Send your comments and questions to

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