Knud Rasmussen, leader of the Fifth Thule Expedition. (Image courtesy of the Kenn Harper Collection)

The starving Inuit of the inland Kivalliq

By Kenn Harper

Knud Rasmussen and Kaj Birket-Smith believed Inuit culture had developed inland and only later expanded to the coast to become a maritime culture. It was to prove this theory that Rasmussen wanted to visit the Inuit of the Kivalliq interior.

He would document the “intellectual culture” of the groups he met there, while Birket-Smith would collect and document the “material culture.” Ultimately, their theory would be proven wrong, by none other than their archeologist colleague Therkel Mathiassen, who showed Inuit culture had originated in Alaska and spread eastward across Canada and Greenland.

So why were Inuit living inland in the Kivalliq region? Modern ethnographers have shown that Chipewyans from the forests of northern Manitoba travelled regularly into the treeless lands west of Hudson Bay in the 1700s. The nearest Inuit were around Chesterfield Inlet. Despite occasional hostilities, when Chipewyans and Inuit met, relations were usually friendly. The establishment of a Hudson’s Bay Company trading post at Churchill in 1717 eventually drew Inuit south along the coast to trade.

Then, in 1781-82, a smallpox epidemic among the Chipewyans decimated that population and left the interior almost unpopulated. Traders also encouraged the Chipewyans to remain in the forest where valuable furs could be had. The result was a much smaller Indian presence in the barren lands, followed by a migration of Inuit from the coast inland during the 1800s to what had been the traditional hunting grounds of the Chipewyan Dene. From that time on there was an overlap in use of the territory.

Relations between the two groups continued to be generally harmonious, though marred by occasional acts of violence.

By 1881, 217 Inuit, all from the inland Kivalliq (most from the southwestern part), traded regularly at the HBC post at Brochet on Reindeer Lake, Man.; this compares with 515 mostly coastal Inuit trading at Churchill.

The Caribou Inuit expended west and south until approximately 1920, that is, until approximately the time that Rasmussen visited them.

So, if this trip to the inland Inuit was critical to his research, why was the trip so abbreviated? Why didn’t Rasmussen stay longer, perhaps even for a winter? I believe one reason may have been the possibility of starvation — his own.

Serious episodes of starvation had occurred among the inland Inuit numerous times since the mid-1800s. But the most serious episodes began about 1916 and continued for a decade, a period some scholars have called the Great Famine.

Solomon Ford, HBC manager at Chesterfield Inlet, compiled a census of the “Southern Keewatin” in 1918. When it is compared with figures reported by Rasmussen and Birket-Smith in 1922 and 1923, it shows the population of Harvaqtuurmiut dropped from 186 in 1918 to 74 four years later. In the same period the Hauniqtuurmiut population dropped from 96 to 54, the Qairnirmiut population from 214 to 101 or less, and a portion of the Paallirmiut from 304 to 107.

On the upper Kazan River, in the territory of the Ahiarmiut, the population dropped from an estimated 600 people to about 100 shortly before the arrival of the expedition.

Rasmussen was told of another Inuit sub-group, the Tahiuyarmiut, which had almost all died out through starvation only three years earlier. Birket-Smith reported that over 100 Tahiuyarmiut had died during the winter of 1919. Scholar Tiger Burch noted cryptically, “despite their professed concern with Inuit history, neither Rasmussen nor Birket-Smith seem to have been interested in anything that happened prior to their visit, even something as momentous as the extinction of an entire society.”

The Caribou Inuit population therefore had declined by more than half in the years just prior to the Fifth Thule Expedition. In fact, people were dying of starvation while Rasmussen and Birket-Smith were there. Burch stated quite starkly, “What the Fifth Thule Expedition encountered in southern Keewatin was a group of societies on the verge of extinction.”

Burch went on to suggest that, when Rasmussen wrote about the “careless mind and great capacity for resignation” of the Caribou Inuit, he may have been noting the attitudes of people in despair.

Two years later, Rasmussen was at Herschel Island in the western Canadian Arctic where he reported to RCMP Inspector Stuart Wood on the progress of his expedition to date. Among other information, Rasmussen told the inspector of his visit to the inland Inuit, the so-called Caribou Eskimo.

Wood wrote a report to police headquarters, summarizing what Rasmussen had told him. He wrote: “Mr. Rasmussen and Birket-Smith found the Eskimo in [the] vicinity of Yathkyed and Dubawnt Lakes in a deplorable condition, many starving and all suffering untold hardship through lack of any kind of fuel during the winter months.”

He noted that J. B. Tyrrell had travelled through the area between 1893 and 1895 and reported that there were 400 to 500 Inuit in that area at the time, but that, according to Rasmussen “there are but 50 families in one place and 3 in another now, the remainder having died from starvation.… Absence of the caribou appears to be the prime reason.”

Wood described the game conditions as reported to him by Rasmussen, then returned to the condition of the Caribou Inuit: “These people live under deplorable conditions of the greatest hardship and there are many deaths every winter from starvation.”

But it is the penultimate sentence that is so shocking: “He [Rasmussen] informed me that he would not make public the starving condition of the natives he met with in vicinity of Yathkyed Lake and Backs River.”

Why did Rasmussen agree to keep such damning information a secret? Years later anthropologist Diamond Jenness wrote that Rasmussen “had been shocked by the deplorable conditions of the Eskimos … and that only international courtesy, and the feeling that they had been guests on Canadian soil, prevented him and his colleagues from exposing the situation at the time.”

And so it was left to popular writer Farley Mowat, three decades after the Fifth Thule Expedition, to inform the public, with his books The People of the Deer and The Desperate People, and finally to create “a storm of indignation.”

Taissumani is an occasional column that recalls events of historical interest. Kenn Harper is a historian and writer who lived in the Arctic for over 50 years. He is the author of “Minik: the New York Eskimo” and “Thou Shalt Do No Murder,” among other books. Feedback? Send your comments and questions to

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(24) Comments:

  1. Posted by Anomak Niptanatiak on

    And the problem/withholding of the true history of our Inuit people are slowly coming forward. Colonizations is part and parcel of the problem in Inuit lands. Our culture is matriarchal, whereas the monetary values of the patriarchal colonizers values money, status, and power over humanity. There are a few brave Elders speaking out and it is not too late of all Inuit Peoples to speak out about the consequences of the Kablunak People stealing our lands, our language, and connections to these that are important in Inuit Principles. The uncovering of mass graves is a catalyst of change for us Inuit…. the Times of Change is here!!!

    • Posted by Untermensch on

      I’ve never heard that Inuit society was matriarchal before. I bet you haven’t either.

      The idea that colonizers were focused on prestige and status while Inuit were not is not believable. Humans, like all primates are ‘wired’ (or at the very least ‘conditioned’) to pursue these within their group. Of course, what might confer status or prestige will vary in accord with group, or cultural values—still, the underlying impulse is to stand out as exceptional among one’s peers.

      To imagine pre-contact, or traditional, Inuit society in romantic, utopian terms as you have done is alluring, but the goal of this kind of narrative building is not historical accuracy, but positioning one’s group in a hierarchy of moral values; we are back to prestige chasing again, it would seem.

      • Posted by Jay Arnakak on

        can’t make blanket statements like that. it depends on family and family dynamics. My grandmother was a strong matriarch of our family (her children and their children).

        • Posted by Not the same thing, Jay on

          I’m sure your grandmother was a strong matriarch, but that is not saying the same thing as “a society is matriarchal;” which is to describe the center of power in its social and political relationships as a function of gender.

          • Posted by Jay Arnakak on

            perhaps the original question was whether or not Inuit society pre-contact was ‘egalitarian’ rather than ‘matriarchal’…sounds like it.

            • Posted by Untermensch on

              What I find interesting about the use of terms like patriarchy and matriarchy in this discussion is what appears to be the motivation for using it at all: to draw a clear moral distinction between Inuit and European-Canadian societies. Not because it is accurate (saying this because I can find little evidence that Inuit society was matriarchal at all). I think we should concern ourselves with what is true before what simply appeals to us for political reasons.

            • Posted by Not even close on

              Jay, nothing at all in the original comment “sounds like” it means to suggest “egalitarian” … nothing. Zero… this is really disingenuous of you. I’m disappointed.

  2. Posted by Amike Artolla on

    Kablunak run things to long here. Dis is my place not theres. We will be heard, Yell at the top of our voice. We want more of everything, It coming. No more Inuit shame,

    • Posted by Umingmak on

      This comment is disgusting and racist. Give your head a shake. The north is home to anyone who wishes to call it home. It doesn’t belong to one race nor another.

  3. Posted by Janet on

    We see the vast difference from the way two places were colonized from the perspective of Knud Rasmussen, the UK/Canadian way has been very destructive with residential schools, the way they developed or lack of development in the north, with time passing history will come out more about these kinds of things.
    I’ve only been the Greenland a couple of times and it blows my mind to the infrastructure they have and the architecture of their buildings, beautiful roads, ports, recycling programs, the education system, language, it made me think how can they be able to do this there with such a small country Ike Denmark when we have Canada? One of the richest countries in the world.
    The difference in approach by these two countries in their north is astonishing to say the least. Disappointing on our end.

    • Posted by Functionality on

      I think Greenland has higher expectations of people regardless of their race, and doesn’t coddle and support dysfunction to the degree that Canada does. They’re not mired in self-flagellating guilt either, and not endlessly re-inventing history to make things seem increasingly worse like we do.

    • Posted by Really? on

      I do not know Greenland but I saw a movie made by Inughuit / Inuit (not sure how they refer to themselves) from that part of the world and, although it was fiction, it addressed the same themes as The Grizzlies, so the heartbreaking challenges youth are facing, presumably from a similar history of colonialism. Just because it looks prettier does not mean people are not hurting inside. A short visit or a movie won’t tell us a complete story obviously but I would not jump to conclusions too quickly..

    • Posted by Silas on

      The colonization of two different countries and totally different dynamics are impossible to compare.
      Canada a colony of Britain and France with a long history of conflicts and hostility between the two. Denmark a small country in relative peace throughout its history. Greenland with only 17 communities and small useable landmass.
      Compare that to Canada one of the largest countries in the world in landmass, thirteen jurisdictions three of which are in heavily dispersed territories which are difficult to get to at the best of times.
      Denmark is made up of mostly Danes and Inuit. Canada is as diverse as the world. In order to progress we must find Canadian solutions not of other countries.

      • Posted by False. Denmark was colonial like the rest. on

        Apologies, but just because Denmark and Danes have a very high world reputation on today’s stage, they do Infact have a marred history of colonialism. One quick Google search can tell you more.

        “Denmark was a slaver nation same as the other colonial powers, sending around 100.000 slaves from present day Ghana to the Danish colonies in the Caribbean.”

        Many articles to back this up as well as showing mistreatment of the Inuit in a similar “uproot and move the native population to suit our needs” kind of way.

        • Posted by All were involved ( Iqaluit) on

          Yes False you are correct !
          Coastal warrior tribes in West Africa would capture other black people and made a fortune
          selling them to European slavers.
          Same as the Celts did to Roman slavers, selling Pictish slaves.
          Young Hebridean people, captured by Vikings, ended up in Constantinople ( Istanbul today )
          GOD BLESS.

      • Posted by Larry on

        Silas, it sounds like you don’t know very much about Denmark and Greenland, might help if you do a bit more research before posting about it.
        There are more towns in Greenland than Nunavut, it’s a difficult country to build on, a mountainous country, weather can change fast also.
        You just have to appreciate what the Danes of done there with infrastructure, more people from Nunavut should travel there and see first hand, strong language everywhere from daycares, schools, stores to government offices, pretty much everywhere, our fellow Inuit are on a better path and we can learn from them, I think it would make more sense to work together with Greenland then southern Canada.

        • Posted by Silas on

          Greenland had a population of 56,080 in 2020 and 17 communities. A few different dialects, one government and no other first nations to vie for funding from their national government
          Canada has Inuit living in four different jurisdictions, NWT, Nunavut, Nunavik and Labrador; in those jurisdictions there are approximately 54 communities in which Inuit are the majority. Many different dialects in Nunavut alone, most living along the coast, some live inland. Top that off with the number of First Nations communities across Canada who are also vying for funds from the federal government.
          Millions of square miles in Canada and thousands of square miles of useable land in Greenland. We may have more in common with Greenland but the Inuit in the west have more in common with Inukhuit of Alaska.

          • Posted by Larry on

            There are over 60 settlements in Greenland, many different dialects, each settlement having their own dialect, the Inughuit of northwest Greenland have a similar dialect as the western Nunavumiut,
            The largest island in the world, very rugged country and a small country Denmark population of 5 million are able to do more for Greenland than a country that is much bigger in both population and landmass, I wonder how that can be, the approach has been very different, very destructive by the UK/Canadian way, but then again that is not surprising as UK has been very destructive around the world with their approach with indigenous people. The Danes aren’t perfect either but the way they went about it with Greenland has been much more positive and forward thinking compared to the UK/Canadian way.
            Very educational to see the differences and if more Inuit would learn about how things can be done differently then our southern Canadian way maybe it would help Inuit knowing there’s other options instead of just accepting the marginal help from Ottawa. So much infrastructure is needed here.

  4. Posted by JOHN ELL on

    Alianait unikarunnaravit Mr. Harper. It’s always good to hear your thoughts about history.

  5. Posted by Tuharnaarnaq on

    Piksaqannginmat kaaktunik?

  6. Posted by That’s Not What Happened on

    You have your facts wrong, Kenn. Everybody knows that before the qallunaaq came, Inuit lived in a paradise of milk and honey, with unlimited caribou for everyone.

  7. Posted by Silas on

    Caribou travel long distances, their migration will vary depending on activities on their route. One group in the migration route may change their direction in any given year and the Caribou Inuit depended on the migration of the caribou for sustenance. When the caribou didn’t migrate through their annual route then many people starved.
    In a normal year they will cache as many caribou as they can for the coming winter. There was no guarantee that the cache would be there when they needed it due to other predators such as grizzly bears, wolverines, lemmings, weasels, wolves and foxes. Lemmings and weasels are able to creep into a cache and eat everything from the inside out.
    Caribou Inuit travelled great distances in search of game often by walking as dogs would be the first to die off if there was a famine.

  8. Posted by Manapik on

    Today we are more famished, than those of yesteryear.

    • Posted by Harry on

      Today we feel more entitled, we need to remember how hard it was back then and work just as hard today. Nothing is free, we have to earn it.


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