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The Trail as Home: Inuit and Their Pan-Arctic Network of Routes


This paper provides ethnographic and historical evidence for the existence, in time and space, of a network of well-established trails connecting most Inuit settlements and significant places across the Canadian Arctic. The geographic and environmental knowledge relating to trails (and place names associated with the trails) has been orally transmitted through many generations of Inuit. I use historical documents, ethnographic research, and new geographic tools such as GPS, GIS and Google Earth, to show the geographic extent of the network and its historical continuity. I particularly draw on a trip following Inuit along a traditional trail connecting the communities of Iglulik and Naujaat (Repulse Bay). Inuit have made systematic use of the Arctic environment as a whole and trails are, and have been, significant channels of communication and exchange across the Arctic. There are some types of oral history and knowledge that can be accurately transmitted through generations, and I propose that some aspects of Inuit culture are better understood in terms of moving as a way of living.

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  1. Parry and Lyon were the first non-Inuit to travel the Foxe Basin region in the Canadian Arctic in search of the Northwest Passage.

  2. The use of ephemeral maps drawn on the snow has been reported, and the Inuit in Greenland used to carve maps in wood. The Inuit of the areas that are the focus of this study, however, employ oral descriptions as the main way to transmit geographic knowledge.

  3. Many Canadian Arctic communities have reverted to using their original Inuktitut names instead of the English names given by explorers and governments. Since this paper presents evidence that is often based on written historical documents, and that could be compared with topographic maps, I have chosen to keep the English names in some cases (Pond Inlet, Hall Beach, Arctic Bay), and use the Inuktitut in others (Iglulik, Naujaat, Taluqjuaq).

  4. Archaeological sites and linguistic analyses of place names could eventually be used as evidence to prove the longevity of the trail network, but they are outside of the scope of this research.

  5. This included stops for fishing and hunting along the way.

  6. The data come from the following sources: original mapping conducted by the author in Iglulik, Repulse Bay, Arctic Bay, Hall Beach and Taluqjuaq. Some of the place names of Repulse Bay were collected by Ludger Muller-Willie (Project Nunatop) in the 1980s, and mapped by the author. The place names of Pond Inlet were collected by the Inuit Heritage Trust. Some trails were mapped in Iglulik by Kelly Karpala and in Cape Dorset by Karen Kelly.

  7. In order to recreate the journeys, the interviews were open, often with a single question, asking to remember a particular journey or to describe a route. The interviews were conducted in Inuktitut, with the help of interpreters. In some cases, younger hunters were asked to conduct the interviews themselves, and the author was not present. This helped create a more spontaneous setting for the narratives.

  8. For an in-depth look at Inuit sense of time, see MacDonald (1998).

  9. The use of new technologies such as GPS and, especially, the snowmobile, is creating the notion of trails as transitional places towards a final destination (Aporta and Higgs 2005). The oral history and place names, however, continue to reinforce the concept of lived trails.

  10. It should be noted that Inuit elders express concern related to the loss of Inuit knowledge (oral) due to the contemporary context of life in the settlement, formal schooling, etc. One of the main reasons for Inuit-supported oral history projects and mapping projects is to avoid the loss of oral knowledge with the passing of knowledgeable elders.

  11. The place names do not involve discrete renderings of geographic locations (comparable to a set of coordinates). The information is transmitted in the context of a larger narrative. In fact, names like Tasiujaq (big lake) are used to describe several features (lakes and in some cases other water features such as bays). What makes a particular Tasiujaq unique is the context provided by the narrative.

  12. Mapping projects are being conducted all across the Arctic, mainly because of the fear that some names will be forgotten when older people pass away and also for political reasons, as a way of reclaiming the land and recognizing the existence of Inuit names (see Müller-Wille 1983).

  13. The newly created maps with local place names are in fact helping new Inuit migrants (usually government workers coming from other Nunavut communities) to adapt to the new place and the new community faster, as they can learn names that otherwise would take a long process of personal connections.

  14. The interview was conducted by John MacDonald and Louis Tapardjuk.

  15. It should also be noted that Parry’s journal was published (and perhaps edited) by the Admiralty, while Hall’s work was edited and published by the US Government Printing Office in Washington, D.C., after his death.


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The main source of funding for this research was a grant from the Committee for Research and Exploration of the National Geographic Society. Additional sources included a Carleton University Startup Grant and travel funds provided by the Inuit Heritage Trust for mapping of place names. Some of the work done in Iglulik and Cape Dorset received support from an IPY Canada grant (Project ISIUOP), and from NSTP (Northern Scientific Training Program). The Igloolik Research Centre (Nunavut Research Institute) provided considerable support during most of this research. John MacDonald and his wife Carolyn were exceptional hosts in Iglulik. John also provided critical help in the organization of the trip to Naujaat, and he offered crucial feedback and constructive critique on earlier drafts of this paper. Conversations with John through many years helped developed some of the ideas expressed in this paper. A key person in this research was Maurice Arnatsiaq, who guided the trip between Iglulik and Naujaat, aided with interviews and mapping, and helped me understand the importance of Inuit travel. Several elders in all the communities the research took place collaborated in providing geographic information. Of those, the key participants were Herve Paniaq in Iglulik, and Abraham Tagunak and Maliki in Naujaat. Theo Ikummaq, in Iglulik, also provided critical information and helped with interviews and translations. This research also benefited from the work of several graduate and undergraduate students at Carleton University who helped with data collection (Kelly Karpalla and Karen Kelley) and data analysis (Allison Berman, Ana Fonseca and Andrew Black). Timothy Di Leo Browne helped in editing this paper. Finally, I would like to thank the reviewers of the journal, whose critiques and suggestions made this paper better.

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Correspondence to Claudio Aporta.

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Aporta, C. The Trail as Home: Inuit and Their Pan-Arctic Network of Routes. Hum Ecol 37, 131–146 (2009).

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  • Inuit
  • Oral knowledge
  • Arctic Canada
  • Hunters and gatherers
  • Indigenous knowledge