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The Moonspeaker:
Where Some Ideas Are Stranger Than Others...

Tagging the Inuit

If you take a look at a map of the Northwest Territories in Canada circa 1982, then compare it to a current map of the Northwest Territories and Nunavut, chances are more will catch your eye than Nunavut itself. You will probably also be struck by the 'new' names, which are in fact original names being officially reapplied. Frobisher Bay is now better known as Iqaluit, Broughton Island as Qikiktarjuaq, for example. I have heard a few people ask because now the map looks somehow incomprehensible to them, 'What's the big deal? Why are they changing the names, anyway?' Well, because maps chock-full of imposed European names made maps incomprehensible to the majority of people who live full-time North of 60. However, that is far from the only reason.

In the early twentieth century, the Canadian federal government began concerted efforts to assert sovereignty over the Arctic, in part by remaking Inuit into a completely sedentary people. By interfering with customary Inuit subsistence and housing practices, the federal government soon found itself faced with rampant infectious disease and malnutrition among its putative upholders of 'Canadian sovereignty.' The need to provide health services, rations, and eventually schooling faced federal officials on the ground with the challenge of keeping track of people whose names were in a wholly different language and chosen by non-western rules. (Inuit of the present-day Northwest Territories are properly called Inuvialuit, but I will stick to the term 'Inuit' and its singular form 'Inuk' here for clarity's sake.)

Traditionally, each Inuk's name effectively holds an encapsulated history from the moment they receive it. The name of a person who had recently died was bequeathed to a newborn baby as soon as possible, and so the baby inherited the many stories of the name's previous holders. A person also received power from their name, and a responsibility to honour their name by living good lives. Which name an Inuk can receive is not dictated by gender, so it was quite common to encounter women with 'men's' names, and vice versa. None of this was dictated by the name of the eldest male or the father of the child, except insofar as he had recently died.

As far as the federal officials were concerned, this was utter chaos. How could they keep track of who was who, and prevent fraud? Worse yet, many of them found the names 'too long, too hard to pronounce, too similar' and they were often convinced that lacking western-style names meant there were no family feelings between family members. (If only the application of western-style names meant there were family feelings between people!) And so, driven by administrative needs and misguided beliefs, an 'Eskimo Identification System' was put into practice in 1935.

Every Inuk across the Northwest Territories was to be given a small fibre disk, stamped with a crown, 'Eskimo-Identification-Canada,' and a serial number indicating where the Inuk had been tagged and registered. This should sound familiar, since many of us have seen television programmes or read articles about tagging programmes for wild animals, except that the tag was usually punched onto the subject animal's ear or stuck permanently on their leg. The plan was to have every Inuk wear their tag on a necklace, and for each child to be issued with one not long after birth. The disk number was to be used on all official correspondence and federally issued certificates and licenses.

Inuit simply hated this system. It was unilaterally imposed, and ignored their real names and traditional practices, let alone the fact that it was dehumanizing and racist. Along with it came bans on drum dancing and lip ornaments, heavy missionization, the wholesale renaming of places all over the Arctic, and residential schools. Inuit children were directed to call out their disk numbers instead of their names at school, and mail would arrive for adult Inuit addressed to their disk number instead of them. The actual distribution of the disks was chaotic and inconsistent, and Inuit proceeded to resist the whole thing as much as possible. The Canadian federal government gave up on that system in 1969, only to strike a three member committee to assign every Inuk a surname, preferably a European one. This unilateral effort was also unpopular, but Inuit found it more tolerable than the disks. 'Operation Surname' wasn't completely successful either, and currently the Nunavut government is still busy processing applications to correct and/or change names imposed during the operation's mandate. Inuit women went on to win a court ruling forcing the Canadian federal government to pay the costs of name changes and corrections, since it made the mess in the first place.

Given all that history, it's no wonder renaming places and people alike is so important in Nunavut, and is growing in importance in the Northwest Territories.

Copyright © C. Osborne 2017
Last Modified: Monday, August 26, 2013 23:43:31 MDT