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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 properly 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?" Practically speaking, I don't know anyone who would happily go along with a pack of strangers storming in, taking over their homes, imposing new names, and then claiming those are the only names that are real and have meaning. (Note the big difference here between trying to delete people and their history, versus adding to that history in part by becoming good neighbours.) The maps chock-full of imposed european names made them incomprehensible to the majority of people who live full-time north of 60, and even more importantly, were a total insult to the Original Peoples there. Yet names on maps are just the start.

In the early twentieth century, the canadian federal government began concerted efforts to assert sovereignty over the arctic, in part by remaking Inuit into what officials deemed 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.' Never mind Inuit were busy upholding their independence and self-determination. The created 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. They found this annoying and inconvenient.

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 sex, 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. Among the results of these practices is an extraordinary web of interrelationships and ways of remembering people, places, and events over vast times between whole communities.

Photograph of an example 'Eskimo Identification Disc' by Stephen Lowe. Photograph of an example 'Eskimo Identification Disc' by Stephen Lowe.
Image is courtesy of Stephen Lowe, circa 2006

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 certain that lacking western-style names meant there were no feelings between family members. And so, driven by self-created administrative needs and misguided beliefs, an 'Eskimo Identification System' was put into practice in 1935. Every Inuk across the northwest territories and later northern québec and labrador was to be given a small fibre or leather 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 or somewhere on their body, 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 reactions to this system were, and are, complex. It was unilaterally imposed, and ignored their real names and traditional practices, let alone the fact that it was dehumanizing and racist. Yet it is also true that it did not interfere with traditional naming practices necessarily. The trouble was what came along with it, the entry into Inuit societies that it created. 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 1972 in the northwest territories, somewhat later in québec and labrador.

The lessons the federal government took from the identification disc experience did not include, "Discuss how to handle this with the Inuit." Instead, it struck a three member committee to assign every Inuk a surname, preferably a european one. This unilateral effort was also unpopular, and 'Operation Surname' wasn't completely successful either. In 1969, Abe Opik, one of the first ever Inuit government officials in the northwest territories, was hired to carry out the project. He succeeded in the federal government's eyes, and his travels across a huge and complex region known for its difficult weather are rightly recognized as heroic. However, the patriarchal bent of the system and its complete divorce from traditional naming practices spawned a whole new set of issues for Inuit, especially Inuit women. Not least because it wasn't even consistently patriarchal. Alia quotes Elise Attagutaluk in Names, Numbers and Northern Policy, "[she] told me that she was stunned when, as a young adult, she received a birth certificate with her husband’s surname on it. 'I sent it back and asked for correction and they just sent it back to me unchanged.' She said, 'When they did Project Surname, kids came back from school with new names. You go away and you come home, and suddenly, you're somebody else.'" Today, the Nunavut government is still busy processing applications to correct and/or change names imposed during Project Surname'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.


  1. The irony and hypocrisy involved in demanding people who supposedly wander randomly stay in one place when the last thing "settlers" do is "settle" anywhere never troubled them.
  2. The Library and Archives Canada blog provides a reasonable overview of this period as well. Watch out for the weird photo captioning, which despite the fact that the names of the people in the pictures are known and documented right there in the post, instead of using the caption, for example, "Portrait of Tuurnagaaluk holding a small chalkboard with the number 6009, at Pond Inlet (Mittimatalik/Tununiq), Nunavut, August 1945 (MIKAN 3606624)" they insist on "Portrait of a woman [Tuurnagaaluk] holding a small chalkboard with the number 6009, at Pond Inlet (Mittimatalik/Tununiq), Nunavut, August 1945 (MIKAN 3606624)." Note also that the people whose pictures are featured have successive numbers, which strongly suggests that they are members of the same family.
  3. Inuit of the western arctic prefer the term "Inuvialuit." Properly speaking, the Inuit homeland is Inuit Nunangat, which includes Nunavut, the Inuvialuit Settlement Region, Nunatsiavut (still mislabelled as part of labrador), and Nunavik (still mislabelled as part of québec). See the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami for even more information, including amazing photographs and maps.
  4. Valerie Alia provides an excellent overview for the interested non-Inuk in her paper, "Inuit Names: The People Who Love You," 251-266 in Hidden in Plain Sight: Contributions of Aboriginal Peoples to Canadian Identity and Culture, edited by David R. Newhouse, Cora J. Voyageur, and Daniel Beavon; University of Toronto Press, Toronto, 2005. For even greater detail, see her book Names, Numbers, and Northern Policy: Inuit, Project Surname, and the Politics of Identity. (Fernwood: Halifax, 1994). Both serve as main sources for the discussion here.
  5. See Alia and the Library and Archives Canada blogpost already cited.
  6. Additional details for this section are from the Canadian Encyclopedia article on Project Surname.
  7. Ibid, and also a good review article at Acres of Snow, Chris Tindal's blog in which he chronicles his journey into a better understanding of canadian history. For a more recent article directly informed by the perspective of an Inuk photographer, Barry Pottle, see the 27 May 2006 Nunatsiaq News article Exhibit Puts Faces, Names to Canada's Eskimo ID Tag System. For those who would prefer some official documentation on the subject, see Eskimo Identification and Disc Numbers: A Brief History (alternate link), a short report written by A. Barry Roberts in 1975 for the then department of indian and northern affairs.
Copyright © C. Osborne 2023
Last Modified: Monday, January 02, 2023 00:54:17