Ever wonder how the Inuit got around the Arctic centuries ago? Researchers from the University of Cambridge, Dalhousie University and Carleton University in Canada have created an interactive online atlas to show the trails used by the Inuit, and it is available for everyone to check out at PanInuitTrails.org.
The atlas took 15 years to create and includes interviews with elders and explorer and trader accounts—researchers say it redefines understanding of Inuit culture.
This is the first time these trails have been seen in one place, before they had been passed down from generation to generation by way of oral stories, but never mapped out. The trails stretch from Greenland to Alaska, with routes over the ice in winter and open water in summer.
“For the untutored eye, these trails may seem indistinguishable from the surrounding landscapes, but for Inuit, the subtle features and contours are etched into their narratives and storytelling traditions with extraordinary precision,” said Michael Bravo, a co-director on the project and head of Circumpolar History and Public Policy at the University of Cambridge’s Scott Polar Research Institute, in a Dalhousie University press release.
The green circles seen on the atlas are each titled what the Inuit called them.
“Place names and trails are integral parts of Inuit culture and heritage. Inuit have used place names to describe different features of the land, water, and ice since time immemorial,” explains the About page of PanInuitTrails.org. “Place names are often (but not always) descriptive of the features they are associated with, including lakes, hills, rocks, caribou passes, ice ridges, bays, islands, etc. The names are linked to places of significance, often denoting important fishing and hunting areas and camps. They are also used to describe routes of travel, and in that sense many of them are connected to well-established trails and routes.”
For example, there is one called ijukkarvik, and it is described as “the place of the fall: cliff from which an Eskimo, named Avingak, fell while searching for eggs.”
“The journey is a story of what happened, who you met, who you saw, what kinds of things happened to you on that route. And every story is different, even though they’re moving along the same route,” Taylor said. “These geo-narratives are vitally important in understanding the richness of that journey.”
Many perceive the Arctic to be an empty place, but this is far from true.
“There has always existed a fascination with the Arctic,” said Claudio Aporta, associate professor in the Marine Affairs Program at Dalhousie University. “We often perceive the Arctic to be an empty, harsh place. The Inuit Pan Arctic Atlas allows us a different view of the Arctic, one that focuses on the interconnectivity of people and that illustrates historic and geographic connections among Inuit groups across the Arctic.”
The trails show that Inuit travel had a purpose, then and now—the trails are used today.
“It could be exploring or visiting, but in many cases, especially when Inuit were living semi-nomadic life, and were not living in settlement, the travelling was mostly connected to availability of food,” said Dr. Aporta, principal investigator on the project. “Inuit travelers would be moving in these trails at one time or another based on the availability of food on land, sea and ice. That is why trails can be thought of as a social space.”
The atlas comes at an important time politically as well. Having historic knowledge of the Inuit presence in the Canadian Arctic is more important than ever given the debates over climate change and the demand for resources globally.
“This atlas can be explored as evidence of rich Inuit history in the Canadian Arctic supplementing that offered by other sources such as archaeology and oral history and can be seen as a first step on a project that will include Northern Quebec, Labrador, Alaska, and Greenland,” Dr. Aporta said in the release.
This atlas focuses on the eastern Arctic, researchers hope to develop the atlas further to include other Inuit groups such as the Inupiat, Inuvialuit, and peoples of Nunatsiavut (Labrador) and Nunavik.