The Inuit make no bones about it. There’s is a hunting culture; but what does that mean?

A piece of cardboard, a sharp knife, and a delicious meal.

(A piece of cardboard, a sharp knife, and a delicious meal.)

Most Inuit still eat a solid diet of country food, which is just like it sounds, traditional foods such as caribou, whale, seal, fish and so on. Hunting remains a central practice in Inuit communities. So is that all it takes to be a hunting culture?

Actually going out and hunting is a pretty important part of a hunting culture, but the act itself is not everything. The focus on hunting informs the language, the traditions, the stories, the music, the art.

The hunting theme can be found in every aspect of Inuit culture, especially art. Many of the tools and weapons used in the past were decorated with hunting images, as were objects used by shamans. Many stories revolve around hunting. Alootook Ipellie, formerly of Iqaluit, Nunavut (now deceased), wrote that so many Inuit are good carvers because “they come from a very visual culture. Their very livelihood depended solely on dealing with the landscape every day during hunting or gathering expeditions. They were always visualizing animals in their thoughts as they searched the land, waters, and skies for game” (1998:97).

bowhead whale

(2009 bowhead whale hunt in Nunavik. All but two communities participated and all communities shared in the bounty.)

Culture informs our interactions with the world around and inside of us. It informs our pedagogy. When you look at some of the principles of Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit (IQ), which is traditional Inuit knowledge, it is not difficult to see how these principles have been shaped by hunting. It should also not be so difficult to see how these traditions are absolutely applicable to the modern era:

  1. Inuuqatigiitsiarniq: concept of respecting others, relationships and caring for people.
  2. Tunnganarniq: concept of fostering good spirit by being open, welcoming and inclusive.
  3. Pijitsirarniq: concept of serving and providing for family/community.
  4. Aajiiqatigiingniq: decision making through discussion and consensus.
  5. Pilimmaksarniq: concept of skills and knowledge acquisition.
  6. Qanuqtuurungnarniq: concept of being resourceful to solve problems.
  7. Piliriqatigiingniq: concept of collaborative relationship or working together for a common purpose.
  8. Avatimik Kamattiarniq: concept of environmental stewardship.

As with other indigenous peoples, these hunting principles were eroded by the introduction of fur trapping.

Previously, work and profit had been shared among community members, but with the advent of trapping, hunters worked alone for a private income. In the early 1900s, posts were commonplace in most areas of the Arctic, as were guns and traplines. Their widespread use greatly changed northern practices as the trapping way of life was in direct conflict with the old way of hunting, which was done in groups with proceeds being shared.

New principles were introduced, and had a profound effect on Inuit relationships with one another, and with the land.  Nonetheless, when modern Inuit articulate foundational cultural principles and apply them to present-day issues of governance, law, pedagogy, and so on, they do so within the framework of the “Inuit Way” which continues to be rooted in a hunting culture, not a trapping culture.

Is the difference between hunting and trapping at all important?

Pre-Contact beaver trapping.

(Pre-Contact beaver trapping.)

Yes, and no. Yes, in that trapping is an activity that is focused on the individual, commercial aspect of one particular form of hunting. As discussed above, trapping tends to be an activity that is more individual, rather than collective. The values of a hunting culture are not necessarily the same as the values of a trapping culture.

That is not to say that trapping must be incompatible with values such as those expressed through Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit or other indigenous peoples’ principles. The ethnogenesis of the Métis for example, is inextricably linked to the fur trade, yet our collective values are not so widely divergent than those of our First Nations relations. Commercial transactions between indigenous nations were happening long before Contact with Europeans, and so the commercial nature of trapping does not automatically render it ‘un-traditional’.

fur table

(An estimated 25,000 indigenous people continue to participate in the fur trade through trapping though anti-fur campaigns have put a serious dent in the industry.)

However, if trapping is just one of a range of the broader category of ‘harvesting’ activities, then the difference may not be important at all. Indigenous peoples ‘trapped’ fur-bearing animals before the fur trade, though never as an end in itself. It can be viewed as just another hunting practice.

The way in which the Canadian state treats hunting versus trapping is important to examine. In Treaty 8 territory, for example, Alberta treats trapping as a purely commercial right and “regulates it accordingly“. Blanket trapping regulations are applied to native trappers, on the basis that commercial rights under Treaty 8 were extinguished by the Natural Resource Transfer Agreement. Licensing, fees, quotas, regulations about the building of cabins for trapping and so on are all applied to aboriginal trappers. In addition, trapping is often seen as a ‘weak right’ to land in comparison to hunting.

Worse, Peter Hutchins points out that “the very existence of traplines has been used to deny the survival of aboriginal rights or titles” based on the notion that traplines are a form of individual tenure extinguishing collective aboriginal or treaty rights.

So what is going on here?

In essence, there are indeed two views of what trapping is. Canada tends to take the view that trapping is an imported, specific activity that is different from aboriginal hunting in that it is individual and commercial in nature, not rooted in indigeneity. Most indigenous peoples see trapping as a subset of hunting, which is itself integral to our cultures.

Cree trappers, or Cree hunters?

This ‘subset of hunting’ approach can be seen in practice by the Eastern James Bay Cree of Eeyou Istchee. Under the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement, provision was made for the creation of a Cree Trapper Association (CTA).

Though the name and focus would seem to be on trapping alone:

one of the many goals of the CTA is to promote sales and assist in the orderly collection and marketing of wild furs by its 5000 members.

It is also very clear that as envisioned by the CTA, trapping is an integral part of the collective culture of the Crees of Eeyou Istchee:

The role of the Cree Trappers’ Association is an important one, it is to protect and maintain a way of life that completely identifies who we really are as Eeouch who depend and continue to depend on the land for survival.


(The Grand Council of the Crees (GCC) have a heck of a lot nicer maps detailing these territories, but this gives you a sense of what Eeyou Istchee (Eastern James Bay Cree territory) looks like divided into traditional family territories.)

In addition, the CTA and its members are guided by the Eeyou Indoh-hoh Weeshou-Wehwun, the traditional Cree hunting law.  The trapping of fur bearing animals is treated as a subset of this wider Cree hunting law, all of it a part of Indoh-hoh (harvesting activities).

What is most interesting to me is the difference between the Cree and the English in this situation. That super cool map above, when referred to in English, shows trapping territories. According to customary law, each trapping territory has a tallyman, who is in charge of managing the resources within his territory. The name ‘tallyman’ is defined in various pieces of legislation applying to the Eastern James Bay Cree as  “a Cree person recognized by a Cree community as responsible for the supervision of the activities related to the exercising of the right to harvest on a Cree trapline”.

(The Cree of Eeyou Istchee use the central symbol of a hide on a stretcher in most of their organisations, giving one a sense of just how important hunting and trapping is to the Cree culture.)

Originally of course, the tallymen tallied up furs for the fur trader. The informal Cree word for this person is ouchimaw (in my dialect it’s okimâw) often translated as chief, or boss.  Someone put in a position of authority over something, in this case, the management of the land.  The job of the ouchimaw is not just to keep an eye on trapping in his territory, but rather to ensure the health of the territory as a whole. The formal title for a tallyman is Kaanoowapmaakin, which can be translated as hunting leader.

In Cree, the map above shows the Indoh-hoh Istchee, the traditional hunting territories as defined by Cree traditional law. Indoh-hoh wun are all the animals within one of these territories, not just the fur bearing ones.

If you look on page 17 of the document detailing traditional Cree hunting law, you will find that the responsibilities of a Kaanoowapmaakin in his or her traditional Indoh-hoh Istchee goes far beyond what you might envision a head trapper doing. The responsibility is not just to individual trappers, but to all Cree people and all living things within Cree territory.  The Kaanoowapmaakin must monitor, manage, and share resources within his or her territory. His or her authority extends to resolving territorial disputes, inviting guests into the territory and so on.

So while the English terms focused on trapping as an imported, individual economic activity, the Cree terms make it clear that trapping is a part of a wider hunting culture which is governed by traditional laws and is central to the Cree culture.

All very cool, but where is this going?

I am not drawing you towards some stunning conclusion, I am merely drawing you towards the question itself. Does it matter what the Canadian government calls us?

I am of the opinion that it does. When the terms used are English ones, defined in English and seen through the colonial lens, much is lost. If some of our hunting activities are being defined as ‘trapping’ and this definition results in the erosion of our indigenous rights, which has indeed been the case, then it is important for us to challenge these terms.

geo portal

(The Cree Geo Portal is an absolutely amazing use of technology as applied to traditional Cree land management. You should spend time nosing around!)

Rather than seeking better English or French translations for indigenous concepts, I feel it is important to return to our languages for the proper terms. In this way, we center ourselves in our traditional laws and our traditional understandings of the reciprocal obligations we have to our territories and to one another.   Far from being feel-good back to nature, yearning for pre-Contact mumbo jumbo, our legal principles are foundational and applicable to the modern era.

Most of the Eastern James Bay Cree communities in Quebec have shed their English and French names in favour of Cree names, and chaos did not ensue. I think that indigenous resurgence is very much rooted in the use of indigenous languages. Canadians in general, individually and collectively, must become more accustomed to forgoing facile translations in favour of delving into the complexities of our indigenous principles. To be honest, we could all benefit from doing this more often.

I’m interested in what you have to say on the subject. How much does language matter? How much do these terms matter?  Do you think that the language used is a vehicle for the erosion of rights? Can it be a vehicle for the assertion of rights?

Alright, I’m going to go back to the Cree Geo Portal and check out even more awesome resources.

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