Comparison of Greenland and Canadian Inuit Culture

A brief summary of Sheila Romalis’ presentation

There are approximately 46,000 Inuit in Greenland. These are divided into two distinct cultures, each residing on either the east or west coast of the world’s largest island that is a constituent country within the Kingdom of Denmark. All Inuit people, both in Canada and Greenland, originally migrated from Siberia to the North American continent. There were three distinct migrations all B. C. There was also a fourth migration which occurred between Canada and Greenland, but these individuals settled exclusively on the west coast.

For the Inuit in general, everything, everywhere had a spirit or “essence” and these spirits were capable of being helpful to man. Shamans were individuals in the Inuit culture who had the power to mediate between man and the spirit world. One of the most important spirits was the Mother of the Sea because she controlled all sea mammals, an important source of food for the Inuit.

Inuit who live on the east coast of Greenland are much closer to the Inuit from the earlier migrations than are those who reside on the west coast or in Canada. In fact, the East Greenland Inuit were only discovered by Europeans in 1884 and because of this degree of isolation, they continued to live their lives as they had since their migration. This stands in contrast to Inuit from the west coast and Canada who had constant contact with outsiders since about 1720. One of the distinct characteristics of East Greenland Inuit is the small carvings which they originally created to help them with their everyday lives or provide pleasure and entertainment. Today these small carvings, typically from bone, antler and ivory, are generally known as tupilaks and are created as art for Europeans and those from North America. Their value as objects of art emerged during the 1940’s.

From a material perspective, East Greenland Inuit men made their wives tools to process killed game. However, these tools and especially the knife are distinctly different from that of the Canadian Inuit/West Greenlanders. Similarly the former’s drums are smaller and lighter and instead of being used purely for entertainment and shamanistic trances, were also used to settle disputes. Another hallmark of the East Greenlander is the elaborate and highly colorful beadwork that is done by the women particularly for use in their national costume.

For a more in-depth discussion of tupilaks, see the summary of Shelia Romalis’ presentation, Tupilaks: East Greenland Spirit and Culture.