Copper Eskimo - Economy



Subsistence and Commercial Activities. Vegetable Products played practically no role in Copper Eskimo life. Though heather and brush were used as fuel in summer, the seal oil lamp was the most important source of heat and light for most of the year. Seals were hunted by a group of men stationed over breathing holes in the ice located by their dogs. They also hunted polar bears and musk-oxen, but these animals were available in only a few locales. As spring approached, the people moved inland to fish through lake ice and hunt small game and migrating wild fowl. About the end of July, caribou hunting began as the animals fattened and their hides reached a condition suitable for clothing. These hunts, which extended through the period of the southward migrations of caribou in the fall, were interrupted by a short period of intensive weir fishing about the end of August as arctic char returned upstream. After a period of living on stored food, the winter sealing season began again in December.

This seasonal cycle was changed in most places by the Introduction of rifles, nets, steel traps, and small wooden boats. In some mainland locales caribou hunting was especially successful with firearms, and camps were located at sites of big caribou kills, with nets placed under river or lake ice and traps set for the arctic fox. These people often remained inland for most of the year. Elsewhere, as on Victoria Island, sea mammal hunting became important year-round with seals hunted from small boats that replaced the kayak, a craft that has not been used in the sea in this area. Trading arctic fox furs provided access to these important fishing and hunting tools as well as to tea, tobacco, and flour, commodities that became necessities in the 1920s. With centralization, some hunting and trapping continued outward from the large settlements, and a few outpost camps still survived.

Attempts were made to develop local craft industries, and together with export of frozen fish, they provided modest sources of income. More significant amounts of money came from wage labor and social legislation funds. For a brief period in the 1960s a sharp rise in the price of sealskin and sealskin products brought a time of modest prosperity for the Copper Eskimo, but this relative affluence was short-lived as the price of skins fell once more.

The Eskimo dog was of great importance, but given the marginal subsistence of the aboriginal period, few men owned more than two. They served both for hunting and for Transport. In winter travel, because of the scarcity of dogs, women and men pulled ahead or beside sleds together with their animals. In summer, both dogs and humans carried packs. After the establishment of the fur trade and the corresponding general economic improvement, men were able to support teams of five or more dogs, which greatly increased mobility.

Industrial Arts. Women sewed clothing, and each man made his own hunting gear including harpoons, lances, bows and arrows, and sleds. Men also manufactured lamps and pots from steatite (soapstone), which was found in quantity in various places as was the copper that was used for most of the tools with cutting edges.

Trade. Within Copper Eskimo country, trade of local materials such as copper and steatite was lively as was trade in wood and wooden products, which were accessible at the southern limits of the normal range of Copper Eskimo hunting grounds. Trade with the Netsilik Eskimos to the east brought iron objects into the country after the abandonment of Sir John Ross's ship Victory , which was locked in ice, stimulated intertribal trade in that item. The Netsilik were eager for wood items, as their territory was without trees. Before posts were established in their own country, some Copper Eskimo also traded fox furs to the Caribou Eskimo for guns, ammunition, and other European goods.

Division of Labor. The major subsistence animals—seal and caribou—were killed by men only, with women participating in fishing at the weirs as well as with hooks through the ice and the snaring of fowl and small game. Women and Children served as beaters in caribou hunts. Men did the actual work of snowhouse building, cutting and placing the blocks, but women filled the chinks between blocks with soft snow and arranged furnishings inside. Tents were struck and set up by women and men together, and women made them as well as all the clothing. Cooking and other domestic chores were the province of women. There was no specialization of labor beyond that related to sex and age. Today, fox trapping is men's work as is most wage labor and craft production in the centralized communities.

Land Tenure. Although groups of Copper Eskimo were identified by name with their summer hunting ranges or other locals by the affix -miut, there was no actual sense of ownership or defense of territory. The membership of groups who inhabited specific regions changed frequently, and locales could be abandoned for periods of a year or longer.


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