For over 1000 years Inuit have been catching a wide variety of marine life in ingenious ways. Traditionally, they fished using their hands, weirs and three-pronged fishing spears.
Harpoons and spears were important items in the fishing arsenal of the Inuit. Harpoons have a detachable projectile head fastened to a hand-held line. Carved from walrus ivory, traditional Inuit harpoon heads detach in the deep muscle tissue and bone of an animal or fish.
In winter, spear fishing involved boring holes through the ice and exercising a great deal of patience before wielding kakivait or harpoons with deadly accuracy.
Nets were woven from thinly sliced leather or animal sinew – the tough fibrous tissue uniting muscle to bone. They were strung across streams and rivers during arctic char runs. Nets were also set in winter between holes in the ice. The Inuit excelled at creating highly realistic fishing lures from bone, shell and antler. These homemade spinners were dragged through the water with a hand line to attract arctic char. Fishing hooks were made of wood, bone, antlers and claws as well as sharpened goose bones and the jaw bones of large fish.
For the Inuit, fishing has always been a means of harvesting food. Today there are few harvest restrictions for the Inuit, who continue to catch fish by traditional means as well as by rod and reel. One of the most popular means of harvesting fish among the Inuit is by casting and snagging with large weighted hooks. The concept of recreational sport fishing is a new idea to the native culture of Nunavut – however many communities enjoy spring fishing derbies for lake trout, cod or sculpin featuring friendly competition and generous prizes for the fastest-caught and the largest fish.
*Saputi (Inuktitut) or Haputi (Inuinnaqtun)
Inuit often fished by using stone weirs at the mouths of Nunavut’s rivers.
Weirs were constructed by piling stones in a crescent shape from the shore out into the flow of the river, and gradually building the stone wall up until it could trap fish. People sometimes walled in the opposite edge of the crescent to keep the fish from escaping, or simply waded in, trapping the fish in the weir and spearing or hooking them with hooks on long handles.
Often a narrow channel was left open in the edge of the weir, floored with stones until only a shallow stream of water flowed over the stones. A watcher on shore could easily see fins and tails as fish began to use the passage. This watcher alerted all others, ran out to close off the channel with stones, and the fishing began.
The fish were speared with pronged spears (singular: kakivak; plural: kakivat). The central prong pierced the fish, and the two arms spread out, the barbs catching in the side of the fish and holding it. A fish needle (mitqun or nuvit ikaalukmut or qupirut) was used to string the fish together on a thong.
The needle was passed through the fish just behind the operculum, through or under the spine. As the stringer grew heavier, it was pulled ashore and the fish were laid out on the side of the river.
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*Pigu (Inuinnaqtun) or Qinnivik (Inuktitut)
The Inuit constructed stone boxes in which they could store food or tools and gear. The drawing of the cache below is specifically designed to store fish, especially frozen fish. These caches were usually built at the side of a large stone, and were usually rectangular in shape, to more efficiently hold the fish. Caribou skins were not used in these; rocks were placed directly on the frozen fish.
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*The Inuit language includes Inuinnaqtun and Inuktitut. Inuktitut is spoken in eastern and central Nunavut and Inuinnaqtun is spoken in western Nunavut. Both languages have varying dialects depending on geographical location.
Myths and Legends
The Legend of Sedna, Mother of the Sea
It is Sedna who rewards the people of the land with food from the sea. Without Her blessing, hunts fail and the people starve.
Sedna is known as Niviaqsiaq, Talilajuq, Nuliajuk and by many other names. She is the Sea Goddess who drives the walrus and seal to the Inuit and ensures a bountiful hunt. Sedna’s story is one of the most popular Inuit Legends.
The Sedna Tales tell of a willful, strong young woman and a great storm. Long, long ago, when Sedna was a young girl she refused suitors from her own clan, instead Sedna chose a mysterious lover who turned out to be a sea bird in disguise. On hearing what had really happened, her father set out to rescue his rebellious daughter.
Finding Sedna in the nest of the Sea Bird, he spirited her away. Father and daughter began the long journey home in a skin boat. The angry and abandoned sea bird made a great storm to stop them. Fearing the power of the sea bird, the father decided to rid himself of his daughter and threw her into the sea.
Trying to save herself, Senda grasped the sides of the boat and pleaded with her father to pull her back into the boat. The selfish father, fearing for his own life, swung his knife and chopped off her fingers. Sedna fell in to the water and soon sank below the waves and was gone. When Sedna’s fingers fell into the water, they became whales, seals and polar bears, and the nails became whalebone. As the young woman sank into the sea she was transformed into the mystical being known as Sedna, Mother of Oceans and ruler over all life in the Sea.
The blessings of Sedna are still sought by the people of the North, who know it is She who sustains them.
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Qailertetang, Sedna’s Companion
Qailertetang is a female deity who cares for animals, fishers, and hunters, and controls the weather. She dwells with her companion Sedna at the bottom of the sea, in the company of seals, whales, and other sea creatures. Qailertetang is depicted as a large woman of heavy limbs. Before hunts, Inuit shamans ritually served both Sedna and Qailertetang on behalf of their people, recognizing the immense sacrifice humans ask of these two powerful sea-mothers.
An Inuit Girl’s First Catch
When young Inuit girls catch their first fish they are encouraged to drop the fish down the front of their parkas. It is believed that, when a girl has her first child, this will help to ensure a fast and problem-free delivery. It is a practice that continues to this day. Rankin Inlet’s Denise Kusugak says that when she was seven or eight her father insisted she follow the tradition and push her first fish through her parka.
“I was so mad because all I could smell was fish for the rest of our camping trip. But now I’m thankful he did that. My first child was born from first contraction to delivery in one hour and 47 minutes,” said Denise.
Denise Kusuguk – Rankin Inlet
Agloolik, Fisherman’s Friend
Agloolik is a guardian spirit who lives underneath the ice and protects seals and their pups from harm. In addition to keeping predators from their young, Agloolik is said to hunt down fish and provide them as food to seal families. It is also believed that Agloolik helps human fishermen by catching fish and attaching them to anglers’ fishing lines.
According to stories told across Nunavut, a huge beluga whale-sized fish of indeterminate age, known to elders as Isugajuaq, is said to lurk in one of the thousands of lakes across the Arctic. The legend is alive and well in communities like Hall Beach, where Inuit speak of a giant Lake trout living in the depths of nearby Hall Lake.
Traditional Preparation and Recipes
It’s hard to improve on perfection, the Inuit still enjoy eating freshly-caught arctic char raw, as they have done for thousands of years. The eyeballs and liver are favorite parts and cooking arctic char is a relatively recent practice in Nunavut.
*Pipsiliuvit/Pittiliuqvik (Inuktituit) or Qimiqqun (Inuinnaqtun)
In warm weather, fish meat had to be preserved by drying.
Two or more standing stones supported long poles or skin thongs which ran from an anchor stone over the top to another stone. Tension was controlled by adding stones to tighten the thong as the weight of the fish was added. Split fish were hung over the poles or thongs. The meat was not smoked, but dried in the sun and wind. When dry, it was stored in stone boxes, or meat caches.
Today, people continue to dry fish (pipsi or piffi). This “country food” is still an important part of the diet in many arctic communities.
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Arctic char is also hot and cold smoked, made into jerky and candied. Fresh and frozen char can be prepared in innumerable ways.
Cooking with Char
The unique qualities of Arctic Char create a gourmet product that is undeniably linked to the culture and tradition of Canada’s North.