Indigenous peoples of the Arctic

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The principal peoples of the Arctic are:

The Inuit (or Eskimos), present from north-east Siberia to Greenland, by way of Alaska and Canada.

The designation Inuit (adopted by ethnologists at the Washington International Conference) groups together several Arctic populations spread between 56°N and 76°N, from eastern Siberia as far as the east coast of Greenland, a territory that totals 15 000 km of coastline. From the linguistic point of view, the Inuit are classified into two groups:

  • Those who speak Yupik (in Siberia, in the islands of the Bering Sea on the south-west coast of Alaska)
  • And those speaking Inupiak (or Inuktitut, from the north of Alaska to the east of Greenland).

The Inuit are attached politically to 4 nations (Russia, USA, Canada and Greenland). Their numbers reach nearly 150 000. The largest group (more than 50 000) are found in Greenland, with the Kalaallit from the west coast and the Ammassalimiut from the east coast.

The term Eskimo, generally corresponding to the Inuk people of the Far North of Canada, Alaska and Greenland), comes from the crie language (of the Amerindian people of North America). It means “he who eats raw meat”. In Canada, the Inuit prefer the name they use themselves, Inuit, signifying “the people” in Inuktitut. The singular is Inuk and the dual Inuuk.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – An Inuk, some Inuit – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

The Inuit are not related to the Amerindian peoples, who arrived some millennia before them. Nevertheless, the same political questions arise concerning the Inuit and the Amerindians.

The most important process of territorial claims in Canada’s history led in 1999 to the foundation of Nunavut, a new territory conceived as homeland for the greater part of the Inuit of Canada, with the name meaning “our Land”.

Moreover, in order to meet the claims of the Inuit of the Nunavik region, in the Quebec Arctic, the Quebec government set up the Kativik Regional Administration under the James Bay and North Quebec Agreement. In Canada, the Inuit are represented by the Inuk Tapiriit Kanatami.

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The Sami (or Lapps) in the north of Scandinavia and the west of Russia.

The Saami people are indigenous to an area covering the north of Sweden, Norway, Finland and a small part of Russia. They Sami form one of the largest autochthonous groups in Europe. They do not constitute an ethnic group but a people speaking the same Finno-Ugric languages (10 of which have been identified).

The Sami are more commonly known as Lapps, although members of the community prefer the name Sami or Saami, which they therefore use to refer to themselves. The term Lapp is considered pejorative (close to the High-German lapp, meaning stupid). They call their ancestral lands Sápmi (Lapland).

There are between 60 000 and 100 000, spread over the Nordic ice sheet running from the Norwegian shores to the Kola Peninsula (Russia). More than half of them live in Norway, whereas about 20 000 are inhabitants of Sweden, 6000 are in Finland but hardly 2000 in northern Russia. Contrary to popular belief, only 10% of Sami practise reindeer husbandry and transhumance. Most of the population operate in other activities: agriculture, fishing, industry, the tertiary sector (in the north, but also in the large cities of the south). Reindeer domestication and husbandry never became widespread, in fact it entered relatively late into Sami history as they previously lived by hunting this animal. It was mainly from the 17th and 18th Centuries that the domesticated reindeer became the principal resource for Sami communities in the mountains and forests, at the same time as the animal became the epitome of Sami culture.

The Sami have the right to vote in Sweden, Norway and Finland (but not in Russia), in the democratically elected Sami Parliament, an especially designated authority with government powers.


The “Indigenous small-numbered peoples” of Russia, a term which encompasses a mosaic of ethnic groups that are more or less affiliated with each other (including the Evenks, Nenets, Chukchis, Aleuts) and whose populations are low (< 50 000 individuals).

This is the collective name the Russians give to the mosaic of autochthonous peoples (43 recorded in 2000 by the Russia Federation) spread across the Arctic and Subarctic of Eurasia, particularly in Siberia.

19 ethnic groups belong to the Arctic area – permanently or otherwise, as many of them are nomadic. Following a simple ethno-linguistic classification they can be separated into 3 broad families: Uralo-Siberian, Altaic and Dené-Caucasian.

From west to east: Sami – Nenets – Mansi – Selkups – Enets – Khanty – Ket – Nganasan – Dolgans – Evenks – Evens – Yukaghir – Chuvants- Chukchi – Kereks – Alyutors – Koryaks – Aleuts- Inuit

The broad Uralo-Siberian family, the most ancient of Siberia, occupies a large area in northern Russia. It subdivides into 5 families: Finno-Ugric, Samodeic, Yukaghir, Eskaleut (Eskimo-Aleut) and Luoravetian (or Chukotko-Kamchatkan).

  • The Finno-Ugric family subdivides into 2 branches: Finns with the Sami and Ugric with the Khanty and the Mansi.
  • The Samodeic family (formerly Samoyedic) consists of 4 ethnic groups: Enets, Nenets, Nganasans and, further south, Selkups.
  • The Yukaghir family now includes only 2 ethnic groups: Yukaghirs and Chuvants.
  • The Eskaleut family is established both in Asia and America, but its strongest expansion has been on the American continent, home of 2 peoples who are emblematic of the Arctic: the Yupik Eskimo (Inuit of Siberia and Alaska) and the Aleuts. The common Eskaleut ancestor is thought to have split into Inuit and Aleut around 3000/2000 BP.
  • The Luoravetian family was long classified with a disparate “Palaeo-Asiatic” language group. The branch contains 4 ethnic groups inhabiting the polar zone (Alyutors, Koryaks, Kereks and Chukchi). The Kamchatkan group (Kamtchatadals and Itelmens) is not included in the polar zone for geographic and ethno-genetic considerations.

The broad Altaic family is represented in the Siberian Arctic by 2 families: the Turkic languages spoken by the Yakuts and the Dolgans, and the Tungusic spoken by the Evens and the Evenks. The Tungusic peoples entered Siberia early in the 1st Century AD. They reached the Arctic around 1000, practically at the same time as the Yakuts began their advance southwards. The Yakuts (or Sakhas) are not considered as a minority because the population was at 382 000 in 1989.

The broad Dené-Caucasian family, whose only Arctic family is known as Yeniseian, is represented by the Ket ethnic group. Recent studies position this within a wide-ranging family bringing together Basque, Caucasian, Yeniseian and Sino-Tibetan languages. Their origin is still a subject of debate.

Source: “Le monde polar – Mutations et transitions”, Chief Editor M.-F. André, Editions ellipses, 2005

Focus on some ethnic groups within the “Small Peoples of the North of Russia”:

  • The Enets are settled on the eastern bank of the River Yenisei and the neighbouring part of the Taymyr Peninsula. Only 327 persons were recorded in the 2002 census. This small ethnic group is showing all the signs of a society close to extinction.
  • The Nenets (formerly Youraks) live in western Siberia and the north-east of Europe. Their populations cover a wide area (1 million km²), from the Kola to the Taymyr Peninsulas. They make up the largest autochthonous minority of the North with 41 454 persons recorded in 2002. Their traditional activities range from reindeer rearing in the tundra, to hunting and fishing in the taiga.
  • The Aleuts of Siberia are settled in the Commander Islands (Bering and Copper Islands). Russia’s Aleut population comprised 592 persons at the last census in 2002, indicating a decline from the 1989 figure (644). About 200 Aleuts have left their islands to set up in Kamchatka. Traditional activities are marine mammal hunting, fishing and shellfish harvesting.
  • The Chukchi inhabit the Chukotka Autonomous District, also Kamchatka and Yakutia. In 2002 their population was recorded as 15 827 persons. They are culturally close to the Koryaks, and like them are divided between the nomadic land dwellers with their reindeer herds and the maritime hunting and fishing communities settled on the coast.
  • The Evenks (formerly Tungus) are present in even more vast an area than occupied by the Nenets: their range stretches from the Arctic to Manchuria, the River Amur and Mongolia, some 2.5 million km². Their recorded population in 2002 was 36 377. The communities in the northern areas are reindeer breeders and fishermen.
    As well as these groups, all of whose populations are below 50 000, can be mentioned the Yakuts (or Sakhas) as peoples of the Siberian Arctic.

Russian Association of Indigenous Peoples of the North, Siberia and Far East (RAIPON)

The Yakuts (or Sakha) in Russia who cannot be categorized among the “Small-numbered peoples of the North” owing to their larger population (> 300 000) and many of whom live in the Arctic areas of Siberia.

The Yakuts (who call themselves Sakhas) are a Siberian people who form the north-eastern branch of the Turkic peoples. In the XIVth Century they were forced to leave the Lena Valley near the shores of Lake Baikal. Now they occupy almost the whole of the river basins Khatanga, Olekma, Lena, Yana and Indigirka, encroaching onto the territories of their neighbours such as the Tungus, Chukchi and Samoidians.
From the XVIIIth Century, Russian colonies gradually moved into these regions and at present their descendants constitute half the population of the Sakha Republic (ex-Yakutia). The Yakuts themselves make up a third of the population and the second largest ethnic group.

The Sakha Republic covers one-fifth of the Russian Federation. It includes one of Earth’s “Poles of cold”: Verkhoyansk. At the beginning of the XXth Century a temperature of -71°C was recorded in an inhabited zone.

The Yakuts are elk hunters, horse and cattle breeders, sometimes traders. They number more than 300 000, making them one of the most numerous Siberian peoples. The fall of the communist regime gave rise to a strong process of cultural renewal.

UNESCO officially inscribed the Yakut heroic epos on the List of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2005. Their language is spoken from Irkutsk to the Sea of Okhotsk and from the Chinese border to the Arctic Ocean, over a vast range covered by deserted mountains and taiga.

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Répartition des peuples arctiques basée sur les groupes linguistiques :