‘Whence come these Arctic Highlanders?’: The Problematic Search for Inuit ‘Origins’

In this blog post, former PDRA Peter Martin discusses the tensions and complexities surrounding the ‘origins of the Inuit’ debates, and explains the troubling implications they have had for Arctic indigenous peoples.

How did Inuit come to inhabit the Arctic? This seemingly straight-forward question has had a complex history, and has proved exceptionally difficult to answer.  It was notably raised by David Cranz, a Prussian missionary stationed in Greenland in 1765, and for some it dates back even further into antiquity. For these reasons, examining its provenance and consequences has been central to the Arctic Cultures project.

Throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, European scholars interested in the Arctic regions sought to investigate the question of ‘Inuit origins’ and used a variety of methods to do so. A series of Arctic expeditions were undertaken during this period, and determining the historical migrations of Arctic peoples became a prominent topic of interest within the travel accounts and publications that were produced upon these explorers’ return. One such example, written by the American traveller William Healy Dall, is illustrated above.

These publications were often accompanied by maps, such as the one produced by the geographer and Arctic traveller Clements Markham shown below. These maps were used to convey the various theories and conjectures that had been put forward regarding Inuit migrations, and their visual nature meant that their claims became particularly persuasive.

By the turn of the twentieth century, a plethora of work had been published on this topic and scholars situated in Britain, Denmark and the United States were all engaged in what had become a complex and interdisciplinary debate. It is also worth remembering that research on this broad subject continues to this day.

Yet, as I explored in my case study research for the Arctic Cultures project (some of which you can read more about in my recent article in Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers), these various attempts to answer the question of ‘Inuit Origins’ have often been both culturally insensitive and politically problematic. Seemingly innocent intellectual investigations into histories of Arctic peoples have regularly been imbued with colonial attitudes and racialised understandings. Furthermore, they have had enduring social and political consequences for the various indigenous communities who currently inhabit the Arctic regions.

Firstly, these debates took place during a period in which spurious and highly unethical forms of racial science were coming to prominence. Inuit were regularly understood to be ‘culturally inferior’ or on a ‘lower rung of humanity’ when compared to Europeans, and such attitudes are prevalent in the literatures mentioned above. Investigations into the origins of the Inuit therefore played a key role in the racialised othering and cultural marginalisation of those peoples inhabiting the circumpolar North by both Arctic travellers and ‘armchair’ theorists.

Secondly, the various claims that were made regarding the history of Inuit migration failed to take seriously indigenous peoples’ own beliefs and interpretations regarding ancestry and human origins. Erroneous or poorly evidenced ‘scientific’ claims were given prominence over the oral histories and spiritual understandings that had been held and articulated by Arctic peoples for centuries. This has in turn resulted in the delegitimatisation of these people’s ways of knowing with regards to their community’s history and heritage.

Finally, almost all of the theories put forward regarding Inuit origins claimed that these Arctic peoples had at one point emigrated from a region of the Earth other than the Arctic – typically from either Asia or Central America. Such theories therefore called into question the longstanding and hard-won claims to land, territory and sovereignty that indigenous peoples have managed to secure across the Circumpolar region. As the indigenous scholar Vine Deloria explains, ‘By making us immigrants to North America they are able to deny the fact that we were the full, complete, and total owners of this continent.’

Debates surrounding the ‘origins of the Inuit’ therefore remain highly sensitive, as scholars in the past did not pay sufficient attention to the various implications of their research. Past geographers, anthropologists and archaeologists rarely considered the consequences of their investigations and only recently has work in this area begun to be conducted in more ethical and respectful ways.

Reflecting on the international and interdisciplinary search for the origins of the Inuit thus reminds us that the various forms of scholarly knowledge produced about Arctic Indigenous peoples were fundamentally linked to empire, colonialism and territorial dispossession. As the work of the Arctic Cultures team has begun to demonstrate, knowledge production in the Arctic has long been intertwined with political control and various forms of violence. Only now are we beginning to understand fully the enduring consequences of these histories, and efforts are finally being made to challenge and confront their legacies.


You can read more about Peter’s recently published work on W.H. Dall here.


Image 1: Title page of W.H. Dall, 1877, ‘Remarks on the origin of the Innuit’.

Image 2: Map by C.R. Markham, 1865, published in the Journal of the Royal Geographical Society of London.