Posted by: sternenfeeinflorida | 7 November 2011

Decentering of Culture – The Impact of Western Contact with the Innuit

By Sünje Schwarz


Before Western contact, the Inuit were a self-sufficient, predominantly hunting culture. Since the first contact in the 16th century with the British, Westerners have tried to decenter Inuit culture. However, a more culturally sensitive post-modern world has helped to create hope to strengthen Inuit culture once again. The Inuit used the Western decentering of their culture to adapt and recenter it on Inuit culture.

Many cultures came into contact with the Westerners throughout Western explorations as early as the 16th century. Since then, it has been the emphasis of Westerners not to only bring Christianity, but also their own culture to these “primitive” nations. This forced many non-Western cultures to decenter their culture and shift the focus from the indigenous culture to the Western culture, often to see it replaced (Sayre, 2010).

One example of such decentering of culture can be found in the Inuit civilization. The Inuit are a people who inhabit about 53 communities in Northern Canada, namely Labrador, Northern Quebec, the Northwest Territories and Nunavut (Kay-Raining Bird, 2011). Before Western contact, they were a self-sufficient, predominantly hunting culture (Tester & Irniq, 2008). They lived in small bands or extended families, with a great emphasis on the connections between the individual, the community, animals and nature (Kirmayer, Dandeneau, Marshall, Phillips, & Williamson, 2011). In detail this means that individuals of the community cannot make any decisions that involve others, unless it serves the community’s best interest. Innuit believe that any change to nature will have consequences. Sometimes these consequences will be good, but sometimes they will be bad. They also believe that animals should always be treated with respect and that nature is essential for their own sustainability and not a commodity (Tester & Irniq, 2008). These beliefs ensure their life and well-being, not only physically, but also mentally and socially as well (Kirmayer, Dandeneau, et al, 2011).

Since the first contact in the 16th century with the British, Westerners have tried to decenter Inuit culture. It started with the Missionaries, who were mainly concerned with the Inuit’s conversion to Christianity. Before the Westerners arrived, the Inuit educated their children by incorporating and mentoring them in daily activities (Kay-Raining Bird, 2011). The Missionaries were the ones who established the first schools in the Inuit community and had little regard for the disruption in indigenous culture they caused. Residential schools replaced missionary schools in the mid-19th century (Thomas, 2003). These residential schools further removed the Inuit children from their cultural identity, often with force. The Inuit children were not allowed to speak Inukitut, the Inuit language, they were forced to wear Western clothing and wear Western hair styles (Kay-Raining Bird, 2011). The goal was to replace and repress any cultural knowledge that did not fit within Western rationality. It is no surprise that the cultural differences were immense. The Inuit based their principle of power on skill and practice, which is a stark contrast to the way Westerners define power. Additionally, the Western concept of industrial capitalism and Inuit culture, which is based on a harmonious life with nature, are difficult to reconcile (Tester & Irniq, 2008). For the Westerners, who saw nature as a resource to be used, organized and exploited, the idea that life in harmony with respect for nature was impossible to understand (Sayre, 2010).

The Westerners thought of the Inuit as inferior and tried to establish their superiority in a number of economic policies that were aimed at increasing their wealth and creating a dependency of the Inuit to the Westerners (Sayre, 2010). For example, Westerners regarded Inuit as incapable of natural conservation and responsible handling of modern weapons. The result of this way of thinking was the creation of hunting quotas, which were actually based on little more than ethnocentricity and racism. These hunting quotas, however, had a serious impact on the food security and cultural identity of the Inuit. The Inuit saw themselves threatened of being cut off from their food supply and their traditional way of hunting. Although Westerners thought that Inuit needed constant supervision in the handling of modern weapons and hunting, there was no evidence that the Inuit indeed tried to overhunt and kill any and all seals or caribou. Instead, the Inuit showed remarkable resilience to attempts of Westerners to decenter their culture. Regardless of what kind of barriers the Westerners tried to build and make the Inuit conform to the Western culture, the Inuit resisted and instead of complying, they simply continued doing what they had always done (Tester & Irniq, 2008). Even a 90-95% reduction in population from the first contact to the late 20th century, has not resulted in eradication of Inuit culture (Kay-Raining Bird, 2011). Nevertheless, Western attempts at decentering Inuit culture have left their marks. Especially the institution of residential schools has had a negative impact with some Inuit incapable of speaking their own language and feeling disoriented and without an established cultural identity. Alcoholism is prevalent among these Inuit (Thomas, 2003). Inuit are also at a high risk for illiteracy and in 2003-2003, 95% of Inuit did not graduate high school, although the residential schools were closed starting in the 1960’s. At the same time, Inuit have higher child death rates and a lower life expectancy than Canadians (Kay-Raining Bird, 2011).

However, the Inuit have never given up and now benefit from a more culturally sensitive post-modern world. In 1999, the Inuit were granted a land claim initiated in the 1970’s (Tester & Irniq, 2008). The result was the Canadian territory of Nunavut. The hope behind it is to strengthen Inuit culture once again (McCollum, 2004). The Inuit are now allowed greater control of their children’s schooling and Inukitut is once again the first language taught, and although English and French are the other official languages of Nunavut, they are not taught until the third grade (Kay-Raining Bird, 2011). This reflects the desire of the Inuit people for their children to grow up with the knowledge and traditions of their own culture, but at the same time receive a modern, Western education (Tester & Irniq, 2008). Nevertheless, there are some parts of their culture that the Inuit have given up in favor of Western luxury. The Inuit no longer use sleds drawn by dogs but use snowmobiles instead and they abandoned life in igloos to live in heated houses (McCollum, 2004).

In the end it seems as though the Inuit were able to stay true to their Inuit principles and make use of Western culture to the best of their abilities and benefit from some of its advantages. One of them is the worldwide organization of indigenous people, who, in 1977 passed their own resolution on human rights (Tester & Irniq, 2008). At the same time, the Inuit are still adapting to the changes that first colonization and now globalization present to their social structures. The Inuit response to globalization is their own research into the issues that threaten Inuit communities and to raise awareness (Kirmayer, Dandeneau, et al, 2011). The Inuit used the Western decentering of their culture to adapt and recenter it on Inuit culture.


Kay-Raining Bird, E. (2011). Health, Education, Language, Dialect, and Culture in First Nations, Inuit, and Métis Communities in Canada: An Overview. Canadian Journal of Speech-Language Pathology & Audiology, 35(2), 110-124. Retrieved from EBSCOhost.

Kirmayer, L. J., Dandeneau, S., Marshall, E., Phillips, M., & Williamson, K. (2011). Rethinking Resilience From Indigenous Perspectives. Canadian Journal of Psychiatry, 56(2), 84-91. Retrieved from EBSCOhost.

McCollum, S. (2004). ENDANGERED CULTURES AND THE ANIMALS IN THEIR LIVES. National Geographic Kids, (343), 25. Retrieved from EBSCOhost.

Sayre, H. (2010). Discovering the humanities. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Tester, F., & Irniq, P. (2008). Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit: Social History, Politics and the Practice of Resistance. Arctic, 6148-61. Retrieved from EBSCOhost.

Thomas, R. (2003). Can Money Undo the Past? A Canadian Example. Comparative Education, 39(3), 331-43. Retrieved from EBSCOhost.


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