The Arctic Circle remains one of the few regions of the world relatively untouched by human development. Due to its physical isolation and extreme climate, few humans have sought to settle in the Arctic over the centuries, with large-scale settlement only possible in the past century due to advances in technology and the discovery of oil, coal, and other natural resources in the area. However, a number of indigenous peoples have managed to thrive in the Arctic for generations.
Because the Arctic Circle covers a wide swath of territory in Europe, Asia, and North America, there is a great diversity in the peoples who are native to this land. They range from Native American groups such as the Inuit to Europeans to Turkic groups such as the Yakuts. Here is an overview of the different peoples who have made the Arctic their home over the centuries, organized by which language group they belong to.
Eskimo-Aleut Peoples of the Arctic
The Eskimo-Aleut peoples are commonly associated with the far northern fringes of Alaska, Canada, and Greenland, as well as the eastern edges of Siberia. While the term “Eskimo” is not regarded as derogatory, few of these peoples use the term to refer to themselves and both the Greenlandic and Canadian governments have ceased using it in an official capacity.
Eskimos are broadly divided into two groups: the Yupik, who are concentrated in southern and western Alaska as well as eastern Siberia, and the Inuit, who reside in northern Alaska, the three northern territories of Canada, and Greenland.
The Yupik peoples of Alaska are the largest group of Native Alaskans, numbering over 24,000. They are believed to have migrated to Alaska via the Bering Land Bridge, a landmass that connected Siberia and Alaska in the distant past. The Yupik also have a large presence in Russia’s Chukotka Autonomous Okrug, located on the eastern coast of Siberia, and some experts believe that the Yupik in Siberia back-migrated from Alaska following the initial migration to the latter region.
Yupik life traditionally centered around hunting and fishing, and many Yupik to this day make their living fishing salmon and hunting seals. They are notable for their use of sex-segregated communal houses for community activities, such as the qasqig, where men taught boys how to hunt and fight, and the ena, where women taught girls how to sew and cook. Yupiks are also unique in that they name children after the most recent person in the community who has died.
While the terms “Eskimo” and “Inuit” are often used individually, the Inuit refers to a specific grouping of tribes who inhabit Greenland and the northern fringes of North America, with a population of 148,000, most of whom live in Canada. They are believed to have migrated across the Arctic coast around 1,000 A.D. after having split from the Aleut 4,000 years prior. Inuit peoples lived a largely nomadic existence based around fishing, hunting, and trading with other tribes.
The Inuits first made contact with Europeans during the Middle Ages, when Vikings explored and colonized Greenland and Newfoundland. Viking sags used the term “skræling” for the indigenous peoples they encountered in North America, including Inuit. The Little Ice Age that began in 1350 caused significant changes in Inuit society, as they were forced to migrate south due to the disappearance of whales in the northern Arctic.
Contact between the Inuit and Europeans increased following Christopher Columbus’ journey across the Atlantic and the beginning of the colonial period. The English explorer Martin Frobisher extensively documented his encounters with Inuit during his expedition to uncover the Northwest Passage in 1576. While initial interactions between Inuit and Europeans were fraught with tension and hostility, by the end of the 1700’s, relations between the two groups thawed as they both sought to profit from trade.
Much of the Inuit’s territory was eventually colonized by the Hudson’s Bay Company, a British trading firm, with Greenland being colonized by Denmark and Alaska colonized by Russia. Following the Alaska Purchase and Canadian confederation in 1867, the bulk of Inuit lands were held by either Canada or the U.S. While European settlement brought many disruptions to Inuit society, Inuit were largely given autonomy due to a lack of commercial interest in the Arctic.
It wasn’t until World War II and the Cold War that large-scale development of the Canadian Arctic began. Improvements in aircraft and ship technology made the Arctic military valuable, resulting in many naval bases and monitoring stations being constructed in Inuit lands. In the 1950’s, the Canadian government initiated a program to relocate Inuit from their traditional lands and assimilate them into Canadian society, causing widespread social disruption for which the government eventually apologized.
Since this period, the Inuit have become a more potent force in Canadian and Alaskan politics, gaining civil rights and obtaining redress for past abuses from the government. In 1999, the Canadian government established Nunavut, a territory specifically intended to be a self-governing Inuit homeland. However, many problems continue to plague the Inuit, including alcoholism and poverty.
To this day, Inuit life still revolves around fishing and hunting, particularly whales, caribou, seals, walruses, and other large mammals. They are also known for their prowess at dogsledding, historically the easiest way to traverse the Arctic on land. Inuit are also known for their art, constructed from bones, hides, walrus tusks, and other materials. The Inuit also have a rich mythology and historically believed that the Northern Lights represented the spirits of their ancestors.
The Aleut are a tribe indigenous to the Aleutian Islands in southwestern Alaska and the Kamchatka Krai region of eastern Siberia, numbering just over 7,000 people. Like other native peoples in the area, they practiced a largely nomadic existence of hunting and gathering. The Aleut first made contact with Europeans in the late 1700’s following Russian colonization of Siberia and Alaska. Many Aleut converted to Orthodox Christianity as a result of Russian missionaries, and the Orthodox Church remains a strong presence in Alaska to this day because of this.
Following conflicts with Russian traders in the 1700’s and 1800’s, Aleut began migrating to other parts of Alaska, venturing as far south as southern California. During World War II, Japanese forces occupied the islands of Kisku and Atta in the southwestern Aleutians, capturing Aleut and subjecting them to harsh conditions. As a response, the U.S. government evacuated Aleut to various internment camps, where many died of disease due to poor conditions, for which the government would later compensate them in 1988.
Few pure Aleut remain today due to European diseases killing off large numbers of Aleut during the 1800’s and 1900’s. Additionally, many Aleut intermarried with Russian settlers during the initial colonization of Alaska. The Aleut retain many aspects of their culture, most notably their partially underground houses (known as barabara), their unique artwork and clothing, and their reliance on hunting and fishing.
Tungusic Peoples of the Arctic
Evenks and Evens
The Evenks and Evens are the two main branches of the Tungusic peoples, native to central Siberia and Mongolia, with diasporas in China, Taiwan, Ukraine, and other European and Asian countries. Like many other Arctic tribes, they practiced a nomadic lifestyle revolving around hunting and gathering, with many Evenks also domesticating reindeer for meat and milk. Evenks also rode reindeer, allowing them to colonize vast swaths of Siberia.
Europeans first made contact with the Evenks and Evens in the late 1700’s, as Russian colonists pushed westward into Siberia. While relations between the Russians and Tungusic peoples were largely peaceful, the cultural changes the Russians brought introduced great upheaval in tribal society. The rise of the Soviet Union brought further changes, as the Soviet authorities forced Evenks and Evens to abandon their nomadic ways, forced them to work on collective farms, and Russified them via education.
Today, while the Evenks and Evens retain some of their cultural practices, their languages are in danger of dying out, with Russian having replaced them as the mother tongue of many Tungusic people. The Evenks and Evens are still known for their skill at domesticating reindeer, as well as for their elaborate clothing and shamanistic religious beliefs.
Turkic Peoples of the Arctic
Dolgans and Yakuts
The Dolgans and Yakuts are two Turkic tribes who are native to central Siberia, with Dolgans primarily residing in Krasnoyarsk Krai and the Yakuts primarily residing in the Sakha Republic. They have similar folkways and are genetically related, leading some experts to believe that the Dolgan language is a dialect of Yakut.
The Yakuts and Dolgans settled in their current lands by the 13th century under pressure from the expanding Mongol Empire to the south. In the 16th century, the Tsardom of Muscovy (one of the predecessor states to modern Russia) began expanding into Yakut territory, brutally suppressing resistance and imposing fur taxes on the Yakut. Russian colonization of the region expanded greatly during the 1800’s following the discovery of gold in the area.
The Yakuts are perhaps best known for their role in the Russian Civil War, as the final conflict of the war took place there. The Yakut Revolt, lead by White Army Cornet Mikhail Korobeinikov, raged from 1921 to 1923 until it was brutally suppressed by the Soviets. The Soviets would later force the Yakuts and Dolgans to settle on collective farms and barred them from their traditional nomadic lifestyles. Hunger and malnutrition during Joseph Stalin’s rule resulted in thousands of Yakuts dying between 1926 and 1959.
Today, the Yakuts and Dolgans still retain many traditional practices, such as domesticating reindeer. While most were converted to Orthodox Christianity in the 1800’s, they still practice a number of shamanistic beliefs.
Uralic Peoples of the Arctic
The Uralic peoples reside across a wide swath of Eurasia, extending from western Siberia to Scandinavia. The Arctic peoples of the Uralic family are broadly divided into five groups: the Ugric peoples, the Komi, the Sámi, the Finnic peoples, and the Samoyedic peoples.
Ugric Peoples: Khanty and Mansi
The Khanty and Mansi peoples primarily reside in the Khanty-Mansi Autonomous Okrug in western Siberia. Both groups made contact with Russian traders in the 11th century and had cultures revolving around fur trapping, reindeer herding, and fishing. During the Soviet era, the Khanty were unique in that they were granted autonomy, unlike other Siberian minorities, though they were also forcibly collectivized and Russified starting in the 1930’s.
Today, both the Khanty and Mansi have been granted considerable freedom by Russia to practice and preserve their traditional cultures. While most Khanty and Mansi are members of the Orthodox Church, they still retain many shamanistic beliefs, like other indigenous Siberian peoples. Mansi legends state that the Mansi historically rode moose into battle, though no evidence has emerged to support this.
Samoyedic Peoples of the Arctic
The Samoyedic peoples of the Arctic are primarily concentrated in northwest Siberia and consist of a number of groups, most notably the Nenets, Enets, Nganasan, and Selkup. Their traditional folkways consist of reindeer herding, hunting, and fishing.
Russian colonists made contact with the Samoyedic peoples during the country’s expansion into Siberia in the 1700’s. Much like other Siberian indigenous groups, they suffered considerably under communism due to forced Russification and collectivization. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, the Nenets and other peoples have improved their economic and cultural position, though the Samoyedic peoples are plagued by poverty, alcoholism, and pollution from mines in the city of Norilsk.
The Komi are a Permian ethnic group native to northeastern Europe, residing along the fringes of European Russia. Beginning in the 12th century, the Komi made contact with traders from the Russian merchant republic of Novgorod, and by the 1500’s, the Komi had been annexed by the Tsardom of Muscovy. Many Russian settlers began migrating to the region around this time, resulting in tensions between the two sides and attempts to assimilate the Komi.
Following the Russian revolutions of 1917, the Allied Powers backed the Komi against the Bolsheviks in their attempt to create an independent state. The Soviets took control of the region in 1919 and began industrializing it, causing many changes to the Komi way of life. Komi territory also became home to many gulags due to its remoteness, and under Stalin, the Komi language and culture were suppressed in an attempt at Russification.
Since the fall of the Soviet Union, Komi culture has undergone a revival, with the Komi Republic focused on preserving the language and unique traditions of the Komi people in the face of Russification.
The Sámi, also known as Laplanders, are an Uralic people native to northern Norway, Sweden, Finland, and the Murmansk Oblast of Russia. Their culture has traditionally revolved around reindeer herding, fishing, and fur trapping.
Resident in northern Scandinavia for generations, the Sámi were known for their trading with Vikings and other European peoples. Due to their limited contact with the outside world, they were only minimally affected by the Black Death in the 1300’s, which devastated the Norwegian and Swedish populations. Due to the extreme climate of northern Scandinavia and Finland, the Sámi were largely granted autonomy despite their lands coming under control of Sweden, Russia, Norway, and Denmark.
Beginning in the 1800’s, expansion into the Arctic Circle severely impacted the traditional Sámi way of life. Sámi were forcibly Christianized by Norwegian and Swedish authorities and migration from the south decreased the Sámi’s political power. Many Norwegian Sámi were also subject to forced sterilization beginning in 1934, with limited attempts at sterilization in Sweden.
Today, Sámi have largely been granted autonomy by their respective governments and have worked to preserve their unique culture. Sami are known for their distinctive clothing, referred to as gákti, as well as for their toolmaking and art. They are also known for their skill at reindeer husbandry, with local laws protecting their traditional hunting culture.
Finnic Peoples of the Arctic
The Finnish are a Finnic ethnic group native to Finland, with strong cultural influence from Sweden and other Scandinavian countries. The Finnish were, like other Scandinavian tribes, largely nomadic and tribal until Christianized during the Middle Ages.
Beginning in the 1200’s, Finland came under control of the Kingdom of Sweden, which was later unified with Denmark and Norway under the Kalmar Union. Following Sweden’s revolt in 1523, the Kalmar Union dissolved and Finland remained part of Sweden. During this period, the Finnish language fell out of favor with the ruling class and nobility, who primarily spoke Swedish; this remains a topic of controversy in modern Finland.
In 1809, during the Napoleonic Wars, Finland was annexed by Russia. During this period, the Finnish language underwent a revival, and calls for an independent Finland grew among the intelligentsia. Following the Russian Revolution, Finland successfully won its independence from the Soviet Union. The two sides would later fight again in the Winter War of 1939 and in World War II, in which the Soviets annexed portions of southeastern and northeastern Finland. Today, Finland is a wealthy state and a member of the European Union.
The Karelians are an ethnic group closely related to Finns, residing primarily in the Republic of Karelia within Russia and in eastern Finland. Karelians made contact with Russians and Swedes in the Middle Ages, and in 1323, the Karelian homeland was divided between the Kingdom of Sweden and the Russian merchant republic of Novgorod. Karelians in Sweden were forcibly converted to Catholicism and later Lutheranism, while Karelians in Russia were converted to Orthodoxy.
Russia and Sweden would continue to contest Karelia for centuries, with eastern Karelia falling under Swedish control 1617, then reverting to Russian control in 1721. Western Karelia became part of Russia in 1809 with Swedish’s cessation of Finland. Following Finnish independence in 1917, Finland made several attempts to take control of the remainder of Karelia, without success. In 1940, the Soviet Union granted Karelia autonomy by creating the Karelo-Finnish Soviet Socialist Republic, but it was dissolved in 1956.
To this day, Karelian culture and identity are fading away as Karelians assimilate into the greater Russian population. Self-identified Karelians currently comprise less than ten percent of the Republic of Karelia’s population.
Indo-European Peoples of the Arctic
Three Indo-European peoples have historically made the Arctic their home: the Norwegian and Icelandic peoples, who are Germanic, and the Russians, who are Slavic.
Norwegians and Icelanders
Nordic peoples have inhabited Scandinavia, including its northernmost reaches, for generations. The modern Norwegians and Icelanders trace their origins to the Vikings, who explored and conquered much of northern and western Europe, discovered Greenland, and even reached North America during their golden age.
Norwegians began to emerge as a distinct people in the 900’s and 1000’s due to Christianization and geographic isolation from other parts of Scandinavia. In 1319, Norway was united with Sweden and Denmark under the Kalmar Union. Following the dissolution of the Union in 1523, Norway remained part of Denmark until 1814, when it was ceded to Sweden in the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars. Norway peacefully seceded from Sweden in 1905 and has since become one of the wealthiest countries in the world.
Iceland was settled by Vikings in the 9th and 10th centuries along with Irish and Scottish settlers, creating a unique hybrid culture. Iceland’s parliament, the Althing, is the oldest continually operating representative government in the world. As a part of Norway, Iceland was part of the Kalmar Union and remained part of Denmark following its collapse, though it was granted a large degree of autonomy.
Following the cessation of Norway to Sweden in 1814, Iceland remained part of Denmark until 1940, when it was invaded by Britain following Nazi Germany’s invasion of Denmark. The U.S. would go on to administer Iceland until it achieved full independence in 1944. Iceland subsequently joined NATO and has developed rapidly due to its fishing and tourism industries.
Russians are an East Slavic ethnic group native to Eastern Europe, with a long history of exploring and colonizing the Arctic Circle. While European Russia has been inhabited since at least 2,000 B.C., little is known about the culture of the Slavs prior to the Middle Ages. Beginning in the Middle Ages, Slavs split into three groups, Western Slavs, Eastern Slavs, and Southern Slavs, expanding into other parts of Europe.
Kievan Rus’, established in the 9th century, is regarded as the forerunner of modern Russia. The Novgorod Republic, founded in 1136, was a powerful merchant state that extensively explored and colonized the Arctic, paving the way for future Russian expansion. By the 1500’s, all of the Russian states had been united under the Tsardom of Muscovy, which would later evolve into the Russian Empire and expand across Asia, colonizing Siberia and eventually Alaska.
Following the Russian Revolutions of 1917, the Soviet Union carried out an extensive program of resettlement and construction in the Arctic, hoping to exploit the wealth of natural resources there. Many large Arctic cities such as Norilsk and Vorkuta were built during this period using forced labor from gulag camps. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1917, Russia has continued expanding into the Arctic, including maintaining a fleet of nuclear-powered icebreakers and developing the Arctic Bridge, a sea route that will link Russia and Canada via the port cities of Murmansk and Churchill, Manitoba.
As you can see, there is an incredible range of diversity among the indigenous peoples of the Arctic. Each culture reflects unique beliefs and struggles that have shaped them over generations. If you’re curious about the lives of people who reside in the Arctic, why not take a trip and see for yourself?