The Inuit of the Central and Eastern Canadian Arctic, especially the Utku and Qipisa communities, have traditionally tried to avoid manifestations of anger, though there is no question that violence has occurred. Some Inuit groups have even fought wars, particularly with the Indians who lived to the south of them, both during prehistoric times and well into the period after European settlements.
For a hundred years in the 17th and 18th centuries, Europeans posted at fur trading forts on both sides of Hudson Bay and James Bay recorded in tedious detail protracted instances of warfare between the local Cree Indians and the Inuit just to the north. A recent book chapter examines the course of the inter-ethnic violence during that period; it speculates on the causes of the warfare and posits reasons why it probably ended.
The authors provide evidence that warfare between the Lowland Cree and the Inuit of Subarctic Canada in the Hudson Bay/James Bay area existed well before the period of European expansion into the region. They argue that southward Inuit expansion many hundreds of years ago along the shores of the bays, a movement perhaps precipitated by changing climatic conditions and a search for resources, may have been a primary cause of the prehistoric warfare.
On the west side of the bays, there was evidence of the Inuit presence as far south as the mouth of the Churchill River, and on the east side as far south as the Eastmain River. By the mid-17th century, however, conditions for Inuit winter survival in the area had changed and they appear to have migrated northward once again.
Descriptions of the warfare between the Inuit and the Cree are preserved in the historical records. The Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) traders recorded many accounts of Indian war parties moving north in the summers to attack Inuit camps wherever they could find them. Into the early 18th century, the traders also mentioned a few instances of war parties of Inuit invading the territories of their enemies to the south. For the most part, however, the Inuit aggression had ceased by the 1670s or 1680s, a few years after the Europeans began establishing their trading posts. Cree raids to the north continued for over a hundred years, until 1793.
The asymmetrical pattern of warfare during that century was a result of the traders only selling guns and ammunition to the Cree, who gained a distinct advantage over their traditional enemies. There is no evidence that the Inuit had any relationships with the Cree that would have allowed them to also acquire guns, and the people from the north did not trade at the HBC posts.
The Cree had probably acquired firearms even earlier from the French traders, but they had a regular supply from the HBC posts beginning about 1670. This may help explain why the Inuit started withdrawing to the north. European qualms about fostering warfare among the indigenous peoples did not prevent them from selling supplies to the Cree at the trading posts when the Indian war parties headed north to raid and murder.
The authors analyze the causes of the warfare, which they blame primarily on the earlier invasion of Cree territory by the Inuit. Initial contacts might have been difficult because of cultural and linguistic differences. Battles among them might have led to continuing patterns of raiding and retaliation.
The long-term patterns of fear and mistrust caused the warfare to last throughout most of the 18th century, a pattern that the European traders perpetuated by supplying arms only to the Indians. Also, Cree cosmology, blaming their natural and supernatural misfortunes on the sorcery of their traditional enemies to the north, continued to promote their aggression.
One trader wrote, during a visit to York Factory in 1746-47, “the Indians are inclinable to War; if there is a bad season of Hunting in the Winter, or anyone of their People is missing, or that they have a Sickness amongst them, they must prepare in Spring to go and seek out the Eskemaux, and make a Carnage of them; for they attribute to them the Cause of their Misfortunes… (p.49).”
Another factor that encouraged the Indians to send raiding parties northward was the prestige that would accrue to the warriors. While not the primary motive for the raiding, warriors’ prestige became an important secondary cause of the continuing attacks. Furthermore, the raiding produced captives, sometimes women and more frequently children—an economic incentive for war. At times, the HBC would purchase the captives and give them their freedom in order to ensure that they would not be murdered subsequently. Other times, the Indians took their captives south to their villages and sold them as slaves.
The capture of territory, however, was never a reason for the continuing Cree attacks. They did not have the ability to go after the sea mammals that the Inuit hunted. Their birch bark canoes were less suitable for survival in the open seas than the Inuit skin boats and they lacked harpoons with detachable heads for killing sea animals.
The ethnic warfare ended quite suddenly in 1793. The authors argue that the reasons can be found in the changing economic conditions of the lowland Cree. The HBC posts were expanding to compete against rival traders from the North West Company, so they began employing the Cree to load and transport supplies.
As the company needed more and more employees, the Cree found that their jobs occupied most of their summers. They were busier, and their growing access to consumer goods made their lives more stable and secure. Their trapping and goose-shooting could supply most of their additional need for income.
In addition, starting in the mid-1770s, the Inuit began to gain access to guns. The authors conclude that the Cree became hesitant to launch attacks northward when their enemies possessed weapons that allowed them to fight back.
Bishop, Charles A. and Victor P. Lytwyn. 2007. “‘Barbarism and Ardour of War from the Tenderest Years’: Cree-Inuit Warfare in the Hudson Bay Region.” In North American Indigenous Warfare and Ritual Violence, edited by Richard J. Chacon and Rubén G. Mendoza, p. 31-57. Tucson, University of Arizona Press