Tuktu, the caribou, is fundamental to the existence of the Inuit. Like its aquatic counterpart nattiq, the ringed seal, tuktu can be found almost anywhere in the Arctic where Inuit live. It is the mainstay of life for many of the mainland Inuit communities, and important as a source of both meat and warm, light clothing to those of the Eastern Arctic islands. Poetic and sacred language have many other terms for tuktu, some of them rooted in the belief that it was unwise to mention one's quarry directly by name. In rituals, songs, and stories, it was referred to by a myriad of expressions, including "the big one with the topknot", "those gifted with horns", "one whom one shoots with a bow and arrow", "louse" (because there are so many of them everywhere), "those who come down towards the ocean" (caribou migrating towards the coast in spring), "they who spread fog" (herds of caribou breathing in the cold fall air), and "heedless dweller of the plains" (an unsuspecting quarry) (Randa 1994). The caribou has also given its name to places in the Arctic: the community of Pangnirtung, for example, is named for pakniktuq, the "place of mature male caribou" (Ferguson 1997).
The importance of the caribou to all aspects of life has turned the events of its life cycle into landmarks of the seasons for the Inuit. Like ringed seals, caribou give their names to several of the months of the year. Around the middle of May comes nurrait, the month when "caribou are calving", followed later in July by saggaruut, "when caribou skin thins", then akulliruut, "when caribou skin thickens", and finally amiraijaut, "when velvet falls off caribou antlers". To the Inuit of Southampton Island, somewhat farther south than Igloolik, the names of the months vary, but caribou still figure largely in the descriptions; for example, nukalliut, "when caribou fawns are born" (May), shughuliut, "when caribou hair is shortest" (July), akudligut, "when caribou hair is half-grown" (September), and nooliakvik, "when the caribou mate" (October).
The cycle of the caribou was followed closely by the Inuit during the summer months. Towards the middle of summer, the people of Igloolik began to prepare to trek inland from the coast for the yearly caribou hunt. Although caribou could be killed and eaten at any time of the year, the major hunt took place in late summer. Its main purpose was not to harvest meat, but to acquire a supply of caribou skins with which to make the warm garments needed for the winter. For this reason the length of caribou hair figures prominently in the Inuit calendar: the caribou had to be hunted at just the right time for the skins to be suitable. Early in the summer, the caribou are moulting and their hair is very short. Soon it begins to grow back, reaching an ideal length around the month of August. Later it becomes too thick and heavy to be used for clothing, although such thickly insulated skins make excellent mattresses (IOHP 370).
Another factor in timing the hunt was the unwelcome presence of kumak, the caribou bot fly, an ever-present parasite that lays its eggs on caribou. These eggs hatch into grubs that live on the flesh of the caribou, eventually burrowing out through the animal's skin. Waiting until later in the summer allowed some of the wounds left by these parasites to heal over, wounds which would otherwise leave inconvenient holes in clothing and coverings (Randa 1994).
It proved difficult to time the caribou hunt accurately, for calendars were not used and the caribou themselves could not be "checked on", as they lived many miles away inland. In order to arrive at the caribou grounds at the right moment, the Inuit watched other animals to judge the passing of the seasons. When asked how the hunters knew when to leave the shoreline and trek inland to hunt caribou, an elder from Igloolik explained, "I know that we did not follow the month; there was a saying from people before us that 'The eider ducklings have now started for the sea, it is now the right time to head for the inland as the thickness of the hairs (on caribou) are just right for clothing' " (IOHP 200). In another parallel, keen observers know that when the feathers of young snow buntings grow reddish, so too does the hair of the young caribou. Later in the fall, the mating season of the caribou coincides with that of the walrus and of charr running up to the lakes.
Just prior to mating, the males of both caribou and walrus are in prime condition, fat and ready to battle for mates. The back fat of caribou in the fall was a prized commodity, as it was not only delicious, but also burned well in the qulliq, or soapstone lamp. At this time of year bulls and females without calves were hunted more than females with offspring, as they had more stored back fat (IOHP 276). Bulls with white hairs on their necks were said to have the best back fat (IOHP 255, 084).
One hunter describes the behaviour of caribou in the fall:
The caribou had been migrating outwards (from the coast)… at this time the lakes (were freezing over). When the snow had thinly blanketed the ground the bulls started to look around for mates. During this period again the hunters would concentrate on caribou hunting, when it was no longer possible to hunt in the lake (at caribou crossings). The male caribou would not scare easily at this time when they were looking for mates, and they were usually alone. When they see an object they tend to come up and investigate. In a place where there is an abundance of caribou they are not afraid at all. … When the large lakes had frozen over, the caribous would start mating. At this time the caribou would start to migrate to the other direction, towards Kangirlukjuaq. … The caribou that had migrated earlier when the larger lakes still had not frozen over, had joined up with other herds and had started to move back. By this time they would keep migrating until the bull caribou had spent their back fat (IOHP 065).
As the weather cools in the fall and the ground begins to freeze, caribou gather together into large herds, leaving their summer grounds and migrating southwards for the winter. Once again, the Inuit observe the parallels between the caribou gathering for their migration and the snow buntings, which at this time are also flocking together prior to flying south. The hooves of migrating caribou cut deep trails into the ground, and could be heard over long distances, especially when the ground was frozen only on the surface, acting like a sounding-board for the millions of hoofbeats (IOHP 385). Caribou trails are wider inland than near the shoreline, because "there are more caribou inland".
After the mating season, caribou shed their antlers, growing a new pair the next summer. Caribou antlers provided the Inuit with a myriad of implements, from snow knives and shovels to drying racks and seal-hunting tools. A complex set of terms describes each part of the antler and relates it to its various uses (IOHP 037). Male caribou grow much bigger antlers than females, with animals growing larger antlers each year as they get older. Many Inuit prefer the larger antlers as they are more versatile when worked on. Antler varies in density and strength. Sometimes its light and porous, sometimes dense, sometimes it has a thick crust on the outside. They grow over the course of the summer, covered in thick velvet, filled with blood vessels and spongy in texture. The tips of growing antlers were considered a delicacy when properly cooked.
Male caribou use their antlers for fighting with other males during the mating season. In preparation for this, the velvet falls off or is rubbed off and the antlers harden. Males tend to lose their velvet sooner than females. Noah Piugaattuk, of Igloolik, describes the growing and hardening process of antlers:
…these antlers get detached every year… Young males lose the velvet from the antlers much more quickly than female caribou even though they are not fully mature. They start to work with their antlers just as soon as the velvet starts to fall off. The young males engage in fights with their antlers towards autumn… soon after the velvet had fallen off they will be red, as they start to get bleached their colour changes… When the velvet starts to fall off the antler is red because the antler is made from blood. The antler is the blood that has hardened, in fact the core of the antler is still bloody when the velvet starts to fall off, at least close to the base (IOHP 037).
Caribou feed on a number of different lichens and mosses on the tundra: tingaujaq, "that which looks like pubic hair" (hair lichen, Alectoria sp.); atungaujarjuaq, "that which is like the sole of kamik (footwear)" (willow, Salix reticulata); and most appropriately, nirnaq, "caribou food" (Cetraria nivalis) (Randa 1994). Their grazing combined with their wandering creates patterns on the tundra for all to see and follow. Dry summers and wet winters, both possible future outcomes of climate change, pose problems for caribou and the Inuit who hunt them. When summers are dry, plants lack the moisture to grow and caribou remain thin, unable to store up reserves of back fat. In the winter, the caribou rely on being able to scrape through the snow to find lichens to eat. If it rains and then freezes, the resulting layer of ice prevents them from reaching food and they starve. This is perhaps one of the greatest threats of possible changes in northern weather patterns (IOHP 399, 400).
Another thaw-freeze pattern occurs right when caribou calves are born in the spring. The newborn caribou have to be hardy to survive the inhospitable conditions, which often become significantly colder soon after the calves are born, before eventually warming up again. Female caribou nurse their young for several months, from birth until the fall mating season. While bull caribou are often found near the coast, females tend to calve in the interior and remain there with their young throughout the summer (IOHP 101).
Along with old or weak animals, young caribou are primary prey for Arctic wolves. The two species are considered to be closely associated. One legend explains how wolves were created in order to keep the caribou healthy by killing off sick individuals. Whenever caribou approach a camp, Inuit know that wolves are likely to follow (Randa 1994). In the legend of Arnakpaktuq, the great shaman was born as both a caribou and a wolf, learning the habits of each. As a caribou he learned how to grow fat in spite of eating only mosses and lichens, and how to run fast by kicking his heels up towards the sky. With the wolves he was taught to run quickly and tirelessly, and how to catch a caribou by biting it in the hindquarters to avoid being kicked. With a strong bite in the hindquarters, he was able to make the caribou lame and sever the large artery located there (IOHP 156, 160; Randa 1994).
Hunters pursuing caribou knew their habits intimately. If a hunter came upon a caribou on a summer evening, he would leave it until the following dawn, knowing that it would not move far in the dark, and that it would pause to feed before heading on again in the morning. By contrast, when the caribou were migrating, they tended to move rapidly during the cool hours of dawn and dusk, slowing down for the warmer parts of the day. During mosquito season, however, caribou act erratically, galloping off to try to escape the harassment of millions of insects. First they shake their tails, trying to swish the flies from their hindquarters, and then they kick their back legs, before bounding away to a new location, often a breezy hilltop with some snow patches left on it where the animals can keep cool.
One traditional method of hunting caribou, maliruaq, consisted of following the caribou constantly for three days and nights, after which time they became accustomed to the hunters, who could now approach close enough to use their bows and arrows (IOHP 439, 437, 058). In addition to firearms and motorized vehicles, hunters nowadays have the advantage that modern, rubber soled boots leave less smell in their tracks than the old-style skin footwear. Caribou crossing a trail used to pick up the scent immediately and become wary of pursuit, while now it sometimes seems that they have no sense of smell (IOHP 390). In order to camouflage their scent, hunters sometimes burned a particular berry-like plant and stood in the smoke. When this was done to a child, it was said to allow him to approach caribou unnoticed from any direction when he was older (IOHP 197).
While the movements of marine mammals are fairly simple and well understood by the Inuit, the wanderings of caribou challenge even the best geographers. At times, on a small scale, they exhibit predictable behaviours, such as moving upwind, especially when the wind has just changed direction. " …you begin to see them walking towards where the winds will start to blow from" (IOHP 400). They also follow annual migrations, the routes of which, over the years, become known in fine detail to the Inuit of each region. Not all caribou migrate together, however. Sometimes the bull caribou stay behind while the females and young move south.
In addition to following regular migration patterns, caribou also walk in various ways across the tundra, gradually moving, over the course of a few years, from one area to another with no seeming destination. Only a few years ago numerous caribou wandered through the main streets of Iqaluit, while now one must travel for miles before seeing one.
Finally, the caribou population seems to undergo a long term, 60 to 70 year cycle. Elders tell of periods when there were no caribou in an area where they are now common, and warn that in the future there will again be shortages of this vital animal. Scientists trying to assess the size and health of caribou populations have only recently realized the length and variation of these cycles. While researchers may work in an area for a few years or decades, only the accumulated experiences of several generations can recognize such long term processes (Ferguson et al 1997; IOHP 101).
My grandfather said that there used to be a lot of caribou near Naujan... He would tell me that while they were hunting seals they could see caribou crossing the bay in the winter time. It appeared to me as if he was not telling the truth, as it was pretty hard to believe, for there are now no caribou. He would say that in the future the caribou would again cross the bay in the winter time. It was long after he passed away that the caribou once again became abundant. It is quite clear the cycle will continue, where there will be a period when the caribou become scarce again. So for sure, if we were to tell those that had never seen the time when there was an abundance of caribou, they would not believe us for they had never seen them for themselves (IOHP 197).
Overall, the movements of caribou appear to be highly dependent on the area where they are located, and the amount of vegetation that is available to feed on.
In the winter when caribou are looking for food under the snow, they have a tendency to destroy large areas of the ground. The few places where the vegetation can grow have now been destroyed by the caribou when they are seeking food in the winter time. So now last year's caribou were starving, as the source of food was no longer available to them. Because of this condition one can say that it will not be long before the caribou start to move out from these areas where they had dwelt before. This will give the plant life time to return to its healthy state (IOHP 101).
After considering all their different movements and motivations, however, it is still difficult for Inuit and qallunaat (Europeans) alike to explain exactly where caribou will be at a given time. As one elder finally shrugged, "I have hunted caribou from the time of my youth but I have not been able to understand their behaviour fully" (IOHP 276).
Because they were so important to life for the Inuit, the hunting and use of caribou meat and hides was surrounded by many taboos. In particular, it was important not to mix caribou with marine mammals, for fear of offending either one or both species. New caribou skin clothing had to be completed in the fall and early winter before the start of the main seal hunting season. Caribou meat and meat of sea animals could not be mixed. One had to be very careful when removing a frozen caribou carcass from a rock cache in the winter, as it was strictly forbidden to bruise or break the heart of a caribou with a stone or anything other than a knife blade. If this taboo were broken, it would anger the Assait, spirits of the land that live underground or under the lakes and are invisible to ordinary people. Albino caribou, too, were especially revered as powerful beings. It was said that they hatched from large "earth eggs" found on the land. Shooting an albino caribou could bring disaster on the hunter and his family, unless a series of very strict taboos were followed to appease the animal's spirit (Randa 1994; IOHP).