Inuit: Disc Numbers and Project Surname

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Today’s Inuit use a combination of Euro-Christian given names with Inuit surnames. This has not always been the practice. Prior to the first half of the 20th century, Inuit did not use surnames. Traditional Inuit names reflected things of importance (family, spirits, animals, the environment) and were neither gender-specific nor recognized shared family names.

By the 1920s, there was a push by missionaries, fur trade employees and government officials to identify Inuit in accordance with European norms and the patriarchal social model. These groups believed that the lack of surnames and consistent spelling made it difficult to identify each Inuk for trading, census information, and other records. The introduction of disc numbers was implemented not only to identify Inuit, but also to administer the distribution of family allowance, other benefits, and health care.

A black-and-white photograph taken inside an igloo of two men reading a disc number attached to a boy’s parka.

Taking the census and checking on family allowance matters, Windy River, [N.W.T. (Nunavut)], December 10, 1950 (a102695)

At the time, several suggestions were put forward to the federal government such as introducing a binomial naming system with family names, standardizing spelling, creating individual RCMP files and obtaining fingerprints of each Inuk. The RCMP started fingerprinting but it was not well-received, largely due to its association criminal activity.

Finally, in 1941, the federal government chose to register each Inuk with a unique numeric identifier, which was stamped on a disc or printed on a card. These identifiers were often called “Eskimo disc numbers” or ujamiit (ujamik) in InuktitutInuit were required to carry these numbers on their person, so they were often sewn onto clothing or hung from laces around the neck. These numbers were used until 1972 except in Quebec where the practice continued for a few more years.

Following are three photographs of a family taken sequentially holding their disc number that was written on a chalkboard.

A black-and-white photograph of an Inuit man holding a small chalkboard with the number 6008.

Portrait of a man [David Arnatsiaq] holding a small chalkboard with the number 6008, at Pond Inlet (Mittimatalik/Tununiq), Nunavut, August 1945 (e002344278)

A black-and-white photograph of an Inuit woman holding a small chalkboard with the number 6009.

Portrait of a woman [Tuurnagaaluk] holding a small chalkboard with the number 6009, at Pond Inlet (Mittimatalik/Tununiq), Nunavut, August 1945 (e002344279)

A black-and-white photograph of an Inuit woman holding a small chalkboard with the number 6010.

Portrait of a woman [Juunaisi/Eunice Kunuk Arreak] holding a small chalkboard with the number 6010, at Pond Inlet (Mittimatalik/Tununiq), Nunavut, August 1945 (e002344280)

From 1968 to 1971, the federal government with the Northwest Territories Council undertook to change the identification system from disc numbers to the use of last names under Project Surname. This project was headed by Abraham “Abe” Okpik who toured the Northwest Territories and northern Quebec (Nunavik) with a linguist.

Library and Archives Canada holds evidence of the disc number system in photographs and documents, such as lists of individuals and their disc numbers, as well as lists showing the transition to surnames and social insurance numbers. Note that these records are restricted as they contain personal information.

42 thoughts on “Inuit: Disc Numbers and Project Surname

  1. Hello there, I am researching a group of Inuit art carvings here in Ireland with the disc numbers E8141, E5328 and ES319 – or should the last read E5319? I would be grateful for any advice to dates and names, many thanks.

    • Hello, My name is Levi Palituq and i live in Clyde River. The E5 was Clyde River’s number. maybe if we see pictures of the carvings we can help.

      • Hello Levi…..I have a small carving of a seated woman….the disc number on the back is E5 820… you have any idea of the carver’s name?….I can send a photo or two if you have an email address …thanks


      • hi levi: I have a carving that I would like to get more info on. It has a name of NOWAA unless I’m reading it wrong. The number is 00751 and there are no letters in front of it. On the top corner or the carving it does have letters TB. It had a sticker on the bottom but i have lost it somehow when it fell off. I would appreciate any info you could provide to me. thank you.

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  3. I understand that a photo was taken of the people that were given names. my number was E5-1676. I was wondering how I can get a hold of the photo that was taken of me.

  4. At the end of the article it says that Disc Numbers were used until 1972 except in Québec where the practice continued for a few more years. Do you know when Québec stopped using the Disc Numbers ?

    • I know that in 1978, the Ministre des affaires sociales in their Declaration of Marriage, when people get married, EDN were still used as other given names but they had an official given name.

  5. Hi,
    I am trying to identify the artist at the link below, but no numbers on the bottom seem to conform to the Disk Number format. There are maybe Inuit symbols on the bottom, maybe a name that looks like “KA LA RA “, but I can’t decipher the row below that and part of the top row is obscured by the label. If someone can point me in right direction, I would appreciate it.

  6. Hello…I am in Ireland and I have a stone carving which has a number E97313 or E91373 …the 1s and 7s are not distinct. It also has a signature which ends with the letters EON….. the final four letters are PEON or REON.. Can anyone help identify the artist? I believe this carving was bought in the 1950s/60s

  7. I have a sculpture soap stone carving that I was given with the number B5-18382 any information on the artist would be appreciated.

  8. Hi, I am not living in Canada, is there a digital copy of ‘Eskimo registration books’ (RG85-D-1-c, volumes 1904 to 1908, MIKAN 135018) available too?
    Thanks a lot!

  9. Can someone please tell me what area a disc number E9-1359 would be from? I have a beautiful seal carving with this number on it and the name ‘Maggie’, and I would like to know when & where it was made

  10. My Inuit seal has a carving number 577 as well as a label showing an igloo under which is NS 17. I am giving it to my grandson and would very much like to have the name of the artist. I would be grateful for any information you can give. Many thanks.

  11. Who made these Eskimo tags, my tag was thrown in the garbage by mistake which was sealed, I need one, I’m willing to pay. Thanks

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  14. Hi – looking to find information on carvings from the north (circa 1950-1970). One carving has disc # E3.812. any information would be helpful

  15. i have an Inuit carving with the Disc number E5-124 and symbols interpreted as i ku a lu … any help please

  16. Hi, I wonder if I can access information about my last name, can barely do any research on it, I live in Sweden. The surname is Honkakangas.

  17. I have a large Inuit sculpture from around or pre-1970s. The Carver used his disc number as ID as well as a name scratched into the bottom of the sculpture. The name seems unclear but it looks like ( Akooejjtuk) the desk number is E7-95. Does anyone have an idea who this carver maybe through ther disk number?

  18. I have been suffering from ‘unexplained’ epilepsy of the worst kind, idiopathic grand mal seisures roughly three times annually but some up to five times a year since first experiencing a seizure in Dec. 21st, 2009 in Kugluktuk. I received nothing from any level of gov’t since then. I do not drink because this would impact my disability. I once had a disc number for my whimsical inuit artwork i think i was known as the artist “tagged” as W2-1122 but that may be wrong. I may have a different number. I am an Inuvialuit-Inuit-Eskimo man, surviving on the streets of Edmonton in 2023.

  19. I’m trying to find my akka’s E number, I would always hear from him 1458, and being told it’s 1658 by someone else, I want a tattoo of it, but I don’t want the wrong number

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