Inuit Qimmiit (sled dogs)

On the left of the graphic, Tatânga Mânî [Chief Walking Buffalo] [George McLean] in traditional regalia on horse. In the middle, Iggi and girl engaging in a “kunik”, a traditional greeting in Inuit culture. On the right, Maxime Marion, a Métis guide stands holding a rifle. In the background, there is a map of Upper and Lower Canada, and text from the Red River Settlement collection.By Laura Johnston

Traditionally, qimmiit (sled dogs) were an important part of Inuit culture. They represented a way of life and a connection to the land. Qimmiit were especially useful in transportation, safety and hunting. Today, however, the relationship between Inuit and qimmiit has changed, in part because of permanent settlement and a massive decline in the qimmiit population. Qimmiit have become more of a symbol or a connection to the cultural past.

Black-and-white photo of a team of sled dogs pulling a sled across an expanse of snow.

Qimuksiqtut (dog team with more than one person), Kugluktuk, Nunavut (formerly Coppermine, Northwest Territories), 1949 (a129937)

A black-and-white photo of a sled dog jumping across an opening of water, while a man holds its reins.

Phillip Napacherkadiak and his Qimuksiqtuq (dog team with one driver), Taloyoak, Nunavut (formerly Spence Bay, Northwest Territories), 1949–1950 (a129590)

Before the snowmobile was introduced to the North in the 1960s, going by qimuksiqtuq (dog team) was the primary means of transportation to travel across the frozen land and sea. Even after the introduction of the snowmobile, some preferred qimmiit as a way to travel. In contrast to the noise of snowmobiles, travelling by qimuksiqtuq was more pleasant and peaceful.

A black-and-white photo of a sled dog resting on the snow.

Qimmiq (sled dog) resting during a trip from Moose Factory Island, Ontario, to Kuujjuarapik, (formerly Great Whale), Quebec, 1946 (e010692583)

Travelling by qimuksiqtuq offered other benefits, including safety and protection. On account of their acute senses, qimmiit were useful for their ability to find their way home, or even a temporary camp, if a traveller were caught in a blizzard or a whiteout. Qimmiit were also useful to Inuit for travelling safely over ice. They were better able to sense whether the ice was too thin, and were usually able to avoid such areas. Qimmiit could also spread out and disperse their weight when travelling over thinner ice, making it less likely for a sled to fall through. However, even if a qimmiq (a single dog) fell through the ice, not every dog—or the traveler—would necessarily be endangered.

A black-and-white photo of a man holding a sled dog. The sled dog is wearing booties.

Possibly Ulaajuk and his qimmiq, Taloyoak, Nunavut (formerly Spence Bay, Northwest Territories) (a114721)

Qimmiit offered safety to Inuit in another way: from the threat of polar bears. Polar bears can be aggressive toward humans; they can pose a real danger to Inuit communities, especially travellers. Qimmiit were ideal protection, as they could warn people about bears entering a camp. Even without training, qimmiit would instinctively fight off polar bears. Consequently, Inuit travellers were able to sleep in peace and without fear when out on the land.

A black-and-white photo of some people pulling a seal, which they have just hunted, out of a hole in the ice. A sled dog team is in the background.

From left to right, Aqaatsiaq, Ipeelie Inuksuk, Felix Alaralak and Uqaliq, and their qimuksiqtut (dog team), Iglulik, Nunavut (formerly Igloolik, Northwest Territories) (a146059)

In additional to protection and safety, qimmiit played an important role in assisting Inuit in seal hunting. Hunting has traditionally been a defining element of Inuit life and culture. While the dogs were not necessarily trained to hunt, Inuit relied on the keen sense of smell of qimmiit to sniff out the locations of breathing holes and seals.

A black-and-white photo of a man with a dog.

Unidentified Inuk with his qimmiq, Kugluktuk, Nunavut (formerly Coppermine, Northwest Territories) (a146586)

Transportation, safety and assistance in hunting were all ways that qimmiit traditionally aided life in the Arctic. However, the enforced settlement of Inuit into permanent communities, and the dog slaughter during the 1950s and 1960s, resulted in a massive decline in the dog population. For more information on the slaughter, visit the Qikiqtani Truth Commission. In August 2011, the Quebec government offered an official apology for the negative effects on Inuit society of the mass slaughter of sled dogs in Nunavik (northern Quebec). This decline across the North created a profound shift in the relationship of Inuit with qimmiit. Today, qimmiit are mainly used for racing, which is a demanding and challenging sport. Dog racing has since become a celebrated new tradition in many Inuit communities.

A colour photo of two men with a team of sled dogs pulling a sled up a hill.

Qimuksiqtut at “Innukshuk” historical site, located either on the Foxe Peninsula, Baffin Island or Inukshuk Point (also spelled Enukso Point), Nunavut, 1958–1966. Photo by Charles Gimpel (e011211980)

This blog is part of a series related to the Indigenous Documentary Heritage Initiatives. Learn how Library and Archives Canada (LAC) increases access to First Nations, Inuit and Métis Nation collections and supports communities in the preservation of Indigenous language recordings.


Laura Johnston, from the School of Art and Culture at Carleton University, is an undergraduate practicum student in the Public Services Branch at Library and Archives Canada.

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