The Inuit: Disc Numbers and Project Surname

This article contains historical language and content that some may consider offensive, such as language used to refer to racial, ethnic and cultural groups. Please see our historical language advisory for more information.

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, the 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 the 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 Inuktitut. The Inuit 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.

Naming Indigenous Canadians

This article contains historical language and content that some may consider offensive, such as language used to refer to racial, ethnic and cultural groups. Please see our historical language advisory for more information.

When doing historical research of any kind, researchers have to choose a variety of search words. They hope that by using the correct word they can locate and use both primary and secondary sources. Choosing the right search terms is a challenge at the best of times, but the challenges involved in finding Indigenous content are particularly significant. Many search words reflect historical biases and misunderstandings. Over time, names or terms change entirely while spellings are altered to suit the period, location and circumstances.

And the terms are still changing.

There is little evidence that, as knowledge keepers, First Nations, Métis or Inuit were involved in the historical creation and development of the documents found at Library and Archives Canada (LAC). However, the individuals or institutions that created the documents left a strong imprint on them that is coloured by the why, when and where of their creation.

The language and imagery used in the past, however problematic, remain in the database descriptions. Terms such as “squaw,” “half-breed,” “massacre,” “uncivilized” and “victory” should be used with careful consideration and in an appropriate context.

A watercolour showing a woman wearing a red dress with a blanket wrapped around her head and shoulders. She is wearing snowshoes and looking off to the left. Behind in the distance is the silhouette of a church with a mountain behind it.

Indian squaw in her Sunday best with Montréal in the distance painted by Francis George Coleridge, 1866 (MIKAN 2836790)

A lithographic print showing a group of nine people, likely a family, including a baby, and three children sitting in front a tepee. One person is standing up and holding a rifle and two Métis men are smoking pipes.

Indian tepee and rebel Half Breed [Métis], 1885 (MIKAN 2933963)

A watercolour showing three figures standing by a body of water. From left to right: a woman smoking a pipe with a baby on her back , a man wearing leggings, a long blue jacket and a Métis sash holding a rifle in his right hand, and another woman with a shawl wrapped around her head and body wearing a blue dress underneath.

A half-cast [Métis] and his two wives (MIKAN 2835810)

Equally problematic is material that has less than perfect descriptions. These are not always helpful. Little detail is forthcoming when terms such as “native type” and “peau rouge” (red skin) are used. At the same time, the majority of individuals depicted in the images in Library and Archive Canada’s collections were never identified. Many archival descriptions relating to events or activities are absent or have dated information (e.g. place names, band names or terminology). Alternatively, information is based on original inscriptions and captions found in the records, and hence reflects the biases and attitudes of non-Indigenous society at the time.

The sheer number of these type of descriptions makes searching for a particular document or photograph a formidable task.

LAC does modify the descriptions in its collection. While ensuring the integrity of the original description, LAC strives to add clarity to incomplete data and modify inappropriate language when examples come to our attention. We never alter an original record or image, only the description that was created for it.

A black-and-white photograph of an Inuit man wearing a shirt and suspenders and looking directly at the photographer.

[Close-up portrait of a man wearing suspenders, Chesterfield Inlet (Igluligaarjuk), Nunavut]. Original Title: Native type, Chesterfield Inlet, N.W.T., July, 1926 (MIKAN 3379826)

Project Naming is Expanding!

This article contains historical language and content that some may consider offensive, such as language used to refer to racial, ethnic and cultural groups. Please see our historical language advisory for more information.

In early 2002, Library and Archives Canada (LAC) teamed up with the Nunavut Sivuniksavut Training Program and the Government of Nunavut’s Department of Culture, Language, Elders and Youth, to create Project Naming. The goal was to digitize photographs of Inuit from present-day Nunavut in LAC’s photographic collections in order to identify the people depicted in the images. At the time of the launch, LAC expected that the project would be concluded the following year. We never imagined that this initiative would become such a successful and popular project with the public.

To mark the annual National Aboriginal History Month in June 2015, LAC is pleased to announce the launch of Project Naming. While the project still includes communities located in Nunavut, it will be expanded to Inuit living in Inuvialuit (Northwest Territories), Nunavik (northern Quebec) and Nunatsiavut (Labrador), as well as First Nations and Métis communities in the rest of Canada. Project Naming: 2002–2012 will still be available online, but new content will only be added to the new project site.

Project Naming: 2002–2012 began with the digitization of 500 photographs from the Richard Harrington fonds. Since then, LAC has digitized approximately 8,000 photographs from many different government departments and private collections. Thanks to the enthusiasm and support from Inuit and non-Inuit researchers, nearly one-quarter of the individuals, activities or events portrayed in the images have been identified, and this information along with the images is now available in the database.

Over the years, LAC has received many wonderful stories and photographs from members of the public who have reconnected with their family and friends through the photographs. Among these was a photograph shared by the Kitikmeot Heritage Society that organized several community slide shows during the winter of 2011. Mona Tigitkok, an Elder from Kugluktuk, discovered her photograph as a young woman during one of these gatherings.

Colour photograph of an elderly Inuit woman wearing a fur-trimmed floral parka posing in front of a screen with a slide projection of her photograph when she was a young woman, taken at a community hall.

Mona Tigitkok posing with a picture of herself taken more than 50 years ago, Kugluktuk, Nunavut, February 2011. Credit: Kitikmeot Heritage Society.

Author and historian, Deborah Kigjugalik Webster, has used Project Naming, both personally and professionally. In her words:

I was first introduced to Project Naming a few years ago through my work in the Inuit heritage field, but there is also a personal connection for me—the database allows people to search by communities in Nunavut so I’ve discovered photographs of relatives and community members.

It was not uncommon in the past for photographers not to name the subjects of images. Often photo captions were simply “group of Eskimos” or “native woman” and so on. One afternoon, over tea, I showed some of the photographs from the Project Naming database to my mother, Sally Qimmiu’naaq Webster, and we were able to add a few names to faces from our home community of Baker Lake (Qamanittuaq). I felt a sense of satisfaction in identifying unnamed individuals in photographs and providing names to replace nondescript captions provided by the photographer. In a sense, when we do this we are reclaiming our heritage.

Photograph of a young Inuit woman wearing a turtle neck sweater looking away from the camera.

Photograph of the late Betty Natsialuk Hughson (identified by her relative Sally Qimmiu’naaq Webster). Taken in Baker Lake (Qamanittuaq), Nunavut, 1969 (MIKAN 4203863)

Project Naming allows people to not only identify individuals in images, but to add information including corrections to the spelling of names in an online form. It is well worth checking out the database, especially with an Elder, because seeing the image opens up discussion.

As part of my work I manage a Facebook page Inuit RCMP Special Constables from Nunavut to acknowledge the contributions of our Inuit Specials and pay tribute to them. Last year I posted a portrait photograph that I found on the Project Naming database of Jimmy Gibbons, taken in Arviat in 1946. Special Constable Gibbons was a remarkable man who joined the RCMP in 1936 and retired to a pension in 1965. This post was met with many enthusiastic likes, shares and comments from S/Cst. Gibbons’ descendants saying that he was their father, uncle or great-grandfather. Some people also simply said “thank you.” Shelley Ann Voisey Atatsiaq proudly commented, “No wonder I wrote earlier that I highly respect the R.C.M.P. I’ve got some R.C.M.P-ness in my blood. Thank you for sharing!”

Black-and-white photograph of a close-up of an Inuit man wearing a knitted vest and tie standing outside.

Jimmy Gibbons, Royal Canadian Mounted Police Special Constable, Arviat, Nunavut, August 1, 1946 (MIKAN 4805042)

For more information about the history of the project, read the article Project Naming / Un visage, un nom, International Preservation News, No. 61, December 2013, pp. 20–24.

As with the first phase of the project, LAC wants to hear from you through The Naming Continues form.

Start your search for Aboriginal content

Wampum belts

“Wampum belts” and “wampum strings”… what do these expressions refer to in the colonial archives of the Library and Archives Canada collection?

Wampum—a word originating among the Algonquian peoples in the southern parts of New England—refers to tubular white and purple beads made from certain seashells found only on the shores of the Atlantic Ocean. It is an abbreviation of wampumpeague (or wampumpeake), meaning “a string of white shell beads.” In the early 17th century, wampum became an important trade item in the growing fur trade in the northeast of the continent, in addition to serving as currency in the Dutch and English colonies until the 1660s.

Black and white drawing showing two types of wampum: belts and strings.

Drawing published in 1722 showing the difference between wampum strings and wampum belts (MIKAN 2953327)

The Iroquoian peoples from inland areas made special use of wampum in their formal diplomatic meetings with foreign or neighbouring groups. The shell beads were woven into strings and belts of varying sizes, which could contain anywhere from a few hundred to over ten thousand beads.

Oil painting on canvas showing a man standing in a forest with a wolf at his feet. He is dressed in black, wearing a red cape, and holding a wampum belt in his hand.

Portrait of Tee Yee Neen Ho Ga Row (baptized Hendrick), one of the “Four Indian Kings” who met the Queen of England in 1710 with a wampum belt in hand.

Playing a central role in international meetings and in maintaining good relationships, wampum belts were offered at official gatherings to record the words spoken, to render them official and legitimate. From the early 17th century to about the early 19th century, use of this diplomatic system spread to a large part of the American Northeast, from the vast Great Lakes region to the Maritimes, although with significant variations.

Black-and-white photograph showing several different kinds of wampum belts and strings.

Wampum belts and strings preserved by the Six Nations in the 1870s (MIKAN 3367331)

Since they were used to record spoken words, some wampum belts were kept for many years to ensure that the messages on them were maintained and preserved over time. That is why observers in the 17th and 18th centuries often compared wampum belts to archives or other official written documents (deeds, registers, annals, contracts, etc.).

Black and white photo showing six men looking at wampum belts. Five individuals are seated and the sixth seems to be explaining a wampum belt.

Six Nations Iroquois chiefs explaining the wampum belts they were preserving in 1871 (MIKAN 363053)

Wampum belts were sometimes kept over a long period so that the terms of agreements reached would not be lost. As a support for oral tradition, wampum belts bearing the words spoken at a special event therefore had to be accompanied by a speech to be meaningful. Accordingly, the keeper of the wampum belts ensured that their meaning was repeated from time to time to community members. Periodically, he repeated publicly the “content” of the wampum belts preserved so that the nation’s history would be transmitted to the younger generation.

To continue your search: Wampum belts are frequently mentioned in the France fonds des colonies and the Haldimand fonds. The Héritage project is presently digitizing the many microfilm reels contained in these fonds.