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.

Aboriginal syllabic scripts

Before the development of syllabic writing systems, Aboriginal peoples transmitted cultural knowledge orally, through wampum belts and totem poles, through rock engravings and paintings, and through hieroglyphs (symbols etched on birch bark or hides to represent a word or concept). Syllabic scripts were the first form of Aboriginal writing whereby anything that could be spoken in an Aboriginal language could be transcribed.

Reverend James Evans, a Methodist missionary, has often been credited with developing the first Aboriginal syllabic script in 1839 or 1840 at Norway House in what is now Manitoba. Before the use of syllabics, missionaries and linguists translated religious texts into Aboriginal languages using the Roman alphabet. Evans wanted his Cree parishioners to learn how to read and write, but he found the Roman alphabet limiting. As a result, he set out to develop a writing system that more accurately represented the sounds and words of the Cree language.

A colour photograph showing a hand holding the lower left corner of a book. The book is opened to the frontispiece showing a drawn portrait of Methodist missionary James Evans, wearing typical 19th century clothing and looking directly at the viewer.

A portrait of James Evans, creator of Cree syllabic, taken from the 1890 book, James Evans: Inventor of the Syllabic System of the Cree Language (AMICUS 6941574)

Evans derived his syllabic script from Pitman’s shorthand (a shorthand phonetic system that used symbols to represent sounds) and Braille (an embossed writing system for the visually impaired). He used nine geometric shapes to denote consonants, and their orientation suggests the vowels that follow. In addition to being the first Aboriginal syllabic script, Evans’ syllabic is also the first Canadian script and the first typeface created in Canada. He recycled metal for typecasting from the linings of Hudson’s Bay tea chests and modified a fur press (for flattening pelts) to use as a printing press. Evans and his parishioners used the script to print religious texts on birch bark, deer hide and paper.

A colour photograph of two pages of a book on Cree syllabic providing examples of syllabic characters. The first page shows syllabic initials or primals, as well as examples of syllables. The second page shows finals or terminals and examples of word formation.

Images from the 1890 book, James Evans: Inventor of the Syllabic System of the Cree Language (AMICUS 6941574) showing the syllabic geometric shapes denoting consonants and their various orientations denoting vowels.

Although originally developed to write religious materials, syllabic scripts were used by the Cree people for their own purposes. Syllabics became an important part of Cree identity, despite having been developed by a non-Aboriginal missionary, and is still used in Canada today.

Evans’ syllabic script was adapted for other Aboriginal languages, notably Inuktitut. First introduced by the missionary Edmund Peck, syllabic is still used today by thousands of fluent Inuktitut speakers.

When Nunavut was established in 1999, the territorial government commissioned William Ross Mills of Tiro Typeworks to develop digital syllabic fonts. The results included the Pigiarniq and Euphemia fonts. Euphemia, which includes the entire range of Canadian syllabics in several different Aboriginal languages, was licensed by Microsoft and Apple and is now standard on computers. This effectively enables Inuktitut speakers to sit down at virtually any computer around the world and start typing in their own language.

A colour image of a book written in Inuktitut syllabic script open to the first and second pages. The left page features the Inuktitut syllabary; the right page is text written in Inuktitut syllabic.

The first book in Inuktitut to be printed using syllabic characters, Selections from the Gospels in the Dialect of the Inuit of Little Whale River, printed by John Horden between 1855 and 1856 at Moose Factory, Ontario (AMICUS 13853827)

For more information on Canadian Aboriginal syllabic scripts, please check out the following resources. Most are available in libraries or online.

  1. Banks, Joyce M. (2004). “‘And not hearers only’: Books in Native Languages,” History of the Book in Canada, Volume 1, edited by Patricia Lockhart Fleming et al. Toronto: University of Toronto Press. (AMICUS 29599541)
  2. Bringhurst, Robert. (2008). “The Invisible Book,” The Surface of Meaning: Books and Book Design in Canada. Vancouver: Canadian Centre for Studies in Publishing Press (AMICUS 33832941).
  3. Cree Syllabics,” The Canadian Encyclopedia (2015).
  4. Edwards, Brendan Frederick. (2005). “‘To put the talk upon paper’: Aboriginal Communities,” History of the Book in Canada, Volume 2, edited by Patricia Lockhart Fleming et al. Toronto: University of Toronto Press. (AMICUS 29599541)
  5. McLean, John. (1890). James Evans: Inventor of the Syllabic System of the Cree Language. Toronto: Methodist Mission Rooms. (AMICUS 6941574).
  6. Pirurvik Centre for Inuit Language, Culture, and Wellbeing.

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.