Inuit Taxonomy

Where is the wisdom that is lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge that is lost in information?
~ T. S. Eliot

Unlike western science, which classifies all living beings according to their genetic and evolutionary relationships, the Inuit group animals and plants using practical characteristics – their appearance, their behaviour, and their relevance to the Inuit. This has resulted in an accurate and revealing portrait of the web of Arctic life, as the accumulated observations of generations of hunters have allowed the Inuit to perceive subtle aspects of the ecology of species that relate them or set them apart from each other.

At times, Inuit classification is fundamentally different from scientific taxonomy, often including an animal in more than one category – a practice that would be impossible in the standard taxonomy. Ptarmigans (aqiggit), for example, logically form part of the group of ukiuqtait because they stay in the North all winter; as herbivores, however, they also belong with the nunatuqtiit, “those that eat of the products of the earth” (i.e., plants). This grouping shows an appreciation by the Inuit for two distinctive features in the ecology of the ptarmigan, features that, in the Arctic environment, make this species more important than birds to which it is genetically related.

Although the Inuit understanding of the environment and its wildlife is similar across Canada, the names used for species and groups vary greatly from one community to another. For the sake of clarity, the names, species, and groupings used in this section are all from Igloolik, unless otherwise noted (Randa 1994). Other Inuit communities may group species somewhat differently, depending on the importance of these species in that area. For example, some communities rely heavily on harvesting mussels and other shellfish, while others do not and might assign less importance to those species.