Heading North....

Arctic Peoples

Arctic Cities

The Arctic region is home to approximately four million people, spread across eight countries; Russia, the United States, Canada, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Finland and Greenland (an autonomous region of Denmark).

Around two-thirds of the Arctic population live in urban areas. The largest cities and towns above the Arctic Circle are:

  • Murmansk, Russia – 295,375
  • Norilsk, Russia – 178,018
  • Tromsø, Norway – 75,638
  • Apatity, Russia 59,672
  • Vorkuta, Russia – 58,133
  • Severomorsk, Russia – 53,298
  • Bodø, Norway – 51,558

Russia is home to the largest Arctic population with 2.5 million living above the Arctic Circle. Almost 800,000 of Russia’s Arctic population reside in the Murmansk Oblast which is located on the Kola peninsula in the northwest of the country, bordering both Finland and Norway. Russia is home to eleven indigenous groups who live in, or around, the Arctic Circle.

Murmansk at night

Murmansk is the largest city north of the Arctic Circle. The North Atlantic Current keeps the surrounding Barents Sea ice-free all year round which makes it an important port for shipping and fishing. The city was founded during World War I and went on to play an essential role in World War II as the main port for carrying war supplies to the U.S.S.R. After the fall of the Soviet Union, the city suffered a significant population decline as the industries struggled to adapt to the market economy. However, in recent years the pace of decline has slowed as transport links with the rest of the country have improved, and industry has transitioned to the market economy. Tourism to the city has also increased, as visitors look to visit landmarks such as the Alyosha Monument, a 116 foot tall (35.5 meters) statue to the Soviet soldiers, sailors and airmen of World War II. Murmansk is also a popular destination for tourists looking to catch a glimpse of the Northern Lights.

The nearby port town of Severomorsk is home to the administrative base of the Northern Fleet who are responsible for all naval operations in the European Arctic. Severomorsk is a closed military town.

The city of Apatity is also located in the Murmansk Oblast, and is named after the raw mineral Apatite, a source of phosphorous that is used in the manufacture of fertiliser. Mining is the primary form of employment in the region. Apitity is also home to the Kola Science Center.

Apatity, Murmansk Region

The industrial city of Norilsk is located in Krasnoyarsk Krai in northern Russia. Just 25 kilometres north of the Norilsk lies the nickel deposits of Norilsk-Talnakh, the largest known nickel deposits in the world. The mining company Norilsk Nickel is the primary employer in the region. This mining has caused acid rain and smog to regularly reach the city, making it the most polluted in Russia. In 2020 a fuel tank collapsed near the city and flooded the local river system with 20,000 tonnes of diesel fuel.

Canada’s Arctic region is home to approximately 150,000 inhabitants – less than 1% of the country’s total – but around 39% of Canada’s total land area. The largest town in the Canadian Arctic is Inuvik with a population of 3,243. Despite its small population, the town enjoys its reputation as a cultural hub. The town is home to the Great Northern Arts Festival, which lasts ten days and hosts over 3,000 artists from Canada’s north. The festival attracts visitors from all over the world. The Sunrise Festival, which includes dog-sled races, fireworks and bonfires is held annually.

Norway’s Arctic region covers half of the country’s land area and is home to around a tenth of the country’s population. The largest city is Tromsø, where you can find the Arctic’s largest university. The Norwegian Polar Institute is also located in Tromsø. The city experiences a milder winter compared to other towns and cities on the same latitude due to the warming effect of the Gulf Stream.

Bodø is the second-largest city in Norway’s Arctic region and is one of the country’s fastest-growing in the country with a lively cultural scene. Many local artists and musicians are based in Bodø and the city will be a European Capital of Culture in 2024.

The traditional lands of the Sámi people is called Sápmi and stretches across northern Norway, Sweden, Finland and the Kola peninsula in Russia. The largest number of Sámi live in northern Norway (50,000-60,000).

Sweden’s Arctic region is around a third of the country’s total land area and is home to around half a million people, representing about 5% of the total population. The largest city in the Swedish Arctic region is Kiruna with approximately 23,000 inhabitants.

One-third of Finland’s landmass lies above the Arctic circle in Finnish Lapland. The area is sparsely populated compared with the rest of the country with only 180,000 inhabitants compared with 5.5 million people in the country as a whole.

Greenland is home to 58,081 people, with almost 90% of the population being of Inuit descent. The capital Nuuk is the world’s northernmost capital and is home to around 20,000 people, however the city is actually located below the Arctic Circle. Sisimiut, Greenland’s second-largest city is the largest Arctic city in North America.

Sisimiut, Greenland

The United States’ Arctic region is located in the northern part of Alaska. Only 50,000 of Alaskans live above the Arctic Circle out of the 737,400 inhabitants of the state as a whole. The largest Arctic city north of the Arctic Circle is Utqiaġvik, with a population of around 4,000. The Alaskan Arctic is home to several indigenous peoples including the Aleut, Yup’ik, Iñupiaq, Alutiiq, Athabaskan Tlingit and Haida.

If you are interested in this topic, please check out the following profiles:

Indigenous Arctic Peoples

Around 10% of the total population living in the Arctic are indigenous people, with over forty different enthic groups. All of the Arctic States, apart from Iceland, have indigenous people living within their territory. There is a wide range of cultural, historical and economic differences as well as similarities between these groups.

Indigenous peoples in the Arctic region have been forced to endure significant changes over the past centuries in the form of colonisation and forced social change that has threatened aspects of their culture and livelihoods.

Native Arctic perspectives have long been excluded by the mainstream media which often ignore, distort or over-simplify their cultural, historical, political and regional contexts. When it comes to the issue of climate change, for example, it is important to recognise that indigenous groups and individuals act and think differently on the subject. The warming Arctic undoubtedly causes significant threats to indigenous life but it can also offer opportunities for business, trade and resource extraction. Native Arctic groups have been continuously adapting to their rapidly changing environment yet they are often presented as helpless victims in the face of climate change. If you want to read an example of reporting which challenges this narrative, then we can recommend this project from the Pulitzer Center that looks at how Alaska Native Inupiat adapt to changing conditions: https://pulitzercenter.org/projects/alaska-natives-front-line#quicktabs-project_content.

Indigenous groups across the Arctic region have formed a number of political organisations over the years such as the Aleut International Association, the Arctic Athabaskan Council, the Gwich’in Council International, the Inuit Circumpolar Council, the Russian Association of Indigenous Peoples of the North and the Saami Council. These organisations have led to a better understanding and recognition of indigenous issues as well as promoting the development of indigenous rights.

There are Sami Parliaments in Norway, Sweden and Finland which safeguard, develop and coordinate matters concerning Sami areas of interest including the Sami languages, Sami Culture, reindeer herding and hunting and fishing. The rules regarding eligibility for the electoral roll requires that the person considers themselves Sami and who either has Sami as their home language or has a parent, grandparent or great-grandparent who had Sami as a home language.

Inuit

The Inuit are a group of indigenous peoples spread across Alaska (Iñupiat), Canada (Inuvialuit) and Greenland (Kalaallit).

The origins of the Inuit have been traced to northwest Alaska where Inuit homes made of driftwood and sod have been found by archaeologists along the sea coast and Arctic tundra. These Inuit would have split from the related Aleut group and Siberian migrants around 4,000 years ago, 

The Inuit were the first people in the Arctic region to master hunting large sea mammals like the bowhead whale. Around a thousand years ago the early Inuit began to migrate eastward towards the whaling grounds around Baffin and Somerset islands. They brought with them their sophisticated hunting technology and expertise as they began to hunt for seals, caribou and fish.

Around 750 years ago the Inuit people then entered the island of Greenland via the Nares Strait. The group of Inuits who settled in Greenland were known as the Thule people. It was in Greenland that the Inuit would have first come in contact with Europeans as the Norse had been settled in Greenland since the turn of the millennium. Around 1300 the climate in the Arctic grew much harsher to become what is now known as the ‘little ice age’. This is considered to be one of the primary reasons the Vikings, who were not as adept at hunting as the Inuit, decided to leave the island. This period also affected the Inuit peoples ability to find food, especially for the groups who had migrated east from the Alaskan coast. Many of the whaling sites in Greenland and modern-day Canada disappeared during this time.

The Thule were the first people to introduce dogs to the islands which they used while they were hunting. The Thule would hunt seal, narwhal and walrus. In 1750, a missionary called Hans Egede led an expedition to Greenland as part of the Dano-Norwegian colonization of the Americas. The new colony that Hans established along with his son Paul Egede was called Godthåb (Good Hope) and located on the island’s southwest coast and opened up Greenland to Danish trade.

Until the 1700s the Inuit in Northern Canada and Alaska had lived in relative isolation from the rest of the world. Then early explorers from Europe began to explore the Arctic region and brought back reports of huge pods of whales. This provoked whalers to venture out to the Davis Strait that lies between northwest Greenland and Baffin Island.

The early wailers did not interact for long periods of time with the Innuit, apart from some trading and exchanges of gifts. However, in 1850, the nature of the whaling changed as a lucrative Atlantic whaling industry emerged. British and American companies set up permanent whaling stations employing hundreds of Inuit to work on their ships. At the same time, Pacific whalers based in San Francisco made their way up the coast to Alaska, establishing themselves at Herschel Island.

The whalers from Europe and the United States brought manufactured goods, such as rifles and whaleboats that were integrated into Inuit life. However, they also brought infectious diseases that the Inuit people had no natural immunity to, killing thousands of Inuits as a result. The Sadlirmiut group based on Southampton Island disappeared entirely after contracting dysentery from a Scottish whaling ship, and the Inuvialuit of Western Canada came close to extinction.

As the century, drew to a close, the number of whales fell into steep decline due to over-harvesting. Whales were still an important food source for Inuits, a problem compounded by the fact that the European and American whalers then shifted to other marine animals.

Commercial interests soon shifted from whaling to fur trading as traders and missionaries moved further north and introduced fox traps to the region. By the 1920s there was no longer any Inuit group that had not come in contact with outsiders. 

At the turn of the century the North-West Mounted Police began to accompany traders to the Canadian Arctic region. Traditional Inuit customs were slowly replaced by the RCMP who imposed Canadian law on indigenous groups. Many groups were converted to Christianity by missionaries who for the first half of the twentieth century conducted all education programs in Canada’s north.

Over the years, Inuit traditions, language, skills and values were subjugated by government programs which forced assimilation and often relocation of Inuit groups. Many Inuit fell into poverty as demand for commodities like fur in Britain and the United States would fluctuate.

In Canada, the government created permanent settlements for Inuit communities, as it was considered cheaper to administer social welfare to one location rather than to remote communities. By the 1960s almost all Inuit in Canada were living in these settlements. These re-location programs may have provided basic social welfare, but they further removed the Inuit from their traditional way of life without providing job opportunities in their new settlements, driving many Inuit into greater dependency on social assistance.

In the 1960s after wide-scale education reform in Canada, a new generation of Inuit activists emerged and began organizing a response to the assimilation programs of the Canadian government. In 1971 the Inuit Tapirisat of Canada (now Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami) was formed to advocate for the interests of all the 53 communities across Inuit Nunangat.

In 1976, during land claim negotiations between the federal government and the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, the idea to create a separate territory for the Inuit in Canada was proposed. In 1982, this proposal was supported by the plebiscite. In 1993, the Northwest Territories were eventually divided, and the territory of Nunavut was created.

The flag of Nunavut
  • The territory of Nunavut is 2,038,722 square miles
  • The territory is the largest in Canada
  • The population of Nunavut is around 40,000
  • The capital is Iqaluit

In 1975 the Makivik Corporation (then the Northern Quebec Inuit Association) signed the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement which established Inuit land ownership and other rights in the Arctic region of Quebec.

In 1984 the Inuvialuit, who live along the Arctic coast in the Northwest Territories, signed the Inuvialuit Final Agreement with the federal and territorial governments to establish their own Settlement Region encompassing large parts of the western Arctic.

Today, 88% of Greenland’s 56,000 population is Greenlandic Inuit (including mixed Danish-Inuit). Ethnographically these consist of three major groups: the Kalaallit of west Greenland, the Tunumiit of Tunu, based in east Greenland and the Inughuit of north Greenland. Greenlandic culture today is known as Kalaallit, which is a blending of traditional Inuit and Scandinavian culture.

Inupiaq, or Alaskan Inuit, is spoken by the Iñupiat people in northern Alaska and parts of the Northwest Territories. The forced assimilation programs, including English-instruction boarding schools, has meant that Inupiaq is now an endangered language with roughly only 2,000 speakers, the majority of whom are over 40 years old. There are, however, a number of revitalisation programs in place, including immersion schools. Iñupiaq is now an official language in the State of Alaska.

Kalaallisut is the official language of Greenland and is known as Greenlandic in English. Around 3,000 people in eastern Greenland speak the Tunumiit dialect which differs considerably from the standard dialect.

Yup’ik

The Yup’ik peoples are a group of indigenous peoples from western and southern Alaska as well as Siberia. They are related to both the Inuit and Chukchi peoples.

The Yup’ik arrived in Alaska from Siberia around 3,000 years ago settling along the western coastal shores, then migrating up the coastal rivers to Yukon and Kuskokwim. The early coastal Yup’ik people developed sophisticated hunting methods for seal, walrus and whales as well as salmon, cod, herring and shellfish. They would use spears and harpoons to catch their food. The Yup’ik that settled inland hunted land animals, using spears. They would also wear snow goggles with narrow slits to counter snow-blindness.

The Yup’ik were also skilled fishermen and could navigate the rivers using kayaks, baidarkas and whaleboats for coastal transportation. They would also use dog-sledges on land. The coastal villages would often trade products such as sea oil with inland Yup’ik villages for moose, caribou and fur.

In the 1800s the Yup’ik groups in Alaska came in contact with Russian fur traders, the first non-native people they had encountered. Trade between the Russian traders and the Yup’ik developed during this period. Russian Orthodox missionaries settled amongst a number of Yup’ik communities. The Russian missionaries were then replaced by the Moravians who opened the Bethel mission in 1885. The Moravians banned traditional shamanism and made a number of changes to traditional life, such as forcing families to live in households together, rather than separate quarters for men and women.

At the turn of the century, there was a gold rush around the Yukon River, which brought large numbers of foreigners to Yup’ik land. A lack of resistance to new diseases such as tuberculosis and measles, coupled with the two influenza epidemics of 1900 and 1919 devastated the Yup’ik population.

As the US government exercised more control over the region, the Yup’ik peoples were forced into a period of cultural assimilation in which local languages were removed from schooling. 

In 1971, the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act was signed for land and financial claims for lands and resources that all native Alaskans had lost to European Americans.

Despite many years of forced assimilation, most of the Yup’ik languages survive today. Central Alaskan Yup’ik is the most widely used, with an estimated 13,000 speakers. The Central Alaskan Yup’ik has many dialects, with the largest, yugtun, spoken in the Bristol Bay, Nelson Island, Kuskokwim River and Yukon River areas. Alutliiq is spoken by an estimated 500 – 1,000 of the 3,000 Alutiiqs. Central Siberian Yupik is still spoken by the majority of Yupiks on St. Lawrence Island and by some Yupiks in Siberian Russia.

  • There are about 34,000 Yup’ik people in Alaska today
  • There is estimated to be around 1,700 Siberian Yupik people living in Russia today.

Aleut

The Aleut people arrived in the Aleutian Islands from the Alaskan mainland around 2,000 years ago. Aleut villages were situated on the seashore near freshwater. Traditionally Aleut men would hunt using kayaks and larger open skin boats. They would hunt sea mammals such as seals, whales and otters as well as land mammals such as caribou and bears. Aleut women would gather fish and birds as well as wild plant foods.

In 1741 a Russian expedition reached the Aleutian Islands and established rule over the islands. Early Russian and Siberian hunters attacked and plundered the islands. Some of these hunters were later convicted of these atrocities back in Russia. From then on the Aleuts were given the same rights as serfs in Russia. Serfdom at that time was the dominant relationship between Russian peasants and the nobility.

Accompanying the Russian hunters were Russian Orthodox missionaries who converted many Aleuts to Christianity. As much of earlier Aleut culture was devastated by the Russian colonisation of the Islands, not that much is known about the Aleut’s traditional religion. It is known that it was animistic, with animals, fish and birds revered and considered to have souls.

In the 1820s The Russian-American Company led an expansion of the fur-trade and took control over large parts of the North Pacific. The company’s mission was to establish new settlements in Russian America, which consisted of parts of what are today California, Alaska and three forts on the island of Hawaii. The company was to conduct trade with native peoples and to carry out an expanded colonisation program. The Russian-American Company resettled many Aleut families to the Commander Islands, a group of treeless islands in the Bering Sea, 175 kilometres east of the Kamchatka Peninsula in Russia and the Pribilof Islands, located off the coast of mainland Alaska in the Bering Sea.

Sustained contact with Europeans during this period had a devastating impact on the Aleut population who were exposed to infectious diseases for which they had no immunity. Traditional lifestyles were also disrupted and replaced with serfdom, which also reduced the number of Aleuts. Prior to contact with outsiders, there were approximately 25,000 in the Aleut archipelago, but by the end of the 20th century, there were estimated to be around 2,000 Aleuts.

The 21st century saw a significant increase in the number of Aleuts as many forms of their traditional culture, language, hunting and gathering practices were revived. According to the American Indian and Alaska Native Population census in 2000, 11,941 people identified as being Aleut, with around 17,000 stating that there were Aleuts among their ancestors.

There are three dialects of Aleut; Eastern, Atkan and Attuan. The former is now extinct, and both Atkan and Attuan are classified as critically and severely endangered.

Gwich’in

The Gwich’in are a group of Athabaskan-speaking First Nations people inhabiting areas around the Yukon and Peel rivers in eastern Alaska and Yukon. Gwich’in land is in close proximity to Inuit land which runs along the Brooks Mountain Range to the Coleville region in Alaska and the Mackenzie Bay region in Yukon.

Traditionally, Gwich’in men would hunt for caribou or moose in upland areas and fish for salmon and whitefish in lowland areas. They were also known for their prowess in battle. Gwich’in women would produce all household goods, gather wild plant foods and transport their family’s possessions during frequent moves.

The Gwich’in first came into contact with non-natives in 1789, when trading posts were established along the Mackenzie River. They would go on to serve as trading intermediaries between the coastal Inuit and the interior Indigenous communities. 

During the 19th and 20th-century interaction with non-natives resulted in epidemics which drastically reduced the Gwich’in population.

On the 22nd of April 1992, The Gwich’in Comprehensive Land Claim Agreement was signed. The agreement opened up industrial, commercial, social and cultural opportunities for the Gwich’in people. It also guaranteed the Gwich’in harvesting and commercial wildlife rights.

Today, there are estimated to be between 7,000 and 9,000 Gwich’in in the Northwest Territories, Yukon and Alaska.

UNESCO classifies Gwich’in as a ‘severely endangered’ language with less than 150 fluent speakers in Alaska and around 250 in the north-west Canada. There is a language revitalisation program in place at the Alaska Native Languages Center at the University of Alaska.

Sámi

The Sámi people live in Sápmi, which stretches across northern parts of Norway, Sweden, Finland and the Kola Peninsula in Russia. The Sámi people have lived and worked in this region for around 3,500 years having most likely migrated from the Ural Mountains region, which is where their Uralic languages originated.

The Sámi people branched into two different groups, the Sea Sámi and the Mountain Sámi. Fishing was the main livelihood for the Sámi settled along Norway’s fjords and waterways.  

The minority Mountain Sámi settled inland and relied on hunting wild reindeer and small-game animals. In the 17th century, they turned to herding domesticated reindeer.

The Sámi people had lived in relative isolation from the southern Scandinavians until the 18th and 19th century when Norway and Sweden began to assert sovereignty on the Sámi people with policies of forced assimilation.

In Norway, laws were passed which banned education in the Sámi language and banned the teaching of Sámi history and culture. Many Sámi children were also taken from their parents and sent to boarding school. During this period of Norwegianization, Sámi were not allowed to own or purchase land.

In the 1980s the Sámediggi – a Sámi parliament – was established in northern Norway and the Norwegian government began a program of reparations. In 2018, the Norwegian Parliament announced that it would establish a Truth Commission aimed at discovering and revealing Norwegian wrongdoing in the treatment of the Sámi people.

Sweden also adopted assimilation policies towards the Mountain Sámi. In the 1930s Sámi children were taken to boarding schools where their native language was banned. The Swedification policies ended during the late 1970s when Sweden officially recognized the Sámi as an indigenous people of Sweden. In 1993 a Sámediggi was established in northern Sweden. In 2020, Sweden established a Truth Commission to examine and document past abuse of Sámi by the Swedish state.

In 2019, Finland formed its own Sámi Truth and Reconciliation Commission to look at the decades-long oppression of the Sámi peoples at the hands of the Finnish government.

In the past few decades, there has been a significant effort to maintain and revive elements of traditional Sámi culture and society. There are now a number of Sámi language education programs, and in some regions of the Nordic countries, reindeer hunting is legally reserved for the Sámi people.

Arctic People

There are estimated to be around 80,000 Sámi people today, with the majority residing in Norway, followed by Sweden with 20,000. Finland is estimated to be home to 8,000 Sámi and Russia 2,000.

There are a number of living Sámi languages, the most common being Northern Sámi with approximately 15,000 speakers in Norway, Finland and Sweden. Around 1,500 speak Lule Sámi. All other forms of Sámi are spoken by less than 1,000 people or are now moribund.

Nenets

The Nenets have inhabited areas of north-west Siberia for centuries. The Nenets are divided into two groups, the Forest Nenets who live in the Taiga – a boreal forest region – and the Tundra Nenets who live in the Arctic tundra further to the north. The two groups speak different forms of Nenet language that are mutually unintelligible. The Forest Nenets live near the Pur River and on the tributaries of the Middle Ob and make up around 5% of the total Nenet population. The Tundra Nenets reside mainly west of the Ural Mountains, the Ob river and Yamal peninsulas, and the parts of the Taymyr Peninsula and the Yenisey River.

The Nenets have always been highly skilled reindeer herders, travelling thousands of kilometres a year across frozen waters. The Nenets also developed the Samoyed dog to herd reindeer and pull their sleds. The reindeer provides the Nenets with food but also skins for clothes, footwear and winter tents; leather for lassos and harnesses and tendons for threads.

During the Soviet period, the Nemets were forced to leave their nomadic life and relocated into state-run farms. The Soviet Collectivist policy forced herders to work under fixed contracts and for a salary. Nenet children were forced into boarding schools where only Russian was taught.

Many Nenets, however, were able to retain, and revive their nomadic lifestyle and now continue to migrate across the Russian Arctic. Like many of the Arctic’s indigenous peoples, the Nenet face new challenges caused by the rapid warming of the Arctic. Today, many of their migratory routes are only accessible during the winter. Over the past few decades, the oil and gas industry has developed a significant infrastructure around the Yamal peninsula, significantly shrinking their reindeer pastures and further endangering their way of life.

The Nenets language is split into two major dialects; Forest Nenets and Tundra Nenets. The language is classified by UNESCO as endangered with around 22,000 Nenets still speaking their language today.

Chukchi

The Chukchi people are an indigenous group to the Chukchi Peninsula. According to recent studies the Chukchi people are the closest Asiatic relatives to the indigenous peoples of the Americas. 

They are divided into two subgroups: the Reindeer Chukchi, who live in the eastern part of the Chukchi Peninsula and the Maritime Chukchi who live along the Bering and Arctic coast. The two groups speak mutually intelligible variations of a Luorawetlan language.

The Reindeer Chukchi traditionally survived from herding domesticated reindeer, and the Maritime Chukchi lived off hunting wales, walrus seals and fishing. The Maritime Chukchi lived in fixed villages whereas the Reindeer Chukchi were nomads, migrating according to the season.

The first Russians made contact with the Chukchi around the mid-1600s. Initially, interaction was consigned to trading, but as the Russians began to operate in the Kamchatka Peninsula, armed conflict began to erupt with the Chukchi. The Chukchi were able to stave off numerous Russian attacks until the Russians changed tact in the late 1700s and peaceful trading was able to resume.

Trading slowed in the late 1800s as the American whaling industry boomed and competition grew along the coast. Around 1815 Russian missionaries began to enter Chukchi territory and began to convert the Chukchi from their traditional religious beliefs which involved Shamanist ceremonies, to Christianity. 

During the Soviet period, both Maritime and Reindeer Chukchi were forced into collective state-owned farms, where they herded reindeer, hunted sea mammals and carved walrus ivory. The Soviet Union introduced schools to Chukchi land where Russian was the only language of instruction.

Today, there are estimated to be around 15,000 Chukchi living in the Chukotka Autonomous Okrug.