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History of Baker Lake

The area at the mouth of the Thelon River has always been a traditional gathering place for Inuit, for summer hunting and fishing. The various groups travelled up the river systems in the area to their winter hunting grounds. The Kazan River, in particular, was also very important as a travel route and for hunting caribou. In 1762, Captain Christopher of the Hudson’s Bay Company sailed up Chesterfield Inlet and named the Lake for Sir William Baker, one of the Governors of the Company.

The Hudson’s Bay Company established the first trading post in the region on the island called Ookpiktuyuk, southeast of the present community. In 1924, the Revillon Freres built a post at the present site, and both the Anglican and Roman Catholic churches built missions nearby in 1927. In 1936, the HBC moved their post to a site near the current airport. They bought out the Revillon Freres, and later operated the post out of the building that is now the Vera Akumalik Visitor Centre. People began to congregate around the missions and the past.

During the 1950’s, when caribou were scarce and starvation threatened, the government moved people from their inland camps to Baker Lake.

Baker Lake is home to eleven distinct Inuit groups:

  • Ahiarmiut/Ihalmiut — from the Ennadai Lake and Back River area

  • Akilinirmiut — from the Akiliniq Hills and the Thelon River area

  • Hanningajurmiut — from the Garry Lake area

  • Harvaqtuurmiut — from the Kazan River area

  • Hauniqturmiut — from Whale Cove, Sandy Point and Arviat area

  • Illuilirmiut — from the Adelaide Peninsula, Chantrey Inlet area

  • Kihlirnirmiut — from the Bathurst Inlet to Cambridge Bay area

  • Natsilingmiut — from the Taloyoak, Kugaaruk, Repulse Bay area

  • Paallirmiut — from the Baker Lake to Arviat area

  • Qaernermiut — from the Chesterfield Inlet to Whale Cove area

  • Utkuhiksalingmiut — from the Back River and Gjoa Haven area

Local Prehistory

Arctic Canada was uninhabited until the end of the last Ice Age. A great ice sheet had covered Canada’s North and its weight depressed the land beneath. When the ice melted much of the land was flooded by rising water levels. The land itself gradually rose when the ice was gone and is still rising, so water levels in the past were higher than today. Our oldest archaeological sites may have been on old shorelines which are now high above water level.

The new land which emerged from under the ice sheet became home to great numbers of caribou and other wildlife. Paleo-Eskimos (Paleo meaning “old”) visited the Barrens to hunt the vast herds 8000 to 4000 years ago. The next occupants of the Barrens were the Paleo-Eskimos, from 3800 to 2800 years ago. They were nomadic hunters of caribou, musk-ox, small game, and fish, and are recognized by the tiny finely-made stone tips of their weapons and tools. Apparently they had no domesticated dogs to pull their sleds, and spent the winters in skin tents insulated with sod or snow.

After the time of the Paleo-Eskimos, Archaic Indians hunted on the Barrens and probably wintered in northern forests. By 1000 years ago, immigrants from Alaska were starting to populate the Canadian Arctic. They are called Thule Eskimos and are the ancestors of modern Inuit. They were remarkably successful hunters of whales, caribou, and seal. In winter they lived in well-insulated partly-underground homes with a roof of wood or whalebones and sod. They also knew how to build snowhouses, and heated their homes with the steady warmth of the blubber lamp made of soapstone. In summer they lived in skin tents weighted down by unusually large stones. They were mainly a coastal people but came to the Baker Lake area to hunt the caribou herds and probably to the upper Thelon River for wood.

By the 17th and 18th centuries some Thule people of what is now the Kivalliq region began to stay inland all year relying on caribou as their primary source of food. They are known in historic writings as Caribou Eskimos. The Caribou Eskimos were more nomadic than their coastal Thule ancestors had been; they lived in snowhouses in winter and skin tents in summer. Their main hunt was in the fall when they speared swimming caribou from their kayaks as the herds crossed narrow bodies of water. The Caribou Eskimos were excellent trappers and made the long journey to trade their fox skins for firearms and tea at Fort Prince of Whales (Churchill).

Local prehistory ends in the 1920s and 1930s when trading posts, the R.C.M.P., and the missions were established at Baker Lake. Most of its Inuit inhabitants had settled in town by the mid-1960s from the Baker Lake, Kazan, Thelon, and Back River areas.

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