Sunday, February 01, 2009

"Eskimo" Dog Tags

One thing I had heard about prior to moving to Nunavut but never thought I'd actually see were the little tags first used by the federal government to identify an Inuk person. The often referred to "Eskimo dog tags" were introduced in the early 1940's as a means of helping the Canadian government administer its social programs in its bid to help "improve" the lives of Northern residents. The 2003 Canadian production "The Snow Walker" makes a reference to these tags though they aren't that well explained during the movie.)

Of course, Inuit had their own naming system which worked just fine for them. People could be named after relatives, friends, a hoped-for physical attribute, spirits, animals or a host of other things. Inuit might also change their name, in the case of a major life event or circumstance, for example. Regional variations in dialect, along with the inability of many early missionaries to pronounce names properly and an unerring belief that "government know best" resulted in Inuit being issued small leather disks with a number that was worn around the neck. From then on until 1969, when the government decided to embark on a system of assigning surnames to Inuit, this "dog tag" system identified Inuit to the feds.

Tags used in the Eastern Arctic began with an "E" while those used in the Western Arctic used an "W". The Eastern and Western regions were then further broken down into sub-regions, each of which was assigned a number. I may be wrong on this, but I THINK the tag numbers for Iqaluit begin with "E5". The "E-6" tag in the picture below denotes the area of southern Baffin Island encompassing Qikiqtarjuaq (Broughton Island). A series of other numbers then identified each individual within that sub-region.

The tags in the pictures below were ones I saw while living in Qikiqtarjuaq (Broughton Island). Most of the owners of these tags were of the same generation as my own parents. So my excitement at seeing them was tempered by a cold reality of not so early times.


Nancy said...

You know, I just can't get myself tied up in as much of a knot about the "dog tags" (which is not what they were called) as I'm supposed to.

Assigning numbers to people, all people, continues to this day. It's used to keep people distinct from each other when names are shared between people, and names change. Situation existed then and exists now. Government was NOT trying to replace people's names with these numbers.

The inuit were nomadic, did not have filing cabinets, did not carry wallets, and I don't see that giving them a tag to wear was intended to be a horrible thing. Heck, people still wear tags for things like medic alert. Back then, dogs in the arctic did not wear tags (and still don't!). Dogs elsewhere probably mostly didn't either.

This "dog tag" layer to the story is something that's being introduced in modern times. I think that's the real shame, that bad intentions are being assigned to the non-inuit working back then who were working with what they could in a new and difficult situation for them.

Don't forget Darcy, in 50 years a new generation of indignant folks will be judging the work you've done. Does the schooling the inuit get now match the level of what southerners get? No? Is that your fault? You and I would both say no, but what will the people in 50 years think? Maybe we should give the benefit of the doubt to those who worked in the arctic 50 years ago.

Jason said...

When I lived in Rankin (late 80's) a guy I knew has lost his gov't issused ID. I think it was a birth certificate. Anyway, he had to correspond with the feds in order to straighten everthing out. He recieved a letter which began, "Dear E-487632" or some other numbers. Apparently, the feds knew him as a number and not by name. If I'm not mistaken, the guy called the feds to have the number changed and they said that they could only change the number to a name if he could produce gov't issused picture ID. Go figure, eh?

Way Way Up said...

Definitely a very controversial issue. To be fair, I often hear stories of Southerners who are viewed quite positively by Inuit. I don't think that all the changes were bad, rather it was the way the government went about those changes that caused a lot of grief.

I didn't mean to infer that the tags, when first introduced, were referred to as dog tags. I"m fairly certain this term was introduced later on but I'm not sure when that term came into use. I'd be interested to know.

Jason said...

Nancy: I agree with you that we should not judge history by todays's standards. To me, that makes no sense.

However, no matter what era we are or were in, labeling people with letters, numbers and symbols is at the least disrespectful. Examples: Hollocaust survivor were labeled and tatooed; gays were forced to wear inverted pink triangles; Jews had to wear the Star of David...

Removing and then replacing someone's name by a series of symbols meant to allow for easy clasification or location, and only having meaning to the people who are doing the labeling is quite degrading no matter what year it is.

The practice of branding and labeling is best left for livestock...not humans.

Anonymous said...

Hello, I am a researcher from the University of Victoria in BC and I am currently investigating governmental registration programs. I have never seen one of these tags before and I was wondering if you could post (or email me) a more detailed images (preferably a scan 700dpi) of these tags. Thanks.
nessy717 at

Way Way Up said...

I can certainly do that. I checked my photo archives and I just have 4 photos that I've scanned so far. I'll check to see if I have any others and then see what I can do for you. Thank you for your interest in my blog.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, so much. How common are these tags? Do many people still have them? Do they still hold cultural significance to those who own them? and (I don't know if this is culturally insensitive or not) but do you know where/if I could purchase one?

Mechtild Opel said...

just came over your blog in search of pictures about the Inuit "dog tags". (February, 2009)
I am from Germany and would like to contact you regarding these pics. Hope you could answer me via my google account anyway; I did not find another way to get in contact with you.