Indigenous Cultures | History | Polar Unbound


The indigenous, or circumpolar, population of the Arctic consists of over 30 unique peoples and a multitude of languages. 

The indigenous peoples largely live off of hunting, fishing, trapping and some pastoralism rather than agriculture. 

The different adaptive behaviors used by the circumpolar populations can be broadly classed into four behaviors: 

  • Exploiting a range of territory from a central location, enjoying the diverse resources of fish, land animals, birds and vegetation from within largely forested regions. 
  • Depending upon migrant herds of caribou throughout the year from annually nomadic movements, generally spanning the tundra to the forest. 
  • Seasonal migration (largely by the Inuit groups), hunting marine life along the coast in winter and spring and fishing and hunting caribou on the continental tundra in the summer and fall. 
  • A fully maritime existence from a fixed location (largely typical of northern Pacific cultures), enjoying the coastal resources throughout the year.

The seasonally migrant American Arctic Inuit and northern Yupiit spend summers hunting caribou and fishing, while the colder seasons were spent hunting for sea mammals, particularly seals. In winter, the people groups lived in semi-buried houses of sod or stone or in the famous “snow houses” (or igloos), allowing them to travel to the fresher ice fields.

Meanwhile, the nomadic Eurasian Sami also built temporary structures: the tent-like lavvu. However, the Sami had access to the subarctic boreal forests and taiga, allowing them to built more permanent structures such as elevated storehouses. No matter the location, Arctic cultures depended upon weatherized buildings that were able to supply efficient insulation. 


boreal forest (or taiga, or snow forest)

The indigenous people of northern Eurasia can mostly be found inhabiting the boreal forest (otherwise known as the snow forest or taiga) throughout the year or migrating between the tundra and boreal forest. There are also the Siberian Yupik and coastal peoples of the Chukchi and Koryak.

As with most circumpolar peoples, those who inhabit northern Eurasia cannot be demarcated into “tribes”; rather, their territorial and ethnic boundaries are fluid and often hazily defined. They are also outnumbered by immigrant Swedes, Norwegians, Finns and Russians. For instance, research shows that the ratio of immigrants to natives switched from a 1:4 minority to a 4:1 majority in the mid-20th century. 


The largest indigenous groups found in northwestern Siberia are the Nenets, and the they can be found from the western White Sea to the eastern Yenisey River. East of the Yenisey river are the Nganasan , who inhabit the Taymyr Peninsula. The southern stretches of the Yenisey are inhabited by the Enets, who can be found in the Turukhan and Taz river basins. Many of these cultures combine hunting and fishing with reindeer husbandry to survive. 

Toward the southern forested land surrounding the Ob River, the Khanty and Mansi can be found. They also traditionally lived off of hunting and fishing, and later took up reindeer husbandry from the Nenets in the 15th century. The Selkup also inhabit the Ob basin’s forested regions, and the Ket could once be found throughout the Yenisey basin. However, they experienced widespread distribution after continued contact with Russians and other people groups throughout the 18th-19th centuries, leaving only the northernmost Kets centralized. 

The Nordic region of Fennoscandia—or Fenno-Scandinavia or the Fennoscandian Peninsula—may not necessarily be a household name, but it is definitely a significant one as it comprises the Scandinavian Peninsula, Finland, Denmark, the Kola Peninsula, Karelia. The indigenous Sami inhabit northern Fennoscandia, having once lived throughout the Kola Peninsula, Karelia, Finland and the Scandinavian mountain chain. As the Scandinavian and Finnish agricultural settlements expanded over the centuries, the Sami’s country contracted to the northernmost regions of Fennoscandia. Though many took up the livelihoods of farming and fishing, the Sami largely identify with an ethnic identity formed around a livelihood of nomadic reindeer pastoralism. The Komi-Zyryan can be found between the Vychegda and Pechora rivers, and retain some small degree of autonomy within Russia. 


Further east of the Yenisey, the Sakha are the dominant indigenous group, extending down the Lena River. The Evenk—who had previously been known as the Tungus—inhabit a vast territory about a quarter of Siberia further east. Their different livelihoods are largely defined by geography, with the southern Evenk surviving as pastoralists who keep cattle and horses and coastal Evenk live a semi-nomadic lifestyle and those within the forest live as trappers and hunters. The Even and Dolgan are closely related to the Evenk people. 

The Paleo-Siberian peoples, comprising the Itelmen, Yukaghir, Chukchi and Koryak people groups, inhabit Siberia’s northeasternmost regions. While the Chukchi inhabit the aptly named Chukchi Peninsula and Anadyr Plateau, the Koryak inhabit the Koryak plateau and some of the Kamchatka Peninsula, which they share with the Itelmen. The Siberian Yupik, or Eskimo, live amongst the Chukchi along the Bering Sea and Wrangel Island. The incredibly-reduced Yukaghir only have two two groups surviving today: the Kolyma Yukaghir and the Tundra Yukaghir. These groups live within the forests of the Alazeya and Kolyma rivers. 


Throughout the American Arctic, the Eskimo (otherwise known as the Inuit or Yupik/Yupiit) and the Aleuts inhabit the shores and hinterlands. The Alaskan Yupik have close genetic, linguistic and social relations to the Siberian Yupik, and so sometimes scholars conflate the two groups. 

Traditionally, American Eskimos didn’t classify their unique societies by clans or tribes, instead identifying different people groups by place of residence—a factor distinguished by the suffix -miut, meaning “people of.” Self-identity was further modified by connections of marriage and kinship. 

The indigenous cultures of the American Arctic have generally been divided into two categories: the more sedentary groups inhabiting near or on the open-water regions of the Pacific coasts (the southern Aleuts and Yupiit), and the migrant peoples who inhabited the coastlines frozen in winter (the northern Aleuts and Yupiit).