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Northern Territory: Taiga and tundra

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The tundra vegetation consists in dwarf trees, bushes, berries and grasses
Photo: Jardin botanique de Montréal (Gilles Murray)

The keepers of the North

The Inuit, Cree, Innu and Naskapi have always chosen the North for its unequalled white expanses in winter and its myriad of colour in summer. These peoples are known as the Inuit, Iyiyuu, Innuat, or "Aboriginals, human beings", and Naskapi, or "The people of the place beyond the horizon", as though the vast country they inhabit could not exist without the presence of human beings or their inscription on the land.

The Inuit belong to the Eskimo-Aleut cultural family that extends from Greenland to Siberia, via Alaska. They live beyond the forests, in the tundra, with its short, sparse vegetation growing on base rock. The Cree, Inuit and Naskapi, the most northerly representatives of the Algonquian family, live below the tree line, in the taiga, with its open black spruce forest and its spongy soil covered by lichen and moss.

The Inuit, in scattered villages along the coast, still hunt seal and caribou, fish salmon and trout and pick blueberries and crowberries. In the taiga and forest tundra, in the hinterlands and along the coast, the Algonquian harvest the caribou, beaver, black bear, pike and salmonidae, and gather small fruit under the forest canopy.

The last resting place of the trees

From the sparse forests sheltering the Algonquian to the true tundra in the land of the Inuit, the trees become shrivelled, dwarflike in stature, and ultimately blend into the ground that produced them. While the black spruce of the forest tundra are reminiscent of the former caribou corrals, maanikin (in the Naskapi language), with their long fences formed by tree trunks to steer the herd towards an enclosure, the charm of the true tundra lies in its bareness. The Inuit inutsuks, piles of stone with human forms, replace the black spruce. They used to provide also a path to lead the caribou into an ambush.

The tundra vegetation consists in dwarf trees, bushes, berries and grasses. They are the nunajait, or "things of the Earth", each with their utility. The catkins of the uqaujarlaq, or willow tree, are mixed with seal oil and eaten. The leaves of the paurngaq, or black crowberry, are used to make tea. Suputik, or cotton-grass, can be used as wicks for soapstone oil lamps. Along the coast, the last resting place of the trees, floating logs are washed up from who knows where. The driftwood used to be collected to build Inuit sleds and boats, including the one- or two-passenger kayak, and to build the umiak, which can carry up to twenty people.

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