Nunavut has been peopled for about 4000 years, though the Inuit arrived just a millennium ago, migrating from Alaska. For countless generations they lived here nomadically, pursuing game as the season dictated and devising an ingenious material culture to cope with the conditions.
Though Vikings may have visited Baffin Island (Helluland in the sagas), the first definitive European arrival was in 1576, when Martin Frobisher came seeking the Northwest Passage. For the next 375 years the Arctic saw more explorers (including Sir John Franklin, who disappeared here in 1845), whalers, traders and missionaries. In a vast land, these visits had comparatively little impact on the Inuit.
Then, after WWII, Nunavut’s history went supersonic. Canada finally took interest in the Arctic, recognizing its strategic importance. In the 1950s and ’60s Inuit were settled into villages and, in some cases, relocated to the High Arctic to bolster national sovereignty.
In the 1960s and ’70s rising political awareness among the Inuit inspired dreams of self-government. After years of negotiations, Canada’s map was redrawn in 1999. Nunavut split from the Northwest Territories and became a separate territory. Many of the Inuit who now govern here were born in igloos and raised nomadically.
Each summer for centuries, nomadic Inuit trekked to the Sylvia Grinnell River to spear char in the roiling waters. They called the area Iqaluit: place of fish.
In 1576, Martin Frobisher showed up. The English naval captain, on a quest for the fabled Northwest Passage, had made a wrong turn into what’s now Frobisher Bay. There he unearthed glittering yellow ore, mined it, and sailed home with a million-plus pounds of worthless fool’s gold.
For another 350 years local Inuit kept fishing, interrupted occasionally by whalers, explorers and missionaries. Then, during WWII, American servicemen established an airbase. After the war, Canadian forces stayed on, and the outpost, named Frobisher Bay, became the administrative center of the eastern Arctic.
In 1987 the community officially changed its name to Iqaluit, and in 1995 voters picked it (over Rankin Inlet) to be Nunavut’s capital.