The Western Arctic is a mixture of cultures anchored by two indigenous groups - the Gwich'in and the Inuvialuit, who have lived in this region for many hundreds of years. Both groups retain links with relatives in Yukon and Alaska. The Inuvialuit signed a land claim agreement in 1984 and initialed a self government agreement in 2015. The Gwich'in signed a comprehensive land claim agreement in 1992. Both agreements include extensive ownership of land in the Western Arctic.
In the past, the Gwich'in travelled along the rivers and in the mountains of the northern Mackenzie and Richardson ranges, and east across the tundra towards the Arctic coast. The establishment of a trading post on the Peel River in the 1840s eventually led to the community of Fort McPherson. Gwich'in also settled at Tsiigehtchic, at the mouth of the Arctic Red River. Aklavik, another largely Gwich'in community in the Mackenzie Delta, predates Inuvik as the regional centre for the Western Arctic.
Traditionally, the Inuvialuit hunted from the sea ice in winter and followed the caribou inland in summer. At various points in the Mackenzie Delta and along the coast, Inuvialuit maintained communities that elders still recall visiting: Kittigazuit, Shingle Point and others.
American whalers who wintered at Herschel Island starting in the 1890s brought diseases that devastated the local population. Alaskan Inuit resupplied the wintering whalers, and many eventually settled in the Mackenzie Delta. By the early 1900s a demand for white fox led to a new economy based on trapping. By 1924, prosperous Inuvialuit trappers had acquired some 39 schooners to cruise the waters between Aklavik, where furs were traded and the source on the Arctic coast and islands. Several families also relocated to Banks Island, establishing the community of Sachs Harbour.
Reindeer in the Western Arctic
In 1929, just months before the great Depression of the 1930s, the Government of Canada purchased 3,000 reindeer from an Alaskan entrepreneur for $225,000, to be delivered to the Mackenzie Delta. The government saw the purchase as an investment in food for growing delta settlements. It was assumed the herd could be driven the 2,400 kilometres east from Alaska in two years. Five years later, after two stampedes, predation by wolves and insects and incredible hardship, Lapp herders finally drove the reindeer across the Mackenzie River in mid-February 1935. Their destination was the government sponsored Reindeer Station, which they reached at the beginning of March. Since then the herd has had its ups and downs, generally being managed by descendants of the original Lapp herders, now the Binder family of Inuvik.
The Dempster Highway
The discovery of huge oil and gas reserves in the Mackenzie Delta and Beaufort Sea prompted yet another major change for the peoples of the Mackenzie Delta. This was the completion of the Dempster Highway, in 1979, from Dawson City, Yukon, to Inuvik. The highway joined Fort McPherson, Tsiigehtchic and Inuvik with a year-round supply route through the Yukon, reducing reliance on seasonal Mackenzie River barge traffic for supplies of food and building materials. An extension of the route to Tuktoyaktuk, which opened in 2017, links by road Canada's three oceans, Atlantic, Pacific and Arctic.