• The house excavation nearing completion, with the Mackenzie River in the background. Letitia Pokiak measures the location of an artifact on the rear alcove of the house. To the left and right can be seen the side alcoves, and the entrance tunnel extends downslope towards the river. (Photo: Max Friesen)

For many Inuit, understanding how their elders and ancestors once lived is crucial to building a future that blends the best of the present with the best of the past.

Some of the clues to that past lie in the archeological record — objects that people have abandoned, dropped or discarded over the course of 5,000 years of daily life in the Arctic, and which now lie preserved in the frozen ground. {break}

But the effects of a warming climate are putting that record in jeopardy, and archeologists and Inuit are working together to preserve it. “Climate change has massive impacts on Arctic archeological sites,” says University of Toronto archeologist Max Friesen. “It causes coastal erosion from bigger storms, as well as permafrost thaw and rising sea levels. The most affected area is the Mackenzie Delta. Some of the archeological sites there are already gone.”

Friesen works closely with the Inuvialuit Cultural Resource Centre (the Inuvialuit are the Inuit of the western Arctic), and has been surveying the coastline by helicopter, selecting the most important and threatened archeological sites for rescue.

At Kuukpak, on the East Channel of the Mackenzie River near Tuktoyaktuk, he made an exciting discovery: a magnificent driftwood house, one of the biggest traditional dwellings ever used by Inuit. No one alive today had ever seen one. “This kind of house is unique to the Inuvialuit and to the East Channel,” says Friesen. “It’s an iconic form, of great symbolic importance for Inuvialuit. And the house is beautifully preserved. It’s literally perfect.”

About 400 years ago when the house was built, Kuukpak was a large whaling camp where Inuvialuit hunted belugas during the whales’ annual summer migration. A total of around 1,000 people lived there and at nearby Kitigaaryuit, the largest concentration of Inuit anywhere at the time.

By Inuit standards of the day, the people at Kuukpak and Kitigaaryuit were wealthy. Unlike others — who had to comb the beaches, trade or travel far south to the treeline to get precious wood for sleds, kayak frames and tent poles — they had an unlimited supply of driftwood, courtesy of the Mackenzie River. While their fellow Inuit lived in modest snow houses or sod houses in winter and cooked over oil lamps, the residents of the East Channel spent the dark season in substantial driftwood houses and cooked over driftwood fires.

“This house would have housed from 15 to as many as 30 people: three families each occupying a separate log-walled and log-roofed alcove,” explains Friesen. “The main floor had a big hearth. Because the house is so well preserved we can see how it was built and maintained. And it’s full of beluga bones, harpoon and arrow heads, fishing net weights, copper and amber beads, combs, ulus (crescent-shaped knives) and so on. It’s amazing.”

Inuvialuit greeted the discovery with enthusiasm. “There’s been a lot of interest locally,” says Friesen. “I think it has really struck a chord. People know about these houses from elders, and they had even built replicas in Tuktoyaktuk based on oral history — but no one had actually seen one. Now, for the first time, we have a picture of this centrally important part of early Inuvialuit life.”

When Friesen travels back to the Mackenzie Delta this summer, he will concentrate on surveying other potential sites for rescue. But in 2016, he and his team will return to the remarkable Kuukpak house to uncover more of the clues to the Inuvialuit past that, for now, lie preserved in the permafrost.

This is the latest in a continuing blog series on polar issues and research presented by Canadian Geographic in partnership with the Canadian Polar Commission. The polar blog appears online every two weeks, and select blog posts are featured in issues of Canadian Geographic. For more information on the Canadian Polar Commission, visit polarcom.gc.ca.