Grade 9-12

Traditional Economies and the Inuit

Updated: August 14 2023,
Author: Andrew Pass

The Inuit people of northern Canada provide an example of a traditional economy. For thousands of years, Inuit parents have taught their children the survival skills needed to survive in the Arctic Circle’s severe climate. Students will research the Inuit economy and compare and contrast it with the United States’ market economy.


A traditional economy, an economy based on custom and tradition, may seem like something that is only read about in history books. To most of us, it just doesn’t seem possible that rituals and habits developed generations ago, as well as customs that have been passed down for hundreds, if not thousands of years, could be the most important pieces of an economic system. However, there are still places in the world where a traditional economy guides the choices of children, adults, and elders as they make decisions as producers or consumers. The Inuit of northern Canada serve as a prime example of a traditional economy. For thousands of years, the Inuit parents have taught their children the survival skills needed to survive in the Arctic Circle’s severe climate. The children are taught to fish, hunt, and make effective tools. Once learned, these skills are passed down to the next generation. When the Inuit hunt, it is traditional for them to distribute the harvest with other families in the community. If a walrus or bear is harvested, hunters divide it evenly into as many pieces as there are heads of families in the hunting party. The hunter most responsible for the successful hunt has first choice, the second-most helpful hunter chooses next, and so on. Because of this custom of distribution, as long as skilled hunters live in the village, the Inuit survive the long, cold winters with the food and goods required to sustain themselves.

Unlike traditional economies, in a market economy individuals generate wealth by pursuing those activities that others value and are willing to pay for. Income earned is then used to buy the clothes, food, and other items needed, wanted or desired. People in market economies are seldom dependent on others as are the Inuits. However they are interdependent because they need others to provide the goods and services they themselves do not produce because of high opportunity costs.

Learning Objectives

  • Investigate the Inuit people indigenous to northern Canada (and the Arctic Circle) and their traditional economy.
  • Compare and contrast a traditional economy and a market economy.
  • Evaluate the costs and benefits of traditional and market economic system.

Resource List


Pique students’ interest about traditional vs. market economies by asking them to answer the questions on the worksheet entitled, An Introduction to Traditional Economies. After students have completed this work, facilitate a class discussion in which students compare their thoughts.

    1. What do you think would be the most challenging part of having to grow or catch all of the food that you ate? What would be the easiest part of this? Do you think that it would be easier or harder to do this than buying your food? Why? [Most would not like this, some may like the idea for some of their food.]
    2. Would you like to wear clothes that you made yourself? Would it be better to have one outfit that you made yourself or only be able to get clothes if you made them yourself? [Not many students would like this way of life — it wouldn’t be “cool”.]
    3. Would it be easy to do these things-grow your own food, hunt for your own meat, or make your own clothes? Why? [No, they haven’t had the experiences necessary to do these things for themselves.] 
    4. Do you prefer buying these types of goods and services? Why? [Most students will prefer to buy.] 
    5. Next provide the students with the definition of Market Economy. Discuss with the class how this definition relates to goods and services.


  1. Does everybody in the world today buy these types of goods and services? [No.]

Ask students to respond to the questions on the worksheet entitled: A Traditional Economy – What is it?

[Worksheet Answers:

  1. How to earn and spend money.

  2. An economic system in which the allocation of scarce resources and other economic activity is the result of ritual, habit, or custom.

  3. An economic system in which the allocation of scarce resources and other economic activity is the result of decisions made by individuals.

  4. The United States has a market economy.

  5. Some places in the developing world: Africa, South America, and the Inuit of northern Canada and the Arctic Circle.]

Ask students how far north in the world they have been? You might consider holding a contest in the class to see who has been furthest north.  Use this map to show the students where the Inuit live.

Ask students to describe the kinds of living conditions they think would exist in this region of the world. (Students should recognize that the region is very cold, has few inhabitants and roads are often not present.)

Explain that one of the few groups of people who live in this Arctic region are the Inuit. The Inuit continue to lead very traditional life-styles. They have sustained their culture for thousands of years, despite the harsh weather of the Arctic. They utilize a traditional economy in which they fish, hunt, and make primitive tools in order to get the food they need for survival. The spoils of any hunting are shared among the community. And they buy and sell very little, often only trading for basic necessities.

Ask students to complete the worksheet entitled, Learning About the Inuit.

[Guiding Questions Worksheet Sample Answers:

  1. About 80 percent of Inuit hunt, fish, or trap caribou, fish, marine mammals, and other wildlife. The people were traditionally nomadic, traveling in winter by dog team and in summer by foot. Their culture and economy is based on wildlife harvesting; their environment is more than just a source of food and income.

  2. The traditional economy of many Inuit groups of the Arctic was based on the hunting of sea mammals, including whales, seals, and walruses. They also fish and hunt other types of animals, and gather food from their environment.

  3. Yes, the family is the base of the Inuit’s social organization.

  4. Yes. Social, technological, and economic changes have occurred in the Arctic. Yet, the Inuit culture remains built on the belief that, above all else, they are hunters and very much a part of their environment. The meaning of life for the Inuit is still found close to nature.]

Give student pairs a Venn Diagram to complete (or do one together as a class) that shows the similarities and differences between the traditional economy of the Inuit and the market economy of the United States.

[Venn Diagram Sample Answers:

  1. Traditional Economy/Inuit: customs, rituals, habits are important; gender roles are clearly defined; ideas and skills are passed down to the next generation; and the use of technology is nil.

  2. Market Economy/United States: free enterprise ; people create their own businesses and jobs; people sell whatever they want; people set their own prices; and technology is important.

  3. Both: people get goods they need, family is important.]

Now ask students to complete the two T-Charts entitled “Costs and Benefits of a Traditional and Market Economies“. After students have completed this work, invite several students to share their answers with the class. [Students should recognize that the cost of a traditional economy is that you do not have the benefits of a market economy. On the other hand, the costs of a market economy is that you do not have the benefits of a traditional economy. You can not have both a market economy and a traditional economy. Choices must be made. The answers for this worksheet can be found on the Teacher’s Answer Key.]


To conclude the lesson, ask the students discuss their research and the information on their Venn Diagrams with their classmates. Use these questions to lead the discussion:

  • What have they learned about the differences between traditional and market economies?
  • What were the similarities?
  • What have they learned about the Inuit people?
  • Did they find any evidence that the Inuit’s traditional economy is changing?
  • If so, what did they find, and how is it changing?
  • Do they think this will have a positive or negative effect on the Inuit community? Why?

Now ask students to evaluate the traditional economy of the Inuit.

  • Do they think that this is an effective way for the Inuit to live?
  • Do they think that the United States could survive economically with a traditional economy? Why or why not?
  • What types of changes can they imagine if that were to happen?

[Students’ answers will vary.]

Finally, have students use all of the knowledge they have gained throughout this lesson to write an editorial, which offers their perspective on the Inuit and on traditional economies.

Extension Activity

Students can research to find other modern-day examples of traditional economies.

Students can develop skits based on what they have learned about traditional or market economies. Have the class guess which type of economy the skit portrays.


Have students complete an exit slip that addresses the following big ideas:

  1. Define a traditional economy. [An economic system in which the allocation of scarce resources and other economic activity is based on ritual, habit, or custom.]

  2. Define a market economy. [An economic system in which economic decisions and the pricing of goods and services are guided solely by citizens and businesses, with little government intervention or central planning.]

  3. Give at least one reason why the Inuit’s economy is considered traditional. [The Inuit share the food that they catch when they hunt. They buy and sell very little.]

  4. Give at least one reason why the United States economy is considered free market. [American companies can decide what to buy/sell on their own. They can set whatever price they want.]