Prior to the arrival of European customs, the Inuit had no need of family names, and children were given names by the elders. However, by the 1940s the record-keeping requirements of outside entities such as the missions, traders and the government brought about change. In response to the government's needs, they decided on the disc number system.
The discs were roughly an inch across, burgundy, and made of pressed fibre or leather. They had a hole "to be threaded with a caribou thong and sewn into a parka for safekeeping", or they could be worn around the neck. The discs were stamped with "Eskimo Identification Canada" around the edge and the crown in the middle. Just below the crown was the number. The number was broken down into several parts, "E" for Inuit living east of Gjoa Haven and "W" for those in the west. This would be followed by a one or two digit number that indicated the area the person was from. The last set of numbers would identify the individual. The discs were used in the Northwest Territories (which, at the time, included present-day Nunavut) from 1941 until 1978.
Today carvings and prints produced by Inuit artists may be seen with the disc number on them. The Inuit singer Susan Aglukark recorded the song E186 in 2000 on her album Unsung Heroes. Lucie Idlout recorded a CD called E5-770, My Mother's Name in 2005. For the most part, Inuit today do not miss the passing of the numbers, although some Inuit consider their discs to be personal artifacts of sentimental value.
In 1965, Abe Okpik was appointed to sit on the Northwest Territories Council, its first Inuk. In 1968, Simonie Michael became the council's first elected Inuk and he declared his intention to not be known by his disc number. The Government of the NWT decided to replace the disc numbers with names and Abe Okpik was appointed to Project Surname. From 1968 to 1971, Okpik toured the NWT and northern Quebec (Nunavik) recording the preferences of people. He was to be later given the Order of Canada in part because of his work with the surnames.
- Surname law
- Historical discussion in the section "Examples" in entry "Extinction of family names".
- Family name
- E9-1956 by Zebedee Nungak, in Inuktitut Magazine #88 2000 Archived June 4, 2011, at the Wayback Machine.
- Goddard, John. "A man once known as W3-1119: Sculptor David Ruben is one of many Inuks who speaks fondly of the number discs that were scrapped 30 years ago amid charges of racism". The Toronto Star, 8 Jan 2006. Copy retrieved from thread #4076: "Topic: Sculptor David Ruben: A man once known as W3-1119" on the American Indian Society of Delaware Forum. Retrieved 12 December 2012. Some notable quotes: "That number is part of my identity. I had a disc until about 10 years ago, and if I found it, I'd wear it (as a necklace)." "In Arctic communities, the numbers are appearing as vanity house numbers and some men wear an ujamik (disc number) as a ball-cap logo."
- What's In A Name? by Ann Meekitjuk Hanson
- katilvik.com Glossary
- CBC - Sounds Like Canada
- Arctic residents say farewell to the humble name-giver