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Inuit Religious Traditions


INUIT RELIGIOUS TRADITIONS . The Inuit (Eskimo) live in the vast Arctic and sub-Arctic area that stretches from the eastern point of Siberia to eastern Greenland. Of the approximately 105,000 Inuit, 43,000 live in Greenland, 25,000 in Arctic Canada, 35,000 (plus 2,000 Aleut) in Alaska, and 1,500 (plus a small number of Aleut) in Russia. Language has been used as the basic criterion for defining the Inuit as an ethnic group. The "Eskimo languages" (as they are invariably referred to) are divided into two main branches, Inuit and Yupik. Inuit is spoken from northern Alaska to eastern Greenland, forming a continuum of dialects with mutual comprehension between adjacent dialects. Varieties of Yupik are spoken in Siberia and in southern Alaska as far north as Norton Sound.

The word Eskimo seems to be of Montagnais origin and has been erroneously believed to mean "eater of raw meat." The word Inuit means "people." Inuit as a self-designation is used primarily in Canada and, to some extent, in Greenland (where the more common self-designation is Kalaallit ). Yupik means "a real person," just as Inupiat, which is the self-designation in northern Alaska, means "real people." Inuit, however, is the common term used to designate themselves collectively by the members of the Inuit Circumpolar Conference, an organization established in 1977 by representatives from Greenland, Canada, and Alaska.

Traditionally the Inuit are divided into many geographic groups. The members of each group, or band, were connected through kinship ties, but the band was without formal leadership. The nuclear family was the most important social unit, but the extended family often cohabited and worked cooperatively. Dyadic relationships, such as wife-exchange partners and joking partners, were also common.

Today, most Inuit live in the so-called Arctic area, north of the treeline and the 10° celsius July isotherm. The Inuit were hunters who adapted to the seasonal availability of various mammals, birds, and fish. Hunting sea mammals with harpoons was characteristic, but hunting inland during the summer was also part of the subsistence pattern of many Inuit. A few groups in northern Alaska and in Canada have spent the entire year inland, hunting caribou and fishing for arctic char. In southern Alaska, the wooded valleys along the long rivers were inhabited by Inuit who relied upon the great run of the fish as well as the migrations of sea mammals and birds.

Most Inuit in Canada lived in snow houses during the winter; others settled in winter houses built of stone and sod or wood. Stone lamps that burned blubber were used for heating, lighting, and cooking. Skin boats and, except in southern Greenland and Alaska, dog sledges were used for transportation; kayaks were used for seal hunting and large, open umiaks for whale hunting. Although some Inuit are still hunters and fishermen, today's Inuit societies are modernized. Money economy has replaced subsistence economy; modern technology and education have been introduced; television plays an important role; and so on. Except for the small population in Siberia, the Inuit have become Christians, and even the Inuit in Siberia no longer observe their religious traditions.

Historically, the Inuit held many observances to insure good hunting, and in the small and scattered hunting and fishing communities many local religious practices were observed. Generally, ritual life was more elaborate in Alaska than in Canada and Greenland. In Alaskan settlements there were usually one or more big men's houses, called qarigi among the Point Barrow Inuit and qasiq among those of the Bering Sea, where people gathered for social and religious feasts. In Canada, the Inuit built temporary festival snow houses, but no eyewitness accounts exist of festival houses in Greenland.

Relations between Men and Animals

According to eastern Inuit religious tradition, each animal had its own inua (its "man," "owner," or "spirit") and also its own "soul." Within the western Inuit religious tradition, the inua seems to have been identical to the soul. The idea of inua was applied to animals and implements as well as to concepts and conditions (such as sleep). Lakes, currents, mountains, and stars all had their own inua, but only the inua of the moon, air, and sea were integral to the religious life of the Inuit.

Since the Inuit believed that the animals they hunted possessed souls, they treated their game with respect. Seals and whales were commonly offered a drink of fresh water after they had been dragged ashore. Having received such a pleasant welcome as guests in the human world, their souls, according to Inuit belief, would return to the sea and soon become ready to be caught again, and they would also let their fellow animals know that they should not object to being caught. When the season's first kill of an important species of seal was made, the meat was distributed to all of the inhabitants of a settlement. This practice divided the responsibility for the kill among the entire community and increased the possibility of good hunting.

Inuit rituals in connection with the polar bear are part of an ancient bear ceremonialism of the circumpolar regions of Eurasia and North America. In southern Greenland, for example, the head of a slain polar bear was placed in a house facing the direction from which the bears usually came so that the bear's soul could easily find its way home. During the five days that the soul was believed to require to reach its destination the bear was honored: its eyes and nostrils were closed so that it would not be disturbed by the sight and smell of human beings; its mouth was smeared with blubber; and it was given presents.

Whaling was of great social, economic, and ritual importance, especially among the North Alaska Inuit. In the spring, all hunting gear was carefully cleaned, and the women made new clothes for the men. The whales would not be approached until everything was cleaned. During the days before the whaling party set out, the men slept in the festival house and observed sexual and food taboos. The whaling season terminated with a great feast to entertain the whales.

Taboos, Amulets, and Songs

Unlike cultic practices in connection with the deities, which had relatively minor significance, taboos, amulets, and songs were fundamentally important to the Inuit. Most taboos were imposed to separate the game from a person who was tabooed because of birth, menstruation, or death. A separation between land and sea animals was also important in many localities, reflecting the seasonal changes in hunting adaptation. An infringement of a taboo might result in individual hardship (for example, the loss of good fortune in hunting, sickness, or even death), but often, it was feared, the whole community would suffer. Usually a public confession under the guidance of the shaman was believed sufficient to reduce the effect of the transgression of a taboo.

Amulets, which dispensed their powers only to the first owner, were used primarily to secure success in hunting and good health and, to a lesser degree, to ward off negative influences. Parents and grandparents would usually buy amulets for children from a shaman. Amulets were usually made up of parts of animals and birds, but a wide variety of objects could be used. They were sewn on clothing or placed in boats and houses.

One way to increase the effect of the amulets was through the use of food totems and secret songs. Used primarily to increase success in hunting, secret songs and formulas were also used to control other activities and were often associated with food taboos. Songs were either inherited or bought. If a song was passed on from one generation to the next, all members of the family were free to use it, but once it was sold it became useless to its former owners.

Rites of Passage

In many localities in Canada and Alaska, women had to give birth alone, isolated in a small hut or tent. For a specified period after the birth, the woman was subjected to food and work taboos. Children were usually named after a person who had recently died. The name was regarded as a vital part of the individual, and, in a way, the deceased lived on in the child. The relationship resulted in a close social bond between the relatives of the deceased and the child.

The family celebrated particular stages in a child's development, especially in connection with subsistence activities. For example, when a boy killed his first seal, the meat was distributed to all the inhabitants of the settlement, and for each new important species a hunter killed, there was a celebration and ritual distribution.

Death was considered to be a passage to a new existence. There were two lands of the dead: one in the sky and one in the sea (or underground). The Inuit in Greenland considered the land in the sea more attractive because people living there enjoyed perpetual success in whale hunting; those in the sky, on the other hand, led dull existences. It was not the moral behavior of the deceased that determined the location of his afterlife, but rather the way in which he died. For example, men who died while whaling or women who died in childbirth were assured of an afterlife in the sea. Conceptions of the afterlife, however, differed among the Inuit. The Canadian and Alaskan Inuit believed the most attractive afterlife was found in the sky. Some Inuit had either poorly conceptualized beliefs in an afterlife or no beliefs at all.

While death rituals usually included only the nearest family members and neighbors, the Great Feast of the Dead, celebrated in the Alaskan mainland from the Kuskokwim River to the Kotzebue Sound, attracted participants even from neighboring villages. The feast was given jointly, and the hosts' social status was demonstrated by the quantity of food, furs, clothing, and implements that were given away.

The Bladder Feast, an important calendar feast celebrated in Alaska from Kodiak Island to Point Hope, was held in midwinter. At this feast, the bladders of all the seals that had been caught during the previous year were returned to the sea in order that their souls might come back in new bodies and let themselves be caught again. The skins of all the small birds and animals that the boys had caught were displayed in the festival house, and gifts were given to human souls, to the souls of the seals, and to those who were present.


In Greenland and Canada, the shaman (angakkoq ) played a central role in religion. In Alaska, however, where it was common for an individual to become a shaman as the result of a calling, many rites did not demand the expertise of the shaman. Prospective shamans often learned from skilled shamans how to acquire spirits and to use techniques such as ecstatic trances. In Greenland and Labrador, the apprentice was initiated by being "devoured" by a polar bear or a big dog while being in trance alone in the wilderness. After having revived, he was ready to become master of various spirits.

Shamans in Greenland always used a drum to enter a trance. Masks were also instrumental, especially in Alaska, both in secular and religious connections. The shaman might summon his familiar spirits to the house where a séance was taking place, or he might go on a spiritual flight himself. The Canadian shaman might, for example, go down to the inua of the sea, that is, the Sea Woman, to get seals. In Alaska, a shaman on Nunivak Island would go to the villages of the various species of animals in the sea. In the Norton Sound area he would go to the moon to obtain animals for the settlement.

Although shamans were the principal revealers of unknown things, some other people could also acquire information from the spirits by using a simple technique called qilaneq. It required that an individual lift an object and then pose questions, which were answered affirmatively or negatively according to whether the object felt heavy or not.

Shamans also functioned as doctors. For example, they would suck the sick spot where a foreign object had been introduced or try to retrieve a stolen soul. Sorcerersoften believed to be old, revengeful womenwere also common, and shamans were sometimes called to reveal them. There were instances, however, in which the shaman himself was accused of having used his power to harm someone; in such cases the shaman could be killed.

The Deities

The Inuit of Canada and Greenland believed that the inua of the sea, the Sea Woman, controlled the sea animals and would withhold them to punish people when they had broken a taboo. Franz Boas (1888) transcribed the name given to her by the Inuit on Baffin Island as Sedna, which probably means "the one down there."

The Inuit of eastern Baffin Island ritually killed Sedna during a feast that was held when the autumn storms came and whose purpose was to make sealing possible again. The Sedna ceremony included, inter alia, a ritual spouse exchange and a tug-of-war, the result of which predicted the weather for the coming winter.

While Sedna represented the female principle of the world, the inua of the moon, Aningaaq, represented the male principle. An origin myth tells how he was once a man who committed incest with his sister. She became the sun, he the moon. Otherwise the sun played no part in the religion of the Inuit, but the moon was associated with the fertility of women. He was recognized as a great hunter, and some Alaskan Inuit believed that the moon controlled the game.

The air was called Sila, which also means "universe" and "intellect." The inua of the air was a rather abstract but feared figure; if it was offended when taboos were broken, it would take revenge by bringing storms and blizzards.

The Raven appeared, primarily in Alaska, as a creator, culture hero, and trickster in a cycle of myths that included those of the earth diver and the origin of the light. The Raven, however, played a negligible role in religious practices.

The differences between and sometimes vagueness in Inuit religious ideas may be related not only to their wide and scattered distribution but also to the fact that their societies had a loose social organization and were without a written language before contact with the Europeans. For all Inuit, however, a close and good relationship with the animals on which they depended for their survival was believed to be of vital importance.

See Also

Bears; Sedna; Tricksters, article on North American Tricksters.


An excellent survey of Inuit culture from prehistoric to modern times is given in the Handbook of North American Indians, vol. 5, edited by David Damas (Washington, D.C., 1984). The best survey of Inuit religion is Margaret Lantis's article "The Religion of the Eskimos," in Forgotten Religions, edited by Vergilius Ferm (New York, 1950), pp. 311339. Lantis is also the author of Alaskan Eskimo Ceremonialism (New York, 1947). This well-documented book is based primarily on literary sources, but it also contains Lantis's field notes from Nunivak. A review of the religion of the Inuit in Canada and Greenland has been written by Birgitte Sonne and myself as an introduction to a collection of plates that illustrate the religious life of these people in Eskimos: Greenland and Canada (Leiden, 1985), vol. 8, pt. 2, of the series "Iconography of Religions." A strong visual impression of the Bering Sea Inuit culture in the nineteenth century is found in William W. Fitzhugh and Susan A. Kaplan's Inua: Spirit World of the Bering Sea Eskimo (Washington, D.C., 1982). This is a fascinating book that examines how the spirit world manifests itself in all areas of the life of these Inuit. A study of the religion of two Inuit groups in Canada is given in J. G. Oosten's The Theoretical Structure of the Religion of the Netsilik and Iglulik (Mappel, Netherlands, 1976). Information that has been gathered on rituals in connection with animals is presented in Regitze Soby's article "The Eskimo Animal Cult," Folk (Copenhagen) 11/12 (19691970): 4378. The position of the Inuit shaman has been analyzed by Birgitte Sonne in "The Professional Ecstatic in His Social and Ritual Position," in Religious Ecstasy, edited by Nils G. Holm (Stockholm, 1982), pp. 128150, and by Daniel Merkur in his Becoming Half Hidden: Shamanism and Initiation among the Inuit (Stockholm, 1985).

Among the many valuable and often quoted books by Knud Rasmussen is The Netsilik Eskimos: Social Life and Spiritual Culture (Copenhagen, 1931). This book presents material that Rasmussen collected from various groups of Inuit who had had limited contact with the Euro-American world. Among the many valuable studies on the Alaskan Inuit, two should be mentioned: Robert F. Spencer's The North Alaskan Eskimo: A Study in Ecology and Society (Washington, D.C., 1959) and Ann Fienup-Riordan's The Nelson Island Eskimo: Social Structure and Ritual Distribution (Anchorage, Alaska, 1983).

An extensive bibliography for Inuit religion is given by John Fisher in his article "Bibliography for the Study of Eskimo Religion," Anthropologica n.s. 15 (1973): 231271.

New Sources

Albanse, Catherine L. Nature Religion in America: From the Algonquin Indians to the New Age. Chicago, 1990.

The Cambridge History of the Native Peoples of the Americas. 3 vols. New York, 19962000.

Dorais, Louis-Jacques. Quagtag: Modernity and Identity in an Inuit Community. Toronto, 1997.

Eber, Dorothy Harley. When the Whalers Were Up North: Inuit Memories from the Eastern Arctic. Kingston, 1989.

Mills, Antonia, and Richard Slobodin. Amerindian Rebirth: Reincarnation Belief among North American Indians and Inuit. Toronto, 1994.

Seidelman, James Turner, and Harold Seidelman. The Inuit Imagination: Arctic Myth and Sculpture. London, 1994.

Tester, Frank James and Peter Kulchysi. Tammarit (Mistakes): Inuit Relocation in the Eastern Arctic. Vancouver, 1994.

Inge Kleivan (1987)

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