All Sources -
Updated Media sources (1) About content Print Topic Share Topic
views updated


by J. Sydney Jones


Once known as Eskimos, the Inuit inhabit the Arctic region, one of the most forbidding territories on earth. Occupying lands that stretch 12,000 miles from parts of Siberia, along the Alaskan coast, across Canada, and on to Greenland, the Inuit are one of the most widely dispersed people in the world, but number only about 60,000 in population. Between 25,000 and 35,000 reside in Alaska, with other smaller groups in Canada, Greenland, and Siberia. The name Eskimo was given to these people by neighboring Abnaki Indians and means "eaters of raw flesh." The name they call themselves is Inuit, or "the people." Culturally and linguistically distinct from Native Americans of the lower 48 states, as well as from the Athabaskan people of Alaska, the Inuit are closely related to the Mongoloid peoples of eastern Asia. It is estimated that the Inuit arrived some 4,000 years ago on the North American continent, thus coming much later than other indigenous peoples. The major language family for Arctic peoples is Eskaleut. While Aleut is considered a separate language, Eskimo branches into Inuit and Yup'ik. Yup'ik includes several languages, while Inuit is a separate tongue with several local dialects, including Inupiaq (Alaska), Inuktitut (Eastern Canada), and Kalaallisut (Greenland). Throughout their long history and vast migrations, the Inuit have not been greatly influenced by other Indian cultures. Their use and array of tools, their spoken language, and their physical type have changed little over large periods of time and space.

Alaskan Inuit inhabit the west, southwest, and the far north and northwest of Alaska, comprising the Alutiiq, Yup'ik (or Yupiat), and Inupiat tribes. As the first two tribes are dealt with separately, this essay will focus on that group regionally known as Inupiat, and formerly known as Bering Strait or Kotzebue Sound Eskimos, and even sometimes West Alaskan and North Alaskan Eskimos. Residing in some three dozen villages and towns including Kotzebue, Point Hope, Wainwright, Barrow, and Prudhoe Baybetween the Bering Strait and the McKenzie Delta to the east, and occupying some 40,000 square miles above the Arctic Circle, this group has been divided differently by various anthropologists. Some classify the Inuit into two main groups, the inland people or Nuunamiut, and the coastal people, the Tagiugmiut. Ernest S. Burch, Jr., however, in his book The Inupiaq Eskimo Nations of Northwestern Alaska, divides the heartland, or original southerly Inupiat, who settled around Kotzebue Sound and the Chukchi Sea, into 12 distinct tribes or nations. This early "homeland" of the Inupiat, around Kotzebue Sound, was extended as the tribes eventually moved farther north. Over 40 percent of Alaskan Inuit now reside in urban areas, with Anchorage having the highest population, and Nome on the south of the Seward Peninsula also having a large group of Inupiat as well as Yup'ik. Within Inupiat territory, the main population centers are Barrow and Kotzebue.


Among the last Native groups to come into North America, the Inuit crossed the Bering land bridge sometime between 6000 b.c. and 2000 b.c., according to various sources. Anthropologists have discerned several different cultural epochs that began around the Bering Sea. The Denbigh, also known as the Small Tool culture, began some 5000 years ago, and over the course of the next millennia it spread westward though Arctic Alaska and Canada. Oriented to the sea and to living with snow, the Denbigh most likely originated the snow house. Characterized by the use of flint blades, skin-covered boats, and bows and arrows, the Denbigh was transformed further east into the Dorset Tradition by about 1000 b.c.

Signs of both the Denbigh and Dorset cultures have been unearthed at the well-known Ipiutak site, located near the Inuit settlement of Point Hope, approximately 125 miles north of the Arctic Circle. Point Hope, still a small Inuit village at the mouth of the Kukpuk River, appears to have been continuously inhabited for 2,000 years, making it the oldest known Inuit settlement. The population of the historical Ipiutak was probably larger than that of the modern village of Point Hope, with a population of about 2,000 people. Houses at Ipiutak were small, about 12 by 15 feet square, with sod-covered walls and roof. Benches against the walls were used for sleeping, while the fire was kept in a small central depression of the main room. Artifacts from the site indicate that the Ipiutak hunted sea and land mammals, as do modern Inuit. Seals, walruses, and caribou provided the basis of their diet. Though the tools of whale hunting, including harpoons, floats, and sleds, were missing from this site, bone and ivory carvings of a rare delicacyreminiscent of some ancient Siberian artwere found.

Other Inuit settled in part-time villages during the same epoch. The continuous development of these peoples is demonstrated by the similarities in both ancient and modern Inuit cultures. Called by some the Old Bering Sea Cultures, these early inhabitants traveled by kayak and umiak skin boats in the warmer months, and by sled in the winter. Living near the coast, they hunted sea and land mammals, lived in tiny semi-subterranean dwellings, and developed a degree of artistic skill.

The Dorset culture was later superseded by the Norton culture, which was in turn followed by the Thule. The Thule already had characteristics of culture common to Inuit culture: the use of dogs, sleds, kayaks, and whale hunting with harpoons. They spread westward through Canada and ultimately on to Greenland. However, it appears that some of the Thule backtracked, returning to set up permanent villages in both Alaska and Siberia.

Anthropologically classified as central-based wanderers, the Inuit spent part of the year on the move, searching for food, and then part of the year at a central, more permanent camp. Anywhere from a dozen to fifty people traveled in a hunting group. The year was divided into three hunting seasons, revolving around one animal. The hunting seasons were seal, caribou, and whale. The yearly cycle began with the spring seal hunting, continued with caribou hunting in the summer, and fishing in the autumn. A caribou hunt was also mounted in the fall. In the far north, whales were hunted in the early spring. It was a relentless cycle, broken up with occasional feasts after the seal and caribou hunts, and with summer trade fairs to which groups from miles around attended.

Though most Arctic peoples were not organized into tribes, those of present-day Alaska are to a certain extent. One reason for such organization is the whaling occupation of the northwestern Alaska natives. These people settled north of the Brooks Range and along the coast from Kotzebue in the southwest, up to Point Hope and north and east to Barrow, the mouth of the Colville River, and on to the present-day Canadian border at Demarcation Point. These areas provided rich feeding grounds for bowhead whale. Strong leaders were needed for whaling expeditions; thus, older men with experience who knew how to handle an umiak, the large wooden-framed boat, used to hunt whales.

For thousands of years the Inuit lived lives unrecorded by history. This changed with their first contact with Europeans. The Vikings under Eric the Red encountered Inuit in Greenland in 984. Almost six hundred years later, the British explorer Martin Frobisher made contact with the Central Inuit of northern Canada. In 1741, the Russian explorer, Vitus Bering, met the Inuit of Alaska. It is estimated that there were about 40,000 Inuit living in Alaska at the time, with half of them living in the north, both in the interior and in the far northwest. The Inuit, Aleut, and Native Americans living below the Arctic Circle were the most heavily affected by this early contact, occasioned by Russian fur traders. However, northern Inuit were not greatly affected until the second round of European incursions in the area, brought on by an expanded whale trade.

Russian expeditions in the south led to the near destruction of Aleutian culture. This was the result of both the spread of disease by whites as well as outright murder. The first white explorers to reach Arctic Alaska were the Englishmen Sir John Franklin and Captain F. W. Beechey. Both noted the extensive trade carried on between Inuit and Indian groups. Other early explorers, including Alexander Kasherov, noted this intricate trading system as well, in which goods were moved from Siberia to Barrow and back again through a network of regularly held trade fairs. All of this changed, however, with the arrival of European whalers by the mid-nineteenth century. Formerly hunters of Pacific sperm whale, these whaling fleets came to Arctic regions following the bowhead whale migration to the Beaufort Sea for summer feeding. Unlike the Inuit, who used all parts of the whale for their subsistence, the whaling fleets from New England and California were interested primarily in baleen, the long and flexible strips of keratin that served as a filtering system for the bowhead whale. This material was used for the manufacture of both buttons and corset hooks, and fetched high prices. One bowhead could yield many pounds and was valued at $8000, a substantial amount of money for that time.

In 1867, the United States purchased Alaska, and whaling operations increased. The advent of steam-powered vessels further increased the number of ships in the region. Soon, whaling ships from the south were a regular feature in Arctic waters. Their immediate effect was the destruction of the intricate trading network built up over centuries. With the whalers to pick up and deliver goods, Inuit traders were no longer needed. A second effect, due to contact between the whalers and the Inuit, was the introduction of new diseases and alcohol. This, in conjunction with an obvious consequence of the whaling industry, the reduction of the whale population, made life difficult for the Inuit. Dependence on wage drew the Inuit out of their millennia-long hunting and trading existence as they signed on as deckhands or guides. Village life became demoralized because of the trade in whiskey. Small settlements disappeared entirely; others were greatly impacted by diseases brought by the whalers. Point Hope lost 12 percent of its population in one year. In 1900, 200 Inuit died in Point Barrow from a flu epidemic brought by a whaler, and in 1902, 100 more were lost to measles.

Although relatively unaffected by the whaling operations, the Inuit of the inland areas, known as Nuunamiut, also saw a sharp decline in their population from the mid-nineteenth century. Their independence had not protected them from the declining caribou herds nor from increasing epidemics. As a result, these people almost totally disappeared from their inland settlements, moving instead to coastal areas.


A number of actions were undertaken in attempts to improve the conditions of the Inuit at the end of the nineteen century and the early years of the twentieth century. The U.S. government intervened, obstensibly, to ameliorate the situation with improved education. However, the motivations behind this strategy by the U.S. government are the subject of much debate by many Natives and scholars of Inuit culture and history. Schools were established at Barrow and Point Hope in the 1890s, and new communities were only recognized once they established schools. The government also tried to make up for depleted resources, as the whaling trade had died out in the early years of the twentieth century, due to depleted resources as well as the discovery of substitutes for baleen. The U.S. Bureau of Education, the office given responsibility for the Inuit at the time, imported reindeer from Siberia. They planned to turn the Inuit, traditionally semi-sedentary hunters, into nomadic herders. However, after an early peak in the reindeer population in 1932, their numbers dwindled, and the reindeer experiment ultimately proved a failure. Game was no longer plentiful, and the Inuit themselves changed, seeking more than a subsistence way of life. For a time, beginning in the 1920s, fox fur trading served as a supplement to subsistence. Yet, trapping led to an increased breakdown of traditional cooperative ways of life. Fox fur trading lasted only a decade, and by the 1930s, the U.S. government was pouring more money into the area, setting up post offices, and aid relief agencies. Christian missions were also establishing school in the region. Concurrent with these problems was an increase in mortality rates from tuberculosis.

The search for petroleum also greatly affected the region. Since the end of World War II, with the discovery of North Slope oil in 1968, the culture as well as the ecology of the region changed in ways never imagined by nineteenth-century Inuit. Other wage-economies developed in the region. The Cold War brought jobs to the far north, and native art work became an increasing form of income, especially for carvers. In the 1950s, the construction of a chain of radar sites such as the Distant Early Warning system (DEW) employed Inuit laborers, and many more were later employed to maintain the facilities. In 1959, Alaska became the forty-ninth state, thus extending U.S. citizenship rights and privileges to all of state's population. At the end of the twentieth century, a number of issues face the Inuit: the use of technology, urban flight by the young, and thus, the viability of their traditional culture. Caught between two worlds, the Inuit now use snowmobiles and the Internet in place of the umiak and the sled. Nonetheless, they have designed legislative and traditional ways to maintain and protect their subsistence lifestyle. Since 1978, this lifestyle has been given priority, and it is legally protected.

Acculturation and Assimilation

As with the rest of Native Americans, the Inuit acculturation and assimilation patterns were more the result of coercion than choice. A main tool of assimilation was education. Schools, set up by the state or by missions, discouraged the learning of native languages; English became the primary language for students who were often transported hundreds of miles from their homes. Students who spoke their native Inupiaq language were punished and made to stand with their faces to the corner or by having their mouths washed out with soap. Returning to their home villages after being sent away for four years to the Bureau of Indian Affairs high schools, these Inuit no longer had a connection to their language or culture. They were ill-equipped to pass traditions on to their own children.

By the 1970s, however, this trend was reversed, as the Inuit began organizing, demanding, and winning more local autonomy. More local schools opened that honored the ancient ways of the Inuit. For many this was too little, too late. Though old dances and festivals have returned, and the language is studied by the young, it is yet to be seen if the old cultural heritage can be re-instituted after a century and more of assimilation.


Inuit social organization was largely based on bilateral kinship relations. There was little formal tribal control, which led to blood feuds between clans. However, hunting or trading provided opportunities for cooperative endeavors, in which different kinship groups teamed up for mutual benefit.

Wintertime was a period for the village to come together; men gathered in the common houses called kashims or karigi, also used for dancing. Games, song contests, wrestling, and storytelling brought the people of small villages together after hunts and during the long, dark winter months. Much of Inuit life was adapted to the extremes of summer and winter night lengths. Inupiats formerly lived in semi-excavated winter dwellings, made of driftwood and sod built into a dome. Moss functioned as insulation in these crude shelters. A separate kitchen had a smoke hole, and there were storage areas and a meat cellar. These dwellings could house 8 to 12 people. Temporary snow houses were also used, though the legendary igloo was a structure used more by Canadian Inuit.


Subsistence food for the Inuit of Alaska included whale meat, caribou, moose, walrus, seal, fish, fowl, mountain sheep, bear, hares, squirrels, and foxes. Plant food included wild herbs and roots, as well as berries. Meat is dried or kept frozen in ice cellars dug into the tundra.


Traditionally, Inuit women tanned seal and caribou skins to make clothing, much of it with fur trim. Two suits of such fur clothing were worn in the colder months, the inner one with the fur turned inward. Waterproof jackets were also made from the intestines of various sea mammals, while shoes were constructed from seal and caribou hide that had been toughened by chewing. Such clothing, however, has been replaced by manufactured clothing. Down parkas have replaced the caribou-skins, and rubber, insulated boots have replaced chewed seal skin. However, such clothing has become a major source of income for some individuals and groups. Traditional clothing, from mukluks to fur parkas, has become valued as art and artifact outside the Inuit.


An oral culture, Inuit danced at traditional feast times in ritual dance houses called karigi. These dances were accompanied by drums and the recitation of verse stories. Some of these dances represented the caribou hunt; others might portray a flight of birds or a battle with the weather. Both poetry and dance were important to the Inuit; storytelling was vital for peoples who spent the long winter months indoors and in darkness. The word for poetry in Inupiaq is the same as the word to breathe, and both derive from anerca, the soul. Such poems were sung and often accompanied by dancers who moved in imitation of the forces of nature. Many of the traditional singers were also shamans and had the power to cast spells with their words. Thus, dance took on both a secular and religious significance to the Inuit. The Inuit created songs for dancing, for hunting, for entertaining children, for weather, for healing, for sarcasm, and for derision. Some dance and song festivals would last for days with the entire community participating, their voices accompanied by huge hoop drums. These dance traditions have been resurrected among Inuit communities. For example, the Northern Lights Dancers have pioneered this venture.


Major feasts for the Inupiat took place in the winter and in spring. In December came the Messenger Feast held inside the community building. This potlatch feast demonstrated social status and wealth. A messenger would be sent to a neighboring community to invite it to be guests at a feast. Invitations were usually the result of a wish for continued or improved trading relations with the community in question. Gifts were exchanged at such feasts. Some southern groups also held Messenger Feasts in the fall.

The spring whaling festival, or nalukataq, was held after the whale hunt as a thanksgiving for success and to ask for continued good fortune with next year's hunt. It was held also to appease the spirit of the killed whales. Similar to other Bladder Dances or Festivals of non-Alaskan Inuit groups, these ceremonies intended to set free the spirits of sea mammals killed during the year. At the nalukataq, a blanket toss would take place, in which members of the community were bounced high from a walrus-skin "trampoline." Another spring festival marked the coming of the sun. Dressed in costumes that were a mixture of male and female symbols to denote creation, the Inuit danced to welcome the sun's return.

Trading fairs took place throughout the year. The summer Kotzebue fair was one of the largest. In 1991, it was revived, held just after the Fourth of July. For the first time in a century, Russian Inuit came to celebrate the fair with their Alaskan relatives. The Messenger Feast has also been re-instituted, held in January in Barrow.


In traditional Inuit society the healing of the sick was the responsibility of the shaman or angakok, who contacted spirits by singing, dancing, and drum beating. He would take on the evil spirit of the sick. Shamans, however, proved helpless against the diseases brought by the Europeans and Americans. Tuberculosis was an early scourge of the Inuit, wiping out entire villages. Alcohol proved equally as lethal, and though it was outlawed, traders were able to bring it in as contraband to trade for furs. Alcohol dependency continues to be a major problem among Inuit villages and has resulted in a high occurrence of fetal alcohol syndrome. Thus, ten villages in the Northwest Arctic Borough have banned the importation and sale of alcohol, while Kotzebue has made the sale of liquor illegal but allows the importation of it for individual consumption. Nonetheless, alcohol continues to be a source of major problems despite the implementation of "dry" towns and burroughs. Rates of accident, homicide and suicide among the Inuit are far higher than among the general Alaskan population. Moreover, there is a high rate of infant mortality and sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) and infant spinal disorders.

Another health issue, particularly for the Inuit of the Cape Thompson region, is cancer, brought on by the dumping of 15,000 pounds of nuclear waste by the Atomic Energy Commission. Also, radiation experiments on flora and fauna of the region as well as Russian nuclear waste dumping offshore have contaminated many areas of northwestern Alaska, putting the native population at risk.


The Inuit communities of northern Alaska speak Inupiaq, part of the Eskaleut family of languages. All Inuit bands speak very closely related dialects of this language family. Its roots are in the Ural-Altaic languages of Finland, Hungary, and Turkey. Alaskan Eskaleut languages include Aleut, Yup'ik and Inupiaq.

Many Inuit words have become common in English and other languages of the world. Words such as kayak, husky, igloo, and parka all have come from the Inuit. The worldview of the Inuit is summed up in a popular and fatalistic expression, Ajurnamat, "it cannot be helped."

The future of Inuit-speaking Alaska is optimistic. Language instruction in school, as noted, was for many years solely in English, with native languages discouraged. Literacy projects have been started at Barrow schools to encourage the preservation of the language. However, English is the primary language of the region.

Family and Community Dynamics

Local groups were formed by nuclear and small extended families led by an umialik, or family head, usually an older man. The umialik might lead hunting expeditions, and he and his wife would be responsible for the distribution of food. Beyond that, however, there was little control exerted on proper behavior in traditional Inuit society. Villages throughout northern Alaska have replaced hunting bands, thus preserving to some extent the fluid network of their traditional society.


Education for the Inuit is still problematic. Each village has its own school, funded by the state with extra funds from the federal government. Yet the dropout rate is still high among their youth. There was a 30 percent dropout rate in grade school in 1965, a rate that climbed to 50 to 80 percent in high school. And for those few who reached college at that same time, some 97 percent dropped out. Ten years later, in 1975, the rates had gone down considerably, in part due to a revival of teaching in Inupiaq, as opposed to English-only instruction. Most Inuit under 15 are minimally literate in English. However, in older generations the same is not true.


Birth and pregnancy were traditionally surrounded by many taboos. For example, it was thought that if a pregnant woman walked out of a house backwards, she would have a breech delivery, or if a pregnant mother slept at irregular times during the day this would result in a lazy baby. Also, there were special birthing houses or aanigutyaks, where the woman went through labor in a kneeling (or squatting) position. These postures have been recognized by Western culture as often preferable to the hospital bed.

Most children are baptized within a month of birth and given an English name along with an Inuit one. Chosen by their parents, these names are normally of a recently departed relative or of some respected person. Siblings help care for children after the first few months, and the baby soon becomes accustomed to being carried about in packs or under parkas. There is no preference shown for either male or female babies; both are seen as a gift from nature. While moss and soft caribou skin have been replaced with cotton and disposable diapers, the Inuit's attitude toward their young has not changed. They are loved and given much latitude by both parents, and fathers participate actively in raising their children.


There is still a recognized division of labor by gender, but it is a fluid one. In traditional societies, the men hunted, while the women tanned skins and made clothing and generally took care of domestic activities, and this occurred under the aegis of the extended family. In the modern era much of this has changed, but in general, outside employment is still the obligation of the male as well as any ancillary hunting activities necessary to help make ends meet. Women are, for the most part, confined to household tasks.


In the past, marriages were often arranged by parents; however, today dating openly occurs between teens. Group activities take precedence over individual dating. In traditional times, the most successful hunter could take more than one wife, though this was uncommon. Also in the past, temporary marriages served to bond non-kin allegiances formed for hunting and or warfare. Married couples traditionally set up their home with the man's parents for a time. Plumpness in a wife was a virtue, a sign of health and wealth. While divorce was, and is practiced in both traditional and modern Inuit societies, its incidence is not as high as in mainstream American society.


A central tenet of Inupiat religion was that the forces of nature were essentially malevolent. Inhabiting a ruthless climatological zone, the Inupiat believed that the spirits of the weather and of the animals must be placated to avoid harm. As a result, there was strict observance of various taboos as well as dances and ceremonies in honor of such spirits. These spirit entities found in nature included game animals in particular. Inupiat hunters would, for example, always open the skull of a freshly killed animal to release its spirit. Personal spirit songs were essential among whale hunters. Much of this religious tradition was directed and passed on by shamans, both male and female. These shamans could call upon a tuunsaq, or helping spirit, in times of trouble or crisis. This spirit often took the shape of a land animal, into whose shape the shaman would change him or herself. Traditional Native religious practices, as well as the power of the shamans, decreased with the Inuit's increased contact with Europeans.

Employment and Economic Traditions

Traditionally, the Inuit economy revolved around the changing seasons and the animals that could be successfully hunted during these periods. The Inuit world was so closely linked to its subsistence economy that many of the calendar months were named after game prey. For example, March was the moon for hanging up seal and caribou skins to bleach them; April was the moon for the onset of whaling; and October was the moon of rutting caribou. Whaling season began in the spring with the first break up of the ice. At this time bowhead whales, some weighing as much as 60 tons, passed by northern Alaska to feeding grounds offshore, which were rich in plankton. Harpooners would strike deep into the huge mammal, and heavy sealskin floats would help keep the animal immobilized as lances were sunk into it. Hauling the whale ashore, a section of blubber would be immediately cut off and boiled as a thanksgiving. Meat, blubber, bone, and baleen were all taken from the animal by parties of hunters under the head of an umialik, or boss. Such meat would help support families for months.

Caribou, another highly prized food source, was hunted in the summer and fall. In addition to the meat, the Inuit used the caribou's skin and antlers. Even the sinew was saved and used for thread. Baleen nets were also used for fishing at the mouths of rivers and streams. Walrus and seal were other staples of the traditional Inuit subsistence economy.

These practices changed with the arrival of the Europeans. As noted earlier, many attempts were made to replace diminished natural resources, including the importation of reindeer and the trapping of foxes for fur. These were unsuccessful, and modern Inuit blend a wage economy with hunting and fishing. A major employer is the state and federal government. The Red Dog Mine, as well as the oil industry on the North Slope, also provide employment opportunities. Smaller urban centers such as Barrow and Kotzebue offer a wider variety of employment opportunities, as does the Chukchi Sea Trading Company, a Point Hope arts and crafts cooperative that sells native arts online. Others must rely on assistance programs, and for most there continues to be a dependence on both wage and subsistence economies. In order to facilitate subsistence economy, fishing and hunting rights were restored to the Inuit in 1980.

In general, living costs are greater in the rural areas of the north than in the rest of Alaska. For example, as David Maas pointed out in Native North American Almanac, a family living in Kotzebue could pay 62 percent more per week for food than a family in Anchorage, and 165 percent more for electricity. The incidence of poverty is also higher among Alaskan Natives than for others in the state, with some 3,000 families receiving food stamps and 18,000 families relying on low-income energy subsidies. Over 25 percent of the Native population of the state live below the poverty line, while in some areas of Alaska, Native unemployment rates top 50 percent.

Politics and Government

Traditional Inuit maintained a large degree of individual freedom, surprising in a society that depended greatly on cooperative behavior for survival. Partnerships and non-kin alliances became crucial during hunting seasons and during wars and feuds, but it was mostly based on the nuclear or extended family unit. When bands came together, they were more geographical than political in nature, and while leaders or umialik were important in hunting, their power was not absolute. The social fabric of Inuit society changed forever in the twentieth century, though the people have avoided the reservation system. Natives themselves, such as the Inupiat of Barrow and Shungnak voted against establishing the reservations that formed all over America in the 1930s.

During the mid-twentieth century, there was a great deal of competition for once-native lands, both from the private and public sector. In 1932 a petroleum reserve in the north was set aside, and then developed by the Navy and later by private companies. The Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) also wanted Inuit land. In 1958, the AEC requested some 1600 square miles of land near Point Hope to create a deep-water port using an atomic explosion many times more powerful than that at Hiroshima. Some of the first political action taken by the Inuit was in opposition to this experiment. As a result, the plan, Project Chariot, was called off.

After their success against Project Chariot, Natives began to organize in a concerted way to protect their lands. In 1961, various village leaders formed the Inupiat Paitot (The People's Heritage Movement) to protect Inupiat lands. In 1963 the Northwest Alaska Native Association was formed under the leadership of Willie Hensley, later a state senator. The Arctic Slope Association was formed in 1966. Both associations mirrored the activities of the statewide Alaska Federation of Natives (AFN) which lobbied for Native rights and claims. Local villages and organizations throughout the state were filing claims for land not yet ceded to the government. In 1968, with Congress beginning to review the situation, oil was discovered on the North Slope. Oil companies wanted to pipe the oil out via the port of Valdez, and negotiations were soon underway to settle Inuit and other Native claims.

The result was the 1971 Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA), which created 12 regional for-profit corporations throughout the state. These corporations had title to surface and mineral rights of some 44 million acres. Additionally, Natives would receive $962.5 million in compensation for the 335 million acres of the state which they no longer claimed. Thus, the way was paved for the construction of the Alaska pipeline.

As a result of ANCSA, all Alaskans with at least one-quarter Native blood would receive settlement money that would be managed by regional and village corporations. Alaskan Inuit villages then organized into several corporations in hopes of taking advantage of the opportunities of this legislation. Amendments in 1980 to the Alaska National Interests Lands Conservation Act restoring Native rights to subsistence hunting and fishing, and in 1988, ensuring Native control of corporations, helped equalize ANCSA legislation. As of the 1990s, however, few of these corporations have managed to reach financial stability, and at least four have reported losses since 1971.

Inuit groups organized in the 1970s to see that high schools were built in their villages. In the Barrow region, local schools broke away from the Bureau of Indian Affairs administration and formed local boards of education more amenable to the teaching of Inupiaq language, history, and customs. The North Slope Borough, formed in 1972, took over school administration in 1975, and the Northwest Arctic Borough, formed in 1986, did the same. These regional political structures are further sub-divided into villages with elected mayors and city councils. Slowly the Inuit of northern Alaska are trying to reclaim their heritage in the modern world.

Individual and Group Contributions

Academia and Education

Martha Aiken (1926-) is an educator born in Barrow, Alaska, of Inupiat descent. Aiken has authored 17 bilingual books for the North Slope Borough School District, has translated 80 hymns for the Presbyterian Church, and has been a major contributor to an Inupiaq dictionary. She has also served on the board of the Arctic Slope Regional Corporation. Sadie Brower Neakok (1916-) is an educator, community activist and magistrate, from Barrow. A full-time teacher for the BIA, Neakok was appointed by the State of Alaska to be a magistrate, and was instrumental in introducing the American legal system to the Inupiat.


Melvin Olanna (1941-) is an Inupiat sculptor and jewelry designer. Educated in Oregon and at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, Olanna has had numerous individual and group exhibitions of his work, and has also won a number of Alaskan awards for the arts. A practitioner of the ancient carving traditions of the Inuit, Olanna brings this older design form together with modern forms. He learned carving techniques from masters such as George Ahgupuk and Wilber Walluk, and by age 14 he was already supporting himself with his carving. Olanna's work typically shows broad planes, simple surfaces, and flowing curves similar to the work of Henry Moore. He works in wood, ivory, whalebone, and bronze, and after a year in Europe he brought several tons of Cararra marble home with him to Suquamish. He and his wife helped found the Melvin Olanna Carving Center, dedicated to training young Inuit in their ancient traditions. Joseph Senungetuk (1940-) is a printmaker and carver of Inupiat descent. An activist as artist, writer, and teacher, Senungetuk has devoted his life to Native issues and the revitalization of Alaskan arts. He grew up in Nome where an uncle first taught him to carve, then attended the University of Alaska in Fairbanks. Senungetuk also wrote an autobiographical and historical book, Give or Take a Century: An Eskimo Chronicle, the first book published by his publishing house. He spent many years in San Francisco where he concentrated on printmaking. Returning to Alaska he wrote a regular column for an Anchorage newspaper and also worked on sculpting. Susie Bevins (1941-) is an Inupiat carver and mask maker. Born in remote Prudhoe Bay to an English trader and his Norwegian-Eskimo wife, Bevins moved to Barrow as an infant after her father died. At age 11 her family once again moved, this time to Anchorage. She studied art in Atlanta, Georgia, and Italy, and she is one of the best known Inuit artists of the day. Her masks often speak of the split personality of Natives growing up in two cultures. Larry Ahvakana (1946-) is an Inupiat sculptor and mixed media artist who trained at the Institute of American Indian Art in Santa Fe and at the Cooper Union School of Arts in New York. Ahvakana uses modern sculptural techniques blended with his Native heritage to create lasting pieces in stone and wood. His interpretations of Alaskan myth often appear in his art.


Howard Rock (1911-1976) was born in Point Hope, where in the 1960s he joined Inupiat Paitot to stop the government from using the locale as a nuclear test site. Rock became the editor of a newsletter formed to educate other Inuit about the dangers. In 1962 this newsletter became the Tundra Times, with Rock serving as its editor until his death in 1976. In 1965, he helped organize the first Alaska Federated Natives meeting in Anchorage. Rock, who began life as a jewelry maker, was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize the year before he died.


William L. Hensley (1941-), also known as Iggiagruk or "Big Hill," is an Inuit leader, co-founder of the Alaskan Federation of Natives, and state senator. Born in Kotzebue to a family of hunters and fishermen, Hensley left home for his education, attending a boarding school in Tennessee. He earned a bachelor's degree from George Washington University in Washington, D.C., where he first became politicized about the conditions of his people in Alaska. Returning to Alaska, he studied constitutional law at the University of Alaska. In 1966, Hensley became one of the founders of the AFN, which was instrumental in lobbying Washington for Native claims. Since that time he has played an active role in Alaskan politics and has been an untiring spokesperson for the rights of the Inuit. He founded the Northwest Alaska Native Association and was instrumental in the development of the Red Dog Lead and Zinc Mine in northwest Alaska, the second largest zinc mine in the world. Both a state senator and a representative, Hensley was honored with the National Public Service Award from the Rockefeller Foundation in 1980, the Governor's Award for Alaskan of the Year, 1981, and an Honorary Doctorate of Laws from the University of Alaska in Anchorage, 1981.



The Arctic Sounder.

Community newspaper serving Kotzebue, Barrow, and Nome.

Contact: John Woodbury, Editor,.

Address: 336 East Fifh Avenue, Anchorage, Alaska 99501.

Telephone: (800) 770-9830.

E-mail: [email protected]

Tundra Times.

Bi-weekly newspaper, founded in 1962, devoted to the issues of Native Alaskans.

Contact: Jeff Richardson, Editor.

Address : P.O. Box 92247, Anchorage, Alaska 99509-2247.

Telephone: (800) 764-2512.

E-mail: [email protected]


KBRW-AM (680) and KBRW-FM (91.9).

Contact: Steve Hamlin, Program Director.

Address: 1695 Okpik Street, P.O. Box 109, Barrow, Alaska 99723.

Telephone: (907) 852-6811.

E-mail: [email protected]

KOTZ-AM (720).

Contact: Pierre Lonewolf, Program Director.

Address: P.O. Box 78, Kotzebue, Alaska, 99752.

Telephone: (907) 442-3434.

E-mail: [email protected]

Organizations and Associations

Alaska Federation of Natives (AFN).

Serves as an advocate for Alaskan Inuit, Native Americans, and Aleut at the state and federal level. Founded in 1966. Publishes the AFN Newsletter.

Address: 411 West Fourth Avenue, Suite 301, Anchorage, Alaska 99501.

Telephone: (907) 274-3611.

Mauneluk Association.

Contact: Marie Green, President.

Address: P.O. Box 256, Kotzebue, Alaska 99752.

Telephone: (907) 442-3311.

Museums and Research Centers

Alaska State Museum.

Address: 395 Whittier Street, Juneau, Alaska 99801-1718.

Telephone: (907) 465-2976.

Fax: (907) 465-2976.

Anchorage Museum of History and Art.

Address: 121 West Seventh Avenue, Anchorage, Alaska 99501.

Telephone: (907) 343-4326.

Institute of Alaska Native Art, Inc.

Address: P.O. Box 70769, Fairbanks, Alaska 99707.

Telephone: (907) 456-7406.

Fax: (907) 451-7268.

Kotzebue Museum, Inc.

Collection contains Inuit artifacts, arts and crafts.

Address: P.O. Box 46, Kotzebue, Alaska 99752.

Telephone: (907) 442-3401.

Fax: (907) 442-3742.

Simon Paneak Memorial Museum.

Contains a collection of Nuunamiut Inuit history and traditions.

Address: P.O. Box 21085, Anaktuvuk Pass, Alaska 99721.

Telephone: (907) 661-3413.

Fax: (907) 661-3429.

Sources for Additional Study

Burch, Ernest S., Jr. The Inupiaq Eskimo Nations of Northwest Alaska. Fairbanks: University of Alaska Press, 1998.

Chance, Norman A. The Eskimo of North Alaska. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1966.

. The Inupiat and Arctic Alaska. Forth Worth, TX: Harcourt Brace, 1990.

Craig, Rachel. "Inupiat." Native American in the Twentieth Century: An Encyclopedia, edited Mary B. Davis. New York: Garland Publishing, 1994.

Handbook of North American Indians, Vol. 5, edited by David Damas. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution, 1984.

Langdon, Steve. The Native People of Alaska. 3rd ed., revised. Anchorage: Greenland Graphics, 1993.

Maas, David. "Alaska Natives," in Native North American Almanac, edited by Duane Champagne. Detroit: Gale Research, 1994. pp. 293-301.

Vanstone, James W. Point Hope: An Eskimo Village in Transition. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1962.

views updated



Inuit (pronounced IN-yoo-it ) is the tribe’s name for themselves and means “the people.” The Inuit are sometimes called Eskimo, which may mean “eaters of raw meat” in the Algonquian language, although linguists (people who study languages) now say the name most likely comes from an Ojibway word meaning “to net snowshoes.” The people prefer to be called Inuit.


The Inuit inhabit the area around the Arctic Circle, including Greenland, northern Canada, Alaska, and the Chukokta region of Russia.


There were approximately 127,000 Inuit in the mid-1990s, including 44,000 in Alaska, 32,000 in Canada, 49,000 in Greenland, and 2,000 in Russia. In 2000 there were 45,919 Inuit in the United States. Canada’s 2001 Census indicated an Inuit population of 29,005. An estimate in 2005 placed Greenland’s Inuit population at 50,100 and Russia’s at less than 1,000.

Language family

Eskimoan or Eskimaleut.

Origins and group affiliations

Scientists think the Inuit migrated from Asia on foot and by dogsled as long as ten thousand years ago,by crossing the Bering Land Bridge that once connected Siberia to Alaska. From there some groups continued eastward through northern Canada and into Greenland. In the early twenty-first century the Inuit inhabit a 5,000-mile (8,047-kilometer) stretch of territory around the Arctic Circle.

The Inuit are divided into three major groups: the Alaskan Inuit, including those living in Chukotka, Russia; the Central Inuit, which encompasses the groups in northern Canada, including Labrador and Baffin Island; and the Greenland Inuit.

The Inuit are a people of great ingenuity and endurance who, over thousands of years, survived and thrived in the harsh and icy environment of the Arctic. To maintain their rights, they have become active in the economics and politics of their countries and are working to preserve the best of their old ways while adopting the best of the new.


Inuit migration theory

The Inuit were probably among the last of the Native groups to migrate to North America by crossing a land bridge across the Bering Straits between Siberia and Alaska, according to many scientists. Scholars disagree as to when the crossings occurred. The earliest evidence of Inuit civilization remains hidden because much of the land they would have crossed in Alaska and northern Canada now lies underwater. The Aleut, who now occupy the border islands of western Alaska, probably split off from the Inuit first, while other bands of Inuit wandered eastward into Greenland.

Despite being spread over 5,000 miles (8,047 kilometers), all Inuit speak varieties of the same language, which supports this theory. They also have similar customs, body types, and skin color.

Some anthropologists (people who study the cultures of different civilizations) think the Inuit first lived in eastern Alaska, long before western Alaska and the Canadian Arctic were inhabited. By 4000 bce the Inuit reached the coast of Alaska; some even ventured into the interior. By 1200 bce the Arctic was inhabited from the west coast of Alaska to the eastern part of northern Canada. Permanent coastal settlements existed in Alaska around 1600 bce , and by 600 ce the settlements had grown larger and more stable. From 600 to about 1800 the Inuit lived in coastal and inland villages and developed more sophisticated tools and more complex ways of life. Contact with whites in about 1800 brought tremendous changes to the lives of the Native people.

Important Dates

984: The Vikings under Eric the Red first encounter the Inuit of Greenland.

1576: British explorer Martin Frobisher first comes into contact with the central Inuit of northern Canada.

1741: Russian explorer Vitus Bering is the first European to reach the Inuit of Alaska.

1867: The United States purchases the Alaska Territory from Russia.

1971: Through the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA) the Inuit and other Alaska Natives receive $962 million and 44 million acres in exchange for giving up claims to another 335 million acres.

1999: The Canadian government transfers control of a newly formed province, Nunavut, to the Inuit. At 818,962 square miles (2,121,101 square kilometers), Nunavut covers one-fifth of the total landmass of Canada.

First European-Inuit encounters

Because of their remote locations, few Inuit had early contact with Europeans. The Inuit of Greenland were the first to encounter white men when the Vikings, under Eric the Red (950–c. 1003), traveled there in the year 984. Six centuries passed before British explorer Martin Frobisher (c. 1535–1594) encountered the Inuit of Greenland and northern Canada during his unsuccessful searches for the Northwest Passage. (The Northwest Passage is a water route through the islands north of Canada which connects the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.)

In 1741 the Russian explorer Vitus Bering (1681–1741), for whom the Bering Strait was named, was the first European to meet the Inuit of Alaska. Russian emperor Peter the Great (1728–1762) sent Bering to Alaska to establish settlements. Soon Russian fur traders arrived in the area.

Samuel Hearne of the Hudson’s Bay Company, a wealthy British trading firm, reached the Inuit of northern Canada by land in the late 1700s. But Canadian Inuit did not have major dealings with whites until the arrival of nineteenth-century whaling fleets and the later development of the fur trade there.

Inuit lifestyle changes

From the seventeenth to the early nineteenth century hundreds of Scottish, British, and American whalers came to the Arctic. The Inuit supplied them with oil, blubber, whalebone, and furs. In return the Inuit received tea, tobacco, flour, crackers, matches, lead, molasses, brandy, rifles, and ammunition. In the early 1800s, some Inuit replaced Native tools with European goods and traded for metal knives, kettles, lamps, guns, cloth, and alcohol.

In the 1800s whalers from New England sailed to the Arctic and spent the winters living ashore. In the spring they returned to their ships, and the Inuit took their places in the winter dwellings. The Natives and whites hunted together, and in time their cultures blended. Many white men took Inuit wives, and their children were raised as Inuit.

Also during the 1800s, Russian fur hunters and traders moved into western Alaska. Soon the Russian-American Company controlled the fur trade in Alaska and the Aleutian Islands. About that same time, on the peninsula of Labrador in northeast Canada, German missionaries established missions to convert the Inuit to Christianity. Germans traded for Inuit furs, introduced seal nets to Native hunters, and encouraged them to produce baskets, carvings, and other crafts. The Inuit generally had friendly relations with white traders, for whom they served as guides and interpreters.

New technology and diseases

In the mid-1800s large-scale trading, fishing, and whaling industries ended on the coast of Alaska. By 1850 seal, salmon, bear, and walrus were scarce, and by 1860 whales were no longer plentiful either. White hunters moved farther north and west in search of wildlife. The Inuit by then were dependent on the white-produced goods for which they traded their furs.

After the United States purchased the Alaska Territory from Russia in 1867 there was much greater contact between Alaskan Inuit and the Americans, who established fur-trapping, gold-mining, and commercial whaling operations in Inuit territory. But despite the ever-growing number of white explorers and settlers, several Inuit bands managed to avoid all contact with non-Native peoples into the early 1900s.

The whites brought diseases for which the Natives had no immunity. Epidemics of smallpox, influenza, measles, and scarlet fever killed great numbers of Native people in the Arctic. Prior to white contact the Inuit population was estimated at approximately sixty thousand. Disease had cut their numbers in half by 1900.

Inuit-white relations in Canada

After the decline of whaling in the late 1800s three main groups managed the central and northern Arctic: traders, missionaries, and the Canadian police. They looked for new occupations for the Inuit to replace the old ones.

In the 1920, the Canadian government-run Hudson’s Bay Company, which controlled all the trading posts in the region, imported reindeer from Norway. They tried to turn the Inuit into herders, but failed to train them properly. Moving Inuit to new hunting and trapping grounds did not succeed either because the people were heartsick at being separated from their relatives.

Next Anglican and Roman Catholic missionaries established schools for the Inuit and supervised education and healthcare in the Arctic until 1945 when the Canadian government took over. In the 1900s the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, or “Mounties,” kept peace among the whites and the Inuit in Canada’s western provinces. This proved difficult for the Inuit, who were used to policing themselves.

During World War II (1939–45; a war in which Great Britain, France, the United States, and their allies defeated Germany, Italy, and Japan), airfields, weather stations, and a radar lines were built across Canada’s North. Soon mining exploration and development increased. Later, discoveries of large oil and gas reserves brought thousands of people from the south into the Inuit lands.

In recent decades the Canadian government began to provide education, healthcare, and other social services to the Inuit. As a result the government presence grew, and the Inuit moved to a smaller number of large, more permanent communities.

Alaskan land claim disputes

For years, Inuit struggled with land-claims issues, but major ones were not settled until the late twentieth century. In 1971 the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA) gave Alaska Natives $962.5 million and 44 million acres, and they ceded their claims to another 335 million acres. The agreement allowed the government to build the Alaskan Pipeline from north to south through Alaska to transport oil.

From ANCSA the Inuit and other Native groups received legal ownership of 12 percent of the total lands of Alaska and much-needed money for economic growth. They developed local corporations to manage their land and money and invested in businesses such as oil fields, mining operations, hotels, and shipping companies. In 1980 ANCSA was amended to restore Native hunting and fishing rights.

Major land claims of Inuit and other Canadian Natives were finally successful in 1982 when legislation passed calling for the formation of a new territory called Nunavut in the Northwest Territories.

The Inuit in modern times

By the end of the twentieth century the Inuit population had recovered to earlier peak levels. But traditional ways are increasingly being exchanged for those of modern life. Many Inuit have adopted aspects of white culture, including guns, knives, clothes made of modern fabrics, sewing machines, boats with motors, snowmobiles rather than dog sleds, and wooden houses, which have made their traditional ways seem obsolete. The environmental impact of oil-drilling, mining, commercial fishing and whaling, and military activities in the Arctic regions has greatly decreased the numbers of sea mammals and land animals available to Inuit hunters. And anti-sealing, anti-trapping, and anti-whaling movements have lessened the value of these Inuit industries.

In recent years some Inuit bands have settled in one place to grow crops or herd reindeer and cattle. In Alaska the Inuit people are moving into urban areas. In 1960, 12 percent of Inuit people lived in cities, but by 1990 the number had grown to 44 percent.

On April 1, 1999, the Canadian government divided the Northwest Territory and turned part of it over to the Natives. This territory, called Nunavut (meaning “our land”), is an area about the size of France. Nunavut citizens live by Canadian laws, but they can govern the territory the way other Canadian provinces do. About 85 percent of Nunavut inhabitants are Inuit, so they are the major political power in law-making. The largest community in Nunavut, Iqaluit, is the capital.


The Inuit believe that all aspects of nature—including animals and weather—had spirits. Among their gods were Sedna, who lived at the bottom of the ocean and controlled the year’s supply of sea mammals, and the guardian of the caribou who controlled caribou numbers during their migration across the Arctic.

Human beings had two types of souls: the “breath of life” was what disappeared when a person died; the “soul” separated from the body but existed after death. In the afterworld most souls went into the Earth, while those of women who died giving birth or people who perished violently or by suicide went to the sky.

The Inuit also believed evil spirits sometimes disrupted people’s lives. They tried to eliminate the influence of evil spirits. Individuals who suffered from bad fortune wandered away from the tribe and spent several days alone. They contacted spirits of their dead ancestors to reverse their situation.

Religious rituals were performed to ensure good weather or success in hunting. Sometimes carved decorative objects of wood, bone, or ivory, with attached feathers or fur, were used to summon the attention of the spirits. During ceremonial dances Inuit men often wore masks on their faces, while women wore tiny masks on their fingers, fashioned to resemble animals or other spirits in nature.

By the late 1900s many Inuit were Christians, but most retained some of their original beliefs. For example, the Inuit believe that bragging during good times invites bad luck, so they complain about their good fortune.


The language of the Inuit is Inuktitut. Despite being scattered over great distances, all Inuit bands speak closely related dialects (varieties) of the Eskimoan or Eskimaleut language family. Only two different linguistic groups are found among the Inuit: the Pacific or Alaskan group, which includes the Yup’ik of Siberia (see entry); and the Canadian or Northern group, which includes the Inuit of Greenland.

Since 1900 Inuit contact with whites resulted in a mixed language of three hundred to six hundred words, based on Inuktitut as well as English and other languages. This mixed language is sometimes mistaken for the actual Inuit language.

Inuit languages use body signals, such as squinting. They also are extremely rich in specific words. For example, some bands have more than fifty words that mean snow. Each indicates a different type of snow, a distinction vital to survival in the frigid North.

Inuit Words

Many Inuit words have gained wide usage in English, including kayak, parka, igloo, husky, and malamute, the name of a dog breed. The common Inuit expression Ajurnamat, which means “It cannot be helped,” demonstrates the calm and stoic approach to life that is typical of the Inuit. Here are some other Inuktitut words:

  • angun … “man”
  • arnaq … “woman”
  • atausiq … “one”
  • imiq … “water”
  • malruk … “two”
  • pingasut … “three”
  • sisamat … “four”
  • siqiniq … “sun”
  • taqqiq … “moon”


The Inuit spent so much time hunting and protecting themselves from the harsh environment that they had little time for social or political organization. They did not have chiefs; unofficial leaders, usually the strongest hunters, were consulted on matters that involved the whole tribe. Other than that, each person took charge of himself.

The cooperative spirit of the Inuit caused problems when they dealt with Europeans. Dishonest traders often took advantage of them. Additionally, they had for centuries preferred not to have a central government, so other nations had difficulty forming political relationships with them.

In modern times the Inuit are very involved in political activities at the local, national, and international levels. International organizations allow Inuit of different countries to work together on matters of economic, social, and cultural importance. They are also taking greater part in the policy-making of the governments under which they live. Inuit villages in Alaska are governed by various elective systems. In Canada elected councils govern most Inuit communities. Inuit members now sit in both houses of Canada’s governmental body, the parliament.


In early times the Inuit did not use money, and people had few possessions. Families had dogs, a dwelling, and a few hand-made items that may have included tools, sleds, weapons, or kayaks, and an occasional piece of craftwork, such as a whalebone carving.

The basic materials needed for survival were freely shared among members of the community, and the land belonged to all. Fishing and hunting could be undependable, but no one went without food. Successful hunters regarded it an honor to share the fish they caught with others. Sod homes, abandoned by one group as they moved elsewhere in pursuit of game, were available for others who came along later.

No part of the animals caught by the Inuit went to waste. They made tools from bones and teeth; melted fat into oil to burn for light, heat, and cooking; and fashioned clothing, coverings for boats, and tents from the skin. Because few trees grow in the Arctic, the Inuit relied on stones, driftwood, bones, and antlers to make tools. Sometimes they traveled hundreds of miles to find the right type of stones for making knives. This way of life went on century after century.

In the early twenty-first century the economic base has expanded. Artistic products by the Inuit, such as carvings and paintings, are in demand on the world art market and provide a steady source of income. The growth of Inuit communities has provided the people with jobs in community services, industry, and government.

Daily life

Adapting to an extreme environment

For thousands of years the lives of the Inuit were regulated by the seasons. Between October and February the Sun never rises, and the temperature can reach -80 degrees Fahrenheit (-62 degrees Celsius). Average winter temperatures hover around -29 degrees Fahrenheit (-34 degrees Celsius). The short, wide bodies of the Inuit conserve heat. They also have many more blood vessels in their hands and feet than other people, allowing them to stay warm enough even in very cold weather.

Because the Arctic region has few edible plants, the Inuit learned to live almost entirely by hunting and fishing. To kill enough game to feed and clothe their families, Inuit men spent most of their time hunting.

The hunting cycle

In winter about a dozen families lived together in small communities. Each day hunters crawled over the ice to net or harpoon seals. Sometimes they waited patiently by holes in the ice for hours until seals came up for air. A hunter could easily fall asleep, so he had to concentrate to stay awake.

The Inuit used teams of trained dogs to hunt polar bears, cornering the bears, then killing them with spears. Hunting took place at night and was extremely dangerous because spears had to be thrown from close range.

In spring the communities broke up. Some families went off in kayaks (skin-covered one-person boats) to hunt seals. Sometimes Inuit captured seals using rawhide nets. Walrus and sea lion were available in the summertime, but unlike seals they migrated south in winter. Occasionally the Inuit hunted whales. They used boats to herd them close to shore, then struck them with harpoons attached to floats. When the whale was exhausted from dragging a float, hunters hauled it ashore with their boats.

The main summer activity was pursuing caribou as the herd made its way back north. Hunters crept up on the caribou or hid in a pit until the animals approached, then killed them using spears or bows and arrows. Sometimes they drove the caribou into the water to capture them.

Depending on their geographic region, Inuit bands hunted a wide range of other game including musk oxen, mountain sheep, wolves, wolverines, foxes, hares, marmots, squirrels, and birds. They hunted animals from blinds (concealed places), caught them in traps, or entangled them in weighted nets called bolas. As colder weather approached, families and communities rejoined each other.


Men hunted and built homes, while women prepared food, worked on skins, and made clothing. Women were not permitted to hunt; in fact, it was considered bad luck for a woman to touch a harpoon or a bow.

To survive in the Arctic, the Inuit developed a cooperative culture, and the extended family (parents, children, grandparents, and other relatives) was the most important unit in society. Often two or more related families lived together in one house, working, traveling, and eating together. The oldest man was usually in charge of a household, but he had to display hunting skills and be generous and reasonable.

People depended on their relatives for help with everyday tasks, especially in times of trouble. Those unable to feed themselves were “adopted” by families.


Igloos and other early structures

The Native term igloo refers to any type of dwelling, but will be used here to mean an ice house. Not all Inuit lived in igloos, though they were highly practical in the Arctic environment. Igloos were common among some bands in northern Canada, where snow was plentiful. The circular, dome-shaped structures were made of blocks of hard-packed snow cut with long knives of bone, metal, or ivory. The inside walls were melted with the heat of a blubber lamp, then quickly refrozen to make a solid, windproof barrier. The outside walls were covered with a layer of soft snow for insulation.

Most igloos had a hole at the top to let smoke and air escape. Some had a clear block of ice for a window, and some had skylights. To enter an igloo, a person crawled through a long, low tunnel. Inside, people slept on a low platform of snow covered with twigs and caribou furs. Sometimes several igloos were linked together to provide separate living, sleeping, and storage facilities. A simple igloo could be built in about one hour.

The Inuit of Alaska and Greenland more commonly lived in karmats, cabins made of stones or logs and covered with sod. These rectangular houses were usually low to the ground and set over shallow pits. As with igloos, a long entrance tunnel kept out cold air. Windows were sometimes fashioned by stretching transparent animal intestines over small openings. Inside the karmat people burned animal fat in shallow, saucer-shaped soapstone lamps over which fish and meat could be cooked. In warmer weather, when they traveled frequently in pursuit of game, many groups made tents of driftwood or whalebones covered with sealskin or caribou hides.

Modern housing

Government officials complained that traditional Inuit sod houses were damp, smelly, and unsanitary, so they supplied prefabricated (already put together) houses; the homes are shipped on barges during warmer months. Most Inuit live in these wood houses set on stilts or gravel pads to insulate them from the permanently frozen earth beneath. Although they arrive painted, the paint soon wears away and is seldom reapplied. Most houses have front doors that open out, a problem when winter snow piles up. The freezing and thawing cycles cause the houses to warp, so many have leaky windows and are often drafty.

Inside, one large room is divided into separate eating and sleeping areas. Few communities have indoor plumbing, so a five-gallon bucket often serves as the toilet, and bathtubs are used for storing dirty clothes. Most families use the front porch for freezers or other infrequently used appliances. Despite these problems, many people appreciate the houses because they provide more space than traditional dwellings.


The Inuit built kayaks and umiaks —large, deep boats rowed with conventional oars. Women often rowed the umiaks. Men built them of wooden or whalebone frames covered with sealskin.

They also built sleds, called komatiks, by tying a platform onto wooden or bone runners. They rubbed the surface of the runners with mud, then brushed them with water that froze to a smooth, slippery finish. A team of sturdy northern dogs called huskies usually drew the sleds.

In modern times the Inuit travel by four-wheel drive vehicles, airplanes, motor boats, and snowmobiles, although dog sleds and kayaks remain important vehicles.

Clothing and adornment

Inuit clothing had to allow a person to sleep out in the open in temperatures reaching -60 degrees Fahrenheit (-51 degrees Celsius). In very cold weather people wore two of each garment with the fur side facing the body.

Basic apparel for men and women consisted of a hooded parka, pants, stockings, boots, and mittens. Mittens were made of waterproof sealskin for the summer or warm, lightweight caribou skin for the winter. The Inuit also made clothing from hides of polar bears, wolves, foxes, dogs, marmots, squirrels, and birds.

Parkas fit snugly around the wrists, neck, and waist to keep cold air out. Women’s parkas sometimes featured large, fur-lined hoods for carrying babies. Inuits crafted boots, or mukluks, from four layers of sealskin; moss and down were placed between the layers for insulation. Women’s boots came all the way up the leg, while men’s boots were usually shorter. Snow goggles with narrow eyeholes cut down the glare of the bright snow.

Special occasions called for clothing decorated with fur borders or embroidered designs. Some Inuit wore earrings, nose rings, or lip plugs made of ivory, shell, sandstone, or wood.

The importance of dry clothing

Inuit women made and maintained all the clothing. As young girls they learned to sew waterproof seams with thread made of tendons. When men returned from hunting they used bone or wood scrapers, kept in the tunnel entrances of their homes, to remove ice crystals from their clothing. Then the women chewed the frosty fabric to make it soft again and hung it on a rack over a blubber lamp to dry. This was important because wet clothes froze quickly in the frigid weather. Indoors it was usually warm enough to go naked.

Some women made waterproof garments to pull over outerwear. Because seal, whale, and sea lion intestines are impervious to water (do not let liquid through), women washed and scraped these guts, then filled them with air, and let them dry. Afterwards they sewed the strips together to make kamleikas. Some kamleikas were decorated with puffin beaks and feathers. The process could take a month, but when the parka was finished, it was water-repellent. People often sewed the bottom edges of their jackets to their kayaks to stay warm and dry on the water.


The major food source for the most northern Inuit were seals and walruses along with a few land animals. Most people also ate salmon, trout, and smelt. In summer, they built dams to trap salmon that swam upstream from the sea. Men waded waist-deep into the water to spear them with three-pronged harpoons.

The Inuit who lived below the Arctic Circle had wider food choices than their neighbors farther north. They hunted birds, fished in rivers, collected clams, and ate berries and other edible plants. Cranberries, blueberries, and young willow root were especially prized.

The people believed that if they offended the spirits of animals, they could bring on sickness or famine. For this reason there were complicated rules about food preparation. Products of the sea and products of the land were kept separate. They also had strict rules about how meat was distributed. For example, women ate the head, eyes, front legs, and heart, while men got the backbones. The hunter who captured the prey received the ribs, breastbone, and attached meat, while everyone else shared the rest.

Most meat was eaten raw, and only the toughest parts were boiled. The Inuit hunted caribou and polar bear primarily for their fur, rather than for meat, although caribou antler tips made a crunchy snack. In times when food was scarce, the Inuit ate their clothing, sleds, or even their dogs. But during periods of plenty, they enjoyed big feasts.

The Inuit Diet

The question is often asked: Can a diet such as the one consumed by the Inuit, 40 to 70 percent based on meat, be healthy? At one time the Canadian government encouraged the Inuit to consume mostly powdered milk, cereals, and grains, but the food made many of them sick, and they returned to eating frozen meat known as quaq. Most raw meat is eaten soon after it is killed, when it tastes best. Quaq is easy to eat because ice crystals in the blood and meat help in the chewing process.

By eating animals raw, the Inuit absorbed vast quantities of vitamins and minerals stored up in the animal tissues, and the vitamins counteracted the onset of heart disease. For example, the skin of the white whale was rich in vitamin C; raw liver, another staple item, had plenty of vitamin A and D. Recent studies indicate that fat from wild animals is easily converted into energy and provides a rush of rapid body heat, important for people in frigid climates.

The Inuit who eat the traditional diet have low rates of diet-linked diseases such as heart disease. In the early twenty-first century the real threat in the traditional Inuit diet is concentrated pollutants showing up in foods such as the whale and the seal. Inuit who move to the south often have problems adjusting to common American ways of eating.


Inuit children learned the importance of friendliness and cooperation, most often by being treated that way by their parents and extended families. Children received much attention and affection. They learned by the example and encouragement from playful parents, rather than by being punished.

At about age eight, boys received their first training as hunters. They learned to build an igloo, track game, and make weapons. A feast was held after a boy captured his first seal or caribou. Girls were taught to trap animals, care for stone lamps, and make and repair clothing. Handling dogs, driving a sled, estimating the thickness of ice, tracking animals, and assessing the environment and weather were skills taught to both sexes.

In the 1940s and 1950s Christian missionaries started the first Inuit schools to teach reading and mathematics. They tried to teach the Native people to assimilate—live according to white ways. Lessons taught in English forced students to learn the language. At school Inuit children were forbidden to use their own language, a rule they found very frustrating.

Schools were mainly located in larger communities in Alaska and Canada because there were relatively few missionaries. Parents in remote locations were encouraged to send their children to these faraway boarding schools. Many did, and the separation proved painful for both children, who missed their families, and parents, who worried that their sons and daughters would forget their Native way of life.

In modern times Inuit children are required to attend elementary school; most must leave their home communities to attend high schools or trade schools. Schools in Canada conduct many classes for elementary-school children in their native language. Adult education centers help older people qualify for jobs in industry and government.

Healing practices

When an Inuit became ill a healer called a shaman (pronounced SHAH-mun or SHAY-mun ) or an angakok might be called in to help. A shaman often put himself into a trance to study the problem and develop a solution. The shaman contacted the spirits by singing, dancing, and beating on drums. When the spirits entered the shaman’s body he rolled around on the floor or spoke a strange language. The patient took comfort in having the shaman intercede with the spirits on his or her behalf.

The Inuit now have access to medical personnel who visit their communities. Those who live in remote places are flown to bigger cities with hospitals.


The ancient Inuit made ivory carvings of people, bears, birds, seals, whales, walruses, and caribou. They also made masks for dancing that depicted various human expressions. Later they expanded their materials to include antlers, bone, stone, and wood.

Modern Inuit artists continue the tradition by carving animal and human figures of soapstone and ivory. They also create paintings as well as embroidered clothing and tapestries that are sold throughout the world. All of these items are displayed at the annual Great Northern Art Festival in Canada. The event also features music, dance, storytelling, and fashion shows.

Oral literature

Storytelling was a favorite form of entertainment during harsh winters. The Inuit preserved their culture by passing down stories, songs, and poems from one generation to the next. Often the songs and stories told of nature and the spirit world. They explained how the world worked and taught values. Sometimes the storyteller would illustrate a tale by using a knife to draw pictures in the snow. Scholars point out that the stories often illustrated the tension between opposite ideas—such as male/female, land/sea, winter/summer, or dark/light.

The Kivigtok

The kivigtok was a person who has completely abandoned Inuit society and gone off alone to live in inland Greenland. The kivigtok were considered particularly wise and gifted to be able to have the ingenuity necessary to survive, for inland Greenland was nearly an impossible place for humans to live. Stories about the kivigtok like one presented here are popular among the Inuit.

There was once a man who had several sons; of these, the second son turned kivigtok (viz., fled the society of mankind). This happened in the winter-time; but next summer the father, as well as his other sons, went away from home in order to search for the fugitive. In this manner summer went by and winter came round, but still they had not found him. When summer was again approaching, they made all preparations for another search, this time to other places, along another firth. Late in autumn they at length chanced to find out his solitary abode, in an out-of-the-way place, after having traversed the country in every direction for ever so long. His habitation was a cave or hollow in a rock, the inside being covered with reindeer-skin, and the entrance of which had been carefully closed up. At the time of their arrival the kivigtok was still out hunting; but a little later they saw him advance towards the place from the inland, dragging a whole deer along with him. The brothers were lying in ambush for him; and when he came close to them they seized hold of him. He recognised them at once, and gave a loud cry like that of a reindeer, and said, “Do let me off; I shan’t flee.” The father now asked him to return with them, adding, “This is the second summer in which we have given up our hunt in order to find thee out, and, now we have succeeded, thou really must come home with us;” and he answered, “Yes, that I will.” They remained in the cave during the night, enjoying each other’s company. Next day they had much to do with the things that had to be taken back with them, the store-room, besides his dwelling-place, being filled with dry meat and skins. They tied up bundles to be taken down one by one to the tent of his relatives, which was pitched at some distance near the firth by which they were to travel home. When they were about to set off with the first loads, they wanted him to follow them; he excused himself, however, saying, “When ye go down the last time I shall follow; but I must stay and take care of these things.” They went without him; but on their return the kivigtok had disappeared, and taken the remainder of the provisions with him, and the brothers grew exceedingly vexed with themselves, that they had thus relied on his word, without leaving any one in charge of him. But all too late. Some time afterwards, when they had gone out again to look for him, he terrified them by yelling and howling at them from the summit of a steep and altogether inaccessible rock. How he had got there they could not make out, but finding it impossible to follow him, they were obliged to give him up for lost.

Rink, Henry. Tales and Traditions of the Eskimo. 1875. Available online at (accessed on September 12, 2007).


Regular singing is done by everyone and is usually accompanied by hand drums and dancing, but throat-singing is done by two singers, often women, facing each other. One of the pair starts the rhythm, the other singer follows. Singers make rhythm sounds in their throats—deep, breathy sounds—while they are singing; so they are making two sounds at one time.

Sometimes throat-singing is a contest; the person who runs out of breath first or who cannot keep up with the other’s pace loses. These contests can last from one to three minutes each, though some singers can go on for hours by using a circular breathing technique.

The Catholic church banned throat-singing, so for a long time it was only practiced in secret. The tradition has been making a comeback over the past few decades, as much with young Inuit as with their elders.



The Inuit were superstitious about names. After a person’s death it was bad luck to mention his name aloud until a baby received the same name and brought the spirit back to life. The baby inherited all the good qualities of the deceased person. People never said their own names aloud; instead, they announced their presence by saying, “Someone is here.”

Feasting customs

Since the Inuit moved often and might not see their relatives for months on end, they took advantage of all opportunities to visit and feast. Most feasts were held in fall, when food was plentiful and winter supplies were already stored. People gathered at a family home or at a big snow house to dance to the music of drums, dine, tell stories, and practice religious rites.

When a successful hunter hosted a feast he invited his guests to the meat rack outside to help him fetch the main course. All the while he apologized for the sorry quality of his offering, even if he was secretly proud of it. As they helped him haul the meat into the house visitors complained loudly about how heavy it was, while complimenting their host on his great skills as a hunter. At the end of the feast the well-fed guests fell asleep. When they woke it was time to dine once again.

Games and celebrations

The Inuit held two annual ceremonies to thank the natural world that supported them. The Bladder Dance freed spirits of sea mammals killed during the year’s hunt. Because they believed animals’ spirits resided in their bladders, they saved them and inflated them with air. After several days of dancing and rituals, they returned the bladders to the sea. Another annual ceremony took place in the spring, when the Sun rose again over the Arctic after several months of darkness. The Inuit welcomed the Sun with special dances; to symbolize the creation of the world, they dressed in costumes that represented both sexes.

In the early twenty-first century Arctic villages hold special celebrations at the beginning or end of summer as well as to welcome the New Year. They share food and compete in dogsled races, wrestling, a form of baseball, and the “twokick” game, where a player jumps up and kicks an object as far as possible, using both feet at the same time, then lands on the floor on both feet.

The Inuit were fond of games, including one resembling soccer that was played without goals. Two teams kicked a caribou-skin ball around in the snow to see which team could keep possession of the ball longer. Children also enjoyed jumping trampoline-style on stretched-out walrus skins in a game called “skin toss.”

In modern times basketball has become a central part of Inuit culture. High school basketball occupies the young people during the long, dark winters, and team rivalries instill pride in communities. Because villages may be hundreds of miles apart, young basketball players travel to their games by plane and ferryboat.

War and hunting rituals

Before departing Inuit hunters performed special ceremonies, spoke prayers, and sang songs to guarantee a successful catch. Through prayers and offerings of fish, the Inuit sought the help of the Sea Mother, who lived in land and sea animals, and the Raven Father, who was associated with storms, thunder, and lightening. Hunters had faith in charms fashioned in the shape of ravens. When a hunter caught a polar bear he ate a small portion of the meat, not only for survival, but also to show reverence for the beast.

Courtship and marriage

Inuit men married when they could support a family. Women married shortly after their first menstruation. Courtship customs varied. Sometimes children were pledged to one another from birth. Other times a man asked another for permission to marry his daughter. Occasionally a man would simply take a woman from her house and ask her to live with him. Successful hunters often had more than one wife, and women sometimes had more than one husband. Wife exchange was common. People were so dependent on one another that no one remained unmarried.

A hunter setting off on a large trip might “borrow” the wife of another, if his wife was unable to go. Partnerships among hunters were sometimes strengthened in this way. Men were expected to be prepared to “lend” their wives, but women were not asked about their feelings in the matter.

In the Inuit culture newly married couples usually lived with the husband’s parents for a while. During that time the man worked hard to show that he would be a good provider. Among the Inuit plumpness was a sign of beauty and plenty, and men preferred plump wives.


It was common for an old person who could no longer contribute to the community to stay behind when the family moved, thereby sealing his or her own fate. The souls of the dead were thought to join the world of the spirits, and could become hostile to their surviving relatives or others.

Current tribal issues

On April 1, 1999, Nunavut became a new Canadian province, governed by the Inuit. Nunavut, meaning “Our Land,” is made up of land from eastern and northern sections of the Northwest Territories. The Inuit also received a financial settlement of $1.14 billion along with 818,962 square miles (2,121,102 square kilometers) of land, one-fifth the landmass of Canada. In exchange the Inuit gave up claims to other lands in Canada.

In modern times the Inuit struggle with economic and health concerns, including high rates of alcohol and substance abuse and suicide. Animal rights activists oppose Inuit hunting and fishing practices; pollutants affect their food sources; and global warming could destroy the Arctic region.

Notable people

Kenojuak (1927–) is one of the best-known Inuit artists in Canada. Her stone-block prints of birds and human beings involve intertwined figures and fantasies. They are strong, colorful, richly composed, and were recognized almost immediately as unique and valuable in the art community. They are sought after by national and international collectors and museums. Kenojuak also carves and sculpts soapstone and other materials. The National Film Board of Canada produced a film about Kenojuak’s work in 1962, and her work was featured in a limited edition book published in 1981.

Another notable Inuit is Alaska State Senator and co-founder of the Alaska Federation of Natives, William J. Hensley (1941–).

Falconer, Shelley, and Shawna White. Stones, Bones and Stitches: Storytelling through Inuit Art. Toronto: Tundra Books, 2007.

Hessel, Ingo. Inuit Art: An Introduction. Vancover, BC: Douglas & McIntyre, 2002.

Houston, James A. James Houston’s Treasury of Inuit Legends. Orlando, FL: Harcourt, 2006.

Leroux, Odette, and Marion E. Jackson. Inuit Women Artists: Voices from Cape Dorset. Vancover, BC: Douglas & Mcintyre, 2006.

Mcgrath, Melanie. The Long Exile: A Tale of Inuit Betrayal and Survival in the High Arctic. New York: Knopf, 2007.

McPherson, Robert. New Owners In Their Own Land: Minerals And Inuit Land Claims. Alberta, Canada: University of Calgary Press, 2004.

Stuckenberger, Nicole. Thin Ice: Inuit Traditions Within a Changing Environment. Hanover, NH: Hood Museum of Art, 2007.

Wallace, Mary. Make Your Own Inuksuk. Toronto, Ontario: Maple Tree Press, 2004.

“Arctic Library.” ATHROPOLIS. (accessed on August 2, 2007).

Deschenes, Bruno. “Inuit Throat-Singing.” Musical Traditions. (accessed on August 2, 2007).

“The Inuit.” Newfoundland and Labrador Heritage. (accessed on August 2, 2007).

“Inuit.” Indian and Northern Affairs Canada. (accessed on August 2, 2007).

Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami. (accessed on August 2, 2007).

“Inuit/Inuktitut.” Yamada Language Center. (accessed on August 2, 2007).

“Inuktitut (Eskimo/Inuit Language).” Native Languages of the Americas: Preserving and Promoting American Indian Languages. (accessed on August 2, 2007).

Gordon L. Pullar, Director, Department of Alaska Native and Rural Development College of Rural and Community Development, UAF, Anchorage, Alaska

Laurie Edwards

views updated


LOCATION: United States (Alaska); Canada; Denmark (Greenland); Aleutian Islands; Russia (Siberia)
POPULATION: approximately 167, 000 worldwide
RELIGION: Traditional animism; Christianity
RELATED ARTICLES: Vol. 2: Native North Americans


The Inuit, or Eskimo, are an aboriginal people who make their home in the Arctic and sub-Arctic regions of Siberia and North America.

The word "Eskimo" is not an Eskimo word. It was bestowed upon these hardy, resourceful hunters by their neighbors, the Algonquin Indians of eastern Canada, and it means "eaters of raw meat." Early European explorers of the area began using the name, and it is now in general use. Recently, it has begun to be replaced by the Eskimo's own name for themselves, "Inuit," which means, "real people."

The Inuit are descendents of the Thule, whale hunters who migrated from Alaska to Greenland and the arctic regions of Canada around 1000 years ago. The people and their culture spread rapidly throughout the area, which accounts for the cultural uniformity of today's Inuit. The first Europeans to enter these arctic regions were probably Norseman, who are thought to have arrived in Greenland at around the same time as the Inuit. Major changes in Inuit life and culture occurred during the Little Ice Age (1600–1850), when the climate in their homelands became even colder, changing their subsistence methods. European whalers who arrived in the latter part of the 19th century had a strong impact on the Inuit. The Westerners introduced Christianity; they also brought with them infectious diseases that substantially reduced the Inuit population in some areas. When the whaling industry collapsed early in the 20th century, many Inuit turned to trapping.

The Inuit are very involved in the modern world. Not only have they wholeheartedly adopted much of its technology, but also they use imported food, clothing, and housing styles. Their educational, recreational, economic, religious, and governmental institutions have also been heavily influenced by mainstream culture. Significant changes have begun to occur in all areas of their way of life as a result of sustained contact with the outside world.


The Inuit live primarily along the far northern seacoasts of Russia, the United States, Canada, and Greenland. All told, there are more than 100,000 Inuit, most of whom live south of the Arctic Circle. The majority, about 50,000, live in the Danish territory of Greenland, with approximately 57,000 in Alaska and other parts of the United States, 56,000 in Canada, 8,000 in Denmark, and 1,700 in Russia. The Inuit homeland is one of the regions of the world least amenable to human habitation. Most of the land is flat and barren tundra where only the top few inches of the frozen earth thaw out during the summer months. For this reason, the Inuit have always turned their eyes to the sea as the source of their subsistence. Although some settled along rivers and fish from the banks, and others followed caribou herds in their seasonal inland migrations, the majority of Inuit have always lived near the sea, hunting aquatic mammals such as seals, walrus, and whales.

Traditionally, some Inuit groups tended to settle permanently, while others were primarily nomadic. Settlement patterns differed according to geographic location, time of year, and the means of subsistence available in a given area. In Greenland and in Alaska, permanent settlements were the norm. Similarly, the Inuit of Siberia grouped themselves into established villages. In the central areas there were no such settled communities, although individual groups often returned to a favorite fishing or hunting site year after year. But despite these differences, all Inuit groups followed an annual cycle of banding into large groups during the winter and breaking up into smaller hunting bands during the summer months.


Inuit is part of the larger Aleut-Eskimo language family, which is comprised of Aleut, Yupik, and Inuit-Inupiaq. Inuit proper is part of the Inuit-Inupiaq subgroup. Inuit-Inupiaq is also known as Eastern Eskimo. Inuit-Inupiaq is an example of a dialect continuum. In other words, there are a number of geographical dialects of Inuit-Inupiaq that are spread across the Arctic region from Alaska to Greenland. The dialects in closer proximity to each other are the most intelligible.


The Inuit have traditionally used spells and amulets for luck. Mythological figures include the Mother of the Sea, believed to control the sea mammals, and the Moon Man, thought to enforce observance of taboos by appearing to the offending party in a dream or in the guise of a polar bear. According to a traditional folktale told by the Tikigaq Inuit of north Alaska, the raven (a traditional trickster figure in Inuit folklore) was originally white but turned black in the course of a deal by which it and the loon agreed to tattoo each other but ended up in a soot-flinging match that turned the loon gray and the raven black.


Missionaries introduced various forms of Christianity, including Russian Orthodoxy, Catholicism, Anglicanism, and Lutheranism; these have largely replaced traditional Inuit religious practices, although many of the traditional animistic beliefs still linger.

As with most hunting cultures, many traditional Inuit customs and taboos were intended to mollify the souls of hunted animals, such as polar bears, whales, walrus, and seals. In western Alaska and other regions, the souls of seals and whales, both living and dead, were honored in complicated annual ceremonies of thanksgiving.


Today the Inuit observe the holidays of the Christian calendar. Whenever a new totem pole was raised, a feast called a potlatch was held. There would be singing and dancing and varied contests of strength for entertainment. The Inuit who held the potlatch would often give away his most valuable posses sions at the ceremony, including his dugout canoe, sculptures of carved ivory, and jewelry.


Traditionally, a modest feast was held when an Inuit boy killed his first seal or caribou. Women were married when they reached puberty and men when they could provide for a family. The Inuit traditionally believed in an afterlife thought to take place in one of two positive realms, one in the sea and one in the sky. Because a person's name was believed to have special powers, after people died their names were given to infants born subsequently, who were thereby believed to inherit the personal qualities of the deceased.


Unlike many aboriginal cultures, traditional Inuit society was not based on the tribal unit. Instead, the basic social unit was the extended family, consisting of a man and wife and their unmarried children, along with their married sons and their nuclear families. In the normal course of events, several such family units join forces to hunt and provide one another with mutual protection and support. Such a group of families was named by adding the suffix miut, or "people of," to the name of the geographic region they inhabited.

The leader of the group was typically the oldest male who was still physically able to participate in the hunt. Such a group leader was called upon to resolve quarrels within the group or among his own group and others. In cases where the group leader was unable to settle the issue, the hostile parties might wrestle or engage in public contests in which they hurled jokes and insults back and forth until one was declared the winner. Non-related men often formed close relationships based on mutual support, trade, sharing of domestic arrangements, and protection when traveling through other, possibly hostile, regions.


The Inuit had several different forms of traditional housing. In Greenland, they often lived in permanent stone houses. Along the shores of Siberia, they lived in villages made up of houses built from driftwood and earth. Summer housing for many Inuit was a skin tent, while in the winter the igloo, or house made of snow, was common. In Alaskan Inuit society, each village traditionally included a special house called a kashgee. This building, while serving as a dwelling place for one man and his family, was also used by the entire village as a ceremonial center and gathering place for the men of the group. In the kashgee, the men and boys of the village did their chores and often ate and slept together. Today many Inuit live in single-story wooden prefabricated houses with a combined kitchen and living room area and one or two bedrooms. Most are heated with oil-burning stoves. However, as the Inuit are spread across such a vast area, their housing styles vary.

With the widespread introduction of Western-style foods rich in carbohydrates and sugar over the past 25 years, the Inuit have begun to develop health problems that were unknown to them before, such as tooth decay. Alcoholism poses another major threat to the health of the Inuit, threatening not only the present population but also future generations through Fetal Alcohol Syndrome and other conditions that arise during the prenatal period.

There are two kinds of boats traditionally used by Inuit hunters. The umiak is a large open boat made by covering a wooden frame with walrus hide or some other appropriate material. Especially popular with the Inuit of northern Alaska, it has been used to transport people and goods, and as a vessel from which to hunt large sea mammals such as whales. The other kind of boat favored by Inuit hunters is the kayak. This one-man hunting vessel is entirely covered with seal or caribou skin. The hunter, dressed in waterproof clothing made from the intestines of seals or walrus, sits in a small cockpit and propels himself forward with a double bladed paddle. Alone in his kayak, an Inuit hunter is able to glide silently through the waters and amid the ice floes to close in on his prey. Today it is common for the Inuit to use boats with inboard or outboard motors.

For land transportation, the Inuit dogsled is capable of traveling on land and frozen sea alike. A typical dogsled, drawn by anywhere from 2 to 14 huskies, is usually made of wood but may also be fashioned from pieces of dried salmon. In recent years, dogsleds have been replaced by snowmobiles as the main mode of transportation for many Inuit.


Given the cooperative effort required by a people who depended on hunting for subsistence, family ties—both nuclear and extended—were traditionally paramount among the Inuit, and having a large family was considered desirable. Although stability was valued in marriages, divorce was easily obtainable.

Women often assumed a secondary role in Inuit society. At mealtime, an Inuit woman was required to serve her husband and any visitors before she herself was permitted to eat. Sometimes men cemented their ties with each other by temporarily exchanging wives. But at the same time, a common Inuit saying extolled women in this way: "A hunter is what his wife makes him." The women were the ones who gathered firewood, tended the lamps, butchered the animals, and raised the children. They were able to erect the tents in summer and the igloos in winter and drive the dog teams if need be. They contributed to the subsistence requirements of the group by fishing and trapping small animals and birds, and joining in the pursuit of larger, more dangerous game was not unusual for an Inuit woman. Inuit hunters spent many hours waiting at breathing holes, drifting in their kayaks, or tramping through blizzards, so the greatest skill an Inuit woman could possess is that of being able to make good protective clothing. Inuit women learned that skins were suited for each type of clothing, how to cure the skins, and how to sew firm, watertight seams with bone and ivory needles and thread made of dried sinew.


Traditional Inuit clothing was perhaps the most important single factor in ensuring survival in the harsh Arctic environment. The Inuit did not weave fabric. Rather, they made all their clothing from various animal skins and hides. While Inuit clothing was often attractive and decorative, its ability to keep the wearer alive at sub-zero temperatures was of prime importance. The best way to keep warm is to trap a layer of warm air between the body and the outside cold. To do this, Inuit wore layers of loose clothes. If the clothes were tight, the wearers would sweat and the damp clothes would freeze as soon as they were taken off. In winter the Inuit wore two layers of caribou skin clothing. The outer layer had the fur facing out, while the fur of the inner layer faced in. The outer garment, a hooded jacket called a parka, was loose enough for the wearer to pull his or her arms inside and hug them against the body for extra warmth. Sometimes snow goggles made of ivory or wood with small slits to see through were worn to keep out the snow glare.

Today a variety of shops sell modern Western-style clothing to the Inuit. Like their counterparts in cultures throughout the world, young people favor jeans, sneakers, and brightly colored sportswear. However, both old and young still rely on traditional Inuit gear when confronting the elements on any extended outdoor venture or journey.


Traditionally, Inuit dietary staples were seal, whale, caribou, walrus, polar bear, arctic hare, fish, birds, and berries. Seals were hunted all year round, and the Inuit found a use for almost every part of the animal. With the exception of the bitter gall bladder, all the meat was eaten, usually boiled or raw. Raw blubber was often enjoyed mixed in with meat or berries, while blood soup and dried intestines were favored as snacks. Because they ate raw food, and every part of the animal, the Inuit did not lack vitamins, even though they had almost no vegetables to eat. With the introduction of modern Western-style food, including convenience foods, over the past two to three decades, the Inuit diet has changed, and not for the better. The consumption of foods rich in sugar and carbohydrates has resulted in tooth decay and other diet-related medical problems.


Modern Inuit schools are similar to other schools around the world as far as what the children learn, but the setting could not be more unique. Most Inuit children ski or ride snowmobiles to get to and from school. Because the weather is so cold, they usually receive a good hot breakfast as soon as they arrive in the morning. A typical breakfast might be pancakes or French toast served with milk, juice, and sausages. While Inuit children are taught math, history, spelling, reading, and the use of computers, Inuit teachers are also concerned that the students learn something about their culture and old traditions, including dancing, which was forbidden by the early missionaries because they thought it sinful.


Considering that the Inuit inhabit an area covering more than 5,000 miles of the immense Arctic wilderness, Inuit culture displays an amazing coherence and unity. From Siberia to Greenland, Inuit economic, social, and religious systems are much the same. Only in kinship systems is there any significant variation, with those groups living in western regions that differed the most from the Inuit as a whole.

In addition to the prints and carvings for which the Inuit have become famous, dancing, singing, poetry, and storytelling play an important role in their native culture.


Traditional Eskimo subsistence patterns were closely geared to the annual cycle of changing seasons, the most important feature of which was the appearance and disappearance of solid ice on the sea. During summer, when the sea was free of ice, small groups of families traveled to their camps by open boat. There they stayed, hunting the northward-migrating caribou herds by killing them at river crossings or by driving them into large corral-like structures. Spawning fish were netted or speared. With the onset of autumn, the Inuit returned to their settled communities and villages to prepare for winter. The long winter was a time for hunting seal and other aquatic mammals and for trapping birds.

Today most Inuit live a settled existence in centralized villages and towns, participating in the cash economy through wage employment or receiving some form of social assistance. Major employers include the government, the resource extraction industries, and the arts and crafts industry. However, many Inuit are still involved in subsistence hunting and fishing at some level.


The Inuit, although mostly concerned with meeting survival needs, do find time to engage in sports. They enjoy games that display physical prowess, such as weightlifting, wrestling, and jumping contests. In addition, they also play a ball game similar in many ways to American football, and ice hockey is popular as well.


When the Inuit come together for traditional gatherings, drumming and dancing provide the chief form of entertainment. Quiet evenings at home are spent carving ivory, antler, bone, and soapstone, or playing string games like cat's cradle. Another traditional Inuit game is similar to dice, played on a board and using little models of people and animals instead of dice. The Inuit also enjoy typical modern forms of recreation such as watching television and videos.

Inuit filmmaking has gained international notoriety through the success of the 2001 Inuit film The Fast Runner. The Fast Runner or Atanajuart in Inuit is based on a traditional Inuit oral tale. The film portrays the beauty and hardship of Inuit traditional life and has been acclaimed for its accurate portrayal of Inuit life from an Inuit perspective.


Traditional Inuit arts and crafts are mainly those that involve etching decorations on ivory harpoon heads, needle cases, and other tools. Over the past decades, the Inuit have became famous for their soapstone, bone, and ivory carvings, as well as prints and pictures. Another artistic tradition is the creation of elaborate wooden masks.


Social problems include unemployment, underemployment, alcoholism, drug abuse, and a high suicide rate.


Male and female roles and their symbolic representations are directly tied to traditional subsistence activities in Inuit societies. Inuit societies are characterized as being egalitarian, meaning that there are no intrinsic differences in status between people. Gender among the Inuit also functions in this manner, with gender roles and responsibilities being complementary in nature. Older adults of both sexes command the respect of the younger generations.

Boys begin preparing to assume their roles as hunters from an early age—often as young as 6 or 7 years of age. In modern Inuit societies, boys are given time off from school called "subsistence leave" to help with whaling, fishing, or other subsistence activities. Girls, while also eligible for "subsistence leave," rarely take it. Training in the traditional subsistence activities for young girls has waned over the years, and now it often is not until after a woman leaves home after being married that she acquires some of these skills.

Men and women own homes and participate in child rearing. Traditionally, game that was killed by men became the possessions of their wives upon delivery to the household.

Whaling hunting rituals are performed by both men and women. It is equally important to the success of the hunts that the components of the male and female portions of the rituals, prayers, preparations, and avoidances be undertaken. This reflects the complementary and equivalent natures of male and female genders in Inuit culture.


Auger, Emily E. The Way of Inuit Art: Aesthetics and History in and Beyond the Arctic. Jefferson, N.C: McFarland and Company, 2004.

Chance, Norman A. The Iñupiat and Arctic Alaska. Fort Worth, Tex.: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1990.

Condon, Richard. Inuit Youth: Growth and Change in the Canadian Arctic. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1987.

Hahn, Elizabeth. The Inuit.: Rourke Publications, 1990. Houston, James A. Confessions of an Igloo-Dweller. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1995.

Hughes, Jill. Eskimos. New York: Gloucester Press, 1978.

Marquis, Arnold. A Guide to America's Indians. University of Oklahoma Press, 1974.

Morrison, David A. Inuit: Glimpses of an Arctic Past. Quebec: Canadian Museum of Civilization, 1995.

Osborn, Kevin. The Peoples of the Arctic. New York: Chelsea House, 1990.

Philip, Neil. Songs Are Thoughts: Poems of the Inuit. New York: Orchard Books, 1995.

Seidelman, Harold. The Inuit Imagination: Arctic Myth and Sculpture. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1994.

Stern, Pamela and Lisa Stevenson, eds. Critical Inuit Studies: An Anthology of Contemporary Arctic Ethnography. Lincoln: University of Nebraska, 2006.

—revised by J. Williams

views updated






The Inuit make their homes in Chukotka, Alaska, Arctic Canada and Labrador, and Greenland, and are one of the several indigenous peoples of the Circumpolar North. The name Inuit (singular, Inuk ) has political as well as cultural and linguistic connotations. It means the people in Inuktitut, the language of the Inuit in Greenland and the central and eastern Canadian Arctic. Since the late 1970s the term has become the political designation for all of the peoples once known as Eskimos. The term Eskimo remains correct for archaeologically known populations.

Numbering approximately 150,000 people in 2006, contemporary Inuit are diverse in lifestyle, cultural practices, language, and economic and social circumstances. Within the broad political category Inuit, there are four major cultural divisions: Siberian Yupik, Alutiiq, Alaskan Yupik, and Inuit. Those who call themselves Inuit make additional regional, language, and cultural distinctions such that those in north Alaska are known as Iñupiat, while Inuit in Canada differentiate among Inuvialuit, Inuinnait, and Inuit. Greenlanders sometimes refer to themselves as Inuit, but also use the regional and cultural designations of Kalaallit, Inughuit, and Iit. While these contemporary distinctions have some basis in cultural, linguistic, and regional difference, the current divisions are also a result of colonial and administrative histories that reified some differences and denied others.


Linguistic, cultural, and archaeological data indicate that the Inuit populations are related to the indigenous peoples of Siberia, and Inuit cultures most likely have their origins in Siberia or Central Asia. Archaeological evidence suggests that the ancestors of contemporary Inuit peoples moved across the Bering Strait in several waves, and probably in small groups, as early as 5000 BCE. These hunting peoples spread out across the North American Arctic, where they depended on both land and marine animals. Around 1,500 years ago, the maritime-adapted peoples in southwest Alaska began spreading north, establishing themselves as whale hunters in north Alaska. Contemporary Iñupiat are their descendants. Some of these northern Alaskans moved eastward into the Arctic Archipelago and Greenland during a warming period around 800 to 1000 CE, and are the ancestors of the contemporary Inuit of Canada and Greenland. The Thule Eskimos, as they are known, either replaced or absorbed the Eskimo cultures that had preceded them.

There are similarities as well as differences between the various Inuit peoples. The similarities, which are most striking in terms of language and traditional cosmological beliefs, are clearly due to the relatively recent geographic divergence between groups. Linguists distinguish at least two closely related languages, Inuktitut and Yupiaq, each with several distinct but mutually intelligible dialects. Inuit cosmology attributed a life force to all aspects of the natural world. Humans, in order to survive and prosper, attended to numerous taboos and engaged in morally correct behavior. Animals were said to give themselves to those hunters who were respectful, modest, and generous. Souls of the dead, both human and animal, returned to the world of the living in new bodies. Alaskan Yupiit (plural of Yupik), for example, celebrated a Bladder Festival each winter in which the souls of the sea mammals killed that year were feasted and then returned to the sea where they would be reborn. The recycling of souls is also reflected in human naming practices, which bestow the name, and thus the soul, of a recently deceased person upon a newborn infant. This tradition of naming children continues, and many contemporary Inuit contend that the name/soul chooses the child rather than being chosen for the child.

The differences between the various Inuit peoples, in contrast, are superficial and generally reflect differences in material circumstances rather than distinctions in life ways and social values. Many of the differences result from variation in the natural environment across Inuit lands, which encompass a number of ecosystems and climatic conditions. At the southern margin, Alutiit (plural of Alutiiq) and Yupiit lived in subarctic boreal forest zones, built sod houses in permanent winter villages, and had economic security provided by dependable stocks of fish and sea mammals. Farther north, Iñupiat reliance on bow-head whales enabled them to establish semipermanent villages of up to five hundred people. Large numbers of people living together and cooperating in subsistence whaling demanded a fairly formal political organization. Iñupiat were led by male umialiit (singular, umialik ; literally, boat owners) and their wives, who organized and directed whale hunting activities and later distributed the proceeds of the hunt. The Iit, who live along the narrow rocky coastline of eastern Greenland, in contrast, led a precarious existence and occupied multifamily longhouses of stone and sod.

Only Inuit in the central and eastern Canadian Arctic lived in domed snowhouses and hunted seals at breathing holes. This stereotype of Inuit life was true for them only during midwinter and early spring. They and Inuit elsewhere depended upon seasonally variable marine and terrestrial animals for food, clothing, and tools. All Inuit peoples in the various regions and ecosystems adapted their communities and developed sophisticated technologies in order to survive and prosper.


Inuit in Greenland, and possibly those in Labrador and on Baffin Island, had some contacts with the Norse colonists in the tenth century. In 1576 English explorer Martin Frobisher (c. 15351594) encountered Inuit at Baffin Island while searching for a northwest passage to Asia. His was the first of numerous, sometimes sustained European encounters with modern Inuit. It was only in the early eighteenth century that Europeans successfully colonized Inuit lands. The Danes, hoping to restore contact with the lost Norse, established a colony on the west coast of Greenland in 1721. A few years later Russians, having already established trading colonies in Chukotka, began exploring and settling Alutiiq regions of Alaska. Both established trading monopolies and sought to convert Inuit to Christianity and to make them into reliable suppliers of fur and other renewable resources.

Inuit in other parts of the Arctic, though not directly subjected to colonizing settlers, experienced the disruptive influence of whalers, traders, prospectors, and missionaries. The purchase by the United States of Alaska from Russia in 1867 and Canadas acquisition of British Arctic territories in 1870 and 1880 set the stage for those nations to administer Inuit lands and peoples. For the most part, however, both nations left the day-to-day administration to missionaries and traders. Inuit in both nations received the education, health care, and other public services provided to citizens of modern nation-states only after World War II (19391945).

Since the 1950s there have been dramatic changes in the social and material life of Inuit in all four nations. Some of the changes resulting from economic modernization and government administration have had positive consequences. Still, Inuit in all four nations have also suffered forced relocations, the imposition of alien cultural values and economic systems, and the reorganization of domestic and community life.


Today Inuit struggle to participate as citizens of modern nations while retaining a degree of cultural self-determination. There are concerns regarding resource development, economic and food security, education, language retention, health, and climate change. Greenlanders have succeeded in institutionalizing their language as the everyday vernacular of work and government, while the Siberian Yupik language is nearly extinct. The language situation in Alaska and Canada is mixed. Inuit have been required to adopt the political institutions and structures of their various nations. In all regions but Siberia, Inuit constitute a majority of the population in their traditional lands. Thus, they are able to maintain a measure of control over resource development, education, and other public services. This situation is recent. Struggles over resource development reached a climax in the 1970s and were catalysts for the settlement of aboriginal land claims in Alaska and Canada.

Hunting and the management of wildlife are also salient issues for contemporary Inuit. Although all Inuit live in modern communities, and many work for wages, they have retained a cultural identification with hunting. Having access to and eating traditional foods continues to be socially, emotionally, and culturally valued. This traditional activity appears to be threatened by global climate change, which has created unstable, unpredictable, and dangerous weather conditions in the Arctic and threatens the survival of many animal species. The Inuit Circumpolar Conference, a nongovernmental organization representing Inuit in international affairs, has taken on climate change as its central focus and has argued that global climate change must be considered a human rights issue.


Bodenhorn, Barbara. 1990. Im Not the Great Hunter, My Wife Is: Iñupiat Models of Gender. Etudes/Inuit/Studies 14 (12): 5574.

Briggs, Jean L. 1970. Never in Anger: Portrait of an Eskimo Family. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Damas, David, ed. 1984. Handbook of North American Indians. Vol. 5: Arctic. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution.

Fienup-Riordan, Ann. 2000. Hunting Tradition in a Changing World: Yupik Lives in Alaska Today. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

McGhee, Robert. 2005. The Last Imaginary Place: A Human History of the Arctic World. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Stern, Pamela R. 2004. Historical Dictionary of the Inuit. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow.

Pamela R. Stern

views updated




LOCATION: Canada (Greenland); United States (Alaska); Aleutian Islands; Russia (Siberia)



RELIGION: Traditional animism; Christianity


The Inuit, or Eskimo, are an aboriginal people who make their home in the Arctic and sub-Arctic regions of Siberia and North America.

The word "Eskimo" was bestowed upon these hardy, resourceful hunters by their neighbors, the Algonquin Indians of eastern Canada. It means "eaters of raw meat." Recently, it has begun to be replaced by the Eskimos' own name for themselves, "Inuit," which means, "real people."

The Inuit are descended from whale hunters who migrated from Alaska to Greenland and the Canadian Arctic around 1000 ad. Major changes in Inuit life and culture occurred during the Little Ice Age (16001850), when the climate in their homelands became even colder. European whalers who arrived in the latter part of the nineteenth century had a strong impact on the Inuit. The Westerners introduced Christianity. They also brought with them infectious diseases that substantially reduced the Inuit population in some areas. When the whaling industry collapsed early in the twentieth century, many Inuit turned to trapping.

Wherever they live, the Inuit today are much involved in the modern world. They have wholeheartedly adopted much of its technology, as well as its food, clothing, and housing customs. Their economic, religious, and government institutions have also been heavily influenced by mainstream culture.


The Inuit live primarily along the far northern seacoasts of Russia, the United States, Canada, and Greenland. All told, there are more than 100,000 Inuit, most of whom live south of the Arctic Circle. The majority, about 46,000, live in Greenland. There are approximately 30,000 on the Aleutian Islands and in Alaska, 25,000 in Canada, and 1,500 in Siberia. The Inuit homeland is one of the regions of the world least hospitable to human habitation. Most of the land is flat, barren tundra where only the top few inches of the frozen earth thaw out during the summer months. The majority of Inuit have always lived near the sea, hunting aquatic mammals such as seals, walrus, and whales.


The Inuit language is divided into two major dialect groups: Inupik and Yupik. Inupik speakers are in the majority and reside in an area stretching from Greenland to western Alaska. Speakers of Yupik inhabit a region consisting of southwestern Alaska and Siberia.


According to a traditional folktale told by the Tikigaq Inuit of north Alaska, the raven (a traditional trickster figure in Inuit folklore) was originally white. It turned black in the course of a deal it made with the loon. The two birds agreed to tattoo each other but ended up in a soot-flinging match that turned the loon gray and the raven black.


Christianity, first introduced by missionaries, has largely replaced traditional Inuit religious practices. However, many of native religious beliefs still linger.

Many traditional Inuit religious customs were intended to make peace with the souls of hunted animals, such as polar bears, whales, walrus, and seals.


Today the Inuit observe the holidays of the Christian calendar. Traditionally, a feast called a potlatch was held whenever a new totem pole was raised. The Inuit who held the potlatch would often give away his most valuable possessions at the ceremony.


Traditionally, a feast was held when an Inuit boy killed his first seal or caribou. Women were married when they reached puberty, and men when they could provide for a family. The Inuit believed in an afterlife thought to take place either in the sea or in the sky. After people died, their names were given to newborn infants, who were thereby believed to inherit the personal qualities of the deceased.


Unlike many aboriginal cultures, traditional Inuit society was not based on the tribal unit. Instead, the basic social unit was the extended family, consisting of a man and wife and their unmarried children, along with their married sons and their families.


The Inuit had several different forms of traditional housing. In Greenland, they often lived in permanent stone houses. Along the shores of Siberia, they lived in villages made up of houses built from driftwood and earth. Summer housing for many Inuit was a skin tent, while in the winter the igloo, or house made of snow, was common.

Today many Inuit live in single-story, prefabricated wooden houses with a combined kitchen and living room area and one or two bedrooms. Most are heated with oil-burning stoves. However, since the Inuit are spread across such a vast area, their housing styles vary.

In recent years, dogsleds have been replaced by snowmobiles as the main mode of transportation for many Inuit.


Family tiesboth nuclear and extendedhave always been of great importance to the Inuit. Having a large family was always considered desirable.

Traditionally, women have often assumed a secondary role in Inuit society. At mealtime, an Inuit woman was required to serve her husband and any visitors before she herself was permitted to eat. But at the same time, a common Inuit saying extolled women in this way: "A hunter is what his wife makes him." The women were the ones who gathered firewood, butchered the animals, and erected tents in summer and igloos in winter.


Traditional Inuit clothing was perhaps the most important single factor in ensuring survival in the harsh Arctic environment. Its ability to keep the wearer alive in sub-zero temperatures was of prime importance. The Inuit made all their clothing from various animal skins and hides. In winter they wore two layers of caribou skin clothing. The outer layer had the fur facing out, while the fur of the inner layer faced in. The outer garment was a hooded parka.

Today a variety of shops sell modern Western-style clothing to the Inuit. Like their counterparts in cultures throughout the world, young people favor jeans, sneakers, and brightly colored sportswear. However, both old and young still rely on traditional Inuit gear when confronting the elements in any extended outdoor activity.


The traditional Inuit dietary staples were seal, whale, caribou, walrus, polar bear, arctic hare, fish, birds, and berries. Because they ate raw food, and every part of the animal, the Inuit did not lack vitamins, even though they had almost no vegetables to eat. With the introduction of modern Western-style food, including fast food, over the past two to three decades, the Inuit diet has changed, and not for the better. The consumption of foods rich in sugar and carbohydrates has resulted in tooth decay and other diet-related medical problems.

A tradional bread, bannock, was made while trapping or living in camps. The dough could be wrapped around a stick and cooked over an open fire. A recipe for bannock that can be prepared in an oven accompanies this article.


Most Inuit children ski or ride snowmobiles to get to and from school. They are taught standard subjects, including math, history, spelling, reading, and the use of computers. However, Inuit teachers are also concerned that the students learn something about their culture and traditions.




  • 4 cups flour
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • 5 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1½ cups water


  1. Mix ingredients together to form a stiff dough.
  2. Sprinkle flour on a clean work surface. With very clean hands, knead the dough. Dust hands and dough with flour if the dough is sticky.
  3. Form in a round loaf about 1 inch high. Bake on a greased baking sheet at 350°f for 30 minutes.
  4. Serve warm with butter and jam or honey.

Adapted from Shlabach, Joetta Handrich. Extending the Table. Scottsdale, Penn.: Herald Press, 1991.


Considering that the Inuit inhabit an area covering more than 5,000 miles (8,000 kilometers), their culture is amazingly unified. From Siberia to Greenland, Inuit economic, social, and religious systems are much the same.

In addition to the prints and carvings for which the Inuit have become famous, dancing, singing, poetry, and storytelling play important roles in their native culture.


Today most Inuit live a settled existence in villages and towns. They obtain wage employment or receive some form of social assistance. Major employers include the government, the oil and gas industry, and the arts and crafts industry. In addition, many Inuit are still involved in subsistence hunting and fishing at some level.


The Inuit enjoy games that enable them to display their physical strength, such as weightlifting, wrestling, and jumping contests. They also play a ball game that is similar in many ways to American football. Ice hockey is popular as well.


At traditional Inuit gatherings, drumming and dancing provide the chief form of entertainment. Quiet evenings at home are spent carving ivory or bone, or playing string games like cat's cradle. A traditional Inuit game similar to dice is played on a board, using pieces in the shape of miniature people and animals. The Inuit also enjoy typical modern forms of recreation such as watching television and videos.


Traditional Inuit arts and crafts mostly involve etching decorations on ivory harpoon heads, needlecases, and other tools. Over the past decades, the Inuit have became famous for their soapstone, bone, and ivory carvings, as well as their prints and pictures. Another artistic tradition is the creation of elaborate wooden masks.

Inukshuk, towers of stone in the form of a human, were built as landmarks or as decoys for herds of caribou.


Social problems include unemployment, underemployment, alcoholism, drug abuse, and a high suicide rate.


Condon, Richard. Inuit Youth: Growth and Change in the Canadian Arctic. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1987.

Hahn, Elizabeth. The Inuit: Rourke Publications, 1990.

Philip, Neil. Songs Are Thoughts: Poems of the Inuit. New York: Orchard Books, 1995.

Shlabach, Joetta Handrich. Extending the Table. Scottsdale, Penn.: Herald Press, 1991.


Canada. [Online] Available, 1997.

Canadian Tourism Commission. Canada. [Online] Available http://, 1998.

Nortext. Exploring Nunavet. [Online] Available, 1998.

views updated


INUIT. The northern indigenous peoples known as Eskimo or Inuit (not including the Russian Inuit and Yupiget) numbered approximately 143,582 in 2002. In the United States, Alaskan Eskimos (Inuit, Yupiit, Yupiget, and others) numbered 55,674 according to the 1990 census (U.S. Bureau of the Census, personal communication, May 2002). In Canada, Inuit numbered 41,800 in the 1996 census, while the nation of Greenland, formerly a Danish territory, had an Inuit population of 46,108 in 2001. Alaskan Eskimos live in rural coastal villages, along northern rivers, in isolated island or northern interior valleys and, increasingly, in regional population centers such as Anchorage, Barrow, Fairbanks, Kotzebue, and Nome. In Canada, despite rising migration rates to the south, most Inuit live in fifty-five rural communities located in Nunavut, the Northwest Territories, Quebec province, Newfoundland, and Labrador. In Greenland, too, Inuit live in coastal villages, although those who live in population centers such as Nuuk are increasing.

In Alaska, Canada, and Greenland, names such as Inuit, Yupiit, and Yupiget identify Eskimos as "the people" or "the real people." Regardless of location or name, food is a critical feature of identity for all. (The term "Eskimo" is used here because it includes all groups.) Identity is often expressed as a longing for locally harvested and prepared foods by those who find themselves separated from traditional homeland communities. Local foods are referred to as "our" food, "real" food, or, in Alaska, simply "Eskimo" food. In Canada, such foods are called "country" food. Among the Alaskan Yupiget of St. Lawrence Island, for instance, the term neqepik means "real" food, while imported foods are called laluramka or "white people's" food (Jolles, 2002).

Across the north, dietary habits and cultural meanings attached to food are similar, due partly to adaptation to a common arctic ecosystem and partly to similar socioeconomic conditions, which keep unemployment rates as high as 50 to 80 percent. Under such conditions, subsistence-oriented hunting, fishing, and gathering activities, vital to community survival, are performed year round. In Nunavut, Canada, alone, replacing subsistence foods with equivalent amounts of beef, chicken, and pork would cost an estimated $30 to $35 million annually.

Types of harvested foods depend on local environments and overall resource availability. In 2002, in Ingaliq, Little Diomede Island, Alaska, for example, severe weather plus political and physical isolation at the Russian-American border one mile distant necessitated a substantial dependence on local foods. Diomede subsistence resources include bearded seals, ringed seals, spotted seals, walrus, and polar bears. In summer, the community harvests migrating water fowl such as auklets, puffins, and murres, along with their eggs. In late summer, wild greens and berries are harvested and stored. In winter (December through mid-May), the community takes Alaska blue king crabs through the sea ice and trades a portion of the harvest with mainland Alaskan Eskimo communities for unavailable foods such as caribou. Altogether, Ingaliq subsistence foods include more than forty marine mammal, plant, avian, fish, and shellfish resources. Local harvests in Diomede and elsewhere in the North are supplemented with expensive, imported, commercially available goods from Native cooperative stores, Hudson Bay Company franchises, and other small multipurpose stores found throughout the north.

In Alaska, meat and fish are the centerpieces of Eskimo diets and constitute 90 percent of locally harvested foods. In addition, communities take several types of whales: bowhead, gray, minke, and beluga, or white. Reindeer (introduced in the late 1890s by the U.S. government and managed by local villages), moose, caribou, and a newly reintroduced resource, musk oxen (available to hunters in 1995) are also taken. Numerous migratory seabirds are hunted during late spring and early fall, as is the ptarmigan, a permanent resident. Fish are prominent in southwestern coastal diets, especially salmon. Herring, tomcod, Arctic char, grayling, flounder, sculpin, and halibut also contribute to the diet. Clams are taken from walrus stomachs. Ground squirrels, once commonly harvested for their furs and their meat, are seldom taken any more. While meat is the mainstay, wild greens and berries are much sought. At least thirty species of plants are collected for food purposes from the land and from the beaches (Jones, 1983; Schofield, 1989, 1993).

For Canadian Inuit, diet in the early twenty-first century also consisted of two major classes of food, Inuit food or "country" food, and Qallunaat, or "white people's" food. "Country" foods include caribou, Arctic hare, ptarmigan, ringed seal, bearded seal, walrus, polar bear, beluga whale, migrating fish (Arctic char, Atlantic salmon, and Pacific salmon), and migratory birds (Canada goose, common eider, king eider, and black guillemots). "White people's" food includes items shipped from southern Canada and purchased at local stores, including fresh fruits and vegetables, canned goods, processed foods, and dry goods.

In Alaska, especially in the most northern communities, it was once common to consume uncooked meats. This has become less common with the introduction of such modern conveniences as microwaves, refrigerators, propane-fueled stoves, and the like. However, in Canada, the preference for uncooked meats is still a significant cultural feature. This practice became a powerful marker of Inuit identity in the postWorld War II era as Canadian Inuit experienced more sustained contact with Europeans and Canadians of European descent such as missionaries, teachers, and administrators. Consumption of raw or frozen foods, a practice typically disdained by non-Inuit, intensified boundaries separating Inuit and non-Inuit (Brody, 1975), and fostered increased social unity and political activism among Inuit who sought to protect and promote their hunting and fishing rights and to achieve local resource management in Inuit homelands.

Greenland Inuit obtain their food from two major sources: local land, seas, and lakes (called "country" food) and through local store purchases and via mail order. The main subsistence foods are ringed seal, beluga whale, caribou, bearded seal, and polar bear as well as a wide variety of fish, including cod, capelin, Atlantic salmon, Arctic char, and Greenland halibut. One feature that distinguishes the Inuit of Greenland from Canadian and Alaskan Eskimos is the abundance of small-scale fisheries, which include fish plants that provide a number of settlements with seasonal employment (Dahl, 2000). In addition to subsistence production, many Greenlandic Inuit are also involved in large-scale commercial fishing operations, and fishing products, including shrimp, Greenlandic halibut and crabs are Greenland's major exports. Many of the companies are owned and maintained by Inuit. Finally, there are approximately sixty sheep farms in southwest Greenland that produce lamb and other products for both domestic and international markets.

Food management in Eskimo communities combines traditional practices with modern convenience. Subsistence meats are often "half-dried" on outdoor meat racks, cooked (boiled), and stored in containers of seal oil or, alternatively, stored in home freezers, either "halfdried" or fresh. Greens, roots, and berries are more often stored in freezers, although some residents also use seal oil. Traditional underground or semiunderground food caches are gradually becoming a part of the past, while home freezer storage and consumption of fresh frozen foods has become increasingly common. In the late twentieth century and early twenty-first, in spite of significant changes in food storage methods, locally harvested foods from the land and the sea remained a major component of Eskimo food consumption. However, while "country" food or "real" food still defines ethnic and cultural boundaries in the North, "white people's" food is increasingly popular among young people, whether in Alaska (Jolles, 2002), Canada, or Greenland (Searles, 2002). The presence of contaminants in locally harvested foods is a major concern in the Arctic, for example, PCP, and is under discussion in all of the affected regions. It is unclear how this information, along with changing lifeways, will modify Eskimo diets.

See also Arctic; Canada: Native Peoples.


Anderson, Douglas, Ray Bane, Richard K. Nelson, Wanni W. Anderson, and Nita Sheldon. Kuuvanmiit Subsistence: Traditional Eskimo Life in the Latter Twentieth Century. Washington, D.C.: National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, 1977.

Brody, Hugh. The People's Land: Eskimos and Whites in the Eastern Arctic. Harmondsworth, England: Penguin, 1975.

Dahl, Jens. Saqqaq: An Inuit Hunting Community in the Modern World. Toronto, Canada: University of Toronto Press, 2000.

Jolles, Carol Zane, with Elinor Mikaghaq Oozeva, elder advisor. Faith, Food, and Family in a Yupik Whaling Community. Seattle, Wash.: University of Washington Press, 2002.

Jones, Anore. Nauriat Nigiñaqtuat: The Plants That We Eat. Kotzebue, Alaska: Maniilaq Association, 1983.

Searles, Edmund. "Food and the Making of Modern Inuit Identities." Food and Foodways 10 (2002): 5578.

Carol Zane Jolles Edmund Searles

views updated


INUIT. Inuit (people) is the collective name of a widely distributed group of people inhabiting the northernmost areas of North America and Greenland. "Eskimo," a term formerly used by outsiders, has lost favor because of its offensive origins in an Algonquian word roughly meaning "eaters of raw flesh."

Early European Exploration

Inuit were the first inhabitants of the Americas to encounter Europeans. Archaeological evidence suggests that groups of Inuit moved eastward from Alaska, inhabiting the entire Arctic coast of North America and portions of Greenland about a century before the explorations of the Greenland coast by the Viking Gunnbjörn Ulfsson around a.d. 875. Eric the Red established settlements

in southern Greenland in 982 or 983. Contact between the Norse colonies in Greenland and the Inuit was uneasy and major conflict seems to have ended the Viking colonization of Greenland in the fifteenth century. Danish colonization began with the arrival in 1721 of missionaries, who pressured the Inuit to adopt European customs and language.

The first appearance of Russians took the form of an expedition of explorers to Alaska in 1741 led by Vitus Bering. The Russians subsequently claimed all of Alaska by virtue of their colonies on the southern coast. Russian contact with Inuit was limited to the area of these settlements; Inuit in northern Alaska had only indirect contact with Russians and their trade goods through trade by northern Inuit with their neighbors in southwest Alaska. British and American whaling ships began hunting the Arctic and wintering in northern Alaska in the late 1840s and Russia sold its Alaskan claims to the United States in 1867. Inuit east from the Mackenzie Delta to Hudson Bay did not meet Europeans until the late nineteenth century.

Pre-Colonial Inuit Society

The primary mode of Inuit settlement has been the village, although until recently relations between villages were not socially fundamental. Rather, power manifested itself mostly within the village. Men hunted and fished, women cooked and skinned animals; family cooperation was essential to survival. Social networking within the extended family and between extended families within the village served as the mediator of power. More recently, Inuit people began to organize themselves at the village level, the regional level, and the international level in order to interact with their colonial governments, but the importance of the family persists.

The Inuit economy before European development was one of subsistence. Sea and land mammals, including whales, walrus, seals, and in some areas, caribou, were the staple targets of hunts. Most Inuit technology, including harpoons, stone oil lamps, dogsleds, skin boats, water resistant boots, and tailored clothing, served either the tasks of the hunt or the tasks of the home. Individual contribution to the hunt, proper sharing of the yield with the elderly and infirm, honesty, and other forms of cooperation for the common good were enforced by general approval or disapproval through social networks rather than by a government or corporate apparatus. Economic life, like political life, centered on the family's internal networks and its connections to other families.

The Impact of Colonial Status

Ongoing colonial status has brought changes to Inuit communities. Missionaries have proselytized among them, anthropologists have studied them, governments have imposed laws and regulations on them, and corporations have pressed them to enter the capitalist cash economies of the modern nation-states in which they have found themselves. The colonial relationship between the modern nation-states and Inuit communities across the Arctic has been and is the overarching problem with which the Inuit and their southern neighbors must cope.

The social problems of colonization manifest themselves most strongly among the Inuit in politics and economy. Caught up in the drive to advance the frontiers of "civilization," Inuit people have sometimes willingly appropriated economic, political, and social structures from their colonizers, and sometimes those structures have been imposed. One important event in this process has been the discovery and exploitation of the petroleum resources in northern Alaska. Through legal intricacies, Alaskan Inuit and other Native Alaskans were deprived of enforceable legal claim to their lands and resources. Most petroleum-bearing lands in northern Alaska were acquired by the state in the early 1960s, and then leased to a group of oil companies in 1969. Afterward, in the Alaska Land Claims Settlement Act of 1971, the U.S. Congress acted to settle Native Alaskan groups' land and resource claims, awarding a relatively large cash and land settlement and creating regional-and village-based corporations to administer it. The imposition of corporate structures was supposed to help draw Native Alaskans into the American economy, but instead most of the corporations have been unable to turn profits.

Inuit people often are eager to take advantage of snowmobiles, motorboats, rifles, and other technological advances that can make their ways of life less difficult and dangerous, but such items are only available from within the American cash economy. From the perspective of the colonizers, the question was how to compel Inuit to labor and create surplus value, thereby establishing wage relations, and it was answered with a host of vocational training programs. However, the contradiction between the American corporate expectation that Inuit work regular schedules and the Inuit social expectation that able-bodied men hunt to provide subsistence for their families creates obstacles to Inuit employment in non-Inuit-run corporations in the Arctic. Thus, the petroleum industry has not employed many Inuit.

In Canada and Greenland, governmental attempts to deal fairly with Inuit have differed from the approach taken by the United States. Greenland acquired home rule from Denmark by popular referendum in 1979, and governs itself by parliamentary democracy. Canada has passed claims settlement acts like that of the United States, but in 1993 the Canadian Parliament voted to partition the Northwest Territories and create a new territory called Nunavut (our land). The population of Nunavut is around 85 percent Inuit; thus, the Inuit of Nunavut enjoy a measure of home rule within the Canadian nation. These developments in Alaska, Canada, and Greenland have succeeded in large part because of organizing and pressure by Inuit themselves. On the international level, Inuit in all three countries joined in 1977 in a statement of common interest to form the Inuit Circumpolar Conference, a United Nations NGO (nongovernment organization).

Political and economic interactions illustrate the fundamental problem of colonialism, the answer to which will continue to be worked out in the future. To what extent will Inuit culture be characterized as "traditional" in distinction to "modern," such that Inuit must inevitably adopt modern customs, like working regular schedules for wages, and to what extent will Inuit culture be characterized as an identity to be formed by Inuit themselves, regardless of what customs they choose to adopt?


Burch, Ernest S. The Iñupiaq Eskimo Nations of Northwest Alaska. Fairbanks: University of Alaska Press, 1998.

Chance, Norman A. The Iñupiat and Arctic Alaska: An Ethnography of Development. Fort Worth, Tex.: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1990.

Dorais, Louis-J. Quaqtaq: Modernity and Identity in an Inuit Community. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1997.

Jorgensen, Joseph G. Oil Age Eskimos. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990.

Frank C.Shockey

See alsoAlaska ; Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act .

views updated

In·u·it / ˈin(y)oō-it/ • n. 1. (pl. same or -its) a member of an indigenous people of northern Canada and parts of Greenland and Alaska. 2. the family of languages of this people, one of the three branches of the Eskimo-Aleut language family. It is also known, esp. to its speakers, as Inuktitut. • adj. of or relating to the Inuit or their language.

views updated

Inuitacquit, admit, backlit, bedsit, befit, bit, Brit, Britt, chit, commit, demit, dit, emit, fit, flit, frit, git, grit, hit, intermit, it, kit, knit, legit, lickety-split, lit, manumit, mishit, mitt, nit, omit, outsit, outwit, permit, pit, Pitt, pretermit, quit, remit, retrofit, shit, sit, skit, slit, snit, spit, split, sprit, squit, submit, tit, transmit, twit, whit, wit, writ, zit •albeit, howbeit •poet •bluet, cruet, intuit, suet, Yuit •Inuit • floruit • Jesuit •Babbitt, cohabit, habit, rabbet, rabbit •ambit, gambit •jackrabbit • barbet • Nesbit • rarebit •adhibit, exhibit, gibbet, inhibit, prohibit •titbit (US tidbit) • flibbertigibbet •Cobbett, gobbet, hobbit, obit, probit •orbit • Tobit •cubit, two-bit •hatchet, latchet, ratchet •Pritchett •crotchet, rochet

views updated

Inuit the members of an indigenous people of northern Canada and parts of Greenland and Alaska.

The peoples inhabiting the regions from NW Canada to western Greenland prefer to be called Inuit rather than Eskimo, and this term now has official status in Canada. By analogy, the term Inuit is also used, usually in an attempt to be politically correct, as a synonym for Eskimo in general. However, this latter use, in including people from Siberia who are not Inupiaq-speakers, is, strictly speaking, not accurate.