ALTERNATE NAMES: Eskimo
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 (1600–1850), 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 ties—both nuclear and extended—have 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.
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 http://www.informatik.uni-kiel.de/~car/Canada.html , 1997.
Canadian Tourism Commission. Canada. [Online] Available http://http://22.214.171.124/tourism/ , 1998.
Nortext. Exploring Nunavet. [Online] Available http://www.arctic-travel.com , 1998.