Inuit: The People of the Arctic
The native people that live in the Northern-Polar Regions of the world refer to themselves as “Inuit”, or as Americans like to call them “Eskimos.” The Inuit are nomadic tribes who live their life’s very different from the rest of the world. They base their life on beliefs, customs, habits, traditions, and culture that are very different from the American culture. The culture of the Inuit is a very miss-understood culture and it is proven in this essay that the Inuit are more than just savage, seal, killing Indians, that sleep in ice houses, live in below freezing weather and only kiss with their noses.
“Inuit” is a word that means “the people”, which is how they refer to themselves. Until recently outsiders called the Inuit, “Eskimos” which means “eaters of meat.” Scientists have placed the Inuit in a separate anthropological category, while the Inuit are closely related to the native of Northern Asia, which is were they originally came from. Language provides an important insight into the lives of the Inuit. For example they must spend hours on end tracking caribou for many km or sitting by a hole in the ice waiting for a seal to show itself. The Inuit have no need to describe the past or future in great detail so they have no word for history. Another extreme is snow. There are many different words for many different types of snow. For example, aput is the the general word for snow. Snow that has recently drifted is akeolrak, but drifted snow is perksertok. The Inuit language is made up of words for the things that are important to the Inuit way of life (Halderson 2-7).
Beginning about a thousand years ago, the early Inuit began to spread into the Arctic of Canada, across the great land bridge known as the Bering Straight, which no longer exists. The Inuit eventually spread over 6000 km, from the Soviet Union to East Greenland. Within a few hundred years, they had replaced the earlier inhabitants of the region. The migration across the land bridge was not a single mass event, but it was probably dozens of parties of perhaps twenty to thirty people moving east in search for a better life. A particular goal for making the great migration seemed to be richer whaling waters along the Baffin and Somerset Islands, and the always necessity for more space, soon after that whaling villages and small camps sprouted along the coast, while in-coast camps relied on seal and caribou (Halderson 2-7).
The Inuit gradually spread across the arctic regions settling in four countries: The Soviet Union, The United States (Alaska), Canada and Greenland. According to Archaeological research, the first Inuit settled on the frozen tundra and the chilly sea coast. The Inuit have very distinct characteristics. Their height and weight varies, just, like in any culture. Their skin is tanned from the sun as dark as leather. The hair on their head is dark black and straight and the face grows hardly any facial hair. Their eyes are dark and almond shaped, a small almost bridge-less nose with large flared nostrils, a very strong jaw, that came about from generation and generation of eating almost nothing but meat, and they have a distinctively high and round zygoma bone. It is often stated the physical characteristics of the Inuit came about, due to their adaptation of the cold weather. For instant: A flat face and small extremities are easier to keep warm. The fold in their eyes keeps the eyes from freezing and in the spring in blocks of some of the glare on the bright sun that reflects of the snow. The lack of facial hair keeps ice and condensation from building up from the breathing. And the very tough jaw comes from the very tough diet, which regularly includes raw, frozen meat or walrus hide (Morrison and Germain 12-13).
The cold water of the Arctic provides the Inuit with all types of food. The single most important part of the Inuit diet is the seal. There are six type of seal that the Inuit hunt for food: the Ringed Seal, the Harbour Seal, the Harp Seal, the Grey seal, the Bearded Seal and the Hooded seal. The fish hunted for food are mainly cod and salmon. Whales that were killed for food include the Bowhead whale, the Narwhal and the Beluga, and another important part of their diet is the almighty walrus. The land animals that provide the Inuit with food are the Polar bear, Caribou, Musk-Ox and the smaller game includes Arctic wolves, foxes and hares, also ground squirrels and brown lemmings. The birds that pose for prey are the ducks, geese, swans, loons and even the eggs of the birds in the early summer months. The Inuit favorite food was usually seal, caribou, walrus liver and the skin of whales. The hunts in the winter months included polar bears, arctic foxes and arctic hares, and the hunts in the summer months usually included caribou, geese, and walrus. The animals are not wasted once stripped of all their meat. Almost everything on the animal is put to some sort of use. The pelts of the bigger and smaller animals are used for clothing and shelter from protection of the cold weather. The antlers of the caribou, the ivory of the walrus tusk and the bone of the whale and musk-ox can be used for knifes and harpoons(Morrison 64-137).
In order to find those animals it was necessary for the Inuit to live a wondering life, following the migrations of the herds. Generally the Inuit would have a summer home and a winter home. In the summer months the Inuit tend to build houses made of sod which was supported inside by drift wood of occasional tree branches. Tents made of animal skin were also built and set up for the summer. The tents made it easy for the Inuit to follow the migration of the animals, with an easy take-down and put-up technique. In the winter months the Inuit built sod houses and the world famous “Igloo.” An igloo is a domed shaped house that was built for temporary shelter for hunting and traveling. This ice house would consist of blocks of ice cut from the snow, that were built upward in a spiral shape. The igloo consisted on an underground entrance, a window made of a block of ice, and a ventilation hole. Inside a family of three to six Inuit would live. The family shared the crowded space with a meat drying rack, cooking pots, cooking fire, the light from the fire, storage area for outside hunting and snow gear and it also had room for the families to sleep (Morrison and Germain 106, 36).
Animal skins provided clothing for the Inuit. Their favorite was caribou because tit was warm and light weight. If caribou was lacking the Inuit would settle for seal, polar bear and arctic fox. A single layer of clothing was worn in the summer months, but in the winter months a double layer was worn. A man normally owed at least two sets of outer clothing which included a rough, warm suit for mid-winter hunting or traveling and a more stylish costume for less rigorous conditions. The inner layer was worn with hair side in, in order to trap the air between layers of caribou hide to keep the Inuit warm under most any conditions ( Morrison and Germain 14,62).
For the men, in the inner layer and the outer layer they wore a coat that was warm and elegantly cut and beautifully decorated. They wore short trousers that hung just below their knees and long boots with non slip soles covered the lower leg. The coat for the male almost requires four full-grown caribou. The mittens were also made of caribou skin. The Inuit also made goggles made out of whale bone to keep the cold wind out of their eyes. The women wore almost the exact same set-up of clothing as the men did, with a few exceptions. The women wore boots that connected to their trousers that acted like some type of over-all pants. Women took a great deal of pleasure in making and wearing their own clothing, decorating and putting much detail into their coats and trousers (Morrison and Germain 14,62).
Eskimos lived in groups of several families; they might contain as many as several hundred people. Generally, a family would consist of a husband and wife, unmarried children, and married sons with their wives and children. Eskimo children were considered “treasures” and rarely punished. There was never any scolding or slapping. That doesn’t mean that they were spoiled. The man’s role was to hunt food, drive the dog sled, row the boat, and build shelters. A wife’s most important duty was to make the family’s clothing, being sure it was warm and windproof. She also looked after the children, cooked for her family, and sometimes even helped her husband with his duties. Eskimo men and women treated each other as equals; women were not “second-class citizens.” (Coklin Web-site)
Eskimos had no laws as such, simply rules of conduct. The most important of those rules were: (1) All members should help each other in the struggle for life; and (2) Each person should live peacefully with the others. Anyone who refused to hunt or do
their share of the work were despised; but in spite of such feelings, they would be provided with the necessities of life by the others.
A disagreement might be settled by a fight. A more peaceful solution would be a contest in which the opposing parties would throw insults at each other. The first one to get upset would have lost both the contest and the dispute. A person who committed murder or another serious crime could be executed, but that order had to come from the older men of the group (Coklin Web-site).
Inuit people believed in spirits. According to the Inuit people, everyone, everything and every animal had a spirit. Other spirits they considered were the wind, weather, sun and the moon. Inuit people followed special rules to please all the spirits. If they did not follow the rules, they thought they would be punished by sickness or misfortune. The most powerful spirit was a goddess named Sedna. They believed she controlled all the sea mammals from the bottom of the ocean, which is were she lived. The Alaskan Inuit would save the bladder from the dead seal. They believed that the spirit was in the seal’s bladder. The Inuit then returned the bladder to the ocean. In doing so, this would ensure good hunting in the year to come. Sea mammals were one of the main sources of food for the Inuit, thus, this was a very important custom to follow (Dorothy and Blaker 139).
An Angekok was an Inuit person who had special powers. The Angekok was special because they could talk to the spirits. Often the Angekok was able to heal cuts or sores and sick people through talking with the spirits. the Angekok also was able to talk to the weather spirits. With such special powers the Angekok was an important person to the Inuit people. The Inuit people enjoyed themselves through games, music and story telling. One game that was played had to do with making funny faces. Two people would face one another and pull each other’s face until one person would laugh so hard that they would not be able to play the game. Often the parents would tell stories to their children and everyone enjoyed singing. On a more negative note, when a thing, animal or person died they thought they went to a different world. When an Inuit died they often would wrap the body in caribou skins and leave it in the tundra all alone with an arrangement of rocks. They usually would leave weapons, tools and other things for the person’s spirit to use in the spirit world (Halderson 4).
Until recently their had been no Inuit artists because they didn’t have time in their life for art. The only form of art in the past had been idly carving seabirds or seals in soft stone. Inuit did decorate things that were very important like spears, harpoons or pipes. Toys for children would be carved out of bone or soft stone. Inuit clothing was often decorated with tiny dots. Masks were also important objects in their ceremonies. The Inuit believed in a special godlike power that was contained in all of nature. They followed their priests and shamans in approaching this power in the proper way by living in harmony with nature. The shaman would lead dances performed to honor nature. At other times individuals would go alone into nature to better understand their relationship with it. They emphasized life’s important occasions such as the naming of a baby at 8 days of age. They were usually named after a relative who died. If they did not live to 8days they were not mourned as they had never lived (Dorothy and Blaker 159).
Eskimo life is much different now. Most of the people live in towns or small settlements. They wear modern clothing, live in modern houses, and eat food purchased from stores. Instead of kayaks and dog sleds, they use motorboats and snowmobiles. Many have renounced the native religion for Christianity. Many Eskimos now work for wages, but a substantial number are unemployed and require government help to live.
In the Soviet Union at present there are approximately 1,500 Eskimos living on the northeast tip of Siberia. In the 1920s the Communist government took control of all Eskimo communities. They provided health care and helped with housing and education. The Eskimos were encouraged to produce goods for sale throughout the country. Some examples of successes in this area were reindeer hides, walrus tusks, and bone and soapstone carvings.
In Alaska the Eskimo population is approximately 42,000. By the early 1900s, rifle hunting and trapping greatly reduced the number of game animals. They began to hunt reindeer which had been brought in from Siberia by the U. S. government. They became U. S. citizens in 1924. During World War II (1941-1945) they worked at U. S. military bases; afterward, part-time jobs were the only employment available. Many now depend on the government to improve living conditions. Eskimos benefited, to a small degree, from the 1968 oil strike. Most of the Eskimo children do not finish high school.
Canada’s Eskimo population is about 25,000. Their lives didn’t change a lot until the 1950s. The fur trade declined, and the number of caribou decreased after rifle use increased.
More and more of the Eskimos moved to communities developed around trading posts, government administrative offices, military radar sites, and mission churches. Construction jobs were plentiful for a period of time. The Canadian government assisted
through the development of commercial fishing cooperatives and handicrafts. Soapstone
sculptures are sold to people in Canada and the United States. The government provides assistance with financial aid and health care.
Greenland is presently a province of Denmark, after being a Danish colony for 573 years. There are approximately 50,000 Eskimos living there. In the early 1900s they began to engage in commercial fishing. A change in climate warmed coastal waters; this drove seals north and attracted cod, salmon, and other fish. Shortly afterward, the Danish government established programs to aid the Eskimos. They improved education, housing, and health care besides providing training for jobs in manufacturing and service industries. The Eskimos who live in northern Greenland still follow the traditional life (Coklin Web-site).
Although many changes have occurred since their ancestors first arrived in North America, there are almost 120,000 Eskimos still living in the Far North. To survive they have been forced to battle weather and then the influence of white men; in many ways the latter has been much more challenging to their endurance.
Morrison, David and Germain, Georges-Herbert. Inuit: Glimpses of an Arctic Past.
Canadian Museum of Civilization: Blanchette, 1995
Morrison, David. Arctic Hunters: The Inuit and the Diamond Jenness.
Canadian Museum of Civilization: Hull, 1992
Halderson, Karen, MPH, RD. Alaska Native: Food Practices, Customs, and Holidays.
United States of America: ADA and ADA. Inc, 1993
Ray, Dorothy and Blaken, Alfred A. Eskimo: Mask and Ceremony.
Seattle and London: University of Washington Press, 1967
Coklin, Martin. Comparison of the First Nations Peoples of Canada.
British Columbia: Camosun College, 15 Oct, 2002