The Inuit are people that inhabit small enclaves in the coastal areas of
Greenland, Arctic North America, and extreme northeastern Siberia. The
name Inuit means the real people. In 1977 the Inuit Circumpolar
Conference officially adopted Inuit as the replacement for the term
“Eskimo.” There are several related linguistic groups of Arctic people.
Many of these groups prefer to be called by their specific “tribal” names
rather than as Inuits. In Alaska the term “Eskimo” is still commonly used.
I. Physical Characteristics and Regional Groupings
The Inuit vary within about 2 inches of an average height of 5 foot 4 inches,
and they display metabolic, circulatory, and other adaptations to the Arctic
climate. They inhabit an area spanning almost 3200 miles and have a wider
geographical range than any other aboriginal people and are the most
sparsely distributed people on earth.
The Inuit share many cultural traits with Siberian Arctic peoples and with
their own closest relatives, the Aleuts. The oldest archaeological sites
identifiable as Inuit date from about 2000 BC and are somewhat distinct
from later Inuit sites. By about 1800 BC the highly developed Old Whaling
or Bering Sea culture and related cultures had emerged in Siberia and in the
Bering Strait region. In eastern Canada the Old Dorset culture flourished
from about 1000 to 800 BC until about AD 1000 to 1300. The Thule Inuit,
who by AD 1000 to 1200 had reached Greenland, overran the Dorset people.
There, Inuit culture was influenced by medieval Norse colonists and, after
1700, by Danish settlers.
III. Language and Literature
The languages of the Inuit people constitute a subfamily of the Eskimo-Aleut
language family. A major linguistic division occurs in Alaska, according to
whether the speakers call themselves Inuit or Yuit. The eastern branch of
the subfamily stretches from eastern Alaska across Canada and through
northern into southern Greenland. This subfamily is generally called
Inupiaq in Alaska, but also Inuktitut in Canada and Kalaallisut in
Greenland. It consists of many dialects, each understandable to speakers of
neighboring dialects, although not to speakers of geographically distant
dialects. The western branch, called Yupik, includes three distinct
languages, Central Alaskan Yupik and Pacific Gulf Yupik in Alaska and
Siberian Yupik in Alaska and Canada. Each of these has several dialects.
The Inupiaq dialects have more than 40,000 speakers in Greenland and more
than 20,000 in Alaska and Canada. About 17,000 people speak Yupik
languages. In the former Soviet Union about 1,000 people spoke it.
Explorers and traders do not learn these languages because they are
some of the most complex and difficult in the world. They rely on a jargon
composed of Danish, Spanish, Hawaiian, and Inupiaq and Yupik words.
V. Social Organization
The manners and customs of the Inuit are remarkably uniform
despite the widespread diffusion of the people. The family is the most
significant social unit. Marriages are generally open to choice. The usual
pattern is monogamy, but both polygyny and polyandry also happen.
Marriage is based on a strict division of labor. The husband and wife have
their own tools, household goods, and other personal possessions. Men build
houses, hunt, and fish. Women cook, dress animal skins, and make clothing.
If one does not take care and help ones kin they will be ridiculed by the
community. In extreme cases they can be put to death. If someone of one
group harms someone from another, there could be a possible blood feud.
This is strongly disapproved. Some groups control disputes by means of
wrestling matches or song duels. These songs tend to be insulting. The loser
of these might be driven from the community.
Alliances between groups that are not related are formed and
maintained by gift giving and the showing of respect. The highest such form
of gift giving occurs when a head of a household offers the opportunity of a
temporary sexual liaison with the most valued adult women of his household.
The women can refuse, then they present a different gift.
VI. Provision of Food
The Inuit mainly eats fish, seals, whales, and related sea mammals.
The flesh of these is eaten cooked, dried, or frozen. The seal is their main
winter food and most valuable resource. They are used for dog food,
clothing, and materials for making boats, tents, and harpoons lines, as well as
fuel for both light and heat. In Alaska and Canada, caribou are hunted in
the summer. They also hunt polar bear, fox, hare, and Arctic birds, for
important supplies. Whale, walrus, and caribou require longer hunting trips
than one kinship group can do on there own. Many families go on seasonal
hunting and fishing trips that take them from one end of a customary
territory to the other, trading with other groups along the way.
VII. Housing, Transportation, and Clothing
Igloos are Inuit “iglu” houses. They come in two kinds. One is made
from walrus or sealskin tents for the summer. The other is made of stone,
with driftwood or whalebone frames and chinked and covered with moss or
sod for the winter. The entrance is long and narrow. It is just high enough
to have one person crawl through it. During long journeys some Inuit made
winter houses out of snow blocks shaped in a dome. These houses are rare in
Greenland and unknown in Alaska. At one time they were permanent winter
houses of the Inuit in central and eastern Canada. In the 20th century many
Inuit have moved into towns to live in government built, western housing.
The traditional way of transpiration is the kayak, the umiak, and the
dogsled. The kayak is a lightweight canoe like hunting boat made of a wood
frame completely covered with sealskin except for a round center opening,
where one person sits. The skin around the person can be tightened to make
the kayak waterproof. The umiak is a larger boat by about 30 feet long and
8 feet wide. It is made of a wood frame covered with walrus skin. It is used
for whaling expeditions and to transport families and goods. The sled is
pulled by a team of native dogs. Until iron runners were introduced, ivory
and whalebone were mainly used. In the last half-century motorboats and
snowmobiles have become important modes of travel.
Traditionally the Inuit men and women dress the same. They wear
waterproof boots, double-layer trousers, and the parka; a tight-fitting
double-layer pullover jacket with a hood, all made of skins and furs. An
enlarged hood forms a convenient cradle for nursing infants.
VIII. Religious Beliefs
Traditionally the Inuit believe in a form of animism. Animism is the
belief that all objects and living beings have a spirit. Everything occurs
through some spirit. Spirits can effect people’s lives intrinsically. Although
prayer can not control them, magical charms and talismans can control
them. The shaman is the person that can best control the spirits. They are
usually consulted to heal illnesses and resolve serious problems. Communal
and individual taboos are observed to avoid offending animal spirits, and
animals killed for food must be handled with prescribed rituals.
Inuit rituals and myths reflect preoccupation with survival in a hostile
environment. Vague beliefs of an afterlife or reincarnation exist, but these
receive little emphasis. Most beliefs center on preparation for the hunt, and
myths tend to deal with the relations that exist between humans, animals,
and the environment. In arctic Canada, Greenland, Labrador, and southern
Alaska, large numbers of Inuit have converted to Christianity.
IX. Adjusting to Change
In the 20th century the Inuit have become more assertive, forming
organizations to represent their interests, such as the Alaska Federation of
Natives. The organizations have been instrumental in resolving land claims
since 1971. In Greenland the 1970’s and 1980’s were marked by a campaign
for home rule from Denmark. In December 1991 the Canadian government
agreed to the creation of a new unit known as Nunavut in eastern Northwest
Territories. Approved in May 1992, it will have an area of about 2 million
square km (about 772,500 square miles). The Inuit people will have political
control and broad economic rights over the territory.
The international Circumpolar Conference, founded in 1977, meets
every three years. It provides a forum for Greenland and North American
Inuit to discuss common problems, lobby for an Inuit voice in the planning of
economic development, and promote the preservation of the environment.
Ray, Dorothy Jean. Aleut and Eskimo Art: Tradition and Innovation in South Alaska. Washington, 1981, 1986. Scholarly survey of traditional and market art. Companion book on North Alaska, 1977.
Burch, Ernest S. Jr. The Eskimos. Oklahoma, 1988. Heavily illustrated introduction to the traditional culture of the Inuit and the Aleut.
Wilder, Edna. Once Upon an Eskimo Time. Alaska Northwest, 1987. An accurate account of Eskimo life before the white man.
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