Essay Inuit People




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.

12 • FOOD

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.

Also read article about Inuit from Wikipedia

For the 2010 film, see Inuk (film). For other uses of Inuit, see Inuit (disambiguation).

Not to be confused with the Innu people, a First Nations people in eastern Quebec and Labrador.

Traditional qamutik (sled), Cape Dorset, Nunavut
Total population
Regions with significant populations
 Canada65,125 (2016)[2]
 Greenland51,365 (2010)[1]
 United States (Primarily Alaska)16,581 (2010)[3]
 Denmark15,815 (2015)[4]
 Russia1,750 (2010)[5]
Greenlandic, Inuktitut, and other Inuit languages, Danish, English, French, Inuiuuk and various others
Christianity, Inuit religion
Related ethnic groups
Aleut and Yupik peoples[6]

The Inuit (pronounced ; Inuktitut: ᐃᓄᐃᑦ, "the people"[7]) are a group of culturally similar indigenous peoples inhabiting the Arctic regions of Greenland, Canada and Alaska.[8] Inuit is a plural noun; the singular is Inuk.[7] The Inuit languages are part of the Eskimo-Aleut family.[9]Inuit Sign Language is a critically endangered language isolate used in Nunavut.[10]

In the United States and Canada, the term "Eskimo" was commonly used by ethnic Europeans to describe the Inuit and Alaska's Yupik and Iñupiat peoples. However, "Inuit" is not accepted as a term for the Yupik, and "Eskimo"[11] is the only term that applies to Yupik, Iñupiat and Inuit. Since the late 20th century, aboriginal peoples in Canada and Greenlandic Inuit consider "Eskimo" to be a pejorative term, and they more frequently identify as "Inuit" for an autonym.[12][13] In Canada, sections 25 and 35 of the Constitution Act of 1982 classified the Inuit as a distinctive group of Aboriginal Canadians who are not included under either the First Nations or the Métis.[14]

The Inuit live throughout most of Northern Canada in the territory of Nunavut, Nunavik in the northern third of Quebec, Nunatsiavut and NunatuKavut in Labrador, and in various parts of the Northwest Territories, particularly around the Arctic Ocean. These areas are known in Inuktitut as the "Inuit Nunangat".[15][16]

In the United States, the Iñupiat live primarily on the Alaska North Slope and on Little Diomede Island. The Greenlandic Inuit are descendants of ancient indigenous migrations from Canada, as these people migrated to the east through the continent. They are citizens of Denmark, although not of the European Union.


  • 1Precontact history
  • 2Postcontact history
  • 3Nomenclature
  • 4Cultural history
    • 4.1Languages
    • 4.2Diet
    • 4.3Transport, navigation, and dogs
    • 4.4Industry, art, and clothing
    • 4.5Gender roles, marriage, birth, and community
    • 4.6Raiding
    • 4.7Suicide, murder, and death
    • 4.8Traditional law
  • 5Traditional beliefs
  • 6Demographics
  • 7Governance
  • 8Modern culture
  • 9References
  • 10Further reading
  • 11External links

Precontact history[edit]

For their earlier precontact history, see Aboriginal peoples in Canada § Paleo-Indians period.

Inuit are the descendants of what anthropologists call the Thule culture,[17] who emerged from western Alaska around 1000 CE. They had split from the related Aleut group about 4,000 years ago and from northeastern Siberian migrants, possibly related to the Chukchi language group, still earlier, descended from the third major migration from Siberia. They spread eastwards across the Arctic.[18] They displaced the related Dorset culture, called the Tuniit in Inuktitut, which was the last major Paleo-Eskimo culture.[19]

Inuit legends speak of the Tuniit as "giants", people who were taller and stronger than the Inuit.[20] Less frequently, the legends refer to the Dorset as "dwarfs".[21] Researchers believe that Inuit society had advantages by having adapted to using dogs as transport animals, and developing larger weapons and other technologies superior to those of the Dorset culture.[22] By 1300, Inuit migrants had reached west Greenland, where they settled. During the next century, they also settled in East Greenland [23]

Faced with population pressures from the Thule and other surrounding groups, such as the Algonquian and Siouan-speaking peoples to the south, the Tuniit gradually receded.[24] The Tuniit were thought to have become completely extinct as a people by about 1400 or 1500.

But, in the mid-1950s, researcher Henry B. Collins determined that, based on the ruins found at Native Point, the Sadlermiut were likely the last remnants of the Dorset culture, or Tuniit.[25] The Sadlermiut population survived up until winter 1902–03, when exposure to new infectious diseases brought by contact with Europeans led to their extinction as a people.[26]

In the early 21st century, mitochondrial DNA research has supported the theory of continuity between the Tuniit and the Sadlermiut peoples.[27][28] It also provided evidence that a population displacement did not occur within the Aleutian Islands between the Dorset and Thule transition.[29] In contrast to other Tuniit populations, the Aleut and Sadlermiut benefited from both geographical isolation and their ability to adopt certain Thule technologies.

In Canada and Greenland, Inuit circulated almost exclusively north of the "Arctic tree line", the effective southern border of Inuit society. The most southern "officially recognized" Inuit community in the world is Rigolet[30] in Nunatsiavut.

South of Nunatsiavut, the descendants of the southern Labrador Inuit in NunatuKavut continued their traditional transhumant semi-nomadic way of life until the mid-1900s. The Nunatukavummuit people usually moved among islands and bays on a seasonal basis. They did not establish stationary communities. In other areas south of the tree line, Native American and First Nations cultures were well established. The culture and technology of Inuit society that served so well in the Arctic were not suited to subarctic regions, so they did not displace their southern neighbors.

Inuit had trade relations with more southern cultures; boundary disputes were common and gave rise to aggressive actions. Warfare was not uncommon among those Inuit groups with sufficient population density. Inuit such as the Nunatamiut (Uummarmiut), who inhabited the Mackenzie River delta area, often engaged in warfare. The more sparsely settled Inuit in the Central Arctic, however, did so less often.

Their first European contact was with the Vikings who settled in Greenland and explored the eastern Canadian coast. The Norse sagas recorded meeting skrælingar, probably an undifferentiated label for all the indigenous peoples whom the Norse encountered, whether Tuniit, Inuit, or Beothuk.[31]

After about 1350, the climate grew colder during the period known as the Little Ice Age. During this period, Alaskan natives were able to continue their whaling activities. But, in the high Arctic, the Inuit were forced to abandon their hunting and whaling sites as bowhead whales disappeared from Canada and Greenland.[32] These Inuit had to subsist on a much poorer diet, and lost access to the essential raw materials for their tools and architecture which they had previously derived from whaling.[32] The changing climate forced the Inuit to work their way south, forcing them into marginal niches along the edges of the tree line. These were areas which Native Americans had not occupied or where they were weak enough for the Inuit to live near them. Researchers have difficulty defining when Inuit stopped this territorial expansion. There is evidence that they were still moving into new territory in southern Labrador when they first began to interact with European colonists in the 17th century.

Postcontact history[edit]


Early contact with Europeans[edit]

The lives of Paleo-Eskimos of the far north were largely unaffected by the arrival of visiting Norsemen except for mutual trade.[33] The Labrador Inuit have had the longest continuous contact with Europeans.[34] After the disappearance of the Norse colonies in Greenland, the Inuit had no contact with Europeans for at least a century. By the mid-16th century, Basque whalers and fishermen were already working the Labrador coast and had established whaling stations on land, such as the one that has been excavated at Red Bay, Labrador.[35][36] The Inuit do not appear to have interfered with their operations, but the Natives raided the stations in winter, taking tools and items made of worked iron, which they adapted to their own needs.

Martin Frobisher's 1576 search for the Northwest Passage was the first well-documented contact between Europeans and Inuit. Frobisher's expedition landed in Frobisher Bay, Baffin Island, not far from the settlement now called the City of Iqaluit, which was long known as Frobisher Bay. Frobisher encountered Inuit on Resolution Island where five sailors left the ship, under orders from Frobisher. They became part of Inuit mythology. The homesick sailors, tired of their adventure, attempted to leave in a small vessel and vanished. Frobisher brought an unwilling Inuk to England, possibly the first Inuk ever to visit Europe.[37] In contrast, the Inuit oral tradition recounts the natives helping Frobisher's crewmen, whom they believed had been abandoned.

The semi-nomadic eco-centred Inuit were fishers and hunters harvesting lakes, seas, ice platforms and tundra. While there are some allegations that Inuit were hostile to early French and English explorers, fishers and whalers, more recent research suggests that the early relations with whaling stations along the Labrador coast and later James Bay were based on a mutual interest in trade.[38] In the final years of the 18th century, the Moravian Church began missionary activities in Labrador, supported by the British who were tired of the raids on their whaling stations. The Moravian missionaries could easily provide the Inuit with the iron and basic materials they had been stealing from whaling outposts, materials whose real cost to Europeans was almost nothing, but whose value to the Inuit was enormous. From then on, contacts between the national groups in Labrador were far more peaceful.

The exchanges that accompanied the arrival and colonization by the Europeans greatly damaged the Inuit way of life. Mass death was caused by the new infectious diseases carried by whalers and explorers, to which the indigenous peoples had no acquired immunity. The high mortality rate contributed to the enormous social disruptions caused by the distorting effect of Europeans' material wealth and introduction of different materials. Nonetheless, Inuit society in the higher latitudes largely remained in isolation during the 19th century.

The Hudson's Bay Company opened trading posts such as Great Whale River (1820), today the site of the twin villages of Whapmagoostui and Kuujjuarapik, where whale products of the commercial whale hunt were processed and furs traded. The British Naval Expedition of 1821–3 led by Admiral William Edward Parry twice over-wintered in Foxe Basin. It provided the first informed, sympathetic and well-documented account of the economic, social and religious life of the Inuit. Parry stayed in what is now Igloolik over the second winter. Parry's writings, with pen and ink illustrations of Inuit everyday life, and those of George Francis Lyon were widely read after they were both published in 1824.[39] Captain George Comer's Inuit wife Shoofly, known for her sewing skills and elegant attire,[40] was influential in convincing him to acquire more sewing accessories and beads for trade with Inuit.

Early 20th century[edit]

During the early 20th century a few traders and missionaries circulated among the more accessible bands. After 1904 they were accompanied by a handful of Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP). Unlike most Aboriginal peoples in Canada, however, the Inuit did not occupy lands that were coveted by European settlers. Used to more temperate climates and conditions, most Europeans considered the homeland of the Inuit to be a hostile hinterland. Southerners enjoyed lucrative careers as bureaucrats and service providers to the peoples of the North, but very few ever chose to visit there.

Once its more hospitable lands were largely settled, the government of Canada and entrepreneurs began to take a greater interest in its more peripheral territories, especially the fur and mineral-rich hinterlands. By the late 1920s, there were no longer any Inuit who had not been contacted by traders, missionaries or government agents. In 1939, the Supreme Court of Canada found, in a decision known as Re Eskimos, that the Inuit should be considered Indians and were thus under the jurisdiction of the federal government.

Native customs were worn down by the actions of the RCMP, who enforced Canadian criminal law on the Inuit. Men such as Kikkik often did not understand the rules of the alien society with which they had to interact. In addition, the generally Protestant missionaries of the British preached a moral code very different from the one the Inuit had as part of their tradition. Many of the Inuit were systematically converted to Christianity in the 19th and 20th centuries, through rituals such as the Siqqitiq.

Second World War to the 1960s[edit]

World War II and the Cold War made Arctic Canada strategically important to the great powers for the first time. Thanks to the development of modern long-distance aircraft, these areas became accessible year-round. The construction of air bases and the Distant Early Warning Line in the 1940s and 1950s brought more intensive contacts with European society, particularly in the form of public education for children. The traditionalists complained that Canadian education promoted foreign values that were disdainful of the traditional structure and culture of Inuit society.[41]

In the 1950s the Government of Canada undertook what was called the High Arctic relocation for several reasons. These were to include protecting Canada's sovereignty in the Arctic, alleviating hunger (as the area currently occupied had been over-hunted), and attempting to solve the "Eskimo problem", by seeking assimilation of the people and the end of their traditional Inuit culture. One of the more notable relocations was undertaken in 1953, when 17 families were moved from Port Harrison (now Inukjuak, Quebec) to Resolute and Grise Fiord. They were dropped off in early September when winter had already arrived. The land they were sent to was very different from that in the Inukjuak area; it was barren, with only a couple of months when the temperature rose above freezing, and several months of polar night. The families were told by the RCMP they would be able to return to their home territory within two years if conditions were not right. However, two years later more Inuit families were relocated to the High Arctic. Thirty years passed before they were able to visit Inukjuak.[42][43][44]

By 1953, Canada's prime ministerLouis St. Laurent publicly admitted, "Apparently we have administered the vast territories of the north in an almost continuing absence of mind."[45] The government began to establish about forty permanent administrative centres to provide education, health, and economic development services.[45] Inuit from hundreds of smaller camps scattered across the north, began to congregate in these hamlets.[46]

Regular visits from doctors, and access to modern medical care raised the birth rate and decreased the death rate, causing a marked natural increase in the population that made it more difficult for them to survive by traditional means. In the 1950s, the Canadian government began to actively settle Inuit into permanent villages and cities, occasionally against their will (such as in Nuntak and Hebron). In 2005 the Canadian government acknowledged the abuses inherent in these forced resettlements.[47] By the mid-1960s, encouraged first by missionaries, then by the prospect of paid jobs and government services, and finally forced by hunger and required by police, most Canadian Inuit lived year-round in permanent settlements. The nomadic migrations that were the central feature of Arctic life had become a much smaller part of life in the North. The Inuit, a once self-sufficient people in an extremely harsh environment were, in the span of perhaps two generations, transformed into a small, impoverished minority, lacking skills or resources to sell to the larger economy, but increasingly dependent on it for survival.

Although anthropologists like Diamond Jenness (1964) were quick to predict that Inuit culture was facing extinction, Inuit political activism was already emerging.

Cultural renewal[edit]

In the 1960s, the Canadian government funded the establishment of secular, government-operated high schools in the Northwest Territories (including what is now Nunavut) and Inuit areas in Quebec and Labrador along with the residential school system. The Inuit population was not large enough to support a full high school in every community, so this meant only a few schools were built, and students from across the territories were boarded there. These schools, in Aklavik, Iqaluit, Yellowknife, Inuvik and Kuujjuaq, brought together young Inuit from across the Arctic in one place for the first time, and exposed them to the rhetoric of civil and human rights that prevailed in Canada in the 1960s. This was a real wake-up call for the Inuit, and it stimulated the emergence of a new generation of young Inuit activists in the late 1960s who came forward and pushed for respect for the Inuit and their territories.

The Inuit began to emerge as a political force in the late 1960s and early 1970s, shortly after the first graduates returned home. They formed new politically active associations in the early 1970s, starting with the Inuit Tapirisat of Canada (Inuit Brotherhood and today known as Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami), an outgrowth of the Indian and Eskimo Association of the '60s, in 1971, and more region specific organizations shortly afterwards, including the Committee for the Original People's Entitlement (representing the Inuvialuit),[48] the Northern Quebec Inuit Association (Makivik Corporation) and the Labrador Inuit Association (LIA) representing Northern Labrador Inuit. Since the mid-1980s the Southern Labrador Inuit of NunatuKavut began organizing politically after being geographically cut out of the LIA, however, for political expediency the organization was erroneously called the Labrador Métis Nation. These various activist movements began to change the direction of Inuit society in 1975 with the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement. This comprehensive land claims settlement for Quebec Inuit, along with a large cash settlement and substantial administrative autonomy in the new region of Nunavik, set the precedent for the settlements to follow. The northern Labrador Inuit submitted their land claim in 1977, although they had to wait until 2005 to have a signed land settlement establishing Nunatsiavut. Southern Labrador Inuit of NunatuKavut are currently in the process of establishing landclaims and title rights that would allow them to negotiate with the Newfoundland Government.

Canada's 1982 Constitution Act recognized the Inuit as Aboriginal peoples in Canada, but not First Nations.[14] In the same year, the Tunngavik Federation of Nunavut (TFN) was incorporated, in order to take over negotiations for land claims on behalf of the Inuit living in the eastern Northwest Territories, that would later become Nunavut, from the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, which became a joint association of the Inuit of Quebec, Labrador, and the Northwest Territories.

Inuit cabinet members at the federal level[edit]

On October 30, 2008, Leona Aglukkaq was appointed as Minister of Health, "[becoming] the first Inuk to hold a senior cabinet position, although she is not the first Inuk to be in cabinet altogether."[49]Jack Anawak and Nancy Karetak-Lindell were both parliamentary secretaries respectively from 1993 to 1996 and in 2003.


See also: Eskimo § Nomenclature

In the United States, the term "Eskimo" is still commonly used, because it includes Inuit, Aleut, Iñupiat, and Yupik peoples whilst distinguishing them from American Indians. The Yupik do not speak an Inuit language nor consider themselves to be Inuit.[11] However, the term is probably a Montagnais[50][51][52]exonym as well as being widely used in[50][53][54][55]folk etymology as meaning "eater of raw meat" in the Cree language.[13][56] It is now considered pejorative or even a racial slur amongst the Canadian and English-speaking Greenlandic Inuit.[13][56]

In Canada and Greenland, "Inuit" is preferred. Inuit is the Eastern Canadian Inuit (Inuktitut) and West Greenlandic (Kalaallisut) word for "the people."[7] Since Inuktitut and Kalaallisut are the prestige dialects in Canada and Greenland, respectively, their version has become dominant, although every Inuit dialect uses cognates from the Proto-Eskimo*ińuɣ – for example, "people" is inughuit in North Greenlandic and iivit in East Greenlandic.

Cultural history[edit]

Main article: Inuit culture


Main article: Inuit languages

Inuit speak Inuinnaqtun, Inuktitut, Inuvialuktun, and Greenlandic languages, which belong to the Inuit-Inupiaq branch of the Eskimo–Aleut language family.[6] The Greenlandic languages are divided into: Kalaallisut (Western), Inuktun (Northern), and Tunumiit (Eastern).[57]

Inuktitut is spoken in Canada and along with Inuinnaqtun is one of the official languages of Nunavut and are known collectively as the Inuit Language.[58] In the Northwest Territories, Inuvialuktun, Inuinnaqtun and Inuktitut are all official langues.[59] Kalaallisut is the official language of Greenland.[60] As Inuktitut was the language of the Eastern Canadian Inuit and Kalaallisut is the language of the Western Greenlandic Inuit, they are related more closely than most other dialects.[61]

Inuit in Alaska and Northern Canada also typically speak English.[citation needed] In Greenland, Inuit also speak Danish and learn English in school. Canadian Inuit may also speak Québécois French.

Finally, Deaf Inuit speak Inuit Sign Language, often called Inuiuuk, which is a language isolate and almost extinct as only around 50 people still speak it.[62]


Main article: Inuit diet

The Inuit have traditionally been fishers and hunters. They still hunt whales (esp. bowhead whale), walrus, caribou, seal, polar bears, muskoxen, birds, and fish and at times other less commonly eaten animals such as the Arctic fox. The typical Inuit diet is high in protein and very high in fat – in their traditional diets, Inuit consumed an average of 75% of their daily energy intake from fat.[63] While it is not possible to cultivate plants for food in the Arctic, the Inuit have traditionally gathered those that are naturally available. Grasses, tubers, roots, stems, berries, and seaweed (kuanniq or edible seaweed) were collected and preserved depending on the season and the location.[64][65][66][67][68] There is a vast array of different hunting technologies that the Inuit used to gather their food.

In the 1920s anthropologist Vilhjalmur Stefansson lived with and studied a group of Inuit.[69] The study focused on the fact that the Inuit's low-carbohydrate diet had no adverse effects on their health, nor indeed, Stefansson's own health. Stefansson (1946) also observed that the Inuit were able to get the necessary vitamins they needed from their traditional winter diet, which did not contain any plant matter. In particular, he found that adequate vitamin C could be obtained from items in their traditional diet of raw meat such as ringed sealliver and whale skin (muktuk). While there was considerable skepticism when he reported these findings, they have been borne out in recent studies and analyses.[70][71] However, the Inuit have lifespans 12 to 15 years shorter than the average Canadian's, which is thought to be a result of limited access to medical services.[72] The life expectancy gap is not closing.[72][73][74] Furthermore, fish oil supplement studies have failed to support claims of preventing heart attacks or strokes.[75][76][77]

Transport, navigation, and dogs[edit]

The natives hunted sea animals from single-passenger, covered seal-skin boats called qajaq (Inuktitut syllabics: ᖃᔭᖅ)[78] which were extraordinarily buoyant, and could easily be righted by a seated person, even if completely overturned. Because of this property, the design was copied by Europeans and Americans who still produce them under the Inuit name kayak.

Inuit also made umiaq ("woman's boat"), larger open boats made of wood frames covered with animal skins, for transporting people, goods, and dogs. They were 6–12 m (20–39 ft) long and had a flat bottom so that the boats could come close to shore. In the winter, Inuit would also hunt sea mammals by patiently watching an aglu (breathing hole) in the ice and waiting for the air-breathing seals to use them. This technique is also used by the polar bear, who hunts by seeking holes in the ice and waiting nearby.

In winter, both on land and on sea ice, the Inuit used dog sleds (qamutik) for transportation. The husky dog breed comes from Inuit breeding of dogs and wolves for transportation. A team of dogs in either a tandem/side-by-side or fan formation would pull a sled made of wood, animal bones, or the baleen from a whale's mouth and even frozen fish,[79] over the snow and ice. The Inuit used stars to navigate at sea and landmarks to navigate on land; they possessed a comprehensive native system of toponymy. Where natural landmarks were insufficient, the Inuit would erect an inukshuk.

Dogs played an integral role in the annual routine of the Inuit. During the summer they became pack animals, sometimes dragging up to 20 kg (44 lb) of baggage and in the winter they pulled the sled. Yearlong they assisted with hunting by sniffing out seals' holes and pestering polar bears. They also protected the Inuit villages by barking at bears and strangers. The Inuit generally favored, and tried to breed, the most striking and handsome of dogs, especially ones with bright eyes and a healthy coat. Common husky dog breeds used by the Inuit were the Canadian Eskimo Dog, the official animal of Nunavut,[80] (Qimmiq; Inuktitut for dog), the Greenland Dog, the Siberian Husky and the Alaskan Malamute. The Inuit would perform rituals over the newborn pup to give it favorable qualities; the legs were pulled to make them grow strong and the nose was poked with a pin to enhance the sense of smell.

Industry, art, and clothing[edit]

Main article: Inuit art

Inuit industry relied almost exclusively on animal hides, driftwood, and bones, although some tools were also made out of worked stones, particularly the readily worked soapstone. Walrus ivory was a particularly essential material, used to make knives. Art played a big part in Inuit society and continues to do so today. Small sculptures of animals and human figures, usually depicting everyday activities such as hunting and whaling, were carved from ivory and bone. In modern times prints and figurative works carved in relatively soft stone such as soapstone, serpentinite, or argillite have also become popular.

Inuit made clothes and footwear from animal skins, sewn together using needles made from animal bones and threads made from other animal products, such as sinew. The anorak (parka) is made in a similar fashion by Arctic peoples from Europe through Asia and the Americas, including the Inuit. The hood of an amauti, (women's parka, plural amautiit) was traditionally made extra large with a separate compartment below the hood to allow the mother to carry a baby against her back and protect it from the harsh wind. Styles vary from region to region, from the shape of the hood to the length of the tails. Boots (mukluk or kamik[81]), could be made of caribou or seal skin, and designed for men and women.

During the winter, certain Inuit lived in a temporary shelter made from snow called an igloo, and during the few months of the year when temperatures were above freezing, they lived in tents, known as tupiq,[82] made of animal skins supported by a frame of bones or wood.[83][84] Some, such as the Siglit, used driftwood,[85] while others built sod houses.[86]

Gender roles, marriage, birth, and community[edit]

See also: Eskimo kinship and Inuit women

The division of labor in traditional Inuit society had a strong gender component, but it was not absolute. The men were traditionally hunters and fishermen and the women took care of the children, cleaned the home, sewed, processed food, and cooked. However, there are numerous examples of women who hunted, out of necessity or as a personal choice. At the same time men, who could be away from camp for several days at a time, would be expected to know how to sew and cook.[87]

The marital customs among the Inuit were not strictly monogamous: many Inuit relationships were implicitly or explicitly sexual. Open marriages, polygamy, divorce, and remarriage were known. Among some Inuit groups, if there were children, divorce required the approval of the community and particularly the agreement of the elders. Marriages were often arranged, sometimes in infancy, and occasionally forced on the couple by the community.[88]

Marriage was common for women at puberty and for men when they became productive hunters. Family structure was flexible: a household might consist of a man and his wife (or wives) and children; it might include his parents or his wife's parents as well as adopted children; it might be a larger formation of several siblings with their parents, wives and children; or even more than one family sharing dwellings and resources. Every household had its head, an elder or a particularly respected man.[89]

There was also a larger notion of community as, generally, several families shared a place where they wintered. Goods were shared within a household, and also, to a significant extent, within a whole community.

The Inuit were hunter–gatherers,[90] and have been referred to as nomadic.[91] One of the customs following the birth of an infant was for an Angakkuq (shaman) to place a tiny ivory carving of a whale into the baby's mouth, in hopes this would make the child good at hunting. Loud singing and drumming were also customary after a birth.[92]


Virtually all Inuit cultures have oral traditions of raids by other indigenous peoples, including fellow Inuit, and of taking vengeance on them in return, such as the Bloody Falls Massacre. Western observers often regarded these tales as generally not entirely accurate historical accounts, but more as self-serving myths. However, evidence shows that Inuit cultures had quite accurate methods of teaching historical accounts to each new generation.[93] In northern Canada, historically there were ethnic feuds between the Dene and the Inuit, as witnessed by Samuel Hearne in 1771.[94] In 1996, Dene and Inuit representatives participated in a healing ceremony to reconcile the centuries-old grievances.[95]

The historic accounts of violence against outsiders does make clear that there was a history of hostile contact within the Inuit cultures and with other cultures.[96] It also makes it clear that Inuit nations existed through history, as well as confederations of such nations. The known confederations were usually formed to defend against a more prosperous, and thus stronger, nation. Alternately, people who lived in less productive geographical areas tended to be less warlike, as they had to spend more time producing food.

Justice within Inuit culture was moderated by the form of governance that gave significant power to the elders. As in most cultures around the world, justice could be harsh and often included capital punishment for serious crimes against the community or the individual. During raids against other peoples, the Inuit, like their non-Inuit neighbors, tended to be merciless.[97]

Suicide, murder, and death[edit]

Further information: Suicide in Greenland and Suicide among Canadian aboriginal people

A pervasive European myth about Inuit is that they killed elderly (senicide) and "unproductive people",[98] but this is not generally true.[99][100][101] In a culture with an oral history, elders are the keepers of communal knowledge, effectively the community library.[102] Because they are of extreme value as the repository of knowledge, there are cultural taboos against sacrificing elders.[103][104]

In Antoon A. Leenaars' book Suicide in Canada he states that "Rasmussen

A European ship coming into contact with the Inuit in the ice of Hudson Bay in 1697.
Hudson's Bay Company Ships bartering with Inuit off the Upper Savage Islands, Hudson Strait, 1819
Distribution of Inuit dialects
Inuit woman's parka, Canada.
Traditional clothing; left: seal, right: caribou.
Inupiat woman, Alaska, circa 1907
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