Inuit Indians

The Inuit are Mongoloid people of the Arctic regions of Canada and Greenland who speak Inupik.

The Inuit indigenous people scattered from eastern Russia, across Alaska and northern Canada to Greenland (a distance of some 9 500 km) are called the Inuit. Their name means 'the people' and it is now the term prefered in place of Eskimo which is no longer used since it is considered an inappropriate description (although in Alaska it is still used).

The Inuit have had a presence in their land for as long as the Egyptian or Chinese civilisations and although they did not develop similar large permenant structures, have maintained an almost unchanged culture for c.5 000 years.

The Inuit are not strictly speaking, one group, rather they are numerous widely spread groups with varying regional artistic differences linked by a similar language and spirituality.

The ancestors of contemporary Inuits migrated from northern Asia across a land bridge that existed at various times between present day Russia and Alaska. The first group was thought to have migrated around 40 000 years ago, a second around 25 000 years ago and finally about 10 000 years ago a group who are considered the originators of the Inuit culture arrived.

The first distinct cultural group appeared c. 4 000 years ago and are called the Dorsets because evidence of their existence has been found around Cape Dorset. Generally, they had basic stone weapons, sleds without dog teams and simple artefacts. The group who replaced the Dorest culture around 1500 AD was the Thule culture, and because of their more advanced skill development which included ivory and bone weapons, dog sleds, seal skin kayaks and umiaks they became the dominant group.

The Arctic climate is the most inhospitible in the world for people to live, and it is a credit to the ingenuity of the Inuit and their ancestors that they have survived and adapted to the environmental rigours. Temperatures in winter can drop below -50 degrees and darkness or near darkness will last up to four months, while in the tundra only a few small hardy plants and lichen survive. With animals, birds and fish the main sources of food, the Inuit though necessity evoloved as nomadic hunter-gatherers dependent entirely on what food the land offered.

There are thirteen district groups that make up the Inuit; Siberian, North Alaskan, Mackenzie, Copper, Peninsular, Caribou, Netsilik, Igloolik, Labrador, Polar, North Baffin, West Greenland and Angmagssalik, each having slightly different artistic styles.

Because the Inuit diet was almost entirely meat, animals have played a vitally important part in all aspects of their lives. Depending where groups lived and the particular season, Inuits could hunt such animals as Polar Bears, Walrus, seals, Caribou, Musk-oxen, Arctic Hares, whales, Cod, Salmon, Narwhal, Guillemuts, ducks, gulls or geese, which provided food, clothing, tents, bones and ivory for tools, weapons and art objects. Virtually everything from an animal was used for something.

The Inuit usually lived in small close family groups and had a large summer gathering of clans for feasts, celebrations and swopping of stories. Drumming, dancing and traditional legends as well as games for both children and adults were important features of their lives.

Contact with Europeans, first with Vikings in Greenland c.500 AD then by whalers and explorers from the 18th century, have had a profound effect on the ability of the Inuit to maintain their traditional lifestyles. However, since the late 1940's art has provided an opportunity for the Inuit to revive, maintain or create anew many aspects of their culture, including their deep affinity with Arctic animals, myths and spiritual beliefs. It has also enabled individuals and communities to develop commercial arrangements which have been economically beneficial.


The related peoples of Siberia and South Alaska speak Yupik - a language group, sometimes included in the classification of American Indian languages. It consists of three distinct languages: Inupik (Inupiaq or Inuk), spoken by the Inuit in Greenland and in many dialects along the N coast of Canada, Yupik, spoken by the Arctic peoples of Siberia and South Alaska, and Aleut, spoken by a few hundred people in the Aleutian Islands.


The men are traditionally hunters of seals, whales, walrus, and caribou, using harpoons, canoes (or kayaks), dogs, and sleds. Fishing is also important.


Only some of the many different groups build snow dwellings (igloos). Others construct semisubterranean sod shelters or snow-covered skin tents. There is no overall sense of identity among them and the main units are family bands.

Spiritual Beliefs

Although the religious or social purposes behind ancient Inuit art are obscure it is known that their spiritual beliefs were very similar to animism which is frequently found amoung indigenous hunter/gatherer populations. To the Inuit, spirits of the once living, inhabited animals, objects and forces, and if they did not follow particular ritials these spirits would punish them. It was important therefore to maintain harmony between themselves and their environment.

An offer of a drink to a dead animal would, for example please its spirit, and since the spirit of a seal lived in its bladder this would be returned to the sea through a special ritual.

As in most ancient cultures of this kind, each Inuit group had a sharman, in many places called Angekok, who had the power to communicate with the spirits through traditional ceremonies to seek help with such things as successful hunts, favourable weather or curing the sick. Two important Inuit spirits were Sila who was always present, watching and controlling many things and Sedna, the goddess who lived at the bottom of the sea controlling seals, whales and other sea creatures.

Both ancient and contemporary Inuit sculpture, as well as prints and drawings after the 1940's, often convey spiritual ideas in their imagery derived from both individual artists' interpretations of Inuit beliefs or from legends and stories. Their reverance and respect for the animals they hunted is always strongly apparent in their art.

Amulets made from owls' claws, wolf bones or bird skulls were worn to give strength or wisdom on particular occassions as were necklaces of small ivory carvings of people, objects and animals. Wooden dance masks were also an important part of ceremonies which included dances, drumming, chants and songs.

The Inuit sometimes carved a small tubular sculpture which functioned as a spiritual weapon called a Tupilak. This was an ugly mythical creature intended by the user to carry out a task against another. It was however risky to use, as it could backfire on the individual using it.


Tradional Inuit clothing had changed little in the years leading to European contact since it was so suited to the harsh environment. The materials used were entirely animal based and although varied from season to season there were general similarities across all Inuit groups.

Women wore hooded skirts made from bird skins, short fox skin pants with long mukuks or boots, made from caribou or seal skin, as were gloves, while hare skins were used for socks. Male clothing was very similar with the main difference being shorter boots and trousers made of polar bear fur.

The Inuit also wore parkas which was a loose fitting jacket and hood made from caribou or seal skin.

Clothing construction was carried out by women who used narwhal or caribou sinuew as thread for needles. Their insulating properties came from the layering effect when wearing them and the animal fur, both trapping air which was warmed by the body. Clothing decoration varied widely from group to group but was usually only applied to the outer garments in the form of simple geometric patterns. This usually involved the creative use of animal fur or skin tones or delicate applique and fringing. However the designs on special festival garments were highly decorative consisiting of stars, hunting scenes and other figurative motifs (often incorporating colored beads if they were available).


Inuit architecture, as with clothing, was designed to protect the group from the harsh aspects of the cold climate. Their structures were never permenant although were re-built and re-used by the same family or other group members at varies times.

There were two common dwelling types that were constructed, one for summer and the other for winter, each appropriate in their use of materials. In summer the Inuit lived in tents of seal or caribou skins, supported by frames of wood. At the base, stones held the supports in place while flat rocks or wood were used inside to form a raised sleeping platform. In winter the primary structure was the igdlu which was semi-permenant in nature, consisting of stone walls and sleeping platforms and a stone or whalebone roof covered with skin and earth. A simple flue to release smoke, a below floor-level entrance and seal gut window completed the dwelling which was extremely warm.

The well known igloo was not a widespread or common Inuit dwelling and were used only when travelling during winter and were not permenant. These small domed buildings consisted of snow blocks of roughly the same size, formed into a ring; one being laid over another progressively leaning inwards. Entry was usually through a tunnel dug from the outside.


In winter the Inuit used sledges or komatiks, which were of two distinct types; a plank or a frame. The plank sledge consisted of two runners with cross pieces tied with leather between them (looking a little like a ladder) and were usually made of wood or whalebone. The frame sledges however had the added feature of sides which sloped up from front to back forming a wedge-shaped frame. Teams of dogs pulled both types.

On the water the Inuit travelled and hunted in either a kayak, which was usually designed for one or a umiak which could hold a crew of eight or ten. Both boats, built of wood covered with seal or caribou skin were very light and could easily be carried by hand or sledge, and were extremely well designed for their purpose.

Kayaks were used primarily for hunting and were both fast and manoeuvreable, while umiaks were designed either for travelling or hunting walrus or whale.

Tradtional Methods and Materials

Before the onset of western technologies after World War 2, the only source of materials for the Inuit in the creation of art, craft or architectual objects were from those occuring naturally. Organic materials such as bone, antler, driftwood and ivory were used for carving, while animal, fish and bird skins or furs were made into clothes. Although not common, local grasses were sometimes fashioned into baskets using the coil technique, and also used but not widespread, were vegetable dyes. Meteoric iron was hammered into spear points and knives, slate and flint fashioned into useful impliments and sometimes soapstone was used as a scultural material, with stone used for dwelling construction.

The most common method of artistic creation was through carving, although incised designs were cut into the surfaces of a variety of materials including scrimshaw. Construction techniques were used across many areas including clothing, boats, sledges and dwellings.

Art and Artists

Traditionally, men made art objects and women constructed clothing, however in many other activities the family group or community worked as a team.

In the pre-European contact era art served a decorative (as on garments and utilitarian objects), a spiritual (as with charms, a sharman's equipment, amulets and burial items) or a recreational (toys or games) role. Post European contact saw art begining to be sold or traded (with whalers, missionaries, whalers, travellers and explorers).

Contemporary times have seen the artistic endeavours of the Inuit being revived and preserved primarily for sale, although individual artists' own creative ideas have found at the same time a wide and accepting market.

Inuit arts and crafts are unique and intrinsically linked to their spiritual beliefs and the land, and until recently were in danger of being lost completely as western influences began to permeate their society. It is important for both the Inuit and the rest of the world that their history, language, arts and craft skills do not die out.

The current flourishing Inuit artistic climate can be very much credited to artist and lecturer, James Houston. In 1948 Houston returned from a trip to Hudson Bay, to the Montreal Canadian Handicrafts Guild with many Inuit carvings. The guild was highly impressed with both the Inuit technique and style and sent Houston back for more; over a three day period more than 1 000 were sold, heralding the begining of not only a revival of the Inuit creative tradition, but the start of an important commercial venture which continues today.

Between 1949 and 1953 Houston initiated what could be called the contemporay Inuit carving phase, when many thousands of primarily soapstone carved sculptures were produced by Inuit artists based in their own settlements. The intention was to sell these carvings both nationally and internationally as a way of establishing a sustainable industry for the artists and their communities.

The unique Inuit style and the variety of both traditional and contemporary themes of men hunting, women with babies, human or animal action as well as moments from daily life appealed to buyers. The natural Inuit creative ability with the three dimensional medium gave life to ordinary scenes from daily life, day-dreams and traditional stories.

In 1957 Houston introduced simple printmaking techniques to the Inuit. Although this was an unfamiliar medium and process to them, Houston found it ideal for their graphic style which contrasted markedly to their more realistic carving. In some processes an artist would draw the design onto green serpentine stone, another would carve it in low relief with a printer completing an edition of prints. Another process used stencils to make multiple copies of designs. Graphic themes not only tended to be more styllistic (and in some cases almost semi-abstract) than the carvings but their themes often dealt with legends and spiritual or sharmanistic imagery.

Some artists of note during these early decades of the Inuit creative revival were, Oshaweetok, Pootagook, Lukta, Iyola, Eegjuvudluk, Pauloosie Kutak Aluku, Pudlo, Kiaklshuk, Kenojuak and Pitseolak.

The legacy of Houston's visit in 1948 has been a thriving Inuit artistic community whose style is both recognised and sought after throughout the world. It has not only played an important part in reviving Inuit artistic traditions, but has also made significant contribution to a growing Canadian and world wide awareness and appreciation of the Inuit culture, which during the 20th century came close to disappearing completely.

The term Eskimo, which was formerly used to refer to these people, is now considered offensive by most Inuit.

In 1999 the semiautonomous region of Nunavut was established in NE Canada as a homeland for the Inuit people.

- The New International Illustrated Encyclopedia