“Inuit” refers to a group of indigenous people living in the Arctic regions of Alaska, Canada, and Greenland. Traditionally, these people have relied on fish and land and marine mammals for all their needs.
The Inuit tribes include Alaska’s Inupiat and Yup’ik, Canada’s Inuit and Inuvialuit, and Greenland’s Kalaallit Inuit. The Inuit are distinct from Eskimos, a term which applies to the Yup’ik tribes of Alaska – they enjoy a distinct language and culture which differentiates the two groups.
The Inuit descended from the Thule, a nomadic culture that came from Alaska around 1000 CE. From there, they spread east. The related Dorset Culture (the Tuniit) were displaced by the advancing Inuit, forced into smaller enclaves until the last of them died in 1902. Scientific research suggests that the two cultures did not intermarry, and the Dorset peoples have disappeared.
Inuit have a history of fighting between tribes, and even between individuals. Justice is rough and swift in the frozen North. With no jails, no police, and no court system, the Inuit dispensed “rough justice” as they saw fit.
It was rare for Inuit to fight Native tribes. The Copper Inuit were an exception. Harrassed and attacked by the Chipewyan and Yellowknife tribes, the Copper Inuit sought glory and revenge. There is a long history of animosity between the groups.
The Vikings settled Greenland and began to explore the east coast of Canada. In doing so, they came into contact with “skraelings”, believed to be a generic term for all Inuit, Dorsets, and Beothuks. Relations between the two groups were strained, and fighting was common. In the end, the Vikings went home, while the Inuit remained. The Inuit continued to spread across the Northern tundra, living off the land.
The Inuit hunted for whales, walruses, and other marine mammals; birds and bird eggs; and even polar bears and foxes. There is little vegetation in the Arctic, though Inuit eat seaweed and other plants when available.
Inuit were skilled in making seal-skin boats called qajaq, which led to the development of the modern kayak. On land, they used sleds for transportation, pulled by teams of dogs. Not only were dogs ideal draft animals, they had other duties – protection from wild animals and strangers, help with hunting duties, and more. From the Inuit breeding efforts, we now have the Samoyed, the Husky, the Malamute, and the Canadian Eskimo Dog.
Clothing is chosen for warmth, and uses items common to the region. Seal skin is used to make parkas and boots. The warmth of deer and caribou furs are used to make blankets and clothing, keeping them warm.
Of course, there are few resources in the Arctic. Whalebones and animal skins were used to make shelters. Perhaps, though, the Inuit are most famous for their ice houses. Igloos were an easy shelter to build, perfect when travelling. And igloos took advantage of the one thing that the Arctic has in excess – snow. Blocks are carved out and carefully fitted together, making a warm and comfortable shelter in the worst of weather.
Since the arrival of European explorers, the Inuit have been decimated by foreign diseases like tuberculosis, smallpox, and measles. The ill effects of alcohol and isolation have taken their toll. Fortunately, there has been a resurgence of interest in Inuit culture. Land claims are being settled, and the Inuit people are returning to their traditional way of life. Through tourism and art, Inuit culture is reaching a wider audience while offering a new source of revenues to the people. They are also involved in mining, construction, airlines, and even fisheries.