Who are the Inuit?
The Inuit are a group of culturally similar indigenous populations that inhabit the Arctic Circle. Until modern times, they lived almost exclusively on marine mammals and fish, and lived in skin tents and igloos.
Where do they live?
The traditional homelands of the Inuit include the Canadian Arctic — most notably in the region called Nunavut, but also the Arctic coasts of Quebec, the Northwest Territories, and Labrador — and the coastal areas of Greenland.
Are the Inuit the same as Eskimos?
No. “Eskimo” is an umbrella term used primarily by linguists and outsiders to refer to all people who call the Arctic home. The Inuit consider the term offensive, but it is sometimes used by indigenous populations residing in mainland Alaska and the Aleutian Islands. There is some debate surrounding the origin of the word “Eskimo.” The most likely, and most recent, explanation for the word’s origin is the Montagnais Cree phrase meaning “snowshoe-netter,” which sounds similar to “Eskimo,” and may have been used to describe the Montagnais’ northern neighbors, the Mi’kmaq.
The Inuit people were the first people to make their home in the Arctic. 5,000 years ago their ancestors crossed the Bering Land Bridge from Siberia to Alaska. Over the course of several centuries they made their way across northern Canada to Greenland, following the Arctic coast. It is here, based on their ability to adapt to the harsh Arctic environment and living resources of this geographic region, that their culture developed. “Inuit” refers to the people formerly called Eskimos, as described above. The name Inuit, which means ‘the people’ or ‘real people’, is the preferred term and comes from a language called Inuktitut.
For thousands of years, Inuit people made their homes from natural materials native to their Arctic surroundings. They built snow shelters known as igloos to house entire families through the long winter. Igloos were complete with snow benches and beds, warm furs for blankets, and long entry tunnels to keep out the wind and cold. The inside of an igloo was often quite comfortable, with temperatures at or just above freezing. In the summer months many families built skin tents framed with whalebones for structure. The tents were easy to set up and take down as the Inuit lived nomadically, following the animals that provided their main food source. While modern day Inuit may still use an igloo for shelter during a winter hunt, pre-fabricated houses have replaced the igloo as permanent housing. These houses sit on the permafrost — a layer of earth that remains permanently frozen throughout the Arctic year. Today’s Arctic villages have elaborate systems adapted to the permafrost with water and sewage piped above ground. Global warming threatens to melt the permafrost and disrupt the very foundation on which the modern Arctic infrastructure rests.
Traditional Inuit clothing was highly adapted to the Arctic environment. Caribou, polar bear, arctic fox, and musk oxen provided valuable material to make thick parkas, pants, and boots. This kind of clothing kept people warm at incredibly cold temperatures. The boots, known as kamuks, came up to the knee and were light and easy to run in, perfect for the deep Arctic snows and an active lifestyle. Tanning the hides provided durable skins to sew into cooler summer clothing. With the impacts of global warming, Inuit have recorded rain lasting into the early winter season, something their warm clothing is not adapted to. Furthermore, impacts of global warming on traditional food sources directly affect the availability of fur and leather.
The traditional Inuit diet centered on meat and fat from sea mammals, an excellent source of energy. Berries and a few herbs were included in the diet, but made up a small portion of it. The Inuit also had a wealth of knowledge about medicinal plants that helped keep them healthy. Because the main fuel available for cooking, heating, and lighting was seal oil, most of these traditional foods were eaten raw, either frozen or aged. Due to global warming, ice crossings to traditional hunting grounds are frozen for shorter periods each year. The animals that continue to make up a large percentage of the modern day Inuit diet are encountering more competition for the scarce resources from other species encroaching from the south. Shrinking sea ice is having a dramatic effect on polar bear populations in particular — so much so that they have recently been classified as a threatened species by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. As traditional sources of food diminish, more and more Inuit families turn to imported store bought foods. The most affordable of these foods are highly processed and contribute to high rates of diabetes and other health concerns in the region.
Traditional Inuit language is based in a rich history of oral tradition. It wasn’t until the early 1900s, when Inuit people began to interact more regularly with Europeans, that a written language developed. The language has two written forms; one based on the Roman alphabet, and the other on syllabics. Though both written forms were developed by non-Inuit, the language itself reflects the close ties of the Inuit people to their land. An example of this is the number of words the Inuit have for snow. With a culture that depended on snow as an important building material for thousands of years, the Inuit know good snow from bad, wet from dry, grainy from fluffy, etc. The variety of dialects throughout the Arctic, reflecting differences in environment, further illustrates this point. Evidence of global warming is also illustrated by new words that must be added to the dialect. For instance, Inuit communities have reported seeing birds, such as finches and robins, that they have never seen before in their communities and have no words for. These birds are migrating north with milder temperature, thereby changing the Arctic ecosystem.
Today’s Inuit live in two worlds. Most Inuit villages are a blend of modern and traditional life, with winding gravel roads, pre-fabricated houses, schools, a small inn or two, a nursing station, government offices and churches. The traditional nomadic life has given way to a more community-based lifestyle complete with office jobs. Today’s Inuit watch cable television, fly by jet, use cell phones, communicate by email, and travel in snowmobiles. Daily flights, weather permitting, ensure the communities have most modern necessities. Despite these changes, the Inuit’s passion for the land perseveres. In the spring, entire communities empty as people return to the wilderness to embrace their traditional lifestyle of hunting, fishing, and sharing. Some Inuit still travel by dog sled while others prefer the snowmobile, all terrain vehicles, or powerboats.
Inuit communities have worked hard to bring their culture back from the edge of extinction. From the mid 1800s to the mid 1990s, with the arrival of European whalers, fur companies, and missionaries, and the Canadian government from the south, non-natives increasingly claimed the land. By the 1960s, the Inuit people had become renters in their own home. Something had to be done. Throughout the late twentieth century, Inuit communities across northern Canada began organizing to take ownership of their native lands and people. On April 1, 1999, the largest land claims agreement in Canadian history was signed in Iqaluit, Baffin Island, creating the territory of Nunavut, an area one-fifth the size of the country. The agreement gave power back to the Inuit to govern their own communities. Since then, Inuit pride has experienced a resurgence throughout the Arctic. But their culture has become endangered once more. Increased warming threatens the entire cultural survival of a people who have worked hard to retain their identity in a changing world.