Stretching along the North American horizon from Alaska to Greenland is a place known as the Canadian Arctic. The land is frozen for most of the year; the soil below the surface never thaws; the seas turn to ice during the nine months of winter, and the climate is possibly the harshest known on earth.
To live in the Canadian Arctic would be undeniably difficult, but to deny the area’s beauty would be impossible. The far north is a land of mountainous islands and deep cut fjords, fenced in by massive icebergs. Travel southward and you’ll find yourself in what is known as the “Barren Grounds,” a treeless tundra; head west and you’ll find yourself in the midst of small bluffs and cone shaped hills; go the other way and you’ll meet with a rugged shoreline and gravel beaches.
Winters in the Canadian Arctic are long and bitterly cold, whereas summers are short and cool. Midwinter lacks daylight, and the summers are ever bright, but if you want to see the northern lights (aurora borealis) on a winter day, there’s no better place to view them.
In a land where sunlight and warmth are rare, plant life grows in abundance, but it grows slowly. Because the growing season is so short, it might take centuries for a plant to mature. Evidence for this can be found in the branches of a 400 year old willow no wider than a grown man’s thumb. The tree is ancient, and yet still in its youth. That’s hard to imagine.
For many years “the people of the ice,” have been referred to as Eskimos, a word that means; eaters of raw meat. Today, the people we once called Eskimos go by the name of the Inuit. Inuit, meaning “the people,” is the name they use for themselves.
The Inuit are believed to have migrated to North America from Asia. They have straight black hair, brown eyes, high cheekbones, and wide faces. The Inuit people are also born with one specific identifying trait, and that would be the small patch of blue that marks the base of their spines at birth. The patch eventually disappears, but for a year or two, every Inuit child carries this mark.
A simple people, the Inuit for the most part lived a nomadic lifestyle. Although some of the Inuit settled along the coastline, many moved about in search of food. They both fished and hunted according to the seasons, only taking enough food to survive on. Nothing from the hunt was wasted; food, shelter, clothing, weapons, tools, and even means for transportation came from animals they hunted.
The Inuit population was small, only one person for every 250 square miles of land. Small bands of the Inuit people lived together, usually five to ten families. Some may have been related. While the men went hunting, the women would stay behind to cook, prepare animal hides for clothing and shelter, gather driftwood for the fire, and care for their families.
Groups of Inuit came to be known by different names based on their population, where they lived, and how they lived. Examples of this would be the Caribou Eskimos or the Mackenzie Eskimos.
The Inuit language is not exact, but it is universal. Each of the Inuits speaks some form of the same language, making it easy enough for the traveling bands to understand one another. In the Inuktitut language, words make complete thoughts by the use of root words. Ideas are linked into words rather than sentences. The longer the idea; the longer the word.
Before the 19th century arrival of missionaries, the Inuit had no form of written language. History was preserved through storytelling, drawings on animal hides, and sometimes the carving of bones. The Inuit calendar consisted of thirteen periods, each divided into twenty-eight days and determined by the location of the moon.
The bands of Inuit people had no formal government or laws, and all members of the band were viewed as equal. Families or individuals were always allowed to make their own decisions. Group decisions were made by the group. Regardless, there was usually one man, often the best hunter amongst the group who was looked up to and seen as an unofficial leader. This man would make recommendations regarding the appropriate time to move a campsite and be responsible for organizing the hunt. No members of the group were required to follow his lead.
The Inuit family unit was sometimes comprised of the entire extended family. These families might all reside within the same residence, or in a number of different residences built closely together. Relatives without a hunter in their immediate family would be taken care of by family members who did. The Inuit family could include grandparents, aunts and uncles, parents, and their children.
Inuit men married as soon as they were able to hunt and provide for a family. The women were married off as soon as they reached puberty, and had no choice in their husbands. A woman’s parents may have promised her in marriage at birth; if not, they might take payment for her from an interested suitor as she came of age. Marriage did not require a ceremony; there were no formalities at all.
Co-habitation defined the Inuit marriage, and a man was allowed more than one wife. Harsh winters and constant movement required a lot of work. Women were seen as needing help, the focus of the family was survival, and often this meant that another pair of hands would be needed to get all of the work done. To become exhausted meant death; stamina was imperative to survival.
Having children was also important to the Inuit people. Children, especially sons, would insure that parents would be taken care of in old age. Children were taught survival skills when they turned eight years old. Boys needed to be proficient in building houses from snow, identifying the tracks of animals, and the use of weapons for hunting. Girls needed to acquire equal prowess in the art of setting traps, cooking, and making clothing. Boys and girls were all required to become adroit in the handling of sledges and dog teams.
People of the Inuit community had great respect for the both the wildlife and environment that surrounded them. They depended on animals for survival; meat wasn’t just for eating. If a man lacked skills in hunting, his family would die. Meat and blubber were the most important staples of the Inuit diet, and even more importantly, the blubber (fat) provided the Inuit people with light, heat, and water.
Picture yourself trying to drink ice; you can’t. The ice had to be melted, and without the animal fat they’d have no source of heat. Try to imagine living through a long winter without sunshine, or more accurately without daylight. Fat fueled lamps provided much needed light during the darkest of days.
Cooking what we would consider a meal in the community was rare. Meat from walrus and seal was eaten raw, as were fish. The valuable nutrients found in raw meat were considered worth the occasional stomach ache. Certain types of whale skin contain more vitamin C than oranges, a vitamin known to help prevent many illnesses. Other parts of sea mammals, such as the livers, are especially rich in vitamins A and D.
Inuit hunters based their hunting forays on past experiences. A hunter needed to be able to “read” the weather, to feel it. Blizzards would come without warning; problems due to poor visibility during a storm could turn even the most experienced hunter around. Hunters needed to be strong, courageous, and skilled; they also needed a keen sense of intuition.
The Inuit hunter’s most important means of transportation was the kayak. His most important weapon; the harpoon. Harpoons were made in different lengths, weights, and designs. Each harpoon was specially made for a specific type of catch. Seals, walrus, whale and caribou were all sought by the Inuit hunter, and each hunt required the adaptation of the hunter to the survival skills of the hunted.
The catch was always attributed to the first hunter who actually saw the animal; it didn’t matter which hunter actually made the kill. All catches were shared by the entire community. They each took care of one another.
The Inuit had a firm belief in the supernatural. They believed in a higher power; they believed that spirits watched over them, and they also believed there were spirits sent to trick them. Everything had a soul, human and animal alike. The Inuit believed that after death, the souls (spirits) of both man and animal had the power to enter other living creatures. Hunters might even place their weapons near the fire in order to warm the spirit of an animal they’d just killed. Festivals and rituals were celebrated to honor the animals killed in a hunting expedition; this was done out of respect, and in hope that good hunting would be had in the future.
Inuits also had many superstitions. Animals from the land and sea should never be insulted by the other’s presence. Walrus could not be eaten the same day as caribou; you couldn’t hunt land animals after hunting in the sea without a ritual cleansing of weapons, nor could you fashion clothing or hides from bear on a day you hunted for seal.
Other evils were warded off by the wearing of amulets. A necklace of caribou ears would enhance your hearing; owl claws strengthened the hands, and willow branches would bring height to the young. A fisherman’s tools might be accompanied by fish skin (just for luck), and the skin of a loon tied into the kayak granted greater speed to the hunter.
Pregnancy and illness were each causes of separation from the group. If you became ill or were about to give birth, the group would send you into isolation. Women more often than not delivered their children alone and without help; the baby’s umbilical cord was bitten off and saved as an amulet. Mothers and their newborns lived apart in their own dwellings for the first month of the baby’s life. Newborns were given the names of dead relatives, and their mothers were forced to adhere to strict diets and no company. No visiting allowed.
The dead were revered. It was believed that when a child was given its name, the spirit of its ancestor would enter into its body, ready to guide him/her through childhood. Death was considered the epitome of power, and it was the most greatly feared power of all.
The first arrival of white man in the Canadian Arctic took place around A.D. 1003. After the arrival of the Norse explorers, it would be another 700 years before groups of white men would again arrive on their shores en masse.
Up until the 17th century, the Inuit welcomed the occasional explorers, traders, and missionaries that came their way. Sometimes the visitors would settle, and other times they might just be passing through. None the less, most would bring goods like pots and iron pans in order to trade for animal skins and other Inuit crafts. It wasn’t until the arrival of the English, Scottish, and American whalers that the Inuit culture began to change.
Inuit men had always worked for their own families, and it had always been about needs, not wants. They took enough from the land to survive and take care of their families, nothing more, and nothing less. The arrival of the whalers brought new work on ships, and in processing plants. Whaling and trade brought money; they also brought guns. Guns enabled the Inuit to hunt easier and more quickly than ever before. Hunting was no longer a ritual carried out in respect of the wildlife that up until then had been revered. Animals became no more than a source of trade, and their numbers were decimated.
Decimation of wildlife caused a mass movement of the Inuit people. No longer able to live off the land as they’d always done, they were now forced to move ever closer to the trading posts constructed by the Europeans and Americans who’d settled along the coastline. The Intuits became evermore reliant on European trade. Their need for food required that they work; they now needed money to eat. Many Inuit died from diseases they’d no immunity to. Their deaths numbered in the thousands.
In the 1850’s a new group of missionaries appeared in the Arctic region. What they brought with them would change the lives of the Inuit people forever. A system of writing was devised and schools were established.
World War II brought the Inuit technology. Air force bases and weather stations built to defend the North American continent, supplied jobs for the Arctic natives.
In the mid 1900s, people like James Houston, an artist, encouraged the Inuit to go back to their roots, to use Inuit skills passed down through the generations in order to make a living. Cooperatives were then formed to promote the sale of Inuit paintings, carvings, and crafts. All of these endeavors have been successful.
Today, the Inuit’s lives are much like our own. Some of their culture lives on, but all in all, the Inuit have chosen to move forward.