There are various groups of indigenous people who live in an area around the North Pole known as the Arctic Circle. This area includes places like Alaska, Canada, Greenland, and the infamous Siberia. The Inuit are one of these native peoples.
The Inuit first came to America approximately 15,000 years ago. At the time there was a land bridge called Beringia connecting Asia to the Americas. It has since been submerged due to rising sea levels. The Inuit walked across this land bridge. So they look Asian because of their origins — they were Asian.
Note: “Eskimo” was once a popular name given to a group of Native Americans that included the Inuits. The name has become less popular. It is sometimes seen as inappropriate. Terms such as “Alaskan Native” (for those who live in Alaska) or using the specific name of the tribal people are more polite these days. So, I will not use Eskimo here.
People who are the original settlers of an area are known as “natives” or “indigenous” peoples. Thus, we call those who first arrived in the Americas “Native Americans.”
Native Americans first arrived in America over the previously mentioned land bridge that once connected Siberia (Russia) and Alaska. They started to migrate about 15,000 years ago (we don’t know for sure; it might have been earlier), following herds of animals.
The first Native Americans were hunter-gatherers, who had to seek out food, since they did not farm. About 10,000 years ago the land bridge was submerged and could no longer be traversed.
Native Americans slowly over many years traveled down what is now North and South America, both on land and water. Simple boats could travel along the coastlines and interior rivers. These people would build the Mesoamerican civilizations.
In the process, they spread out and started settlements in a range of places, each location resulting in a somewhat different culture based on the nature of the location.
Origins of the Inuits
Inuits were not among the first Native people who lived in Alaska and elsewhere in the Arctic region. Others came first. Inuits eventually took over from early dwellers of the region.
The ancestors of the Inuits are believed, in part by looking at genetic evidence, to have lived in Siberia (Russia). So, Inuits look like Asians because they are descended from people from Asia.
We call Native Americans “Indians” because it was originally thought that Columbus had discovered people from India. But, Native Americans are actually native to Asia.
“Inuit” itself means “people.” The people who became the Inuit first began to migrate from Alaska around 1000 C.E. and over the next few hundred years had reached Greenland.
Greenland is now part of Denmark. It is a large island in Northeast Canada.
The Inuits might have interacted with the Vikings, who once lived in Greenland. The leader of the Vikings supposedly called it “Greenland” (which is not very green) as a promotional device. A Vikings saga noted: “In the summer, Erik left to settle in the country he had found, which he called Greenland, as he said people would be attracted there if it had a favorable name.”
What do the Inuit eat?
The Inuit had to adapt to their environment. The area is known as “tundra,” a very cold, treeless area for which survival is hard for all living things, be it man, animal, or plant.
For instance, Greenland was regularly covered with a sheet of ice. So, the Inuit had to live in coastal areas where they were able to hunt and fish for survival. There was not much area available for farming. Some limited plants do survive including grasses and berries.
The Inuit used harpoons to hunt seals, walruses, and whales. Hunting was an important part of Inuit culture. Hunting remains important to many Inuit today.
The fatty diet of the Inuit helped provide energy during the winter, including body fat to keep them warm.
Inuit also ate fish and foraged for wild berries.
How did the Inuit adapt to their environment?
Inuit used sealskin boats known as kayaks. The Inuit became skillful navigators. When not frozen, there were a lot of waterways in their territories.
Whales were particularly useful. Inuits used all parts of the whale including the meat, blubber (fat), skin, oil, and bones. A large whale could feed a small community for a year.
The Inuit also used sleds, pulled by a hearty breed of dog (huskies), to travel on the land, including through the snow.
Animals such as seals, caribou, and polar bears also provided materials for clothing appropriate for the climate.
Traditional Inuit were animists. Animism is a belief that the world is possessed by spirits. This “inua” (soul) was not just in all animals, but also things like bodies of water and the moon.
Since animals had souls, animals used for food and other human needs were treated with respect. A whale hunt would be a major ceremony. An Inuit saying notes:
“The great peril of our existence lies in the fact that our diet consists entirely of souls.”Intuit saying
Various rules developed regarding the proper use of animals. Animals might be taboo (banned) for some people as a result of certain births, menstruation, or death.
Traditions of the Inuit
Special charms or amulets were created that were believed to have special powers.
Ritual songs were also very important. A song was often seen as having special power to promote successful hunts. Songs were regularly passed along by families to their children. Sometimes songs could be bought by others.
Shamans (religious leaders) were those who had special abilities to control the spirits. Shamans were religious leaders, tradesmen, healers, and characters in Inuit stories holding mysterious powers.
After Europeans came, many Inuit became Christian, leading to the decline of shamans.
Family was particularly important to survive the harsh conditions.
The Inuit name for a home is “igloo.” During the winter, an igloo could be made of snow and ice. However, during the summer, homes could be made by stretching animal skins over whale bones, whatever wood they could find, and other materials.
Men took care of hunting and fishing. Women sewed, took care of the children, and cooked. But men and women often also performed roles commonly performed by the other sex.
Women often gave birth in isolated huts and tents.
Children were usually named for someone who recently died. There were different views of what happened after you died. Many Inuit traditionally believed there were two lands of the dead: in the sky or sea. Where you went depended on how you died.
Rituals grew up around different important events of a person’s life, including a child’s first hunt.
Marriage traditionally arose around puberty for women and when men became hunters. Marriage was both arranged by families and by individual choice.
Each Inuit household was led by an elder, an older honored man. The household might just consist of a married couple and their children. Sometimes, a more extended family was present.
Europeans known as Vikings reached Greenland around 1000 CE. They settled there in small communities for a few hundred years. But the Inuit had limited contact with them. Vikings do not appear to cause much of a change to the Inuit way of life.
Europeans had more contact with the Inuits starting in the 16th Century. In time, the United States, the British (and Canada), and Denmark controlled the Inuit lands in North America.
The Inuit suffered the fate of many other Native Americans, dying in large numbers from diseases brought by the Europeans. The isolated locations of the Inuit meant that this occurred later, major contact with the Europeans didn’t begin until in the 19th Century.
Europeans found various uses for the lands of the Inuit, including furs, minerals and oil, and in the 20th Century, military bases. Missionaries also attempted to convert them to Christianity.
The late 20th Century also brought more concern for the rights and interests of the Inuit, including addressing wrongs committed against them. For instance, many Inuit children over the years were pressured to go to white schools, causing a lot of hardship.
The total population of Inuit is about 150,000, mainly in Canada (about four percent of the Native population there) and Greenland. There are about 17,000 Inuit living in Alaska. This is larger than many Native American tribes in the United States.
Many Inuit still follow their traditional religion, but many are Christian. Inuit still can follow traditional ways such as hunting. But, many take salaried positions.
Traditional culture is still retained in many ways. For instance, about two thirds of Inuit in Canada still are able to speak their native language.
The Inuit Circumpolar Council, a “non-governmental organization,” was created in the 1970s to protect their interests and is recognized by the United Nations.
Climate Change and the Inuit
Climate change is of particular concern to Inuits. Arctic temperatures have increased over the last 50 years and may rise more in years to come.
Climate change affects the wildlife and the environment of the Arctic. Melting glaciers and other effects of climate change affects local hunting and sometimes even make certain places no longer livable.
Did COVID reach the arctic and the Inuits?
The Inuit and other Alaskan tribes also had to deal with the effects of COVID.
Today’s Inuit deals with modern-day economic and culture change, climate matters, COVID, and more. After 1,000 years the Inuits have many new challenges. But, their culture lives on.
By Joe Cocurullo