Inuit can be found all the way along the Arctic coastal regions,
from the Bering Strait in Siberia and Alaska to Greenland
(where they are known as
a distance of some 9,000 kilometers. Though
they can also be found inland, most live along the coast where
there is more food. Around 120,000 people worldwide refer
to themselves as Inuit.
Because of its climate, the Arctic was the last part of the earth
to become inhabited. The oldest known Inuit site is on Umnak Island
in the Aleutian island chain. This site is about 3000 years old,
though the first Inuit probably ventured into this region around
8000 years ago.
Though many people think that the Inuit and the Native Americans
are closely related, it appears that their migration paths were
quite different and that the Inuit are of more Asian origin than
the Native Americans, though both probably came to the Americas
through the Bering Strait. Differences in blood type, genes, language
and physical features show the different origin.
The term Eskimo has been used by Europeans and others since the
16th century to describe these inhabitants of the Arctic regions.
For most Inuit the term Eskimo is an insult.
Given their isolation, the Inuit were left pretty much alone by
all the major powers until fairly recently. Russian explorers started
to venture into the Arctic in the 18th century. Scottish and American
whalers and other traders brought European and American culture
to the far north a little more than a century later.
Western diseases, vanishing wildlife due to overhunting by Westerners,
and the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union
made life very difficult for the Inuit in the second half of the
20th century. The traditional ways are still practiced by some Inuit
but western influence has had a major impact. .
The Inuit were a hunting society with strong ties to the land
and environment, and this is reflected in their religion. They traditionally
believe in a god-like power that is contained in all of nature.
The Shaman is an important figure in this religion. This person
is a doctor, healer and a giver of advice when people have problems.
The Shaman is also capable of seeing spirits.
The Inuit traditionally believe that people's spirits live on after
their death. After a death in the family, newborns will receive
the name of the dead person and be treated as if the spirit of that
person would reside in the baby. Baby's, however, will not be named
until they are 8 days old. If they die before this it is believed
they never truly lived.
Roman Catholic and Anglican missionaries, who first came to the
region at the beginning of the 20th century, viewed Inuit Shamanism
as an act of the devil. They have since attempted to impose Christianity
on the Inuit (to a great deal successfully). Most Inuit would now
call themselves Christian.
ECONOMY AND POLITICS
Hunting has been the cornerstone of Inuit society since they first
came to the Arctic region, and has influenced the way society is
structured. Hunting animals such as seals and caribou was done using
harpoons and bow and arrow. Holes were made in the ice to catch
seals, for instance. Today the rifle has replaced the harpoon and
bow and arrow as a hunting tool for that keep the hunting tradition
alive. The hunt is now often conducted with snowmobiles.
Instead of hunting, many Inuit today have chosen to move into towns
in order to work in mines and oil fields. Because of this most now
live in permanent housing.
Inuit culture is a reflection of the harsh environment in which
the Inuit live. The Inuit were nomads, travelling from place to
place, looking for that might offer more food as the seasons and
fortunes changed. Almost no trees and few plants grow in the Arctic
and therefore meat is the main source of food. Growing crops is
almost impossible. Caribou, seal, birds, walrus, whale and fish
have traditionally been hunted for their food value. Berries and
seaweed are gathered in the summer to supplement a diet that is
otherwise lacking vegetables. Eggs are also gathered in the short
Caribou fur has always been an important material for clothing because
it could keep people warm in sub-zero temperatures. Today, however,
many Inuit wear thick down jackets to ward off the cold.
Depending on the time of year the Inuit traditionally live in different
dwellings. In the summer they have tended to live in tents made
of animal skin. In the winter they tended to live in either igloos
(houses made of snow blocks) or in houses half buried underneath
the ground, made of stone, wood and whale bones. Sometimes, however,
extra layers of skin were added to the summer tent, with plants
in between the skin layers and snow on top of all this (insulation)
for extra warmth.
The Inuit language survives through storytelling. A song often goes
with these stories, and many events are described in these songs.
Many songs focus on hunting tales, especially telling of hardship
during the hunt. Inuit art consisted in the past for the most part
of decorating instruments such as spears, harpoons and pipes, and
carving animals from soft soapstone.
The Inuit are also known for the fact that when they greet each
other they rub noses instead of shaking hands.
Big Myth" © Distant Train 2002