Mike Hunt The Inuit I. Intoduction The Inuit are people that inhabit small enclaves in the coastal areas of Greenland, Arctic North America, and extreme northeastern Siberia. The name Inuit means the real people. In 1977 the Inuit Circumpolar Conference officially adopted Inuit as the replacement for the term “Eskimo.” There are several related linguistic groups of Arctic people. Many of these groups prefer to be called by their specific “tribal” names rather than as Inuits.
In Alaska the term “Eskimo” is still commonly used. I. Physical Characteristics and Regional Groupings The Inuit vary within about 2 inches of an average height of 5 foot 4 inches, and they display metabolic, circulatory, and other adaptations to the Arctic climate. They inhabit an area spanning almost 3200 miles and have a wider geographical range than any other aboriginal people and are the most sparsely distributed people on earth. II.
History The Inuit share many cultural traits with Siberian Arctic peoples and with their own closest relatives, the Aleuts. The oldest archaeological sites identifiable as Inuit date from about 2000 BC and are somewhat distinct from later Inuit sites. By about 1800 BC the highly developed Old Whaling or Bering Sea culture and related cultures had emerged in Siberia and in the Bering Strait region. In eastern Canada the Old Dorset culture flourished from about 1000 to 800 BC until about AD 1000 to 1300. The Thule Inuit, who by AD 1000 to 1200 had reached Greenland, overran the Dorset people.
There, Inuit culture was influenced by medieval Norse colonists and, after 1700, by Danish settlers. III. Language and Literature The languages of the Inuit people constitute a subfamily of the Eskimo-Aleut language family. A major linguistic division occurs in Alaska, according to whether the speakers call themselves Inuit or Yuit. The eastern branch of the subfamily stretches from eastern Alaska across Canada and through northern into southern Greenland.
This subfamily is generally called Inupiaq in Alaska, but also Inuktitut in Canada and Kalaallisut in Greenland. It consists of many dialects, each understandable to speakers of neighboring dialects, although not to speakers of geographically distant dialects. The western branch, called Yupik, includes three distinct languages, Central Alaskan Yupik and Pacific Gulf Yupik in Alaska and Siberian Yupik in Alaska and Canada. Each of these has several dialects. The Inupiaq dialects have more than 40,000 speakers in Greenland and more than 20,000 in Alaska and Canada. About 17,000 people speak Yupik languages. In the former Soviet Union about 1,000 people spoke it.
Explorers and traders do not learn these languages because they are some of the most complex and difficult in the world. They rely on a jargon composed of Danish, Spanish, Hawaiian, and Inupiaq and Yupik words. V. Social Organization The manners and customs of the Inuit are remarkably uniform despite the widespread diffusion of the people. The family is the most significant social unit.
Marriages are generally open to choice. The usual pattern is monogamy, but both polygyny and polyandry also happen. Marriage is based on a strict division of labor. The husband and wife have their own tools, household goods, and other personal possessions. Men build houses, hunt, and fish.
Women cook, dress animal skins, and make clothing. If one does not take care and help ones kin they will be ridiculed by the community. In extreme cases they can be put to death. If someone of one group harms someone from another, there could be a possible blood feud. This is strongly disapproved. Some groups control disputes by means of wrestling matches or song duels.
These songs tend to be insulting. The loser of these might be driven from the community. Alliances between groups that are not related are formed and maintained by gift giving and the showing of respect. The highest such form of gift giving occurs when a head of a household offers the opportunity of a temporary sexual liaison with the most valued adult women of his household. The women can refuse, then they present a different gift. VI.
Provision of Food The Inuit mainly eats fish, seals, whales, and related sea mammals. The flesh of these is eaten cooked, dried, or frozen. The seal is their main winter food and most valuable resource. They are used for dog food, clothing, and materials for making boats, tents, and harpoons lines, as well as fuel for both light and heat. In Alaska and Canada, caribou are hunted in the summer. They also hunt polar bear, fox, hare, and Arctic birds, for important supplies. Whale, walrus, and caribou require longer hunting trips than one kinship group can do on there own. Many families go on seasonal hunting and fishing trips that take them from one end of a customary territory to the other, trading with other groups along the way.
VII. Housing, Transportation, and Clothing Igloos are Inuit “iglu” houses. They come in two kinds. One is made from walrus or sealskin tents for the summer. The other is made of stone, with driftwood or whalebone frames and chinked and covered with moss or sod for the winter.
The entrance is long and narrow. It is just high enough to have one person crawl through it. During long journeys some Inuit made winter houses out of snow blocks shaped in a dome. These houses are rare in Greenland and unknown in Alaska. At one time they were permanent winter houses of the Inuit in central and eastern Canada.
In the 20th century many Inuit have moved into towns to live in government built, western housing. The traditional way of transpiration is the kayak, the umiak, and the dogsled. The kayak is a lightweight canoe like hunting boat made of a wood frame completely covered with sealskin except for a round center opening, where one person sits. The skin around the person can be tightened to make the kayak waterproof. The umiak is a larger boat by about 30 feet long and 8 feet wide.
It is made of a wood frame covered with walrus skin. It is used for whaling expeditions and to transport families and goods. The sled is pulled by a team of native dogs. Until iron runners were introduced, ivory and whalebone were mainly used. In the last half-century motorboats and snowmobiles have become important modes of travel. Traditionally the Inuit men and women dress the same. They wear waterproof boots, double-layer trousers, and the parka; a tight-fitting double-layer pullover jacket with a hood, all made of skins and furs.
An enlarged hood forms a convenient cradle for nursing infants. VIII. Religious Beliefs Traditionally the Inuit believe in a form of animism. Animism is the belief that all objects and living beings have a spirit. Everything occurs through some spirit. Spirits can effect people’s lives intrinsically. Although prayer can not control them, magical charms and talismans can control them.
The shaman is the person that can best control the spirits. They are usually consulted to heal illnesses and resolve serious problems. Communal and individual taboos are observed to avoid offending animal spirits, and animals killed for food must be handled with prescribed rituals. Inuit rituals and myths reflect preoccupation with survival in a hostile environment. Vague beliefs of an afterlife or reincarnation exist, but these receive little emphasis.
Most beliefs center on preparation for the hunt, and myths tend to deal with the relations that exist between humans, animals, and the environment. In arctic Canada, Greenland, Labrador, and southern Alaska, large numbers of Inuit have converted to Christianity. IX. Adjusting to Change In the 20th century the Inuit have become more assertive, forming organizations to represent their interests, such as the Alaska Federation of Natives. The organizations have been instrumental in resolving land claims since 1971. In Greenland the 1970’s and 1980’s were marked by a campaign for home rule from Denmark. In December 1991 the Canadian government agreed to the creation of a new unit known as Nunavut in eastern Northwest Territories.
Approved in May 1992, it will have an area of about 2 million square km (about 772,500 square miles). The Inuit people will have political control and broad economic rights over the territory. The international Circumpolar Conference, founded in 1977, meets every three years. It provides a forum for Greenland and North American Inuit to discuss common problems, lobby for an Inuit voice in the planning of economic development, and promote the preservation of the environment. Bibliography Ray, Dorothy Jean.
Aleut and Eskimo Art: Tradition and Innovation in South Alaska. Washington, 1981, 1986. Scholarly survey of traditional and market art. Companion book on North Alaska, 1977. Burch, Ernest S.
Jr. The Eskimos. Oklahoma, 1988. Heavily illustrated introduction to the traditional culture of the Inuit and the Aleut. Wilder, Edna. Once Upon an Eskimo Time.
Alaska Northwest, 1987. An accurate account of Eskimo life before the white man. Elibrary.com , http://www.elibrary.com/s/encartal/search.cgi, line 418: Science Essays.