The Inuit People

Toben in This Paradise made of Ice from G. Ehrlich (Ed. Albin Michel)


'What we still have here, is the tradition of sharing. When we catch a whale, everyone who helped to catch it can have some of the meat. We give it to widows, and even to bad hunters. We share around our dogs, our equipment and we all use each others' houses. Here, the land belongs to no one.' Toben in This Paradise made of Ice from G. Ehrlich (Ed. Albin Michel).


What is their real name?

People often call them Eskimos. But thi is not the right term as, in Inuktitut, their language, it means 'someone who eats raw meat'. So they prefer to be called Inuit which means 'humans' (singular: Inuk).


Where do they live, and what is their environment like?

The Inuit live in northern Canada and in Alaska (which is in the United States of America), but also in Greenland, and in the North Eastern tip of Siberia (which belongs to Russia). Historians believe the Inuit first came from there, and walked across the Bering Straits over to the American continent. People sometimes incorrectly think they live in the North Pole. But it s impossible to live there as the land is always frozen and very difficult to live on.



These vast areas of land cover 12 million square kilometres. It is freezing cold in these places, especially in winter, when the sea freezes over and blizzards blow across the land sweeping up the snow it into strange shapes.

But in the summer, when it never gets dark, everything changes. The ice melts, the earth thaws, and plants grow and flower for a few short months before it gets cold again. But the summer is never long enough for trees to start growing. 


What is the size of the population?

There are about 150,000 Inuit in the world today. Most of them live east of the Bering Straits.


What languages do they speak?

The Inuit learn English, Danish, French or Russian at school, but they speak Inuktitut at home. The Inuktitut alphabet has been adapted for computers.

Children are also given lessons at school in Inuktitut on how to build kayaks or sleighs. More and more parents want their children to learn about these traditional activities, and it is often the older people who come to school to teach them.


How do they dress?

Protection is the most important thing when it comes to clothes, which must be warm and waterproof. Animal hides are perfectly adapted to the harsh climate. Inuit clothes can include coats with fur-lined hoods where mothers can keep their babies warm, kaniks or boots with soles made out of seal skin or even anoraks made out of seal stomach lining. In the old days, these clothes were sewn together with needles made out of bones, and thread from whale tendons. (You can see this anorak in the "musée vivant" section.)

During big celebrations, women wear large collars covered in patterns drawn with hundreds of tiny multi coloured pearls. The top of their boots and their belts are also decorated with pearls. Their jewels are made out of ivory from walrus tusks. Today, the Inuit dress in 'modern' clothes but they still wear traditional dress for special occasions.


What are their houses like?

The most famous kind of house the Inuit make is the igloo. It's made from compact blocks of snow stacked on top of each other into a dome shape. The igloo is a temporary shelter which is used during hunting trips in winter. It is wind proof and quite light inside as snow allows some light through. Small oil lamps made out of whale or seal fat are used for heating inside. The igloo can reach up to 1 or 2 °C while outside, temperature can fall to minus 50°C.

The Inuit also build bigger houses out of earth and stone, with wooden posts and beams. They sleep on wooden beds above the ground. The oumiak, a kind of canoe which is bigger than a kayak, is sometimes turned over and used as shelter.

Today, most Inuit live in colourful modern houses which are heated. They have a television, a telephone and the internet. But they still like to go hunting sometimes for a few days and teach their children how to build an igloo or a stone shelter.


© Catherine Reisser, Laurence Quentin (in Les terres de glace, coll. Baluchon, ed. Nathan 2005)


Which animals live around them?

White bears, wolverines, lemmings, walruses, seals, narwhals, beluga whales, salmon, cod, sea birds and in some areas, musk ox and wild reindeer called caribou. There are many types of animals in the Polar Regions, and they make up the traditional diet of the Inuit. Animals also provide the fat for oil lamps, the bones and ivory to make objects, the skins to make clothes, boats, drums and shelter, and the tendons which are used as sewing thread or string.

They train husky dogs to pull sleds, and they feed them seal meat. The dogs can either be harnessed in a fan shape, or two by two in tandem. Driving a dog sled requires a lot of training. Each dog plays a specific role according to its strength and character.


What do they eat?

Traditionally, the Inuit eat food which is rich in protein like raw meat, muktuk, which is whale membrane, and fish. During the summer, they cut out strips of meat and filets of fish which are put out to dry in the sun. They then store the food under some stones so that animals don't steal it.

The meat is cut up using a round-edged knife called the Ulu. The meat is eaten raw. Raw meat contains many more vitamins than cooked meat, and is easier to eat in the Inuit's cold environment, where lighting up a wood fire for cooking and roasting is impossible. In summer, the Inuit gather dandelions, wild berries like blueberries and eider eggs. In winter, they cut out a hole in the ice and collect mussels at low tide.

Food is always shared out among the members of the community. The hunter is always given the animal's liver. The women calve up the meat with the Ulu, and hand it out to everyone. If the elders don't have strong enough teeth to chew the raw meat, the younger members of the community will do it for them. Helping each other is very important for the Inuit. Nowadays, the Inuit shop at the supermarket, drink Coca Cola and use fridges.


How do they hunt?

In summer, men fish and hunt from their kayak made of wood or sealskin. In winter, they use dog sleighs or snowmobiles. They sit still for hours waiting for a seal to pop its head up from a hole dug out of the ice.

Today, it is much easier to hunt with rifles, but the Inuit often prefer to use traditional weapons like harpoons and throwing sticks, to help protect the wildlife. They hunt enough for the community to feed itself but not more. Hunters respect the dead animal. To calm its spirits, there is a rite: the hunter pours a few drops of water or snow into its mouth and recites a prayer. The Inuit used to be nomadic, and regularly moved to new grounds to hunt. But today, hunting expeditions only last a few days during the holidays or weekends.


Inuit huntingInuit hunting

© Catherine Reisser, Laurence Quentin (in Les terres de glace, coll. Baluchon, ed. Nathan 2005)

What are their beliefs and rites?

The shaman's role is to look after for the relationship between men, animals and the natural elements around them. He looks after the sick and protects people from evil spells. An Inuit must pass very tough initiation rites to become a Shaman. He must not eat for days and is isolated in an igloo for a month. That is where he meets the spirits. "It is through solitude and suffering that the Shaman must find wisdom" a Shaman said. Once he has passed those rites, the older shaman teaches him magic words and about the secrets of nature.


What do they celebrate?

The Inuit celebrate the return of spring and light. They also thank the spirits for a good hunt with a big celebration. They get together and dance, sing and play music. For sports competitions, men sing in low voices and play on big drums covered in animal hides.

The Inuit invented the trampoline, by making their children jump on the animal hides. Other games such as pulling faces, cup-and-ball and knucklebones competitions, or making shapes with strings strung between your fingers help to pass the time during the long winter nights.


What does Inuit art look like?

The Inuit make tools from walrus tusks and sculpted bones, like throwing sticks, with clever animal designs and patterns which slot into each other. The modern soapstone sculptures have become popular and are a good source of income. Animals are often represented, as scenes of traditional life. Inuit clothes, decorated with elaborate buttons and colourful embroidery, are also real works of art.


What problems do they face today?

In 1990, Inuit from different countries got together to form the ICC, the Inuit Circumpolar Conference. Brought together in one big group, they are stronger to defend their culture and environment and can have more political influence.

In Canada, the Inuit managed to gain self-determination over their land in 1999. They created a new state, called Nunavut, with a capital, Iqualuit, a prime minister, Paul Okalik and a flag.

The main threat facing the Inuit today is the destruction of their environment. Global warming caused by industrialised nations has terrible consequences on the Polar Regions. Animals are especially threatened, with some species dying off while new species come and replace them.

The soil is also being affected by warming because the permafrost (a thick layer of frozen soil) is starting to melt. When it melts, it releases carbon dioxide and methane and causes mudslides. The sea currents wash up toxic waste on the beaches which can harm animals and the men and women who eat them. The Inuit say industrialised countries are poisoning them.

Young people have lost hope for the future because of the high unemployment in these regions. They turn to alcohol, violence and sometimes suicide. Some community leaders try to provide jobs for them. Tourism could bring some solutions.


Kindly translated by Emily Boyer King


This text was written using material from Apoutsiak by P.-E. Victor, Ed. Flammarion 1948, Vivre comme les Inuits, Ed. De la Martinière jeunesse 2000 and the Dictionnaire des peuples by J.-C.Tamisier, Ed. Larousse 1998