12 Facts About The History Of The Inuit



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The Inuit (“the people”) are the widespread but thinly populated indigenous peoples of the Arctic and subarctic regions of far-eastern Russia, Alaska, Canada, and Greenland. It is a culture that stretches back around 5,000 years and endures into the present day. The survival skills, history, and traditions of the Inuit have been passed from one generation to the next for thousands of years. 

From traditional clothing and shelter to encounters with outsiders ancient and modern, this collection looks at some of the most interesting episodes of the long and enduring history of the Inuit.  

  • 'Eskimo' Is Not The Correct Nomenclature
    Photo: Frank E. Kleinschmidt / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    'Eskimo' Is Not The Correct Nomenclature

    Inuit simply means “the people” and is the preferred nomenclature. The now largely discarded term “Eskimo” referred to the indigenous peoples of the north and has a disputed etymology. 

    "Eskimo" was probably an approximation of a Native American term that means “eaters of raw meat.” There is some speculation the term could instead have meant “snowshoe-netter.” The Inuit traded with Native Americans for centuries before the arrival of Europeans, so the term would have most likely been some reference to the diet or lifestyle of the Inuit. 

    Similarly, the term “Eskimo” was also used to refer to the Yupik people of Alaska and the Russian Far East, Yupik means “genuine people.” Both Inuit and Yupik are the main divisions of the Eskaleut language family. Because of the pejorative nature of the term, “Eskimo” is generally used in a historical context to refer to past legal decisions or legislation. 

  • The Origins Of The Inuit Go Back Thousands Of Years

    The cultural heritage of the Inuit goes back around 5,000 years with the crossing of the Bering Land Bridge. Inuit oral traditions refer to the Sivullirmiut (“the first ones”) as their ancestors, a people who lived off the land with small, simple tools made from bone, ivory, and stone. Inuit oral histories state:

    They did not disturb the land even though they were here for over a thousand years. Our elders tell us that they came in silence and left in silence and that the Inuit living today must respect their deeds. 

    The Inuit were immediately preceded by the Thule people. They came to prominence as the dominant cultural group around the middle ages - at the expense of Dorset Culture, so-called because of where their archeological remains were first discovered. 

    There are multiple theories about why Dorset Culture vanished completely. One is that they were simply absorbed into the Thule as the pre-Inuit peoples migrated from Alaska across the Northwestern Passage. It is also possible that this cultural assimilation was by no means peaceful, a possibility supported by the Inuit oral history of those they called the Tunit.

    The Tunit were strong people, but timid and easily put to flight. Nothing is told of their lust to kill.

    The Tunit lacked such basics as the bow and arrow and boats so had limited options for hunting in the summer months. Their main skill, based on Inuit tales and archeological evidence, was carving. By contrast, the Thule had superior technology and mobility, mastering the harsh lands with the use of kayaks and dog sleds. 

    Whatever the truth, the Dorset ceased to be around 1500 CE. 

  • The Inuit Don't Really Have 50 Different Words For Snow
    Photo: Rudolph Martin Anderson / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA 4.0

    The Inuit Don't Really Have 50 Different Words For Snow

    Despite covering a vast geographical area, the dialects spoken by the Inuit are largely mutually intelligible. A century ago a Danish explorer, Knud Rasmussen, made several trips across Inuit lands and was the first European to cross the Northwest Passage by dog sled. A speaker of Kalaallisut, the language of Greenlander Inuit he learned as a child, Rasmussen was able to understand the people he interviewed to provide the first comprehensive study of the Inuit people. 

    A handful of Inuit words have been incorporated into modern English. These include husky (lit. “Eskimo dog”), kayak (“small boat of skins”), parka (“jacket made from pelt”), and igloo (“house”). 

    The oft-repeated myth that the Inuit have 50 words for snow is a half-truth rooted in a misunderstanding. In Inuit, “snow” is a word with many suffixes, in other words, the Inuit have many precise ways to describe snow. For example, qanikcaq means "snow on ground" while muruaneq refers to "soft deep snow". 

  • Traditional Clothing
    Photo: John White / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    Traditional Clothing

    Traditional Inuit clothing is made from caribou or seal skin and the designs have been around for centuries. One of the most enduring designs is the amauti or mother’s parka. The design was mentioned in accounts of the captives taken back to England in the late 1500s. The amauti features a pouch below a large hood for carrying an infant while keeping the mother’s hand free. The loose fit of the shoulders allows for nursing without the need to remove the parka at all. 

    Older children were clad in a jumpsuit made of caribou fur called an atayuq. Men wore two layers in the winter, the inner layer (attigi) had the caribou fur facing inside while the outer parka (qulittaq) had the fur facing on the outside. 

    Timing was an important factor in making clothes. Fur from August was the best time, as the thinner fall fur was the most practical to work with. Winter furs were used for things like footwear, bedding, and gloves. 

    In the pre-industrial era, making clothing to get through the winter was a painstaking process completed without advanced tools or chemicals. To soften the skin, it had to be worked over and over, and required knives, bone scrapers, and even teeth. 

  • Housing And Shelter Depended On The Season

    Historically, the type of shelter used by the Inuit depended on the season, culture, and location. Skin tents were sufficient for hunting in the summer, while continuously inhabited settlements like Tikiġaq (Point Hope, AK) were partially buried domes constructed from sod and driftwood. Similarly, turf huts were a common form of housing in Greenland. The igloo, the winter dwelling and best-known form of shelter, varied greatly in size and design.

    In a pinch, an igloo can be built by two Inuit in as little as 30 minutes, the difference between life and death in a storm. At the other end of the scale, igloos can be large enough to house up to 20 people at a time. 

    Only a specific type of snow can be used for building an igloo: pukaangajuq (“snow house snow”). This hard but dry snow is then cut into blocks and arranged facing inward into a spiral. Holes are left in the entranceway and the roof to allow heat to escape. Any remaining gaps in the walls are packed with snow which is frozen solid by the winds outside.

    Today, most Inuit live in modern, permanent homes, but the skill of igloo building is preserved for its practical and cultural value. It’s part of the school curriculum in Nunavut, Canada

  • The Diet Of The Inuit Has Had Long-Term Genetic Adaptations
    Photo: John Hadley / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA 4.0

    The Diet Of The Inuit Has Had Long-Term Genetic Adaptations

    Low-carb diets go in and out of fashion in Hollywood but have been the default for the Inuit and their ancestors for thousands of years. As the climates of eastern Russia, Alaska, Canada, and Greenland aren’t very conducive to agriculture, indigenous people of the Arctic tend to get the vast majority of their calories from protein and fat. 

    The actual composition of the meals tends to shift with the seasons and the game available but typically centers around caribou, seals, birds, and fish. Berries, herbs, and seaweed round out the diets but even today, it's typical for about 75% of calories to come from animal fat.

    Eating this way for generations has made its mark on the Inuit at a genetic level; a study of Greenlandic Inuit found the very high-fat diet had actually made them healthier at the cost of making them shorter in height. Inuit are quite short on average, 5’4” is typical for a man while women come in at around 5’. Alaskan Inuit are slightly taller.