The Inuit are indigenous communities who have survived and managed the Arctic regions. They occupy components of Northern and Eastern Alaska, northern portions of Canada, and Greenland. The Inuit territory in Canada is called Nunavut, an place about two million square kilometers wide. This section of Canada had been formally and legally recognized as Nunavut, meaning “our land,” via the Nunavut Land Claims Agreement signed in 1993. The Inuit ancestral lands are remote and isolated places. These are now not closely connected to the relaxation of Canada because of the absence of good avenue infrastructures. There are 23 Inuit communities residing in Nunavut. They comprise eighty five percent of the entire 32,000-person populace of of Nunavut.
Language and material culture
The Inuit language is known as Inuktitut in Canada, Inupiaq in Alaska, and Kalaaleq in Greenland. It is spoken throughout eastern Greenland, to northern Alaska and around Seward Peninsula up to Norton Sound. Two words in the English language that originates from the Inuit are kayak and umiak, both referring to kinds of boats (Kuiper 22). The kayak is a hunter’s boat originally built for a single occupant. It is a canoe that comes from the Inuit of Greenland. The Arctic people built kayaks by stretching animal skin, such as that of seals, over a frame made from whalebone or driftwood. It was built as an effective tool for hunting and fishing. It is shallow, narrow, and can glide silently along waterways. The umiak is a kind of boat used for transporting items. It is also considered a woman’s boat. It is round or elongated and used for transporting women, children, elderly, and the people’s possessions (23). Like the kayak, the umiak was also made of animal skin stretched over a wooden or whalebone frame. Both traditional boats are already replaced by motorboats in the 20th century.
Igloo comes from the word igdlu which means house. The Inuit town called Iglulirmiut can be translated as “people of the place with houses” (Kuiper 30). Igloos are used by the Inuit as their provisional houses during the hunting season. Experienced builders can complete an igloo in a couple of hours. Animal fat is burned as a heating device to warm the interior. The igloo has specific areas for sleeping and for storing supplies.
Like other Arctic people, the Inuit dress to protect themselves from the extreme cold. Men and women both wear hooded tunic or coat, trousers, and boots. Their coats are made from animal skin and clothes were worn with the furry part in. The usual sources were polar bear, deer, antelope, fox, dog, caribou and reindeer (Kuiper 26). Caribou skin was used for making new parka and for sheets used to wrap a loved one who has died.
Marriage and family
Girl children are married off early in the Inuit communities. Marriage is regarded as a source of stability, thus women are considered cared for when they are with the husband. Arranged marriage is the norm in Inuit communities. Marriage results from parents promising their babies to each other’s families. Accounts from an Inuit woman about marriage show changes of the culture. She relates the ideal times when babies were promised to each other. The man can only marry when he was ready, this means he knows how to hunt, has dogs of his own, and can support a family from his own effort. Otherwise, he is not allowed to marry. When the man is ready for marriage, he will then go to the woman’s house frequently and they would start living together. This is a form of introducing them to each other. It is also a way for the woman to understand that this is the man she would marry. The woman does not have a choice. When it was time she would leave her family to live with the man and his family (Wachowich 41). Later, the situations changed as even men who are not ready to get married can do so. Women, still do not have a choice about the situation.
Marriage in these communities is not about love but more of utility. For women, marriage does not take place at adulthood. Even before the onset of menstruation, girl children are married off and are sent to their husband’s family. Girl children with old parents were married off to ensure that there are families who can take care of her. Sometimes, the need is from the husband side, like he needs someone to care for his old parents, and then he gets a new wife. The husband is always older than the female and may already have existing wife and children. Inuit communities have a “stable high divorce rate” system (Starbuck and Lundy 405). When partners wish to divorce, the belongings can just be placed outside the door and the person lives. Divorce couples often remarry their old partners or new ones.
Tracing the line of descent of Inuit families is complicated. Divorce and remarriage is frequent in the communities. Children often have adoptive families especially for girl children who are sent off to their husband’s families. Many of these grow up within their husband’s families.
The Inuit are seasonally, migratory peoples (Kuiper 27). They occupy areas near the coastlines that freeze during the winter. They are hunters and they go after certain animals depending on the time of the year. The following account from an Inuit woman explains the resources they have access to during the year.
January is the time for light. February is the time for bright. Animals deliver in March, and April is the month of baby seals. May is for putting up tents. June is the time for eggs, bird’s eggs. July is for calves of caribou, they start delivering in July. August is the middle of the year and September, halfway through the year. October and November are fall. November is for hard times and December is the dark season (Wachowich 32).
The Inuit travel a lot following the source of food. They hunt seals in the month of April and May. The next month, June, is for walrus hunting while August is for the hunting of caribou. The skins of the caribou are used as clothes for the Inuit.
Traditional Inuit communities believe in the shaman. They are called to cure the sick and to fight off the enemy (Wachowich 19). When the Inuit lands were colonized, priests came to the lands and taught the communities about Jesus and God.
The Inuit’s political capability is recognized in Canada. In 1979, the first Inuit to occupy one of the two seats for Northwest Territories was elected into the House of Commons. It was also in the 1970s that the Inuit communities were “organized into village corporations with defined rights to land and resources” (Kuiper 18). As Inuit lands are part of several countries’ territories, the Innuit Circumpolar Conference was formed in 1977 comprised of the Inuit peoples residing in Greenland, Canada, and Alaska in the US. The conference was officially recognized by the United Nations in 1983 (Kuiper 20).
Land is the primary concern of all indigenous groups all over the world. The Inuit is currently working towards the inclusion of the local placenames of their territory into the Canada maps. So far, the Inuit Heritage Trust (IHT) have identified and submitted 11 maps of Nunavut to the Government of Nunavut showing at least 900 placenames in 2009. Only two maps are set to be official as of 2014 and these contain only 290 placenames. The documentation and mapping continued with IHT submitting an additional 4,000 placenames (Peplinski 369).
In Nunavut, the placenames are important because these identify how resources have been managed for centuries. For example, the English translation of an inlet named “Milliorialik” is “where you throw something” (Peplinski 369). Such name refers to the hunters’ way of trapping Beluga whales in an inlet, done by throwing rocks into the water so that the whales are trapped behind a sand bar. Maps containing the names of resources in the local language recognize the local people’s ownership of the land. It is also an affirmation of the communities’ indigenous means of managing their resources. In the case of the Inuit, the names they give to the physical resources allow the next generations to learn how the land and its resources have been managed and cared for since time immemorial.
In the traditional Inuit communities, the man holds the economic dominance as his role as hunter means he is the provider for the family. In contemporary times, women’s role has expanded from the traditional housekeeping activities. Women in settlements are now becoming wage earners. The Inuit woman has now two roles. The traditional is “according to availability of skins and her own skills” while the contemporary is in having “wage-earning jobs” (Billson and Mancini 210). The women most often become the primary provider of a family’s basic needs. In the transition to the settlement context, the men who used to hold the traditional provider roles may have reduced self-esteem. Some men may find it uneasy to move beyond their traditional roles and such changes can have a harmful effect on women. Contemporary Inuit women are still vulnerable to spousal abuse and harassment even with the new economic roles that they have gained.
The Inuit communities occupy the Arctic region traversing across parts of Alaska, Greenland, and Canada. For centuries they have managed to survive the harsh conditions of the cold Artic as seasonal hunters of whales, walrus, seals, and caribou. Throughout the year, they travel around their lands to hunt and gather resources from the land and the sea. They build boats, such as kayak and umiak, and shelters, like igloos and tents, to support the hunting activity for particular seasons.
The Inuit marriage and family traditions have evolved as a result of their changing economies. In the past, men held the dominant provider role when hunting was the primary economic activity. In contemporary times, most Inuit communities have resided in settlements and women have gained additional roles. In addition to their traditional roles as housekeepers and caregivers, women are now taking the roles of providers since they have started to take on wage-earning jobs. At present, the Inuit are facing current issues like recognition of their land rights and the changing roles of women.
Billson, Janet M. and Mancini, Kyra. Inuit Women: Their Powerful Spirit in a Century of Change. Rownan & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2007
Kuiper, Kathleen. Indigenous Peoples of the Arctic, Subarctic and Northwest Coast. Britannica Educational Publishing, 2012.
Peplinski, Lynn. ”Accommodating the Inuit majority: Traditional placenames in Nunavut today.” Indigenous and Minority Placenames: Australian and International Perspectives, edited by Ian D. Clark, Luise Hercus and Laura Kostanski, ANU Press, 2014, pp. 365-380. www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt13www5z.23 Accessed 2 May 2017.
Starbuck, Gene H. and Lundy, Karen Saucier. Families in Context: Sociological Perspectives. Routledge, 2016.
Wachowich, Nancy. Saqiyuq: Stories from the Lives of Three Inuit Women. McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2003.