The Inuit People


Inuit: A People Preserved By Ice

Thousands of years ago, during the last ice age, mile-thick glaciers
covered a vast portion of North America, and the Asian continent was
joined to North America by a land bridge. The Arctic areas of Alaska,
Beringia, and Siberia were free of ice. Vast herds of caribou,
muskoxen, and bison migrated to these plains. Following them were the
nomadic Asian ancestors of today’s Inuit and Indians. The doorway to
Asia closed about three or four thousand years later as the glaciers
receded and melted. These people: the Inuit (meaning the people),
adapted to their harsh tundra environment and developed a culture that
remained untainted for a long time.
The Inuit people relied solely on hunting for their existence. With
summers barely lasting two months, agriculture was non-existent.
Animals such as caribou and seal were vital. Groups of hunters would
stalk and kill many caribou with fragile bows made of driftwood, and
their bounty was split evenly amongst the tribe. Bone spears were
fashioned to hunt seals which provided food, oil, clothes, and tents.
The seal skins were also used to construct kayaks and other boats that
the Inuit would use to travel and to hunt whales. One advantage of the
sterile cold of the arctic was that it kept these people free of disease
(until they met the white man.)
Inuit tribes consisted of two to ten loosely joined families. There
was no one central leader in the group: all decisions were made by the
community as a whole. Nor was there any definite set of laws; the Inuit,
though usually cheery and optimistic, were prone to uncontrolled bursts
of rage. Murder was common amongst them and it went unpunished unless
an individual’s murders occured too often. At that point, that person
was deemed unstable, and the community appointed a man to terminate
him/her.
In their society, the duties of men and women were strictly separated.
The males would hunt, fish and construct the tools used by the family.
Women, however, were responsible for cleaning the animal skins, cooking,
sewing the clothes ( a woman’s sewing ability was equally as attractive
to a man as her beauty was), and raising the children. Male children
were preferred because they could care for their parents in their old
age; female children when often strangled soon after birth.
Although today Christianity has breached some of the southernmost
tribes, the vast majority practice a form of animism. Their rituals are
based mainly on the hunt and the handling of slain animals. Magic
talismans and charms are believed to control spirits, and shamans are
consulted in the case of injury or illness. There are traces of beliefs
in an afterlife or reincarnation, but they are very minor.
The Inuit people, like many other tribal minorities, are greatly
stereotyped and misunderstood by the common man. For example: the Inuit
word igloo means house and can refer to the cabins made of sod that most
Inuit occupy. Also, the word Eskimo is a misnomer meaning “eaters of
raw flesh” given to the Inuit by the Algonquin Indians. This is a
simple culture that remained undisturbed until whales became a precious
commodity. Their isolation is slowly coming to an end as western
civilization puts them into government housing and snowmobiles are
increasing as a means of transportation. They are beautifully
eccentric, and we must work to preserve their culture.

References: “Seasons of the Eskimo: A Vanishing Way of Life” by Fred
Bruemmer; Microsoft Encarta96 Encyclopedia; Microsoft Bookshelf.