The Inuit

Peoples of Alaska and Northeast Siberia map
Peoples of Alaska and Northeast Siberia map
Courtesy Smithsonian Institution

Interactive map of Inuit cultures

The native peoples living in extreme north and northwest Alaska call themselves Inuit, meaning "the people." Other Inuit live in northern Canada and Greenland.

Outsiders sometimes refer to the Inuit and the neighboring Yupik culture as "Eskimos." Many linguists believe this term comes from a subarctic Indian word meaning "to net snowshoes." An alternate theory holds that it comes from a term meaning "people who speak a different language." However, most indigenous people prefer to go by their own tribal names.

Inuit people today continue to practice their customs, language, hunting and fishing traditions and lifestyle. They live in varied landscapes, including coast, tundra, mountains and even the edges of forests.

Inuit man
Inuit man
Courtesy jezzer-hozzer

Life in the Arctic

Traditionally, the Inuit lived as nomads, following the herds of animals that provided most of their food and material. They hunted whales, walruses, seals, fish, caribou and muskoxen. People in the far north ate very little plant material, since there are few edible plants in the Arctic.

Hunters pursued sea mammals in small, seal-skin boats called kayaks. In winter, when the coastal waters froze over, Inuit hunted sea mammals by finding or making a breathing hole in the ice and waiting for seals and walruses to come up for air.

For transportation, the Inuit made large, open boats called umiak. On land, they used sleds pulled by dogs.

The Inuit used to make their tools, clothes, art and everything else they needed from the materials at hand—animal hides, fur, bones, antlers, ivory and stone, and in some areas wood. Today, they continue to use these natural resources alongside imported materials.

While they maintain many of their traditional practices, Inuit people today also use modern resources and technology, including store-bought groceries, motorized boats, airplanes and snowmobiles.

Igloos

Traditionally, during warmer months, most Inuit lived in sod houses or tents made of whale skin and bones. But in the winter, the Inuit of the far northern Canada and Greenland made temporary houses of snow called igloos. Scientists believe the practice began sometime after 1350, during a period in the Earth's history known as the "Little Ice Age." Temperatures dropped world-wide, forcing the Inuit to move south, away from the Arctic Ocean. Unable to hunt whales, they had to find some other material to build their shelters with.

Because it traps a lot of air, snow makes an excellent insulator. When outside temperatures dip as low as -49 °F (-45 °C), inside the igloo it could be a cozy 61 °F (16 °C) from body heat alone. Even when erecting a tent or sod house, the Inuit will often cover it with snow to help keep the heat in.