Skip to the content of the web site.

Inuit culture

The terms Inuit and Eskimo are the names applied to the Arctic-adapted populations who live in the region extending all the way from eastern Siberia to Greenland. Biological, linguistic and archaeological evidence indicates that these people (and the Aleuts of the Aleutian Islands) are distinct from all the other aboriginal populations of the Americas and probably derive from a more recent population movement out of Asia. Today the term "Eskimo" is widely thought to mean "eaters of raw meat" and to be rather insulting—in fact, that's probably not what it means although the exact source of the word isn't clear [to learn more, try here]. The term "Inuit" is also used by some people to describe all these populations although it is only in the dialects of some of the groups who live in the Canadian Arctic that this word is used for self-designation.

Despite much diversity, until recently these peoples followed a way of life that contrasted sharply with that of the other aboriginal populations of the Americas south of the tree line, commonly known as Indians today generally referred to in Canada as First Nations and in the United States as Native Americans. Perhaps the best-known Inuit way of life was one found in the central portion of the Canadian Arctic. It involved the people spending winters in temporary snowhouse communities out on the sea ice while hunting seals at their breathing holes, springs at the coast hunting basking seals, and late summers inland hunting caribou. However, while accurate, this image is probably misleading when trying to understand Eskimos generally. Much larger populations of Eskimos have always existed in Alaska, and in early historic times they followed a quite different way of life, living in permanent semisubterranean houses during winter rather than in snowhouses, and sometimes staying in the same village during the summer. In southwestern Alaska especially, fish was the most important single food resource rather than seals.

All human populations in the Arctic have of necessity relied on animal resources to a far greater extent than foraging populations anywhere else in the world. Most human adaptations have included a reliance on both terrestrial and marine resources, either through an annual round encompassing land and sea or through trade. Over time the Eskimo developed a distinctive and complex technological adaptation to this region and these resources, including such things as snowhouses, toggling harpoons, large and small watercraft, drag floats, and dog traction.

Arctic Archaeology seeks to trace the development of this distinctive way of life. This development has not ceased, as these photographs of contemporary Inuit communities will attest.