Inuit – 10 Facts About The Natives Of The North

Doug Williams
 

I’ve always been amazed by the Eskimos; there’s just something about being able to survive and even thrive in the harsh tundra of the north that sets them apart as amazing people.

 

I sit here at Outdoor Revival HQ and wonder how I would do in their environment, and I can only come to the conclusion that it wouldn’t be very well.

We’ve listed here a few facts about them so that we can appreciate Eskimos, Eskimaux, Inuit–Yupik, Inupiat–Yupik. Which are just some of the many names for the kayak-paddling and brave people of the Far North who inhabit some of the harshest environments known to man.

 

What do we really know about these people? Beyond the hooded fur coats, harpoons, and igloos, these ancient hunter-gatherers and their modern kinfolk are not so well known.

Armor
Out of necessity in their extreme environment, the Inuit people are remarkably skilled in crafting durable, warm clothing. However, back when their survival depended exclusively on hunting, they were also very gifted and skilled makers of armor.

Lamellar armour worn by Koryak people

After all, much of their prey could be dangerous, and no one wants to engage in combat with a massive creature and not have some protection.

Lamellar armor, which consisted of plates of bone, often made from walrus teeth, otherwise known as walrus ivory, was a type of traditional Inuit armor. Raw leather straps held the plates of bone – the armor – together.

Japanese lamellar cuirass

Curiously, the shape somewhat resembles the exceptionally efficient armor used by ancient Japanese warriors. The fact that, while using just pieces of the animals they were hunting, the Inuit people were able to create such incredibly functional armor speaks volumes to their ingenuity and their ability to survive.

 

Blond Inuit
In 1912, a strange Inuit tribe that was comprised entirely of tall, blonde Scandinavian-looking people was supposedly found by an explorer named Stefansson.

This sparked a heated discussion as to the origin of this tribe. Most people came to an agreement, eventually, that these blond Inuit from the Canadian Arctic were bloodline ancestors of Viking explorers that had colonized the area centuries before.

There is still suspicion lingering today on the Viking theory, as the tribe hasn’t been seen since. Also, there was a DNA study in 2003 that discredited the whole theory. Still, the scientists found the theory convincing enough to say there could be something to it, even those who took part in proving Stefansson wrong.

According to these scientists, the legend of the fair-haired Inuit tribe of the Canadian Arctic is widespread enough that there could well be a hint of truth in it, even though Stefansson wasn’t completely accurate with his theory.

Food
Although easier access to retailers and Western food has shifted Inuit eating habits toward westernized diets, the history of their own diet is captivating.

Because they live in a desolate, freezing land, their diet consists mainly of different meats, with occasional berries and seaweed. Therefore, a vegetarian would find it difficult to live amongst a traditional Inuit tribe.

Fruit and vegetables are scarce and expensive to bring in, even in these modern times, so they still have a heavy reliance on the native environment.

These natives of the north have always been expert hunters that will (and do) capture almost any animal. The Inuit consume many different types of meat, including walrus, seal, narwhal, caribou, and various species of fish and birds; even polar bears sometimes turn up in their diet.

There are several traditional ways the Inuit prepare their food: cooking in seal oil, drying, or burying it until it ferments naturally. Some foods aren’t cooked at all; some natives consider raw, frozen whitefish a delicacy.

A subject of considerable scientific interest for a long time has been the ‘Inuit Paradox.’ This stems from conventional thinking that a diet relying so heavily on meat would result in serious health problems, but it is just the opposite, as the Inuit are actually among the healthiest people in the world.

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Igloos
The igloo is an ingenious dome-shaped construction made from blocks of ice and snow, and it is the typical dwelling of the Inuit. It uses the snow’s insulating qualities to create a comfortable dwelling; a shelter cleverly crafted from the very thing that causes the need to acquire lodging in the first place.

Although most people picture igloos as small snow covered dwellings, they are actually built in a considerable range of dimensions, models, and from several different materials.

The igloo, for the Inuit, is just a word for a building that people live in.

 

Any building regardless of its size, shape, or material can be considered an igloo. What this means is that right now you’re probably reading this article in an igloo.

Inuit Kiss
When two Inuit people rub their noses together as a sign of affection, it is considered to be an Inuit kiss.

The Inuit have often been thought to replace kissing with this nose rubbing behavior because regular lip kissing could freeze their saliva and possibly lock their lips together in an embarrassing, rather dangerous manner.

However, there is far more to this simple action than meets the eye.

What is seen as the Inuit kiss is actually called kunik and it has nothing to do with kissing or rubbing noses together. Often practiced between couples or children and their parents, it’s a type of intimate greeting.

 

It may look like the greeters are rubbing noses, but they are actually smelling each others’ hair and cheeks. This way, two people who haven’t seen each other in some time can quickly remind themselves about the other individual and their signature scent; there are scent glands in human cheeks.

Although the kunik is not really relevant to kissing, it is generally considered a sign of intimacy and is not often done in public.
Name
The term ‘Eskimo’ is generally thought to be slightly racist, much the same way the term ‘Indian’ is insulting to Native Americans, although it can be, and often is, used in a neutral context.

Technically, it’s considered a commonly used and accepted term with a fairly solid etymology. Although for the most part, ‘Eskimo’ is thought to be either Danish or French, coming from the word ‘eskimeaux,’ the name is possibly founded on an old Algonquian term ‘askimo.’ But even the researchers can’t seem to agree on the meaning of the word, whether it means ‘snowshoe netter’ or ‘meat eater.’

Still, the term is considered as an insult by many of the Eskimos themselves, which is why we’ve used the more accepted term of Inuit to show respect for these proud people, we’ll avoid using the term whenever descriptively possible.

Inuit is the politically correct, generally accepted name that many of the people of the North use themselves. But that could be another potentially misleading term because Inuit people actually belong to various Yupik and Inupiat cultural groups, which have many subsets.

Many people don’t realize that when using the term Inuit, it’s plural. A singular member of the people is called an Inuk.

Poverty
As modern life and government legislation has marched on in the name of progress, the Inuit have suffered a fate similar to other semi-nomadic tribes, such as the Australian Aboriginals.

The Inuit’s modernized life now sees quite a bit more poverty and unemployment than most other parts of the Western world. This has led to several social issues, such as increased alcoholism, accompanied by discrimination and officials ignoring them as a culture, particularly in the U.S.

The Western diet and a less strenuous lifestyle have also helped to create an assortment of health issues.

It is yet to be determined how the Inuit society will survive. One positive note is the interest that big businesses are generating in the North and its plentiful natural resources.

The Inuit know the area and have a sufficient, untapped workforce, so at the least, this could brighten their financial future.

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Qallupilluk
Every culture has its mythical monsters. The Inuit culture is no different, even though they come upon very real monsters almost daily.

The Inuit spend their days crossing dangerous ice flows, hunting aggressive walruses and massive polar bears. This could make it rather difficult for the Inuit to scare their children into obedience with bogeyman stories.

The kids know very well that real claws and teeth could be waiting around the corner for them or their parents. Nevertheless, there was one monster that even Inuit children fear.

 

Qallupilluk, or Qalupalik, or Kallupilluk, which literally means ‘The Monster’ was the Inuit people’s bogeyman creature of choice.

According to legend, it was an abnormally misshapen humanoid that waited under the water to drag unsuspecting individuals into the icy depths of the sea. In an Arctic civilization, this was a healthy and natural fear where falling into the water quite often resulted in death.

Weapons
Although having contact with other cultures has provided the Inuit access to firearms and other modern-day weapons, traditional Inuit weapons were mostly made from scavenged materials, such as wood and stone and also from the animals they killed.

Animal bones were a major element of their weaponry, as they had no method to forge metal on a large scale. The most common weapons were harpoons, spears, bone knives, and clubs. Bone, leather and animal sinew were used to make bows and even bolas.

The ulu is a traditional all-purpose knife used by the Inuit women. It is a curved, large-bladed knife mainly used as a way to cut through frozen meat, but it can also be used as a defensive, protective weapon if necessary.

 

The men commonly used a traditional device called the kakivak, which was a three-pronged spear used for hunting and fishing. When used, the center prong would puncture the target while the other two closed in from both sides to ensure the target couldn’t escape.

Most Inuit weapons were primarily used for hunting and slaughtering and they were made specifically for causing extreme damage. The blades were often serrated and very sharp, designed for tearing and mangling rather than neat slicing and stabbing.

Combine this with the fact that, when the situation arose, these same weapons were used for war. This made the Inuit warriors intensely fearsome to their enemies.

Words For Snow
Something that many people think of when they first hear the word Inuit is that they have an absurd number of words for snow.

Depending on who you talk to, some will say the Inuit can describe snow with 50 – 400 different words, all fluently created to describe a very specific form of frozen precipitation.

This isn’t quite true. The impression that the Inuit used a multitude of snow words was unintentionally created in the 19th century by anthropologist Franz Boas, who studied the Inuit habits while living with them for a time.

Boas was captivated by the intricate terms the Inuit used to describe their frozen landscape: Aqilokoq meant gently falling snow; Piegnartoq was the snow that’s good for dog sledding and so forth.

Boas neglected to mention that the Inuit language is structured in a manner that threads several words into one, thus forming the impression that a complete phrase was only one word.

In actuality, the Inuit probably don’t have any more words for snow than English-speaking folks do. The Inuit language just allows them to string words into these phrases so that a seemingly single word can mean anything from, ‘yep, that’s snow for sure’ to ‘that snow has suspiciously turned yellow today and totally wasn’t yesterday’.

 

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