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by J. Sydney Jones


Once known as Eskimos, the Inuit inhabit the Arctic region, one of the most forbidding territories on earth. Occupying lands that stretch 12,000 miles from parts of Siberia, along the Alaskan coast, across Canada, and on to Greenland, the Inuit are one of the most widely dispersed people in the world, but number only about 60,000 in population. Between 25,000 and 35,000 reside in Alaska, with other smaller groups in Canada, Greenland, and Siberia. The name Eskimo was given to these people by neighboring Abnaki Indians and means "eaters of raw flesh." The name they call themselves is Inuit, or "the people." Culturally and linguistically distinct from Native Americans of the lower 48 states, as well as from the Athabaskan people of Alaska, the Inuit are closely related to the Mongoloid peoples of eastern Asia. It is estimated that the Inuit arrived some 4,000 years ago on the North American continent, thus coming much later than other indigenous peoples. The major language family for Arctic peoples is Eskaleut. While Aleut is considered a separate language, Eskimo branches into Inuit and Yup'ik. Yup'ik includes several languages, while Inuit is a separate tongue with several local dialects, including Inupiaq (Alaska), Inuktitut (Eastern Canada), and Kalaallisut (Greenland). Throughout their long history and vast migrations, the Inuit have not been greatly influenced by other Indian cultures. Their use and array of tools, their spoken language, and their physical type have changed little over large periods of time and space.

Alaskan Inuit inhabit the west, southwest, and the far north and northwest of Alaska, comprising the Alutiiq, Yup'ik (or Yupiat), and Inupiat tribes. As the first two tribes are dealt with separately, this essay will focus on that group regionally known as Inupiat, and formerly known as Bering Strait or Kotzebue Sound Eskimos, and even sometimes West Alaskan and North Alaskan Eskimos. Residing in some three dozen villages and towns including Kotzebue, Point Hope, Wainwright, Barrow, and Prudhoe Baybetween the Bering Strait and the McKenzie Delta to the east, and occupying some 40,000 square miles above the Arctic Circle, this group has been divided differently by various anthropologists. Some classify the Inuit into two main groups, the inland people or Nuunamiut, and the coastal people, the Tagiugmiut. Ernest S. Burch, Jr., however, in his book The Inupiaq Eskimo Nations of Northwestern Alaska, divides the heartland, or original southerly Inupiat, who settled around Kotzebue Sound and the Chukchi Sea, into 12 distinct tribes or nations. This early "homeland" of the Inupiat, around Kotzebue Sound, was extended as the tribes eventually moved farther north. Over 40 percent of Alaskan Inuit now reside in urban areas, with Anchorage having the highest population, and Nome on the south of the Seward Peninsula also having a large group of Inupiat as well as Yup'ik. Within Inupiat territory, the main population centers are Barrow and Kotzebue.


Among the last Native groups to come into North America, the Inuit crossed the Bering land bridge sometime between 6000 b.c. and 2000 b.c., according to various sources. Anthropologists have discerned several different cultural epochs that began around the Bering Sea. The Denbigh, also known as the Small Tool culture, began some 5000 years ago, and over the course of the next millennia it spread westward though Arctic Alaska and Canada. Oriented to the sea and to living with snow, the Denbigh most likely originated the snow house. Characterized by the use of flint blades, skin-covered boats, and bows and arrows, the Denbigh was transformed further east into the Dorset Tradition by about 1000 b.c.

Signs of both the Denbigh and Dorset cultures have been unearthed at the well-known Ipiutak site, located near the Inuit settlement of Point Hope, approximately 125 miles north of the Arctic Circle. Point Hope, still a small Inuit village at the mouth of the Kukpuk River, appears to have been continuously inhabited for 2,000 years, making it the oldest known Inuit settlement. The population of the historical Ipiutak was probably larger than that of the modern village of Point Hope, with a population of about 2,000 people. Houses at Ipiutak were small, about 12 by 15 feet square, with sod-covered walls and roof. Benches against the walls were used for sleeping, while the fire was kept in a small central depression of the main room. Artifacts from the site indicate that the Ipiutak hunted sea and land mammals, as do modern Inuit. Seals, walruses, and caribou provided the basis of their diet. Though the tools of whale hunting, including harpoons, floats, and sleds, were missing from this site, bone and ivory carvings of a rare delicacyreminiscent of some ancient Siberian artwere found.

Other Inuit settled in part-time villages during the same epoch. The continuous development of these peoples is demonstrated by the similarities in both ancient and modern Inuit cultures. Called by some the Old Bering Sea Cultures, these early inhabitants traveled by kayak and umiak skin boats in the warmer months, and by sled in the winter. Living near the coast, they hunted sea and land mammals, lived in tiny semi-subterranean dwellings, and developed a degree of artistic skill.

The Dorset culture was later superseded by the Norton culture, which was in turn followed by the Thule. The Thule already had characteristics of culture common to Inuit culture: the use of dogs, sleds, kayaks, and whale hunting with harpoons. They spread westward through Canada and ultimately on to Greenland. However, it appears that some of the Thule backtracked, returning to set up permanent villages in both Alaska and Siberia.

Anthropologically classified as central-based wanderers, the Inuit spent part of the year on the move, searching for food, and then part of the year at a central, more permanent camp. Anywhere from a dozen to fifty people traveled in a hunting group. The year was divided into three hunting seasons, revolving around one animal. The hunting seasons were seal, caribou, and whale. The yearly cycle began with the spring seal hunting, continued with caribou hunting in the summer, and fishing in the autumn. A caribou hunt was also mounted in the fall. In the far north, whales were hunted in the early spring. It was a relentless cycle, broken up with occasional feasts after the seal and caribou hunts, and with summer trade fairs to which groups from miles around attended.

Though most Arctic peoples were not organized into tribes, those of present-day Alaska are to a certain extent. One reason for such organization is the whaling occupation of the northwestern Alaska natives. These people settled north of the Brooks Range and along the coast from Kotzebue in the southwest, up to Point Hope and north and east to Barrow, the mouth of the Colville River, and on to the present-day Canadian border at Demarcation Point. These areas provided rich feeding grounds for bowhead whale. Strong leaders were needed for whaling expeditions; thus, older men with experience who knew how to handle an umiak, the large wooden-framed boat, used to hunt whales.

For thousands of years the Inuit lived lives unrecorded by history. This changed with their first contact with Europeans. The Vikings under Eric the Red encountered Inuit in Greenland in 984. Almost six hundred years later, the British explorer Martin Frobisher made contact with the Central Inuit of northern Canada. In 1741, the Russian explorer, Vitus Bering, met the Inuit of Alaska. It is estimated that there were about 40,000 Inuit living in Alaska at the time, with half of them living in the north, both in the interior and in the far northwest. The Inuit, Aleut, and Native Americans living below the Arctic Circle were the most heavily affected by this early contact, occasioned by Russian fur traders. However, northern Inuit were not greatly affected until the second round of European incursions in the area, brought on by an expanded whale trade.

Russian expeditions in the south led to the near destruction of Aleutian culture. This was the result of both the spread of disease by whites as well as outright murder. The first white explorers to reach Arctic Alaska were the Englishmen Sir John Franklin and Captain F. W. Beechey. Both noted the extensive trade carried on between Inuit and Indian groups. Other early explorers, including Alexander Kasherov, noted this intricate trading system as well, in which goods were moved from Siberia to Barrow and back again through a network of regularly held trade fairs. All of this changed, however, with the arrival of European whalers by the mid-nineteenth century. Formerly hunters of Pacific sperm whale, these whaling fleets came to Arctic regions following the bowhead whale migration to the Beaufort Sea for summer feeding. Unlike the Inuit, who used all parts of the whale for their subsistence, the whaling fleets from New England and California were interested primarily in baleen, the long and flexible strips of keratin that served as a filtering system for the bowhead whale. This material was used for the manufacture of both buttons and corset hooks, and fetched high prices. One bowhead could yield many pounds and was valued at $8000, a substantial amount of money for that time.

In 1867, the United States purchased Alaska, and whaling operations increased. The advent of steam-powered vessels further increased the number of ships in the region. Soon, whaling ships from the south were a regular feature in Arctic waters. Their immediate effect was the destruction of the intricate trading network built up over centuries. With the whalers to pick up and deliver goods, Inuit traders were no longer needed. A second effect, due to contact between the whalers and the Inuit, was the introduction of new diseases and alcohol. This, in conjunction with an obvious consequence of the whaling industry, the reduction of the whale population, made life difficult for the Inuit. Dependence on wage drew the Inuit out of their millennia-long hunting and trading existence as they signed on as deckhands or guides. Village life became demoralized because of the trade in whiskey. Small settlements disappeared entirely; others were greatly impacted by diseases brought by the whalers. Point Hope lost 12 percent of its population in one year. In 1900, 200 Inuit died in Point Barrow from a flu epidemic brought by a whaler, and in 1902, 100 more were lost to measles.

Although relatively unaffected by the whaling operations, the Inuit of the inland areas, known as Nuunamiut, also saw a sharp decline in their population from the mid-nineteenth century. Their independence had not protected them from the declining caribou herds nor from increasing epidemics. As a result, these people almost totally disappeared from their inland settlements, moving instead to coastal areas.


A number of actions were undertaken in attempts to improve the conditions of the Inuit at the end of the nineteen century and the early years of the twentieth century. The U.S. government intervened, obstensibly, to ameliorate the situation with improved education. However, the motivations behind this strategy by the U.S. government are the subject of much debate by many Natives and scholars of Inuit culture and history. Schools were established at Barrow and Point Hope in the 1890s, and new communities were only recognized once they established schools. The government also tried to make up for depleted resources, as the whaling trade had died out in the early years of the twentieth century, due to depleted resources as well as the discovery of substitutes for baleen. The U.S. Bureau of Education, the office given responsibility for the Inuit at the time, imported reindeer from Siberia. They planned to turn the Inuit, traditionally semi-sedentary hunters, into nomadic herders. However, after an early peak in the reindeer population in 1932, their numbers dwindled, and the reindeer experiment ultimately proved a failure. Game was no longer plentiful, and the Inuit themselves changed, seeking more than a subsistence way of life. For a time, beginning in the 1920s, fox fur trading served as a supplement to subsistence. Yet, trapping led to an increased breakdown of traditional cooperative ways of life. Fox fur trading lasted only a decade, and by the 1930s, the U.S. government was pouring more money into the area, setting up post offices, and aid relief agencies. Christian missions were also establishing school in the region. Concurrent with these problems was an increase in mortality rates from tuberculosis.

The search for petroleum also greatly affected the region. Since the end of World War II, with the discovery of North Slope oil in 1968, the culture as well as the ecology of the region changed in ways never imagined by nineteenth-century Inuit. Other wage-economies developed in the region. The Cold War brought jobs to the far north, and native art work became an increasing form of income, especially for carvers. In the 1950s, the construction of a chain of radar sites such as the Distant Early Warning system (DEW) employed Inuit laborers, and many more were later employed to maintain the facilities. In 1959, Alaska became the forty-ninth state, thus extending U.S. citizenship rights and privileges to all of state's population. At the end of the twentieth century, a number of issues face the Inuit: the use of technology, urban flight by the young, and thus, the viability of their traditional culture. Caught between two worlds, the Inuit now use snowmobiles and the Internet in place of the umiak and the sled. Nonetheless, they have designed legislative and traditional ways to maintain and protect their subsistence lifestyle. Since 1978, this lifestyle has been given priority, and it is legally protected.

Acculturation and Assimilation

As with the rest of Native Americans, the Inuit acculturation and assimilation patterns were more the result of coercion than choice. A main tool of assimilation was education. Schools, set up by the state or by missions, discouraged the learning of native languages; English became the primary language for students who were often transported hundreds of miles from their homes. Students who spoke their native Inupiaq language were punished and made to stand with their faces to the corner or by having their mouths washed out with soap. Returning to their home villages after being sent away for four years to the Bureau of Indian Affairs high schools, these Inuit no longer had a connection to their language or culture. They were ill-equipped to pass traditions on to their own children.

By the 1970s, however, this trend was reversed, as the Inuit began organizing, demanding, and winning more local autonomy. More local schools opened that honored the ancient ways of the Inuit. For many this was too little, too late. Though old dances and festivals have returned, and the language is studied by the young, it is yet to be seen if the old cultural heritage can be re-instituted after a century and more of assimilation.


Inuit social organization was largely based on bilateral kinship relations. There was little formal tribal control, which led to blood feuds between clans. However, hunting or trading provided opportunities for cooperative endeavors, in which different kinship groups teamed up for mutual benefit.

Wintertime was a period for the village to come together; men gathered in the common houses called kashims or karigi, also used for dancing. Games, song contests, wrestling, and storytelling brought the people of small villages together after hunts and during the long, dark winter months. Much of Inuit life was adapted to the extremes of summer and winter night lengths. Inupiats formerly lived in semi-excavated winter dwellings, made of driftwood and sod built into a dome. Moss functioned as insulation in these crude shelters. A separate kitchen had a smoke hole, and there were storage areas and a meat cellar. These dwellings could house 8 to 12 people. Temporary snow houses were also used, though the legendary igloo was a structure used more by Canadian Inuit.


Subsistence food for the Inuit of Alaska included whale meat, caribou, moose, walrus, seal, fish, fowl, mountain sheep, bear, hares, squirrels, and foxes. Plant food included wild herbs and roots, as well as berries. Meat is dried or kept frozen in ice cellars dug into the tundra.


Traditionally, Inuit women tanned seal and caribou skins to make clothing, much of it with fur trim. Two suits of such fur clothing were worn in the colder months, the inner one with the fur turned inward. Waterproof jackets were also made from the intestines of various sea mammals, while shoes were constructed from seal and caribou hide that had been toughened by chewing. Such clothing, however, has been replaced by manufactured clothing. Down parkas have replaced the caribou-skins, and rubber, insulated boots have replaced chewed seal skin. However, such clothing has become a major source of income for some individuals and groups. Traditional clothing, from mukluks to fur parkas, has become valued as art and artifact outside the Inuit.


An oral culture, Inuit danced at traditional feast times in ritual dance houses called karigi. These dances were accompanied by drums and the recitation of verse stories. Some of these dances represented the caribou hunt; others might portray a flight of birds or a battle with the weather. Both poetry and dance were important to the Inuit; storytelling was vital for peoples who spent the long winter months indoors and in darkness. The word for poetry in Inupiaq is the same as the word to breathe, and both derive from anerca, the soul. Such poems were sung and often accompanied by dancers who moved in imitation of the forces of nature. Many of the traditional singers were also shamans and had the power to cast spells with their words. Thus, dance took on both a secular and religious significance to the Inuit. The Inuit created songs for dancing, for hunting, for entertaining children, for weather, for healing, for sarcasm, and for derision. Some dance and song festivals would last for days with the entire community participating, their voices accompanied by huge hoop drums. These dance traditions have been resurrected among Inuit communities. For example, the Northern Lights Dancers have pioneered this venture.


Major feasts for the Inupiat took place in the winter and in spring. In December came the Messenger Feast held inside the community building. This potlatch feast demonstrated social status and wealth. A messenger would be sent to a neighboring community to invite it to be guests at a feast. Invitations were usually the result of a wish for continued or improved trading relations with the community in question. Gifts were exchanged at such feasts. Some southern groups also held Messenger Feasts in the fall.

The spring whaling festival, or nalukataq, was held after the whale hunt as a thanksgiving for success and to ask for continued good fortune with next year's hunt. It was held also to appease the spirit of the killed whales. Similar to other Bladder Dances or Festivals of non-Alaskan Inuit groups, these ceremonies intended to set free the spirits of sea mammals killed during the year. At the nalukataq, a blanket toss would take place, in which members of the community were bounced high from a walrus-skin "trampoline." Another spring festival marked the coming of the sun. Dressed in costumes that were a mixture of male and female symbols to denote creation, the Inuit danced to welcome the sun's return.

Trading fairs took place throughout the year. The summer Kotzebue fair was one of the largest. In 1991, it was revived, held just after the Fourth of July. For the first time in a century, Russian Inuit came to celebrate the fair with their Alaskan relatives. The Messenger Feast has also been re-instituted, held in January in Barrow.


In traditional Inuit society the healing of the sick was the responsibility of the shaman or angakok, who contacted spirits by singing, dancing, and drum beating. He would take on the evil spirit of the sick. Shamans, however, proved helpless against the diseases brought by the Europeans and Americans. Tuberculosis was an early scourge of the Inuit, wiping out entire villages. Alcohol proved equally as lethal, and though it was outlawed, traders were able to bring it in as contraband to trade for furs. Alcohol dependency continues to be a major problem among Inuit villages and has resulted in a high occurrence of fetal alcohol syndrome. Thus, ten villages in the Northwest Arctic Borough have banned the importation and sale of alcohol, while Kotzebue has made the sale of liquor illegal but allows the importation of it for individual consumption. Nonetheless, alcohol continues to be a source of major problems despite the implementation of "dry" towns and burroughs. Rates of accident, homicide and suicide among the Inuit are far higher than among the general Alaskan population. Moreover, there is a high rate of infant mortality and sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) and infant spinal disorders.

Another health issue, particularly for the Inuit of the Cape Thompson region, is cancer, brought on by the dumping of 15,000 pounds of nuclear waste by the Atomic Energy Commission. Also, radiation experiments on flora and fauna of the region as well as Russian nuclear waste dumping offshore have contaminated many areas of northwestern Alaska, putting the native population at risk.


The Inuit communities of northern Alaska speak Inupiaq, part of the Eskaleut family of languages. All Inuit bands speak very closely related dialects of this language family. Its roots are in the Ural-Altaic languages of Finland, Hungary, and Turkey. Alaskan Eskaleut languages include Aleut, Yup'ik and Inupiaq.

Many Inuit words have become common in English and other languages of the world. Words such as kayak, husky, igloo, and parka all have come from the Inuit. The worldview of the Inuit is summed up in a popular and fatalistic expression, Ajurnamat, "it cannot be helped."

The future of Inuit-speaking Alaska is optimistic. Language instruction in school, as noted, was for many years solely in English, with native languages discouraged. Literacy projects have been started at Barrow schools to encourage the preservation of the language. However, English is the primary language of the region.

Family and Community Dynamics

Local groups were formed by nuclear and small extended families led by an umialik, or family head, usually an older man. The umialik might lead hunting expeditions, and he and his wife would be responsible for the distribution of food. Beyond that, however, there was little control exerted on proper behavior in traditional Inuit society. Villages throughout northern Alaska have replaced hunting bands, thus preserving to some extent the fluid network of their traditional society.


Education for the Inuit is still problematic. Each village has its own school, funded by the state with extra funds from the federal government. Yet the dropout rate is still high among their youth. There was a 30 percent dropout rate in grade school in 1965, a rate that climbed to 50 to 80 percent in high school. And for those few who reached college at that same time, some 97 percent dropped out. Ten years later, in 1975, the rates had gone down considerably, in part due to a revival of teaching in Inupiaq, as opposed to English-only instruction. Most Inuit under 15 are minimally literate in English. However, in older generations the same is not true.


Birth and pregnancy were traditionally surrounded by many taboos. For example, it was thought that if a pregnant woman walked out of a house backwards, she would have a breech delivery, or if a pregnant mother slept at irregular times during the day this would result in a lazy baby. Also, there were special birthing houses or aanigutyaks, where the woman went through labor in a kneeling (or squatting) position. These postures have been recognized by Western culture as often preferable to the hospital bed.

Most children are baptized within a month of birth and given an English name along with an Inuit one. Chosen by their parents, these names are normally of a recently departed relative or of some respected person. Siblings help care for children after the first few months, and the baby soon becomes accustomed to being carried about in packs or under parkas. There is no preference shown for either male or female babies; both are seen as a gift from nature. While moss and soft caribou skin have been replaced with cotton and disposable diapers, the Inuit's attitude toward their young has not changed. They are loved and given much latitude by both parents, and fathers participate actively in raising their children.


There is still a recognized division of labor by gender, but it is a fluid one. In traditional societies, the men hunted, while the women tanned skins and made clothing and generally took care of domestic activities, and this occurred under the aegis of the extended family. In the modern era much of this has changed, but in general, outside employment is still the obligation of the male as well as any ancillary hunting activities necessary to help make ends meet. Women are, for the most part, confined to household tasks.


In the past, marriages were often arranged by parents; however, today dating openly occurs between teens. Group activities take precedence over individual dating. In traditional times, the most successful hunter could take more than one wife, though this was uncommon. Also in the past, temporary marriages served to bond non-kin allegiances formed for hunting and or warfare. Married couples traditionally set up their home with the man's parents for a time. Plumpness in a wife was a virtue, a sign of health and wealth. While divorce was, and is practiced in both traditional and modern Inuit societies, its incidence is not as high as in mainstream American society.


A central tenet of Inupiat religion was that the forces of nature were essentially malevolent. Inhabiting a ruthless climatological zone, the Inupiat believed that the spirits of the weather and of the animals must be placated to avoid harm. As a result, there was strict observance of various taboos as well as dances and ceremonies in honor of such spirits. These spirit entities found in nature included game animals in particular. Inupiat hunters would, for example, always open the skull of a freshly killed animal to release its spirit. Personal spirit songs were essential among whale hunters. Much of this religious tradition was directed and passed on by shamans, both male and female. These shamans could call upon a tuunsaq, or helping spirit, in times of trouble or crisis. This spirit often took the shape of a land animal, into whose shape the shaman would change him or herself. Traditional Native religious practices, as well as the power of the shamans, decreased with the Inuit's increased contact with Europeans.

Employment and Economic Traditions

Traditionally, the Inuit economy revolved around the changing seasons and the animals that could be successfully hunted during these periods. The Inuit world was so closely linked to its subsistence economy that many of the calendar months were named after game prey. For example, March was the moon for hanging up seal and caribou skins to bleach them; April was the moon for the onset of whaling; and October was the moon of rutting caribou. Whaling season began in the spring with the first break up of the ice. At this time bowhead whales, some weighing as much as 60 tons, passed by northern Alaska to feeding grounds offshore, which were rich in plankton. Harpooners would strike deep into the huge mammal, and heavy sealskin floats would help keep the animal immobilized as lances were sunk into it. Hauling the whale ashore, a section of blubber would be immediately cut off and boiled as a thanksgiving. Meat, blubber, bone, and baleen were all taken from the animal by parties of hunters under the head of an umialik, or boss. Such meat would help support families for months.

Caribou, another highly prized food source, was hunted in the summer and fall. In addition to the meat, the Inuit used the caribou's skin and antlers. Even the sinew was saved and used for thread. Baleen nets were also used for fishing at the mouths of rivers and streams. Walrus and seal were other staples of the traditional Inuit subsistence economy.

These practices changed with the arrival of the Europeans. As noted earlier, many attempts were made to replace diminished natural resources, including the importation of reindeer and the trapping of foxes for fur. These were unsuccessful, and modern Inuit blend a wage economy with hunting and fishing. A major employer is the state and federal government. The Red Dog Mine, as well as the oil industry on the North Slope, also provide employment opportunities. Smaller urban centers such as Barrow and Kotzebue offer a wider variety of employment opportunities, as does the Chukchi Sea Trading Company, a Point Hope arts and crafts cooperative that sells native arts online. Others must rely on assistance programs, and for most there continues to be a dependence on both wage and subsistence economies. In order to facilitate subsistence economy, fishing and hunting rights were restored to the Inuit in 1980.

In general, living costs are greater in the rural areas of the north than in the rest of Alaska. For example, as David Maas pointed out in Native North American Almanac, a family living in Kotzebue could pay 62 percent more per week for food than a family in Anchorage, and 165 percent more for electricity. The incidence of poverty is also higher among Alaskan Natives than for others in the state, with some 3,000 families receiving food stamps and 18,000 families relying on low-income energy subsidies. Over 25 percent of the Native population of the state live below the poverty line, while in some areas of Alaska, Native unemployment rates top 50 percent.

Politics and Government

Traditional Inuit maintained a large degree of individual freedom, surprising in a society that depended greatly on cooperative behavior for survival. Partnerships and non-kin alliances became crucial during hunting seasons and during wars and feuds, but it was mostly based on the nuclear or extended family unit. When bands came together, they were more geographical than political in nature, and while leaders or umialik were important in hunting, their power was not absolute. The social fabric of Inuit society changed forever in the twentieth century, though the people have avoided the reservation system. Natives themselves, such as the Inupiat of Barrow and Shungnak voted against establishing the reservations that formed all over America in the 1930s.

During the mid-twentieth century, there was a great deal of competition for once-native lands, both from the private and public sector. In 1932 a petroleum reserve in the north was set aside, and then developed by the Navy and later by private companies. The Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) also wanted Inuit land. In 1958, the AEC requested some 1600 square miles of land near Point Hope to create a deep-water port using an atomic explosion many times more powerful than that at Hiroshima. Some of the first political action taken by the Inuit was in opposition to this experiment. As a result, the plan, Project Chariot, was called off.

After their success against Project Chariot, Natives began to organize in a concerted way to protect their lands. In 1961, various village leaders formed the Inupiat Paitot (The People's Heritage Movement) to protect Inupiat lands. In 1963 the Northwest Alaska Native Association was formed under the leadership of Willie Hensley, later a state senator. The Arctic Slope Association was formed in 1966. Both associations mirrored the activities of the statewide Alaska Federation of Natives (AFN) which lobbied for Native rights and claims. Local villages and organizations throughout the state were filing claims for land not yet ceded to the government. In 1968, with Congress beginning to review the situation, oil was discovered on the North Slope. Oil companies wanted to pipe the oil out via the port of Valdez, and negotiations were soon underway to settle Inuit and other Native claims.

The result was the 1971 Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA), which created 12 regional for-profit corporations throughout the state. These corporations had title to surface and mineral rights of some 44 million acres. Additionally, Natives would receive $962.5 million in compensation for the 335 million acres of the state which they no longer claimed. Thus, the way was paved for the construction of the Alaska pipeline.

As a result of ANCSA, all Alaskans with at least one-quarter Native blood would receive settlement money that would be managed by regional and village corporations. Alaskan Inuit villages then organized into several corporations in hopes of taking advantage of the opportunities of this legislation. Amendments in 1980 to the Alaska National Interests Lands Conservation Act restoring Native rights to subsistence hunting and fishing, and in 1988, ensuring Native control of corporations, helped equalize ANCSA legislation. As of the 1990s, however, few of these corporations have managed to reach financial stability, and at least four have reported losses since 1971.

Inuit groups organized in the 1970s to see that high schools were built in their villages. In the Barrow region, local schools broke away from the Bureau of Indian Affairs administration and formed local boards of education more amenable to the teaching of Inupiaq language, history, and customs. The North Slope Borough, formed in 1972, took over school administration in 1975, and the Northwest Arctic Borough, formed in 1986, did the same. These regional political structures are further sub-divided into villages with elected mayors and city councils. Slowly the Inuit of northern Alaska are trying to reclaim their heritage in the modern world.

Individual and Group Contributions

Academia and Education

Martha Aiken (1926-) is an educator born in Barrow, Alaska, of Inupiat descent. Aiken has authored 17 bilingual books for the North Slope Borough School District, has translated 80 hymns for the Presbyterian Church, and has been a major contributor to an Inupiaq dictionary. She has also served on the board of the Arctic Slope Regional Corporation. Sadie Brower Neakok (1916-) is an educator, community activist and magistrate, from Barrow. A full-time teacher for the BIA, Neakok was appointed by the State of Alaska to be a magistrate, and was instrumental in introducing the American legal system to the Inupiat.


Melvin Olanna (1941-) is an Inupiat sculptor and jewelry designer. Educated in Oregon and at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, Olanna has had numerous individual and group exhibitions of his work, and has also won a number of Alaskan awards for the arts. A practitioner of the ancient carving traditions of the Inuit, Olanna brings this older design form together with modern forms. He learned carving techniques from masters such as George Ahgupuk and Wilber Walluk, and by age 14 he was already supporting himself with his carving. Olanna's work typically shows broad planes, simple surfaces, and flowing curves similar to the work of Henry Moore. He works in wood, ivory, whalebone, and bronze, and after a year in Europe he brought several tons of Cararra marble home with him to Suquamish. He and his wife helped found the Melvin Olanna Carving Center, dedicated to training young Inuit in their ancient traditions. Joseph Senungetuk (1940-) is a printmaker and carver of Inupiat descent. An activist as artist, writer, and teacher, Senungetuk has devoted his life to Native issues and the revitalization of Alaskan arts. He grew up in Nome where an uncle first taught him to carve, then attended the University of Alaska in Fairbanks. Senungetuk also wrote an autobiographical and historical book, Give or Take a Century: An Eskimo Chronicle, the first book published by his publishing house. He spent many years in San Francisco where he concentrated on printmaking. Returning to Alaska he wrote a regular column for an Anchorage newspaper and also worked on sculpting. Susie Bevins (1941-) is an Inupiat carver and mask maker. Born in remote Prudhoe Bay to an English trader and his Norwegian-Eskimo wife, Bevins moved to Barrow as an infant after her father died. At age 11 her family once again moved, this time to Anchorage. She studied art in Atlanta, Georgia, and Italy, and she is one of the best known Inuit artists of the day. Her masks often speak of the split personality of Natives growing up in two cultures. Larry Ahvakana (1946-) is an Inupiat sculptor and mixed media artist who trained at the Institute of American Indian Art in Santa Fe and at the Cooper Union School of Arts in New York. Ahvakana uses modern sculptural techniques blended with his Native heritage to create lasting pieces in stone and wood. His interpretations of Alaskan myth often appear in his art.


Howard Rock (1911-1976) was born in Point Hope, where in the 1960s he joined Inupiat Paitot to stop the government from using the locale as a nuclear test site. Rock became the editor of a newsletter formed to educate other Inuit about the dangers. In 1962 this newsletter became the Tundra Times, with Rock serving as its editor until his death in 1976. In 1965, he helped organize the first Alaska Federated Natives meeting in Anchorage. Rock, who began life as a jewelry maker, was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize the year before he died.


William L. Hensley (1941-), also known as Iggiagruk or "Big Hill," is an Inuit leader, co-founder of the Alaskan Federation of Natives, and state senator. Born in Kotzebue to a family of hunters and fishermen, Hensley left home for his education, attending a boarding school in Tennessee. He earned a bachelor's degree from George Washington University in Washington, D.C., where he first became politicized about the conditions of his people in Alaska. Returning to Alaska, he studied constitutional law at the University of Alaska. In 1966, Hensley became one of the founders of the AFN, which was instrumental in lobbying Washington for Native claims. Since that time he has played an active role in Alaskan politics and has been an untiring spokesperson for the rights of the Inuit. He founded the Northwest Alaska Native Association and was instrumental in the development of the Red Dog Lead and Zinc Mine in northwest Alaska, the second largest zinc mine in the world. Both a state senator and a representative, Hensley was honored with the National Public Service Award from the Rockefeller Foundation in 1980, the Governor's Award for Alaskan of the Year, 1981, and an Honorary Doctorate of Laws from the University of Alaska in Anchorage, 1981.



The Arctic Sounder.

Community newspaper serving Kotzebue, Barrow, and Nome.

Contact: John Woodbury, Editor,.

Address: 336 East Fifh Avenue, Anchorage, Alaska 99501.

Telephone: (800) 770-9830.


Tundra Times.

Bi-weekly newspaper, founded in 1962, devoted to the issues of Native Alaskans.

Contact: Jeff Richardson, Editor.

Address : P.O. Box 92247, Anchorage, Alaska 99509-2247.

Telephone: (800) 764-2512.



KBRW-AM (680) and KBRW-FM (91.9).

Contact: Steve Hamlin, Program Director.

Address: 1695 Okpik Street, P.O. Box 109, Barrow, Alaska 99723.

Telephone: (907) 852-6811.


KOTZ-AM (720).

Contact: Pierre Lonewolf, Program Director.

Address: P.O. Box 78, Kotzebue, Alaska, 99752.

Telephone: (907) 442-3434.


Organizations and Associations

Alaska Federation of Natives (AFN).

Serves as an advocate for Alaskan Inuit, Native Americans, and Aleut at the state and federal level. Founded in 1966. Publishes the AFN Newsletter.

Address: 411 West Fourth Avenue, Suite 301, Anchorage, Alaska 99501.

Telephone: (907) 274-3611.

Mauneluk Association.

Contact: Marie Green, President.

Address: P.O. Box 256, Kotzebue, Alaska 99752.

Telephone: (907) 442-3311.

Museums and Research Centers

Alaska State Museum.

Address: 395 Whittier Street, Juneau, Alaska 99801-1718.

Telephone: (907) 465-2976.

Fax: (907) 465-2976.

Anchorage Museum of History and Art.

Address: 121 West Seventh Avenue, Anchorage, Alaska 99501.

Telephone: (907) 343-4326.

Institute of Alaska Native Art, Inc.

Address: P.O. Box 70769, Fairbanks, Alaska 99707.

Telephone: (907) 456-7406.

Fax: (907) 451-7268.

Kotzebue Museum, Inc.

Collection contains Inuit artifacts, arts and crafts.

Address: P.O. Box 46, Kotzebue, Alaska 99752.

Telephone: (907) 442-3401.

Fax: (907) 442-3742.

Simon Paneak Memorial Museum.

Contains a collection of Nuunamiut Inuit history and traditions.

Address: P.O. Box 21085, Anaktuvuk Pass, Alaska 99721.

Telephone: (907) 661-3413.

Fax: (907) 661-3429.

Sources for Additional Study

Burch, Ernest S., Jr. The Inupiaq Eskimo Nations of Northwest Alaska. Fairbanks: University of Alaska Press, 1998.

Chance, Norman A. The Eskimo of North Alaska. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1966.

. The Inupiat and Arctic Alaska. Forth Worth, TX: Harcourt Brace, 1990.

Craig, Rachel. "Inupiat." Native American in the Twentieth Century: An Encyclopedia, edited Mary B. Davis. New York: Garland Publishing, 1994.

Handbook of North American Indians, Vol. 5, edited by David Damas. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution, 1984.

Langdon, Steve. The Native People of Alaska. 3rd ed., revised. Anchorage: Greenland Graphics, 1993.

Maas, David. "Alaska Natives," in Native North American Almanac, edited by Duane Champagne. Detroit: Gale Research, 1994. pp. 293-301.

Vanstone, James W. Point Hope: An Eskimo Village in Transition. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1962.

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LOCATION: Canada (Greenland); United States (Alaska); Aleutian Islands; Russia (Siberia)



RELIGION: Traditional animism; Christianity


The Inuit, or Eskimo, are an aboriginal people who make their home in the Arctic and sub-Arctic regions of Siberia and North America.

The word "Eskimo" was bestowed upon these hardy, resourceful hunters by their neighbors, the Algonquin Indians of eastern Canada. It means "eaters of raw meat." Recently, it has begun to be replaced by the Eskimos' own name for themselves, "Inuit," which means, "real people."

The Inuit are descended from whale hunters who migrated from Alaska to Greenland and the Canadian Arctic around 1000 ad. Major changes in Inuit life and culture occurred during the Little Ice Age (16001850), when the climate in their homelands became even colder. European whalers who arrived in the latter part of the nineteenth century had a strong impact on the Inuit. The Westerners introduced Christianity. They also brought with them infectious diseases that substantially reduced the Inuit population in some areas. When the whaling industry collapsed early in the twentieth century, many Inuit turned to trapping.

Wherever they live, the Inuit today are much involved in the modern world. They have wholeheartedly adopted much of its technology, as well as its food, clothing, and housing customs. Their economic, religious, and government institutions have also been heavily influenced by mainstream culture.


The Inuit live primarily along the far northern seacoasts of Russia, the United States, Canada, and Greenland. All told, there are more than 100,000 Inuit, most of whom live south of the Arctic Circle. The majority, about 46,000, live in Greenland. There are approximately 30,000 on the Aleutian Islands and in Alaska, 25,000 in Canada, and 1,500 in Siberia. The Inuit homeland is one of the regions of the world least hospitable to human habitation. Most of the land is flat, barren tundra where only the top few inches of the frozen earth thaw out during the summer months. The majority of Inuit have always lived near the sea, hunting aquatic mammals such as seals, walrus, and whales.


The Inuit language is divided into two major dialect groups: Inupik and Yupik. Inupik speakers are in the majority and reside in an area stretching from Greenland to western Alaska. Speakers of Yupik inhabit a region consisting of southwestern Alaska and Siberia.


According to a traditional folktale told by the Tikigaq Inuit of north Alaska, the raven (a traditional trickster figure in Inuit folklore) was originally white. It turned black in the course of a deal it made with the loon. The two birds agreed to tattoo each other but ended up in a soot-flinging match that turned the loon gray and the raven black.


Christianity, first introduced by missionaries, has largely replaced traditional Inuit religious practices. However, many of native religious beliefs still linger.

Many traditional Inuit religious customs were intended to make peace with the souls of hunted animals, such as polar bears, whales, walrus, and seals.


Today the Inuit observe the holidays of the Christian calendar. Traditionally, a feast called a potlatch was held whenever a new totem pole was raised. The Inuit who held the potlatch would often give away his most valuable possessions at the ceremony.


Traditionally, a feast was held when an Inuit boy killed his first seal or caribou. Women were married when they reached puberty, and men when they could provide for a family. The Inuit believed in an afterlife thought to take place either in the sea or in the sky. After people died, their names were given to newborn infants, who were thereby believed to inherit the personal qualities of the deceased.


Unlike many aboriginal cultures, traditional Inuit society was not based on the tribal unit. Instead, the basic social unit was the extended family, consisting of a man and wife and their unmarried children, along with their married sons and their families.


The Inuit had several different forms of traditional housing. In Greenland, they often lived in permanent stone houses. Along the shores of Siberia, they lived in villages made up of houses built from driftwood and earth. Summer housing for many Inuit was a skin tent, while in the winter the igloo, or house made of snow, was common.

Today many Inuit live in single-story, prefabricated wooden houses with a combined kitchen and living room area and one or two bedrooms. Most are heated with oil-burning stoves. However, since the Inuit are spread across such a vast area, their housing styles vary.

In recent years, dogsleds have been replaced by snowmobiles as the main mode of transportation for many Inuit.


Family tiesboth nuclear and extendedhave always been of great importance to the Inuit. Having a large family was always considered desirable.

Traditionally, women have often assumed a secondary role in Inuit society. At mealtime, an Inuit woman was required to serve her husband and any visitors before she herself was permitted to eat. But at the same time, a common Inuit saying extolled women in this way: "A hunter is what his wife makes him." The women were the ones who gathered firewood, butchered the animals, and erected tents in summer and igloos in winter.


Traditional Inuit clothing was perhaps the most important single factor in ensuring survival in the harsh Arctic environment. Its ability to keep the wearer alive in sub-zero temperatures was of prime importance. The Inuit made all their clothing from various animal skins and hides. In winter they wore two layers of caribou skin clothing. The outer layer had the fur facing out, while the fur of the inner layer faced in. The outer garment was a hooded parka.

Today a variety of shops sell modern Western-style clothing to the Inuit. Like their counterparts in cultures throughout the world, young people favor jeans, sneakers, and brightly colored sportswear. However, both old and young still rely on traditional Inuit gear when confronting the elements in any extended outdoor activity.


The traditional Inuit dietary staples were seal, whale, caribou, walrus, polar bear, arctic hare, fish, birds, and berries. Because they ate raw food, and every part of the animal, the Inuit did not lack vitamins, even though they had almost no vegetables to eat. With the introduction of modern Western-style food, including fast food, over the past two to three decades, the Inuit diet has changed, and not for the better. The consumption of foods rich in sugar and carbohydrates has resulted in tooth decay and other diet-related medical problems.

A tradional bread, bannock, was made while trapping or living in camps. The dough could be wrapped around a stick and cooked over an open fire. A recipe for bannock that can be prepared in an oven accompanies this article.


Most Inuit children ski or ride snowmobiles to get to and from school. They are taught standard subjects, including math, history, spelling, reading, and the use of computers. However, Inuit teachers are also concerned that the students learn something about their culture and traditions.




  • 4 cups flour
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • 5 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1½ cups water


  1. Mix ingredients together to form a stiff dough.
  2. Sprinkle flour on a clean work surface. With very clean hands, knead the dough. Dust hands and dough with flour if the dough is sticky.
  3. Form in a round loaf about 1 inch high. Bake on a greased baking sheet at 350°f for 30 minutes.
  4. Serve warm with butter and jam or honey.

Adapted from Shlabach, Joetta Handrich. Extending the Table. Scottsdale, Penn.: Herald Press, 1991.


Considering that the Inuit inhabit an area covering more than 5,000 miles (8,000 kilometers), their culture is amazingly unified. From Siberia to Greenland, Inuit economic, social, and religious systems are much the same.

In addition to the prints and carvings for which the Inuit have become famous, dancing, singing, poetry, and storytelling play important roles in their native culture.


Today most Inuit live a settled existence in villages and towns. They obtain wage employment or receive some form of social assistance. Major employers include the government, the oil and gas industry, and the arts and crafts industry. In addition, many Inuit are still involved in subsistence hunting and fishing at some level.


The Inuit enjoy games that enable them to display their physical strength, such as weightlifting, wrestling, and jumping contests. They also play a ball game that is similar in many ways to American football. Ice hockey is popular as well.


At traditional Inuit gatherings, drumming and dancing provide the chief form of entertainment. Quiet evenings at home are spent carving ivory or bone, or playing string games like cat's cradle. A traditional Inuit game similar to dice is played on a board, using pieces in the shape of miniature people and animals. The Inuit also enjoy typical modern forms of recreation such as watching television and videos.


Traditional Inuit arts and crafts mostly involve etching decorations on ivory harpoon heads, needlecases, and other tools. Over the past decades, the Inuit have became famous for their soapstone, bone, and ivory carvings, as well as their prints and pictures. Another artistic tradition is the creation of elaborate wooden masks.

Inukshuk, towers of stone in the form of a human, were built as landmarks or as decoys for herds of caribou.


Social problems include unemployment, underemployment, alcoholism, drug abuse, and a high suicide rate.


Condon, Richard. Inuit Youth: Growth and Change in the Canadian Arctic. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1987.

Hahn, Elizabeth. The Inuit: Rourke Publications, 1990.

Philip, Neil. Songs Are Thoughts: Poems of the Inuit. New York: Orchard Books, 1995.

Shlabach, Joetta Handrich. Extending the Table. Scottsdale, Penn.: Herald Press, 1991.


Canada. [Online] Available, 1997.

Canadian Tourism Commission. Canada. [Online] Available http://, 1998.

Nortext. Exploring Nunavet. [Online] Available, 1998.

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The Inuit make their homes in Chukotka, Alaska, Arctic Canada and Labrador, and Greenland, and are one of the several indigenous peoples of the Circumpolar North. The name Inuit (singular, Inuk ) has political as well as cultural and linguistic connotations. It means the people in Inuktitut, the language of the Inuit in Greenland and the central and eastern Canadian Arctic. Since the late 1970s the term has become the political designation for all of the peoples once known as Eskimos. The term Eskimo remains correct for archaeologically known populations.

Numbering approximately 150,000 people in 2006, contemporary Inuit are diverse in lifestyle, cultural practices, language, and economic and social circumstances. Within the broad political category Inuit, there are four major cultural divisions: Siberian Yupik, Alutiiq, Alaskan Yupik, and Inuit. Those who call themselves Inuit make additional regional, language, and cultural distinctions such that those in north Alaska are known as Iñupiat, while Inuit in Canada differentiate among Inuvialuit, Inuinnait, and Inuit. Greenlanders sometimes refer to themselves as Inuit, but also use the regional and cultural designations of Kalaallit, Inughuit, and Iit. While these contemporary distinctions have some basis in cultural, linguistic, and regional difference, the current divisions are also a result of colonial and administrative histories that reified some differences and denied others.


Linguistic, cultural, and archaeological data indicate that the Inuit populations are related to the indigenous peoples of Siberia, and Inuit cultures most likely have their origins in Siberia or Central Asia. Archaeological evidence suggests that the ancestors of contemporary Inuit peoples moved across the Bering Strait in several waves, and probably in small groups, as early as 5000 BCE. These hunting peoples spread out across the North American Arctic, where they depended on both land and marine animals. Around 1,500 years ago, the maritime-adapted peoples in southwest Alaska began spreading north, establishing themselves as whale hunters in north Alaska. Contemporary Iñupiat are their descendants. Some of these northern Alaskans moved eastward into the Arctic Archipelago and Greenland during a warming period around 800 to 1000 CE, and are the ancestors of the contemporary Inuit of Canada and Greenland. The Thule Eskimos, as they are known, either replaced or absorbed the Eskimo cultures that had preceded them.

There are similarities as well as differences between the various Inuit peoples. The similarities, which are most striking in terms of language and traditional cosmological beliefs, are clearly due to the relatively recent geographic divergence between groups. Linguists distinguish at least two closely related languages, Inuktitut and Yupiaq, each with several distinct but mutually intelligible dialects. Inuit cosmology attributed a life force to all aspects of the natural world. Humans, in order to survive and prosper, attended to numerous taboos and engaged in morally correct behavior. Animals were said to give themselves to those hunters who were respectful, modest, and generous. Souls of the dead, both human and animal, returned to the world of the living in new bodies. Alaskan Yupiit (plural of Yupik), for example, celebrated a Bladder Festival each winter in which the souls of the sea mammals killed that year were feasted and then returned to the sea where they would be reborn. The recycling of souls is also reflected in human naming practices, which bestow the name, and thus the soul, of a recently deceased person upon a newborn infant. This tradition of naming children continues, and many contemporary Inuit contend that the name/soul chooses the child rather than being chosen for the child.

The differences between the various Inuit peoples, in contrast, are superficial and generally reflect differences in material circumstances rather than distinctions in life ways and social values. Many of the differences result from variation in the natural environment across Inuit lands, which encompass a number of ecosystems and climatic conditions. At the southern margin, Alutiit (plural of Alutiiq) and Yupiit lived in subarctic boreal forest zones, built sod houses in permanent winter villages, and had economic security provided by dependable stocks of fish and sea mammals. Farther north, Iñupiat reliance on bow-head whales enabled them to establish semipermanent villages of up to five hundred people. Large numbers of people living together and cooperating in subsistence whaling demanded a fairly formal political organization. Iñupiat were led by male umialiit (singular, umialik ; literally, boat owners) and their wives, who organized and directed whale hunting activities and later distributed the proceeds of the hunt. The Iit, who live along the narrow rocky coastline of eastern Greenland, in contrast, led a precarious existence and occupied multifamily longhouses of stone and sod.

Only Inuit in the central and eastern Canadian Arctic lived in domed snowhouses and hunted seals at breathing holes. This stereotype of Inuit life was true for them only during midwinter and early spring. They and Inuit elsewhere depended upon seasonally variable marine and terrestrial animals for food, clothing, and tools. All Inuit peoples in the various regions and ecosystems adapted their communities and developed sophisticated technologies in order to survive and prosper.


Inuit in Greenland, and possibly those in Labrador and on Baffin Island, had some contacts with the Norse colonists in the tenth century. In 1576 English explorer Martin Frobisher (c. 15351594) encountered Inuit at Baffin Island while searching for a northwest passage to Asia. His was the first of numerous, sometimes sustained European encounters with modern Inuit. It was only in the early eighteenth century that Europeans successfully colonized Inuit lands. The Danes, hoping to restore contact with the lost Norse, established a colony on the west coast of Greenland in 1721. A few years later Russians, having already established trading colonies in Chukotka, began exploring and settling Alutiiq regions of Alaska. Both established trading monopolies and sought to convert Inuit to Christianity and to make them into reliable suppliers of fur and other renewable resources.

Inuit in other parts of the Arctic, though not directly subjected to colonizing settlers, experienced the disruptive influence of whalers, traders, prospectors, and missionaries. The purchase by the United States of Alaska from Russia in 1867 and Canadas acquisition of British Arctic territories in 1870 and 1880 set the stage for those nations to administer Inuit lands and peoples. For the most part, however, both nations left the day-to-day administration to missionaries and traders. Inuit in both nations received the education, health care, and other public services provided to citizens of modern nation-states only after World War II (19391945).

Since the 1950s there have been dramatic changes in the social and material life of Inuit in all four nations. Some of the changes resulting from economic modernization and government administration have had positive consequences. Still, Inuit in all four nations have also suffered forced relocations, the imposition of alien cultural values and economic systems, and the reorganization of domestic and community life.


Today Inuit struggle to participate as citizens of modern nations while retaining a degree of cultural self-determination. There are concerns regarding resource development, economic and food security, education, language retention, health, and climate change. Greenlanders have succeeded in institutionalizing their language as the everyday vernacular of work and government, while the Siberian Yupik language is nearly extinct. The language situation in Alaska and Canada is mixed. Inuit have been required to adopt the political institutions and structures of their various nations. In all regions but Siberia, Inuit constitute a majority of the population in their traditional lands. Thus, they are able to maintain a measure of control over resource development, education, and other public services. This situation is recent. Struggles over resource development reached a climax in the 1970s and were catalysts for the settlement of aboriginal land claims in Alaska and Canada.

Hunting and the management of wildlife are also salient issues for contemporary Inuit. Although all Inuit live in modern communities, and many work for wages, they have retained a cultural identification with hunting. Having access to and eating traditional foods continues to be socially, emotionally, and culturally valued. This traditional activity appears to be threatened by global climate change, which has created unstable, unpredictable, and dangerous weather conditions in the Arctic and threatens the survival of many animal species. The Inuit Circumpolar Conference, a nongovernmental organization representing Inuit in international affairs, has taken on climate change as its central focus and has argued that global climate change must be considered a human rights issue.


Bodenhorn, Barbara. 1990. Im Not the Great Hunter, My Wife Is: Iñupiat Models of Gender. Etudes/Inuit/Studies 14 (12): 5574.

Briggs, Jean L. 1970. Never in Anger: Portrait of an Eskimo Family. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Damas, David, ed. 1984. Handbook of North American Indians. Vol. 5: Arctic. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution.

Fienup-Riordan, Ann. 2000. Hunting Tradition in a Changing World: Yupik Lives in Alaska Today. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

McGhee, Robert. 2005. The Last Imaginary Place: A Human History of the Arctic World. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Stern, Pamela R. 2004. Historical Dictionary of the Inuit. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow.

Pamela R. Stern

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INUIT. The northern indigenous peoples known as Eskimo or Inuit (not including the Russian Inuit and Yupiget) numbered approximately 143,582 in 2002. In the United States, Alaskan Eskimos (Inuit, Yupiit, Yupiget, and others) numbered 55,674 according to the 1990 census (U.S. Bureau of the Census, personal communication, May 2002). In Canada, Inuit numbered 41,800 in the 1996 census, while the nation of Greenland, formerly a Danish territory, had an Inuit population of 46,108 in 2001. Alaskan Eskimos live in rural coastal villages, along northern rivers, in isolated island or northern interior valleys and, increasingly, in regional population centers such as Anchorage, Barrow, Fairbanks, Kotzebue, and Nome. In Canada, despite rising migration rates to the south, most Inuit live in fifty-five rural communities located in Nunavut, the Northwest Territories, Quebec province, Newfoundland, and Labrador. In Greenland, too, Inuit live in coastal villages, although those who live in population centers such as Nuuk are increasing.

In Alaska, Canada, and Greenland, names such as Inuit, Yupiit, and Yupiget identify Eskimos as "the people" or "the real people." Regardless of location or name, food is a critical feature of identity for all. (The term "Eskimo" is used here because it includes all groups.) Identity is often expressed as a longing for locally harvested and prepared foods by those who find themselves separated from traditional homeland communities. Local foods are referred to as "our" food, "real" food, or, in Alaska, simply "Eskimo" food. In Canada, such foods are called "country" food. Among the Alaskan Yupiget of St. Lawrence Island, for instance, the term neqepik means "real" food, while imported foods are called laluramka or "white people's" food (Jolles, 2002).

Across the north, dietary habits and cultural meanings attached to food are similar, due partly to adaptation to a common arctic ecosystem and partly to similar socioeconomic conditions, which keep unemployment rates as high as 50 to 80 percent. Under such conditions, subsistence-oriented hunting, fishing, and gathering activities, vital to community survival, are performed year round. In Nunavut, Canada, alone, replacing subsistence foods with equivalent amounts of beef, chicken, and pork would cost an estimated $30 to $35 million annually.

Types of harvested foods depend on local environments and overall resource availability. In 2002, in Ingaliq, Little Diomede Island, Alaska, for example, severe weather plus political and physical isolation at the Russian-American border one mile distant necessitated a substantial dependence on local foods. Diomede subsistence resources include bearded seals, ringed seals, spotted seals, walrus, and polar bears. In summer, the community harvests migrating water fowl such as auklets, puffins, and murres, along with their eggs. In late summer, wild greens and berries are harvested and stored. In winter (December through mid-May), the community takes Alaska blue king crabs through the sea ice and trades a portion of the harvest with mainland Alaskan Eskimo communities for unavailable foods such as caribou. Altogether, Ingaliq subsistence foods include more than forty marine mammal, plant, avian, fish, and shellfish resources. Local harvests in Diomede and elsewhere in the North are supplemented with expensive, imported, commercially available goods from Native cooperative stores, Hudson Bay Company franchises, and other small multipurpose stores found throughout the north.

In Alaska, meat and fish are the centerpieces of Eskimo diets and constitute 90 percent of locally harvested foods. In addition, communities take several types of whales: bowhead, gray, minke, and beluga, or white. Reindeer (introduced in the late 1890s by the U.S. government and managed by local villages), moose, caribou, and a newly reintroduced resource, musk oxen (available to hunters in 1995) are also taken. Numerous migratory seabirds are hunted during late spring and early fall, as is the ptarmigan, a permanent resident. Fish are prominent in southwestern coastal diets, especially salmon. Herring, tomcod, Arctic char, grayling, flounder, sculpin, and halibut also contribute to the diet. Clams are taken from walrus stomachs. Ground squirrels, once commonly harvested for their furs and their meat, are seldom taken any more. While meat is the mainstay, wild greens and berries are much sought. At least thirty species of plants are collected for food purposes from the land and from the beaches (Jones, 1983; Schofield, 1989, 1993).

For Canadian Inuit, diet in the early twenty-first century also consisted of two major classes of food, Inuit food or "country" food, and Qallunaat, or "white people's" food. "Country" foods include caribou, Arctic hare, ptarmigan, ringed seal, bearded seal, walrus, polar bear, beluga whale, migrating fish (Arctic char, Atlantic salmon, and Pacific salmon), and migratory birds (Canada goose, common eider, king eider, and black guillemots). "White people's" food includes items shipped from southern Canada and purchased at local stores, including fresh fruits and vegetables, canned goods, processed foods, and dry goods.

In Alaska, especially in the most northern communities, it was once common to consume uncooked meats. This has become less common with the introduction of such modern conveniences as microwaves, refrigerators, propane-fueled stoves, and the like. However, in Canada, the preference for uncooked meats is still a significant cultural feature. This practice became a powerful marker of Inuit identity in the postWorld War II era as Canadian Inuit experienced more sustained contact with Europeans and Canadians of European descent such as missionaries, teachers, and administrators. Consumption of raw or frozen foods, a practice typically disdained by non-Inuit, intensified boundaries separating Inuit and non-Inuit (Brody, 1975), and fostered increased social unity and political activism among Inuit who sought to protect and promote their hunting and fishing rights and to achieve local resource management in Inuit homelands.

Greenland Inuit obtain their food from two major sources: local land, seas, and lakes (called "country" food) and through local store purchases and via mail order. The main subsistence foods are ringed seal, beluga whale, caribou, bearded seal, and polar bear as well as a wide variety of fish, including cod, capelin, Atlantic salmon, Arctic char, and Greenland halibut. One feature that distinguishes the Inuit of Greenland from Canadian and Alaskan Eskimos is the abundance of small-scale fisheries, which include fish plants that provide a number of settlements with seasonal employment (Dahl, 2000). In addition to subsistence production, many Greenlandic Inuit are also involved in large-scale commercial fishing operations, and fishing products, including shrimp, Greenlandic halibut and crabs are Greenland's major exports. Many of the companies are owned and maintained by Inuit. Finally, there are approximately sixty sheep farms in southwest Greenland that produce lamb and other products for both domestic and international markets.

Food management in Eskimo communities combines traditional practices with modern convenience. Subsistence meats are often "half-dried" on outdoor meat racks, cooked (boiled), and stored in containers of seal oil or, alternatively, stored in home freezers, either "halfdried" or fresh. Greens, roots, and berries are more often stored in freezers, although some residents also use seal oil. Traditional underground or semiunderground food caches are gradually becoming a part of the past, while home freezer storage and consumption of fresh frozen foods has become increasingly common. In the late twentieth century and early twenty-first, in spite of significant changes in food storage methods, locally harvested foods from the land and the sea remained a major component of Eskimo food consumption. However, while "country" food or "real" food still defines ethnic and cultural boundaries in the North, "white people's" food is increasingly popular among young people, whether in Alaska (Jolles, 2002), Canada, or Greenland (Searles, 2002). The presence of contaminants in locally harvested foods is a major concern in the Arctic, for example, PCP, and is under discussion in all of the affected regions. It is unclear how this information, along with changing lifeways, will modify Eskimo diets.

See also Arctic; Canada: Native Peoples.


Anderson, Douglas, Ray Bane, Richard K. Nelson, Wanni W. Anderson, and Nita Sheldon. Kuuvanmiit Subsistence: Traditional Eskimo Life in the Latter Twentieth Century. Washington, D.C.: National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, 1977.

Brody, Hugh. The People's Land: Eskimos and Whites in the Eastern Arctic. Harmondsworth, England: Penguin, 1975.

Dahl, Jens. Saqqaq: An Inuit Hunting Community in the Modern World. Toronto, Canada: University of Toronto Press, 2000.

Jolles, Carol Zane, with Elinor Mikaghaq Oozeva, elder advisor. Faith, Food, and Family in a Yupik Whaling Community. Seattle, Wash.: University of Washington Press, 2002.

Jones, Anore. Nauriat Nigiñaqtuat: The Plants That We Eat. Kotzebue, Alaska: Maniilaq Association, 1983.

Searles, Edmund. "Food and the Making of Modern Inuit Identities." Food and Foodways 10 (2002): 5578.

Carol Zane Jolles Edmund Searles

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INUIT. Inuit (people) is the collective name of a widely distributed group of people inhabiting the northernmost areas of North America and Greenland. "Eskimo," a term formerly used by outsiders, has lost favor because of its offensive origins in an Algonquian word roughly meaning "eaters of raw flesh."

Early European Exploration

Inuit were the first inhabitants of the Americas to encounter Europeans. Archaeological evidence suggests that groups of Inuit moved eastward from Alaska, inhabiting the entire Arctic coast of North America and portions of Greenland about a century before the explorations of the Greenland coast by the Viking Gunnbjörn Ulfsson around a.d. 875. Eric the Red established settlements

in southern Greenland in 982 or 983. Contact between the Norse colonies in Greenland and the Inuit was uneasy and major conflict seems to have ended the Viking colonization of Greenland in the fifteenth century. Danish colonization began with the arrival in 1721 of missionaries, who pressured the Inuit to adopt European customs and language.

The first appearance of Russians took the form of an expedition of explorers to Alaska in 1741 led by Vitus Bering. The Russians subsequently claimed all of Alaska by virtue of their colonies on the southern coast. Russian contact with Inuit was limited to the area of these settlements; Inuit in northern Alaska had only indirect contact with Russians and their trade goods through trade by northern Inuit with their neighbors in southwest Alaska. British and American whaling ships began hunting the Arctic and wintering in northern Alaska in the late 1840s and Russia sold its Alaskan claims to the United States in 1867. Inuit east from the Mackenzie Delta to Hudson Bay did not meet Europeans until the late nineteenth century.

Pre-Colonial Inuit Society

The primary mode of Inuit settlement has been the village, although until recently relations between villages were not socially fundamental. Rather, power manifested itself mostly within the village. Men hunted and fished, women cooked and skinned animals; family cooperation was essential to survival. Social networking within the extended family and between extended families within the village served as the mediator of power. More recently, Inuit people began to organize themselves at the village level, the regional level, and the international level in order to interact with their colonial governments, but the importance of the family persists.

The Inuit economy before European development was one of subsistence. Sea and land mammals, including whales, walrus, seals, and in some areas, caribou, were the staple targets of hunts. Most Inuit technology, including harpoons, stone oil lamps, dogsleds, skin boats, water resistant boots, and tailored clothing, served either the tasks of the hunt or the tasks of the home. Individual contribution to the hunt, proper sharing of the yield with the elderly and infirm, honesty, and other forms of cooperation for the common good were enforced by general approval or disapproval through social networks rather than by a government or corporate apparatus. Economic life, like political life, centered on the family's internal networks and its connections to other families.

The Impact of Colonial Status

Ongoing colonial status has brought changes to Inuit communities. Missionaries have proselytized among them, anthropologists have studied them, governments have imposed laws and regulations on them, and corporations have pressed them to enter the capitalist cash economies of the modern nation-states in which they have found themselves. The colonial relationship between the modern nation-states and Inuit communities across the Arctic has been and is the overarching problem with which the Inuit and their southern neighbors must cope.

The social problems of colonization manifest themselves most strongly among the Inuit in politics and economy. Caught up in the drive to advance the frontiers of "civilization," Inuit people have sometimes willingly appropriated economic, political, and social structures from their colonizers, and sometimes those structures have been imposed. One important event in this process has been the discovery and exploitation of the petroleum resources in northern Alaska. Through legal intricacies, Alaskan Inuit and other Native Alaskans were deprived of enforceable legal claim to their lands and resources. Most petroleum-bearing lands in northern Alaska were acquired by the state in the early 1960s, and then leased to a group of oil companies in 1969. Afterward, in the Alaska Land Claims Settlement Act of 1971, the U.S. Congress acted to settle Native Alaskan groups' land and resource claims, awarding a relatively large cash and land settlement and creating regional-and village-based corporations to administer it. The imposition of corporate structures was supposed to help draw Native Alaskans into the American economy, but instead most of the corporations have been unable to turn profits.

Inuit people often are eager to take advantage of snowmobiles, motorboats, rifles, and other technological advances that can make their ways of life less difficult and dangerous, but such items are only available from within the American cash economy. From the perspective of the colonizers, the question was how to compel Inuit to labor and create surplus value, thereby establishing wage relations, and it was answered with a host of vocational training programs. However, the contradiction between the American corporate expectation that Inuit work regular schedules and the Inuit social expectation that able-bodied men hunt to provide subsistence for their families creates obstacles to Inuit employment in non-Inuit-run corporations in the Arctic. Thus, the petroleum industry has not employed many Inuit.

In Canada and Greenland, governmental attempts to deal fairly with Inuit have differed from the approach taken by the United States. Greenland acquired home rule from Denmark by popular referendum in 1979, and governs itself by parliamentary democracy. Canada has passed claims settlement acts like that of the United States, but in 1993 the Canadian Parliament voted to partition the Northwest Territories and create a new territory called Nunavut (our land). The population of Nunavut is around 85 percent Inuit; thus, the Inuit of Nunavut enjoy a measure of home rule within the Canadian nation. These developments in Alaska, Canada, and Greenland have succeeded in large part because of organizing and pressure by Inuit themselves. On the international level, Inuit in all three countries joined in 1977 in a statement of common interest to form the Inuit Circumpolar Conference, a United Nations NGO (nongovernment organization).

Political and economic interactions illustrate the fundamental problem of colonialism, the answer to which will continue to be worked out in the future. To what extent will Inuit culture be characterized as "traditional" in distinction to "modern," such that Inuit must inevitably adopt modern customs, like working regular schedules for wages, and to what extent will Inuit culture be characterized as an identity to be formed by Inuit themselves, regardless of what customs they choose to adopt?


Burch, Ernest S. The Iñupiaq Eskimo Nations of Northwest Alaska. Fairbanks: University of Alaska Press, 1998.

Chance, Norman A. The Iñupiat and Arctic Alaska: An Ethnography of Development. Fort Worth, Tex.: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1990.

Dorais, Louis-J. Quaqtaq: Modernity and Identity in an Inuit Community. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1997.

Jorgensen, Joseph G. Oil Age Eskimos. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990.

Frank C.Shockey

See alsoAlaska ; Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act .

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Inuit the members of an indigenous people of northern Canada and parts of Greenland and Alaska.

The peoples inhabiting the regions from NW Canada to western Greenland prefer to be called Inuit rather than Eskimo, and this term now has official status in Canada. By analogy, the term Inuit is also used, usually in an attempt to be politically correct, as a synonym for Eskimo in general. However, this latter use, in including people from Siberia who are not Inupiaq-speakers, is, strictly speaking, not accurate.

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In·u·it / ˈin(y)oō-it/ • n. 1. (pl. same or -its) a member of an indigenous people of northern Canada and parts of Greenland and Alaska. 2. the family of languages of this people, one of the three branches of the Eskimo-Aleut language family. It is also known, esp. to its speakers, as Inuktitut. • adj. of or relating to the Inuit or their language.

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Inuit Collective name for the Eskimo people of Nunavut, Greenland, and the Northwest Territories, Arctic Québec, and n Labrador areas of Canada. Many Inuit still live by the traditional skills of fishing, trapping and hunting.

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Inuit: see Eskimo.

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Inuitacquit, admit, backlit, bedsit, befit, bit, Brit, Britt, chit, commit, demit, dit, emit, fit, flit, frit, git, grit, hit, intermit, it, kit, knit, legit, lickety-split, lit, manumit, mishit, mitt, nit, omit, outsit, outwit, permit, pit, Pitt, pretermit, quit, remit, retrofit, shit, sit, skit, slit, snit, spit, split, sprit, squit, submit, tit, transmit, twit, whit, wit, writ, zit •albeit, howbeit •poet •bluet, cruet, intuit, suet, Yuit •Inuit • floruit • Jesuit •Babbitt, cohabit, habit, rabbet, rabbit •ambit, gambit •jackrabbit • barbet • Nesbit • rarebit •adhibit, exhibit, gibbet, inhibit, prohibit •titbit (US tidbit) • flibbertigibbet •Cobbett, gobbet, hobbit, obit, probit •orbit • Tobit •cubit, two-bit •hatchet, latchet, ratchet •Pritchett •crotchet, rochet

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