11: Peoples of the North- the Inuit

Who are the Inuit??

Who lives in the Arctic? It is a vast area covering the north of the globe, and when we ask this question the answer is often ‘the Inuit’. Who are the Inuit though? Well, much like saying someone is from Africa or Asia, it is a very very broad description of what is in reality different groups with unique identities, for example an ‘Asian’ in India is culturally quite different to an ‘Asian’ in Japan. The Inuit (plural of the word Inuk) are a ‘culturally similar group’ found across Arctic Alaska, Canada and Greenland. Here I thought I’d give a little intro into some of the cultures within these groups, with some references to the old traditions and some of the very vibrant parts of these cultures today. Quick but important disclaimer- I am not a member of any of these indigenous groups and whilst I’m trying to portray them accurately, if you’re interested in fact checking or learning more about them I’d strongly recommend reading things written by people within that culture themselves. I am in no way pretending to be an authority on these groups and their history and way of life, I’m just curiously learning and sharing that learning with you, but first-hand accounts are always better .

Update: I was informed by an indigenous person that how Inuit/Inuk is used depends on the region. Some indigenous people use it to self identify (e.g the Inuit Circumpolar Council), whilst in other places it has been used as a derogatory term, so maybe take caution whether to use the word or not. For the record ‘esk*mo’ is definitely a racial slur so steer well clear of that one!

A map of different Native peoples in Alaska (Map: Benny Boyd from the Alaskan NAtive Language Centre)

Alaska

The state of Alaska is home to over 7 different indigenous peoples, termed Alaskan Natives. One group which I’ll focus on here is the Iñupiat or Iñupiaq who live along the west and north coasts of the state. They have their own language also called Iñupiat, and traditional clothing made of furs. In the past as well as today many live a subsistence lifestyle relying on hunting and fishing of creatures such as walrus, seal, whale, polar bears, caribou and very importantly salmon. Northern Alaska is characterised by long cold winters so there is little to no plant life around in winter.

Iñupiat dances, accompanied by drumming, are a combination of moves which tell a story, for example imitating the movements of some wildlife. Language is also important. During the colonisation of Alaska by people from the south, boarding schools were set up where Native children were forced to attend and were banned from speaking their traditional language and learning about their culture. This lead to some generations of Iñupiat not being able to use their mother tongue, but in recent years there has been a revival amongst young people to try to learn their traditional language.

Cool sporty fact: Every year youth from across Alaska take part in the Native Youth Olympics. This is a sports competition where all the events are traditional activities which would help hunters stay fit. This involves things such as the two foot high kick, in which a ball is suspended in the air. The competitor must go from standing to kicking the ball with both feet, and then land without falling backwards. The ball is raised each round until there is a winner. This is an incredible test of strength but also importantly balance.

On the left an Iñupiat group performing a dance (Photo: Patrick J. Endres). On the right a young man doing the Alaskan High Kick in the Native Youth Olympics. Pretty badass! (Photo: NYO website)

Canada

Canada is home to 253 different indigenous groups, here called ‘First Nations’ groups. This includes the Denesuline who traditionally live in the boreal forests in the mid-west of the country. They are also sometimes called Chipewyans, though this is a given name by other groups. They traditionally followed herds of wild caribou which they hunted, also hunting moose. Caribou hides could be used to make nets for fishing and fruit picking was also a source of food in the summer. Communities are organised into groups called bands where these resources are often shared.

Their languages group, Dene, encompasses many other peoples in the area as well.

The Denesuline use dog teams attached to sled for the transport of goods especially in the winter when crossing land is difficult.

On the left a Denesuline berry picking basket made out of birch bark and decorated with loons (Made by: Carrie Kotchea). On the right a painting of the Denesuline hunting caribou (photo: National Wildlife Federations)

Greenland

Greenland is one of the areas with the highest proportion of Inuit peoples living there, with 80-88% of the population of the island being Inuit. One of these groups is the Kalaallit or West Greenlandic peoples. Their language is Kalaalisut (or ‘Greenlandic’), and they are thought to have moved over originally from east Canada.

The Kalaallit are skilled in crafts especially sewing, making clothing which is not only necessary and practical in the cold northern climate, but which is also beautiful. Animals skins are dried, treated and sewn into clothing which can be used at various times of the year, with more fur covered skins providing greater insulation against the cold.

Tattooing has historically been an important part of many Inuit peoples self-identity including the Kalaallit, and in recent years there has been a revival of these tattooing practices. Mummified remains of people and artistic carvings over 3500 years ago have shown evidence that tattooing of arms, breasts and faces was common. Tattoos appear to have been mainly worn by women, and were created by respected female elders who already had expert skills with a needle through seamstressing work. Some symbols used in the tattoos were thought to be protective, others would help identify a person within a certain group, and others were indicative of having reached a milestone in ones life such as the first whale hunt.

For a period, and arguably still today, the colonising cultures in these areas frowned upon the tattoos and the Inuit were made to feel that bearing these marks of their traditional culture made them somehow inferior, so the practice became far less common. However in recent times an upsurge in pride and a revival of indigenous practices is happening throughout the Arctic, and more Inuit are getting these tattoos once again.

Fun Fact: A new Marvel superhero who is an indigenous Arctic woman called Amka Aliyak (‘Snowguard’) has face tattoos (see title picture).

Left: Greenland’s national outfit (Photo: Karsten Bidstrup). Right: Greenlandic traditional tattoo artist Paninnquaq Lind (photo: Paninnquaq Lind)

Europe and Russia

There are many different groups of indigenous Arctic peoples in Northern Europe and Russia. However, they are not Inuit. In Europe the broad group is the Saami who live in northern Norway, Sweden, Finland and the Kola Peninsula of Russia. In Russia there are many different groups including the Nenets, Evenki and Mansi.

The Arctic is made up of many different peoples, with their own languages, practices and beliefs. At the same time there are united by a common environment, sometimes harsh and sometimes beautiful which has led them to use similar resources in the past, and face similar problems today in terms of industrialisation, climate change and colonisation of their lands.

Hopefully this has been an interesting brief introduction on these diverse but vibrant cultures, and a reminder that far from being a desolate place, the Arctic is full of life and people!

For more info:

The Native Youth Olympics

Reviving the Tattooing tradition

Music: kongano.com

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