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The Inuit

Respect for the environment
Culture
Hunting
The kayak
Inuit contact with the south
Inuit myths and legends



respect for the environment

Respect for the environment

"I was wrapped in caribou fur and was wearing polar bear skin trousers, still the wind stung my face as Lars Jeremiassen and I sledged on the frozen sea off the coast of Steensby Land. I had rigged up a rope trapeze and suspended myself from the back of the sledge to allow me to take video footage of Lars and the dogs as they trotted along. With no warning Lars sent the whip hissing through the air and with a sharp command the dogs leapt forward into a fast run. I just about managed to hold on and laughed, explaining in my video commentary that Lars was showing off.

"On our return to Qaanaaq a month or so later Lars’ daughter who, unlike Lars, spoke English, asked if I knew why Lars had whipped the dogs into a run. I said that I thought he was having a bit of fun – ‘No,’ she said, ‘the ice was breaking up under you'."
Glenn Morris, Team Leader.

I often tell this story when giving talks or presentations as it seems to me to illustrate an exceedingly important point. The Inuit have lived in the lands of the north for thousands of years. During this time they have built up a respect and understanding of their surroundings and environment that is both deep and intuitive. They know and connect with their land in a way that we, in the industrialised and wealthy south, have all but lost. To me, the noise of the sledge runners squealing and clattering over the ice sounded normal, whereas Lars heard the difference between life and death.
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culture

Culture

The name Inuit means “the people”. They are the descendants of what anthropologists call the Thule culture, a nomadic people who emerged from western Alaska and spread eastwards across the Arctic, displacing the related Dorset culture. Today there are around 160,000 Inuit people living in the Arctic regions of Alaska, Canada, Greenland and Chukotka, Russia. In Canada there are eight main Inuit tribal groups, the Labrador, Ungava, Baffin Island, Iglulik, Caribou, Netsilik, Copper and Western Arctic Inuit or the Inuvialuit. In Canada the Inuit speak English but also their native language which is called Inuktitut. In Greenland the official Inuit language is called Kalaallisut.

The Inuit culture was essentially based on an egalitarian, hunter-gatherer society. They lived at the very edge of human settlement, a place where crops cannot be grown and all sustenance and means of maintaining life itself must come from one’s own cunning, skill and ingenuity

The land was not owned and was seen to belong to all people and the animals. It was, and still is, however, highly respected. At the heart of the society was the family. Men and women traditionally functioned with very specific roles. The man was the hunter; he made the sledge, tools and managed the dogs. The women prepared food, tended the camp, prepared skins and made clothes. The relationship was very interdependent and in early times it would be very unusual for a man or woman to live alone – indeed, so intrinsically are they linked that names have no gender and could be given to a boy or girl. Southern influence has diluted these roles but in many areas they still operate.
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hunting

Hunting

Traditionally the Inuit supported themselves by hunting fish, sea mammals and land animals for food, heat, light, clothing, tools and shelter. They hunted mainly seal and caribou, but also whales, walrus, polar bear, musk ox, fox and wolf. The animals were used for food and their skin was used for clothing, blankets, tents and boats. Their oil was used for cooking and lamps. Bones, ivory and wood were used to make tools. Little was wasted, there was no pollution and, apart from natural trends, animals and people lived in harmony with a land that most people from the south would find hostile in the extreme.

The good hunters were respected, as was a good work ethic – lazy people or those that did not contribute to the community, were not. They were just another mouth to feed in a place where food could be very hard to come by.

Today the Inuit have adapted to the changes brought by the “west” and it is not uncommon to see an Inuit fishing through a hole in the ice whilst talking on a mobile phone – or drinking a can of coke as he drives his dog sledge. However, the Inuit hunting tradition remains and, particularly as you go further north, it is practised with pride. In many areas the local people still hunt, fish and trap and rely on their environment for food. The President of the Inuit Circumpolar Council, Greenland, Aqqaluk Lynge, has said: “Eating what we hunt is at the core of what it means to be Inuit. When we can no longer hunt on the sea-ice, and eat what we hunt, we will no longer exist as a people.”
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the kayak

The kayak

The Kayak is an example of Inuit technological ingenuity that made it possible to live in the harsh conditions of the Arctic. These light, single-passenger boats were used primarily for hunting rather than a means of transport.
 
The Inuit build these boats from the materials to hand. The frame is generally of wood, formerly driftwood and with Arctic Willow for the ribs. The frame parts are pegged and/or lashed together with sinew or sealskin cord, or nowadays with nylon line. The apparently flimsy components combine to form an extremely strong completed frame, which is then covered with a waterproof skin. Canvas is commonly used these days, although a few are still covered in the traditional manner with the skin of seal or caribou. These kayaks have a misleading look of fragility about them, but they are immensely strong. The frame can flex in the water, and the skin absorbs impacts from waves and even rocks with little damage.

There are a wide variety of designs, depending on the local conditions and the animals being hunted, but the long, narrow shape and skin-on-frame construction is found from Siberia, across Arctic North America, to Greenland. Some were designed for hunting caribou on inland lakes and rivers, but most were for hunting sea mammals on the coast. In each case, the hunting equipment is carried on the decks, secured under leather straps with fittings of ivory or antler.

The hunter silently approaches his prey to within range of the harpoon, lance or rifle. Great skill is required to avoid becoming entangled and capsized during the hunt, and the ability to roll the kayak was very valuable. Walrus are particularly dangerous, and liable to attack and crush the kayak when provoked. In the past, when the kayak was still widely used for hunting, a high proportion of male deaths in Greenland were due to kayak hunting accidents.

Within the last century the arctic kayak form has been adopted, copied and modified by boat-builders in Europe and worldwide. Initially they were built in wood and canvas, then plywood, and most recently glassfibre and plastic. New materials and manufacturing techniques have led to the development of a new generation of folding kayaks, where the frame is assembled and inserted into the waterproof skin. Although distant from the ethos of using natural, locally-obtained building materials, these craft behave on the water more like their ancestor skinboats than the glassfibre "hardshell" kayaks. Folding kayaks are very resilient and can continue to perform well even if part of the frame is damaged. They are also easily repaired in the field and this makes them an ideal choice for extended trips in remote areas.
 
In the Arctic today a few communities continue to use kayaks for hunting, but most now use modern boats with outboard engines. There is an increasing interest in the kayaking heritage, however, especially in Greenland where an annual National Kayaking Championship is held. Kayaking traditions are also being promoted in other parts of the North, with, for example, kayak-building workshops led by elders in Kugaaruk, Nunavut and Kwigillingok, Alaska.
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contact with the south

Inuit contact with the south

Europeans first encountered the Inuit shortly after the Norseman, Eric the Red, colonized the west coast of Greenland in around 1000AD. The English encountered their first Inuit near Frobisher Bay under the command of Martin Frobisher in 1576. Following Frobisher’s forays into the Arctic there followed the missionaries, one of the most famous being Hans Egede, who would have the Inuit whipped for not attending church.

Then came whalers who, with the help of the Inuit, hunted the whales ruthlessly, realizing they could no longer make their fortune, left, leaving a legacy of disease and decimated whale stock. Still more explorers came, Hudson, Ross, Parry, Baffin, Franklin – the list goes on. Most relied on the help and guidance of the Inuit. Perhaps the most famous of these was the American explorer Robert Peary, who relied heavily on the Polar Inuit of North West Greenland to make his attempts on the North Pole. Those that helped him received little or no recognition, some even died far from their homeland when brought back to America by Peary as museum curiosities.

Even today the white man visits the Inuit’s land to seek fame or fortune in the form of oil men or adventurers but, as always, little regard seems to be paid to the people whose land is being visited – sometimes this results in the disruption of entire communities. One example of this is the displacement of the Inuit community at Thule in North West Greenland when the United States decided to build a military air base in 1953 and move the people from their homeland north to what is now Qaanaaq.
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myths and legends

Inuit myths and legends

The oral tradition of story telling is central to the Inuit culture. Historical events, as well as myths and legends have been passed down for generations through story telling. This is often done with amazing accuracy. Even to this day accounts of those who witnessed the fate of Franklin’s men have been passed down over the years.

One of the most famous myths is the story of the origin of the Mother of the Sea, sometimes called Sedna. A shaman named Pauluna in North West Greenland told this version to the French ethnographer, Jean Malaurie.

“Nerrivik had married a bird, a kind of sea gull. They went off together to live on a small island. Every morning, the husband went out hunting. While his wife waited patiently for him to return, she scraped skins with the ulu (an Inuit woman’s all-purpose knife) which would be used for tents. Now and then her parents came to see her. The sea gull had been in the habit of wearing glasses when he came home. His eyes were indeed hideous. But one day he came back without the glasses.

“Have you ever seen my eyes?” he asked his wife, and he laughed. She was intrigued and she looked at him. But when she saw how ugly his eyes were, she burst into tears and couldn’t stop crying. Her parents urged her to flee in a little sealskin boat while the sea gull was out hunting.

"So, one evening they hurriedly left the island. But when the sea gull returned and saw that his wife had left him, he became very angry. He set out after her and soon caught sight of the boat. He quickly reached it and flew so close that he brushed against it. The parents were afraid, and the father decided to throw his daughter into the sea. This was done. No sooner than she was in the water, than she clung to the boat and almost made it tip over. The father then took his heavy, broad knife and chopped her fingers off one by one. Nerrivik tried hard to hold on but slowly slipped down into the water. Her parents were then able to finish their journey in peace.

"After sinking to the bottom of the sea, Nerrivik became the goddess of the waters. It is certain that she answers the prayers only of the great shamans. Only they know how to talk to her, to soothe her, to arrange the bun at the back of her neck properly, and to sweep her house. Her fingers and hands became the sea animals, the seal, the walrus and the whales.”
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