Skip to main content Skip to Search Box

Definition: Inuit from Philip's Encyclopedia

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.

Summary Article: Inuits
from Ethnic Groups of the Americas: An Encyclopedia

The Inuits are an Arctic ethnic group inhabiting the Arctic regions of Canada, Alaska, and northern Greenland. Other small Inuit communities are found in northern Siberia in Russia. The estimated 100,000 Inuits speak languages belonging to the Eskimo-Aleut language family. The majority of the Inuits are nominally Christian, primarily Anglican or Roman Catholic, though traditional beliefs are still revered.

The ancient ancestors of the Inuit peoples are believed to have crossed into the North American continent from Asia some 4,000 years ago. The migrants used the now-disappeared land bridge across the Bering Strait between Alaska and Siberia. The Inuits and the Aleuts separated around 2000 bce when the Aleuts moved to the south while the Inuits spread across a vast territory above the Arctic Circle. The migrants adjusted to the frozen lands north of the tree line in an adaptation unequaled by any other northern ethnic group. The ancestor group, known as the Thule Inuits, migrated across the Arctic lands of North America between 1000 ce and 1400 ce, with groups leaving the main migration to settle in present-day Alaska, northern Canada, the Canadian Arctic islands, and Greenland. The Inuit descent from this one migration gives the modern Inuits a surprising uniformity of language and culture. The Inuits, unaware that other peoples existed except for some sub-Arctic peoples with whom they carried on a lively trade, were astounded when Europeans first began exploring their homeland in the 16th century. Most of the Inuit bands encountered Europeans for the first time only in the 1770s, when British, Russian, and Spanish expeditions explored the Arctic regions. The arrival of Christian missionaries in the late 18th century began a gradual conversion to various Christian sects.

The Inuit culture is based on their traditional occupations, hunting and fishing. They were formerly known as Eskimos, a name derived from the Algonquin language and adopted by the early European explorers to denote any of the Arctic peoples. The name Eskimo is now considered derogatory and all bands now call themselves Inuit, simply meaning “the people.” Traditional Inuit culture was completely adapted to the harsh climate with fish and sea mammals as the major food sources. Modern Inuit culture has again adapted to adopt a wider range of foods, including vegetables that were formerly unknown, while snowmobiles have replaced dog sleds and rifles have replaced harpoons for hunting. Modern houses have replaced the traditional igloos and imported tools are now used instead of items made of animal hides, driftwood, or bone. Most Inuits now speak English in Canada and the United States, Danish in Greenland, and Russian in Siberia, though a sizable minority continues to use their traditional Inuit dialects. The Inuit dialects are closely related but are not always mutually comprehensible, though they form a language continuum from coastal Siberia to northern Greenland. The Inuits are largely Christian, the result of early missionary activity in the Arctic region, but since the 1970s and 1980s there has been a revival of traditional customs and rituals that form part of the Inuit cultural revival. In Greenland the Inuits are mostly found in the northern districts while the Greenlanders, though related to the Inuits, are of mostly mixed ancestry and consider themselves a separate ethnic group.

The Inuit communities were known to missionaries and explorers but were mostly ignored by the governments that controlled their home territories. Many Inuits remained isolated from modern culture until after World War I. The decline of traditions such as infanticide and blood feuds resulted in a steady population increase in the 1920s and 1930s. The Inuit lifestyle changed very little until the 1950s, when paternalistic government agencies began to move the Inuits into planned housing projects with schools and health facilities. Though the change from a nomadic or seminomadic way of life was accepted many of the ills of modern society accompanied the change. Alcohol abuse, the breakup of traditional family units, and poverty became serious social problems. Activists demanding redress of old abuses began to mobilize the Inuits in the 1960s and 1970s. In Canada the Inuits won a long battle to gain control of their ancient homeland when the new territory of Nunavut was officially recognized in 1999. Inuits from around the Arctic Circle now gather for annual conferences to discuss common problems and share experiences and solutions.

Further Reading
  • Burgan, Michael. Inuit. Gareth Stevens Milwaukee WN, 2004.
  • Fleischner, Jennifer. The Inuit: People of the Arctic. Millbrook Press Minneapolis MN, 1995.
  • Lassieur, Allison. The Inuit. Bridgestone Books Mankato MN, 2000.
  • Copyright 2013 by James B. Minahan

    Related Articles

    Full text Article Inuit
    21st Century Anthropology: A Reference Handbook

    Bands of Paleo-Eskimos migrated into the New World near the conclusion of the Beringia, or Land Bridge era; it is inconclusive, though, whether...

    Full text Article Inuit
    Encyclopedia of Anthropology

    Inuit is the term used to identify the indigenous peoples of the Canadian Arctic. Inuit (singular, Inuk ) means “people” in Inuktitut,...

    Full text Article INUIT
    Encyclopedia of the Arctic

    Approximately 150,000 Inuit live in a variety of Arctic environments across a vast and sparsely populated geographical area, stretching some...

    See more from Credo