Member of am American Indian people inhabiting the Arctic coasts of Alaska, the eastern islands of the Canadian Arctic, Labrador, and the ice-free coasts of Greenland. Originating from Siberia from around 2000 BC, they had populated the region by AD 1000. The Inuit language Inupiaq is spoken in mutually comprehensible dialects from Point Barrow in Alaska to Greenland. Traditionally the Inuit relied on fish, sea mammals, and land animals for food, heat, light, clothing, tools, and shelter. Formerly a nomadic people, most now live in permanent settlements. In 1999 the semi-autonomous Inuit homeland of Nunavut was established as a territory of Canada. The total number of Inuit (1993 est) is 125,000.
Inuit is their term for ‘people’, whereas ‘Eskimo’ is a derogatory word meaning ‘eater of raw flesh’ applied to them by Algonquian-speaking American Indians. Inupiaq, the Inuit language, is written using a syllabary (set of characters representing syllables) invented by a missionary in the 19th century.
History The Inuit arrived in North America from Siberia in successive waves beginning about 4,000 years ago. The people of the Thule culture, ancestors of today's Inuit, migrated from northern Alaska, driving out the earlier inhabitants and reaching Greenland about 1,000 years ago. In the 18th and 19th centuries, contact with whaling ships, traders, and missionaries led them to acquire wooden boats, firearms, and iron implements as well as foodstuffs such as tea, flour, and sugar, thus altering their relationship to their environment. Firearms changed their methods of hunting, and fur-trapping and trade became an important source of income. Many Inuit settled near trading posts to find paid work in order to buy provisions, ammunition, and boats.
Along with outside cultural influences came alien diseases, especially venereal diseases and tuberculosis, which decimated the population in the late 1800s and early 20th century. Communities were also decimated by numerous epidemics caused by a sharp decline in caribou herds and other animals due to overhunting. After World War II, government medical, housing, and educational facilities caused more Inuit to settle.
Since the mid-19th century the traditional Inuit lifestyle has vanished, and many are now dependent on government subsidies. The main employers are municipal, federal, provincial, and state governments and the health, education, and social services.
Culture Traditionally, the Inuit split into small family groups and migrated inland during the summer to hunt caribou, birds, and fish, and to collect berries. Fish were caught in weirs at narrow channels in rivers and streams, and taken with a spear. An Inuit family could take several hundred fish in a single day, which would be dried and stored for food for the winter for both people and dogs. During the summer months they lived in conical sealskin tents weighed down with large stones. Thousands of stone tent rings now dot the landscape. In winter they congregated in small settlements and lived in more substantial dwellings of stone and sod, covered with moss and banked up with snow and dug into the ground for added warmth. The entranceway, which consisted of a long passage, only high enough to admit a person crawling on hands and knees, was excavated approximately 20 cm/8 in lower than the living area to form a ‘cold trap’. Some of these winter dwellings sheltered as many as 40 or 50 people. Light and heat were obtained by burning seal oil in flat, crescent-shaped soapstone lamps.
The Inuit had a wide range of domestic utensils, including rectangular soapstone pots, a semicircular knife for skinning hides, mattocks for digging blocks of snow, and the bow drill for boring holes in harpoon heads, needles, and qayaq (kayak) frames. Bone, ivory, or antler harpoons were used to hunt whales, seals, narwhals, and walruses from kayaks and the larger umiak, an open boat which could carry about 20 people.
Winter clothing was usually made of caribou or sealskin and consisted of an inner layer turned hair side in to form pockets of air, which provided insulation and protection from dampness caused by perspiration, and a second layer with the fur side out. With the addition of sealskin boots worn all year round, the Inuit were well protected against the cold. While hunting, they lived in temporary snow igloos and for transport used a large sledge pulled by a dog team. The Inuit depended on dogs also as an emergency food supply. The dog sledge, harpoon, kayak, and umiak have now been replaced by snowmobiles, rifles, and motorboats.
Religion The Inuit make bone, ivory, and soapstone carvings often featuring animals, human figures, and masks. Originally the carvings had a magic or religious intent, and were worn as amulets or used in rituals of shamanism. Traditional religion attributed a living soul to inanimate objects and natural phenomena (animism). There was a rich mythology but Christianity has now largely replaced the old beliefs.
Rights An Inuit Circumpolar Conference was formed in 1977 to promote Inuit interests throughout the Arctic. It was granted the status of a recognized nongovernmental organization at the United Nations in 1983.
In 1989 the Canadian government agreed to transfer to the 17,000 Inuit of the eastern Arctic an area in Northwest Territories called Nunavut, as a semi-autonomous homeland, with rights to hunt and fish; their right to levy royalties from the exploitation of mineral resources was restricted to a limited area. The territory is about half the size of France. A cash payment was also agreed in compensation for the Inuit's renunciation of other areas where they formerly lived. Creation of the homeland was approved in a regional plebiscite in 1992. A final land claims agreement in 1993 gave the Inuit outright ownership of 353,610 sq km/136,530 sq mi of the land, and mineral rights to 36,257 sq km/13,995 sq mi. Nunavut was formally established as a semi-autonomous territory of Canada on 1 April 1999.
A study by the Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme showed, in 1998, that 48% of Inuit women on Baffin Island, Canada, had higher levels of PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyl, a hazardous chemical), heavy metals, and the pesticide chlordane, than the World Health Organization (WHO) decrees safe. Levels of pollutants in breast milk are also much higher than for women in southern Canada. The pollutants accumulate in a food chain with Inuit at the top.
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