Lifestyles of the Inuit

by Robert C. Brears Blog

The Inuit are a people who speak the languages of the Eskaleutian family who reside in the four countries that surround the North Pole: Greenland, Canada, the United States and Russia.
Antarctic Peninsula

Regions: Arctic

Destinations: Greenland

Highlights: The Inuit

Lifestyles of the Inuit

The Inuit are a people who speak the languages of the Eskaleutian family who reside in the four countries that surround the North Pole: Greenland, Canada, the United States and Russia.

One of the most traditional pieces of Inuit clothing items is the Inuit parka, which enables Inuit populations to survive in some of the most extreme environments on Earth. In addition to keeping the wearer warm the parka also has patterns on it to visually communicate information about who they are as a people.

In addition to the parka Inuit also wear pants and mittens from caribou or sealskin – with the number of layers depending on the season – and up to four layers of footwear. Each garment is individually tailored to the person with the seamstress relying on significant amounts of experience to determine the shapes and sizes of pattern pieces.

The origins of the modern paleo diet

The Inuit have long had diet consisting of fish, sea mammals and land animals, with very little fruit or vegetables mixed in. In particular, caribou, musk ox, Arctic hare, walrus, polar bear, seal, whale, ptarmigan, geese, ducks and other birds as well as bird eggs have been the typical diet of Inuit. They did collect wild greens, roots, berries and seaweeds to preserve but the cold climate meant that ample year-round supplies were not possible. It was the fat, not the protein from food, which provided most of the 3,100 calories required daily by these extremely active people. 

Building an Igloo 101

Igloos are a snowhouse that are used as a temporary shelter on extended winter hunting trips – not as a permanent home. It does not take long to build one, with an average time of twenty to thirty minutes, depending on the quality of snow and the skills of the igloo-builder. To make on, blocks of snow are carved out from snow banks using a snow knife. The blocks are then arranged in a shape of a dome with a single spiral from bottom to top.

Where the blocks don’t meet snow is packed in to provide insulation while a hole is cut at the top for ventilation. For more studier construction, igloo-builders take the snow blocks from snowbanks that have formed in one single snowstorm, rather than from snowbanks that have accumulated over many snow events as blocks taken from snow of multiple events tends to be fragile: breaking easily where the layers of snow are compacted.

Keeping warm in an igloo

The igloos provide a warm environment in contrast to the freezing conditions outside as the walls provide excellent insulation. Even when the heat starts to rise and melt the inside of the igloo, the melted parts come into contact with the snow and ice closer to the outside of the igloo. This colder snow and ice causes the water to refreeze, so that the walls of the igloo start to change from snow to ice.  

To keep the cold out, the door of an igloo is just large enough to crawl through. Animal furs at the opening keep the cold air from getting in. To keep warm a fire can be made inside the igloo while animal furs are placed on the floor to provide bedding. Once the hunters are finished with the igloo they pack up and simply leave it behind as they continue onwards in their journey.

Turf huts and summer tents

Turf huts, or Earth huts, were a common form of dwelling that were robust and well insulated enough to live in permanently. A typical hut was low, square with its walls made of large stones and turn with the roof supported by wooden beams of driftwood. The dwellings were always located near the sea so the hunters could easily get to their kayaks when hunting for seals.

During the summer months families left the turf huts and gathered berries, hunt reindeer and catch fish, enabling them to stockpile enough provisions to carry them through the cold, dark winter months. To avoid sleeping out in the open they took with them tents made of sealskin that were easy to carry and could be set up anywhere that food was found. The tents were supported by a wooden frame made out of driftwood with an outer sealskin cover that went all the way to the ground. 

The hunter’s kayak

Another quintessential part of the Inuit life is the kayak, which means ‘hunters boat. In addition to its use for hunting also serves as a means of transportation. It is propelled by a double-bladed paddle and is usually made out of driftwood or whalebone to ensure the framework is light.

The kayaks are typically covered with stretched skins that are made watertight with whale fat. The kayak is perfect for hunting as its silent, enabling the paddler to sneak up behind prey. At times the kayak is camouflaged with a white cloth draped over the front so the animals may be fooled into thinking it’s a drifting piece of ice.

Sledging across the ice

One of the most traditional ways for the Inuit to travel across the frozen ice of the Arctic is via the sledge, or qamutik, pulled by Qimmig – the Inuit name for dog. The traditional Inuit sledge is composed of two wooden runners on which a platform is built. The bottom of the sledge is as smooth as possible to enable it to glide across the ice. The sledges have cargo beds that are generally constructed in a basket-like style and are elevated above the runners by around 5-6 inches. At the front of the sledge is the brushbow, a piece of wood shaped as a crescent, to clear the way. The sledge is made of wood as well as reindeer hide and even frozen salmon skin in areas where wood was not available. To steer the sledge the driver simply has handlebars that the sledder can hold on and learn into when turning the sledge.

Pack-dogs hauling sledges

The dogs today that drag sledges are generally called huskies after years of breeding that lead to changes in their bloodlines. The dogs have been used to pull sledges since around 800 A.D. Prior to that the Inuit used the dogs as a hunting partner to find terrestrial (musk, ox, caribou) and marine (seal, polar bear) mammals. The dog also acted as guard dogs alerting the Inuit of approaching polar bears.

The dogs were not breed to be racing dogs but instead have been bred over centuries to long-haul sledges. They are powerful creatures able to pull up to twice their body weight. They are also able to work under extreme pressures of limited rations and adverse weather conditions when surviving the journey may not be guaranteed for either humans or the dogs.

To ensure the dogs are obedient the Inuit utilise the ‘boss dog’ phenomenon in which a team or pack of Inuit dogs have a boss dog, who is almost always male. There may be two boss dogs that can work cooperatively while the remainder of the pack are boss dog wannabes. The boss dog is the owner’s most valuable asset as he can rule the pack for many years with minimal bloodshed. The boss dog prevents or stops fights amongst the lower-ranked dogs and is usually the one that breeds with the females.

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