Inuit: A People Preserved By Ice
Thousands of years ago, during the last ice age, mile-thick glaciers covered a vast portion of North America, and the Asian continent was joined to North America by a land bridge. The Arctic areas of Alaska, Beringia, and Siberia were free of ice. Vast herds of caribou, muskoxen, and bison migrated to these plains. Following them were the nomadic Asian ancestors of today’s Inuit and Indians. The doorway to Asia closed about three or four thousand years later as the glaciers receded and melted. These people: the Inuit (meaning the people), adapted to their harsh tundra environment and developed a culture that remained untainted for a long time.
The Inuit people relied solely on hunting for their existence. With summers barely lasting two months, agriculture was non-existent. Animals such as caribou and seal were vital. Groups of hunters would stalk and kill many caribou with fragile bows made of driftwood, and their bounty was split evenly amongst the tribe. Bone spears were fashioned to hunt seals which provided food, oil, clothes, and tents. The seal skins were also used to construct kayaks and other boats that the Inuit would use to travel and to hunt whales. One advantage of the sterile cold of the arctic was that it kept these people free of disease (until they met the white man.)
Inuit tribes consisted of two to ten loosely joined families. There was no one central leader in the group: all decisions were made by the community as a whole. Nor was there any definite set of laws; the Inuit, though usually cheery and optimistic, were prone to uncontrolled bursts of rage. Murder was common amongst them and it went unpunished unless an individual’s murders occured too often. At that point, that person was deemed unstable, and the community appointed a man to terminate him/her.
In their society, the duties of men and women were strictly separated. The males would hunt, fish and construct the tools used by the family. Women, however, were responsible for cleaning the animal skins, cooking, sewing the clothes ( a woman’s sewing ability was equally as attractive to a man as her beauty was), and raising the children. Male children were preferred because they could care for their parents in their old age; female children when often strangled soon after birth.
Although today Christianity has breached some of the southernmost tribes, the vast majority practice a form of animism. Their rituals are based mainly on the hunt and the handling of slain animals. Magic talismans and charms are believed to control spirits, and shamans are consulted in the case of injury or illness. There are traces of beliefs in an afterlife or reincarnation, but they are very minor.
The Inuit people, like many other tribal minorities, are greatly stereotyped and misunderstood by the common man. For example: the Inuit word igloo means house and can refer to the cabins made of sod that most Inuit occupy. Also, the word Eskimo is a misnomer meaning “eaters of raw flesh” given to the Inuit by the Algonquin Indians. This is a simple culture that remained undisturbed until whales became a precious commodity. Their isolation is slowly coming to an end as western civilization puts them into government housing and snowmobiles are increasing as a means of transportation. They are beautifully eccentric, and we must work to preserve their culture.