Inuit (plural: the singular, Inuk, means "man" or "person") is a general term for a group of culturally similar indigenous peoples inhabiting the Arctic regions of Alaska, Greenland, and Canada, and Siberia. There has been a remarkable homogeneity in the culture throughout these areas, which have traditionally relied on fish, marine mammals, and land animals for food, pets, transport, heat, light, clothing, tools, and shelter. The Inuit language is grouped under Eskimo-Aleut languages. Inuit and Aleut are considered separate from other Native Americans.

Prior to the arrival of Europeans, and even after their arrival since their homeland was so inhospitable, Inuit lived a traditional semi-nomadic lifestyle of subsistence hunting and fishing, with the extended family as the unit of society, their own form of laws passed on through oral tradition, and a spiritual belief system of rituals that were integrated into the daily life of the people. In the twentieth century, particularly in Canada, Christianity was imposed upon them together with a system of law that they did not understand, in an effort to assimilate them into the dominant Western culture. While their shamans are now gone, and they live in modern houses, much of what defines the Inuit has been preserved. The establishment of Nunavut as a separate territory in Canada, in 1999, provided both land and autonomy for a large segment of the Inuit population.

Today, Inuit work in all sectors of the economy, including mining, oil, and gas, construction, government, and administrative services. Tourism is a growing industry in the Inuit economy. Many Inuit derive part-time income from their sculpture, carving, and other crafts as well as hunting. Inuit culture is alive and vibrant despite the negative impact of their twentieth century history. Just as explorers and others have benefited from Inuit skills in the past, for example their kayaks and use of dog sleds, Inuit people continue to have much to contribute to the world wide human society.


The Inuit people live throughout most of the Canadian Arctic and subarctic: in the territory of Nunavut ("our land"); the northern third of Quebec, in an area called Nunavik ("place to live"); the coastal region of Labrador, in an area called Nunatsiavut ("Our Beautiful Land"); in various parts of the Northwest Territories, mainly on the coast of the Arctic Ocean and the Yukon territory. Alaskan Inupiat (from Inuit- people - and piaq/t real, so "real people") live on the North Slope of Alaska and the Seward Peninsula. Inuit also live in Greenland, where they are known as Kalaallit, and are citizens of Denmark. Siberian Inuit are Russian citizens.

In Canada and Greenland the term "Eskimo" has fallen out of favor, is considered pejorative, and has been replaced by the term "Inuit."1 However, while "Inuit" describes the Eskimo peoples in Canada and Greenland, that is not true in Alaska and Siberia. In Alaska the term "Eskimo" is commonly used, because it includes both Yupik and Inupiat, while "Inuit" is not accepted as a collective term or even specifically used for Inupiat. No universal replacement term for "Eskimo," inclusive of all Inuit and Yupik peoples, is accepted across the geographical area which they inhabit.2

The Inuit Circumpolar Conference, a United Nations-recognized non-governmental organization (NGO), defines its constituency to include Canada's Inuit and Inuvialuit (Inuit who live in the Inuvialuit Settlement Region in the Northwest Territories), Greenland's Kalaallit Inuit, Alaska's Inupiat and Yup'ik people, and the Siberian Yupik people of Russia.3 However, the Yupik of Alaska and Siberia are not Inuit, and the Yupik languages are linguistically distinct from the Inuit languages.2 Yupik people are not considered to be Inuit either by themselves or by ethnographers, and prefer to be called Yupik or Eskimo.

Canadian Inuit do not consider themselves, and are not usually considered by others, to be one of the First Nations, a term which normally applies to other indigenous peoples in Canada. Generally, Aleut and Inuit are considered separate from other Native Americans. They are more Asian in appearance, shorter and broader, and with rounder faces and lighter skin.4 However, Canadian Inuit (and the Métis) are collectively recognized by the Constitution Act, 1982 as Aboriginal peoples in Canada. The Inuit should not be confused with the Innu, a distinct First Nations people who live in northeastern Quebec and Labrador.


Inuit place names using Inuktitut syllabics and Latin alphabet

The Inuit mainly speak their traditional language, Inuktitut, but they also speak English, and French. Inuktitut is mainly spoken in the Yukon, Northwest Territories, and in some parts of Greenland. The language of the Inupiat in Alaska is Iñupiaq (which is the singular form of Inupiat).

Did you know?Inuit is a term that encompasses the Indigenous peoples who live in the Arctic regions of Alaska, Greenland, and Canada, and Siberia although some prefer to be called by their own name, such as Kalaallit in Greenland and Inupiat in Alaska

Inuktitut is written in several different ways, depending on the dialect and region, but also on historical and political factors. Some of the Inuit dialects were recorded in the eighteenth century, but until the latter half of the twentieth century, most were not able to read and write in their own language. In the 1760s, Moravian missionaries arrived in Greenland, where they contributed to the development of a written system of language called Qaliujaaqpait, based on the Latin alphabet. The missionaries later brought this system to Labrador, from which it eventually spread as far as Alaska.5 The Alaskan Yupik and Inupiat (who, in addition, developed their own system of hieroglyphics) and the Siberian Yupik also adopted the system of Roman orthography.

The Inuktitut syllabary used in Canada is based on the Cree syllabary devised by the missionary James Evans. The present form of the syllabary for Canadian Inuktitut was adopted by the Inuit Cultural Institute in Canada in the 1970s.


Early history

The Inuit are the descendants of what anthropologists call the Thule culture, who emerged from western Alaska around 1000 C.E. and spread eastwards across the Arctic, displacing the related Dorset culture (in Inuktitut, the Tuniit). Inuit legends speak of the Tuniit as "giants," people who were taller and stronger than the Inuit.

In Canada and Greenland the Inuit circulated almost exclusively north of the tree line, the de facto southern border of Inuit society. To the south, Native American Indian cultures were well established, and the culture and technology of Inuit society that served them so well in the Arctic was not suited to the subarctic, so they did not displace their southern neighbors. They had trade relations with more southern cultures, but boundary disputes were common. Warfare, in general, was not uncommon among Inuit groups with sufficient population density.

After roughly 1350, the climate grew colder during the Little Ice Age and the Inuit were forced to abandon hunting and whaling sites in the high Arctic. Bowhead whaling disappeared in Canada and Greenland (but continued in Alaska) and the Inuit had to subsist on a much poorer diet. Without whales, they lost access to essential raw materials for tools and architecture that were derived from whaling.

The changing climate forced the Inuit to look south, pressuring them into the marginal niches along the edges of the tree line that Native American Indians had not occupied, or where they were weak enough to coexist with. There is evidence that they were still moving into new territory in southern Labrador in the seventeenth century, when they first began to interact with colonial North American civilization.

Since the arrival of Europeans

The first contact with Europeans came from the Vikings, who settled Greenland and explored the eastern Canadian coast. Norse literature speaks of skrælingar, most likely an undifferentiated label for all the native peoples of the Americas the Norse contacted, Tuniit, Inuit, and Beothuks alike. The lives of the Inuit were largely unaffected by the arrival of visiting Norsemen except for mutual trade. After the disappearance of the Norse colonies in Greenland, the Inuit had no contact with Europeans for at least a century.

Martin Frobisher's 1576 search for the Northwest Passage was the first well-documented post-Columbian contact between Europeans and Inuit. Frobisher's expedition landed on Baffin Island, not far from the town now called Iqaluit, but long known as Frobisher Bay. This first contact went poorly. Martin Frobisher, attempting to find the Northwest Passage, encountered Inuit on Resolution Island. Several homesick sailors, tired of their adventure, attempted to leave in a small vessel and vanished. Frobisher brought an unwilling Inuk to England, doubtless the first Inuk ever to visit Europe. The Inuit oral tradition, in contrast, recounts the natives helping Frobisher's crewmen, whom they believed had been abandoned.

By the mid-sixteenth century, Basque fishermen were already working the Labrador coast and had established whaling stations on land, such as has been excavated at Red Bay. The Inuit appear not to have interfered with their operations, but they raided the stations in winter for tools, and particularly worked iron, which they adapted to native needs.

In the final years of the eighteenth century, the Moravian Church began missionary activities in Labrador, supported by the British who were tired of the raids on their whaling stations. The Moravian missionaries could easily provide the Inuit with the iron and basic materials they had been stealing from whaling outposts, materials whose real cost to Europeans was almost nothing, but whose value to the Inuit was enormous and from then on contacts in Labrador were more peaceful.

Hudson's Bay Company Ships bartering with Inuit off the Upper Savage Islands, Hudson Strait, 1819

The Hudson's Bay Company opened trading posts such as Great Whale River (1820), today the site of the twin villages of Whapmagoostui and Kuujjuarapik, where whale products of the commercial whale hunt were processed and furs traded. The British Naval Expedition (1821-1823) led by Admiral William Edward Parry, which twice over wintered in Foxe Basin, provided the first informed, sympathetic, and well-documented account of the economic, social, and religious life of the Inuit. Parry stayed in what is now Igloolik over the second winter. Parry's writings with pen and ink illustrations of Inuit everyday life (1824) and those of Lyon (1824) were widely read. A few traders and missionaries circulated among the more accessible bands, and after 1904 they were accompanied by a handful of policemen. Unlike most Aboriginal peoples in Canada, however, the lands occupied by the Inuit were of little interest to European settlers-the homeland of the Inuit was a hostile hinterland.

The European arrival eventually damaged the Inuit way of life, causing mass death through new diseases introduced by whalers and explorers, as well as social disruptions. During the nineteenth century, the Western Arctic suffered a population decline of close to 90 percent of their population resulting from foreign diseases including tuberculosis, measles, influenza, and smallpox. The Inuit believed that the cause of the disease came from a spiritual origin, and cures were said to be possible through confession.6

In the early years of the twentieth century, Canada, with its more hospitable lands largely settled, began to take a greater interest in its more peripheral territories, especially the fur and mineral rich hinterlands. By the late 1920s, there were no longer any Inuit who had not been contacted by traders, missionaries or government agents. In 1939, the Supreme Court of Canada found in Re Eskimos that the Inuit should be considered Indians and were thus under the jurisdiction of the federal government.

Native customs were worn down by the actions of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, who enforced Canadian criminal law on Inuit who often could not understand what they had done wrong, and by missionaries who preached a moral code very different from the one they were used to.

World War II and the Cold War made Arctic Canada strategically important for the first time and, thanks to the development of modern aircraft, accessible year-round. The construction of air bases and the Distant Early Warning Line in the 1940s and 1950s brought more intensive contacts with European society, particularly in the form of public education, which instilled and enforced foreign values disdainful of the traditional structure of Inuit society.

In the 1950s a process of relocation was undertaken by the Government of Canada for several reasons including protection of Canada's sovereignty in the Arctic, lack of food in the area currently occupied, and an attempt to solve the "Eskimo problem," meaning the assimilation and end of the Inuit culture. One of the more notable relocations was undertaken in 1953, when 17 families were moved from Port Harrison (now Inukjuak, Quebec) to Resolute and Grise Fiord. They were dropped off in early September when winter had already arrived. The land they were sent to was very different from that in the Inukjuak area, being more barren, longer winters, and polar night. They were told by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police they would be able to return within two years if conditions were not right. However, two years later more families were relocated to the High Arctic and it was thirty years before they were able to return to Inukjuak.78

Nunavut and its capital, Iqaluit (formerly "Frobisher Bay") on Baffin Island. Image courtesy of, used with permission.

By 1953, Canada's prime minister Louis St. Laurent publicly admitted, "Apparently we have administered the vast territories of the north in an almost continuing absence of mind."9 The government began to establish about 40 permanent administrative centers to provide education, health, and economic development services for Inuit. Inuit from hundreds of smaller camps scattered across the north, began to congregate in these hamlets. Regular visits from doctors and access to modern medical care raised the birth rate enormously. Before long, the Inuit population was beyond what traditional hunting and fishing could support. By the mid-1960s, encouraged first by missionaries, then by the prospect of paid jobs and government services, and finally forced by hunger and required by police, all Canadian Inuit lived year-round in permanent settlements. The nomadic migrations that were the central feature of Arctic life had for the most part disappeared.

In the 1960s, the Canadian government funded the establishment of secular, government-operated high schools in the Northwest Territories (including what is now Nunavut) and Inuit areas in Quebec and Labrador along with the residential school system. The Inuit population was not large enough to support a full high school in every community, so this meant only a few schools were built, and students from across the territories were boarded there. The Inuit began to emerge as a political force in the late 1960s and early 1970s, shortly after the first graduates returned home.

They formed new politically active associations in the early 1970s, starting with the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami in 1971, which began to make land claims. In 1982, the Tunngavik Federation of Nunavut (TFN) was incorporated, in order to take over negotiations for land claims on behalf of the Northwest Territories Inuit. The TFN worked for ten years and, in September 1992, came to a final agreement with the government of Canada. This agreement called for the separation of the Northwest Territories and the establishment of a territory, the future Nunavut, whose aboriginal population would be predominately Inuit,10 in the Northern and Eastern part. Nunavut was formally established as a Canadian territory on April 1, 1999.

When Nunavut split off from the Northwest Territories, western Canadian Inuit, known as the Inuvialuit remained. They had received a comprehensive land claims settlement in 1984, with the signing of the Inuvialuit Final Agreement. They live primarily in the Mackenzie River delta, on Banks Island, and in parts of Victoria Island in the Northwest Territories.

With the establishment of part of Labrador as Nunatsiavut ("Our Beautiful Land") in 2005, all the traditional Inuit lands in Canada are now covered by some sort of land claims agreement providing for regional autonomy.


Inuit basket made by Kinguktuk (1871-1941) of Barrow, Alaska. Ivory handle. Displayed at Museum of Man, San Diego, California.Traditional Inuit ulu (women's knife) of the type used in the Arctic of Canada. The handle is made from caribou antler and the metal in the ulu is steel.


Traditionally, the Inuit have been hunters and fishers. They hunted, and still hunt, whales, walruses, caribou, seals, polar bears, muskoxen, birds, and at times other less commonly eaten animals such as foxes. While it is not possible to cultivate plants for food in the Arctic, gathering those that are naturally available has always been typical. Grasses, tubers, roots, stems, berries, and seaweed were collected and preserved depending on the season and the location.1112 The typical Inuit diet is high in protein and very high in fat: in their traditional diet, Inuit consumed an average of 75 percent of their daily energy intake from fat.13

Anthropologist Vilhjalmur Stefansson lived with a group of Inuit, observing that the Inuit's extremely low-carbohydrate diet had no adverse effects on Stefansson's health, nor that of the Inuit.14 Stefansson also observed that the Inuit were able to obtain the necessary vitamins from their traditional winter diet, which did not contain plant matter. In particular, he found that adequate vitamin C could be obtained from raw meat such as Ringed Seal liver and whale skin. While there was considerable skepticism when he reported these findings, they have been borne out in other studies.15


Inuit man in a kayak, c. 1929 (photo by Edward S. Curtis)

The Inuit hunted sea animals from single-passenger, covered seal-skin boats called qajaq which were extraordinarily buoyant, and could easily be righted by a seated person, even if completely overturned. Because of this property, the Inuit design was copied, along with the Inuit word, by Europeans. They continue to be made and used around the world, kayak. Inuit also made umiak, larger, open boats, 6 m (20 ft) - 12 m (39 ft) long, made of wood frames covered with animal skins for transporting people, goods, and dogs. They were . They also had a flat bottom so that it could come close to shore. In the winter, Inuit would also hunt sea mammals by patiently watching an aglu (breathing hole) in the ice and waiting for the air-breathing seals to use them, a technique also used by the polar bear.

Traditional qamutik,
Cape Dorset, 1999

On land, the Inuit used dog sleds (qamutik) for transportation. The husky dog breed comes from Inuit breeding of dogs. A team of dogs in either a tandem/side-by-side or fan formation would pull a sled made of wood, animal bones, or the baleen from a whale's mouth, over the snow and ice. They used stars to navigate at sea and landmarks to navigate on land and possessed a comprehensive native system of toponymy. Where natural landmarks were insufficient, the Inuit would erect an inukshuk to compensate.

Industry, art, and clothing

Two young Inuit mothers wearing amautit (women parkas with hood) (Nunavut Territory, Canada)

Inuit industry relied almost exclusively on animal hides, driftwood, and bones, although some tools were also made out of worked stones, particularly the readily-worked soapstone. Walrus ivory was a particularly essential material, used to make knives.

Art is a major part of Inuit history. Small sculptures of animals and human figures were made out of ivory and bone usually depicting everyday activities such as hunting and whaling. Beautiful carvings, decorated with fur and feathers, were often used in religious rituals. At ceremonial dances, masks representing the spirits of animals and the forces of nature were worn; face masks by the men, and finger masks by the women.4

Inuit made clothes and footwear from animal skins, sewn together using needles made from animal bones and threads made from other animal products such as sinew. The anorak (parka) is in essence made in a similar fashion by Arctic peoples from Europe through Asia and the Americas, including by the Inuit. In some groups of Inuit the hoods of women's parkas (amauti, plural amautiit) were traditionally made extra large, to protect the baby from the harsh wind when snuggled against the mother's back. Styles vary from region to region, from shape of the hood to length of the tails. Boots (kamik or mukluk) could be made of caribou or sealskin, and designs varied for men and women.


Big igloo in front of Kinngait in southern region of Baffin Island.

An igloo (Inuit language: iglu, plural: iglooit or igluit), translated sometimes as "snowhouse," is a shelter constructed from blocks of snow, generally in the form of a dome. Although iglooit are usually associated with all Inuit, they were predominantly constructed by people of Canada's Central Arctic and Greenland's Thule area.

There are three types of igloo, all of different sizes and all are used for different purposes. Although the most recognizable type of dwelling of the Inuit, the igloo was not the only type; nor was it used at all times. During the few months of the year when temperatures were above freezing, they lived in tents made of animal skins and bones.

The smallest of all iglooit was constructed as a temporary shelter. Hunters while out on the land or sea ice camped in one of these iglooit for one or two nights. Next in size was the semi-permanent, intermediate sized family dwelling. This usually was a single room dwelling that housed one or two families. Often there were several of these in a small area, which formed an "Inuit village."

Inside an igloo

The largest of the iglooit were normally built in groups of two. One of the buildings was a temporary building constructed for special occasions; the other was built near by for living. This was constructed either by enlarging a smaller igloo or building from scratch. These could have up to five rooms and housed up to 20 people. A large igloo may have been constructed from several smaller iglooit attached by their tunnels giving a common access to the outside. These were used to hold community feasts and traditional dances.

Other Inuit people tended to use snow to insulate their houses which consisted of whalebone and hides. The use of snow is due to the fact that snow is an insulator (due to its low density). On the outside, temperatures may be as low as -45 °C (-49 °F), but on the inside the temperature may range from -7 °C (19 °F) to 16 °C (61 °F) when warmed by body heat alone16

Gender roles, marriage, and community

Inuit woman, circa 1907

The division of labor in traditional Inuit society had a strong gender component, but it was not absolute. The men were traditionally hunters and fishermen. The women took care of the children, cleaned huts, sewed, processed food, and cooked. However, there are numerous examples of women who hunted out of necessity or as a personal choice. At the same time, men who could be away from camp for several days, would be expected to know how to sew and cook.

The marital customs among the Inuit were not strictly monogamous: many Inuit relationships were implicitly or explicitly sexually open marriages; polygamy, divorce, and remarriage were fairly common. Among some Inuit groups divorce required the approval of the community, if there were children, and particularly the agreement of the elders. Marriages were often arranged, sometimes in infancy, and occasionally forced on the couple by the community. Marriage was common for men when they became productive hunters, and for women at puberty.

The extended family was the social unit. Family structure was flexible: a household might consist of a man and his wife or wives and children; it might include his parents or his wife's parents as well as adopted children; or it might be a larger formation of several siblings with their parents, wives and children; or even more than one family sharing dwellings and resources. Every household had its head, an elder or a particularly respected man.

There was also a larger notion of community, generally several families who shared a place where they wintered. Goods were shared within a household, and also to a significant extent within a whole community.

A pervasive European myth about Inuit was that they killed elderly and unproductive people; although this is not generally true.17 In a culture with an oral tradition, elders are the keepers of communal knowledge, effectively the community library.18

Given the importance that Eskimos attached to the aged, it is surprising that so many Westerners believe that they systematically eliminated elderly people as soon as they became incapable of performing the duties related to hunting or sewing.19

It had been presumed by anthropologists that Inuit cultures routinely killed children born with physical defects. However, excavations at the Ukkuqsi archaeological site revealed several frozen bodies (now known as the "frozen family"). Autopsies were performed, and they were interred as the first burials in the Imaiqsaun Cemetery south of Barrow.20 Years later another body washed out of the bluff-that of a female child, approximately nine years old, who had clearly been born with a congenital birth defect. This child had never been able to walk, but must have been cared for by family throughout her life.21 That body, dated at about 1200 C.E., suggests that Inuit culture has long valued children, including those with birth defects.

Traditional law and governance

The Inuit were hunter-gatherers.22 They had very sophisticated concepts of private property and of land ownership that, as with their form of governance, was so drastically different than the Western concepts understood by European observers that the existence of such went entirely undocumented until well into the twentieth century.23

Virtually all Inuit cultures have oral traditions of raids by other indigenous peoples such as the Bloody Falls Massacre, even including fellow Inuit, and of taking vengeance on them in return. Western observers often regarded these tales as generally not entirely accurate historical accounts, but more as self-serving myths. However, evidence shows that Inuit cultures had very accurate methods of teaching historical accounts to each new generation.24 The historic accounts make clear that there was a history of hostile contact within the Inuit cultures and with other cultures.25

Justice with Inuit cultures was moderated by their form of governance that gave significant power to the elders in such decisions. Their judgement could be harsh and often included capital punishment for serious crimes against the community or even against an individual. It is also noted that during raids the Inuit, like their non-Inuit neighbors, tended to be merciless. 26

Inuit traditional laws are anthropologically different to Western law concepts. Customary law was thought nonexistent in Inuit society before the introduction of the Canadian legal system. Indeed, prior to about 1970 Western observers were not aware that any form of governance existed among any Inuit people. Beside their conceptual differences, Inuit laws were not written, but were kept in oral tradition:

We are told today that Inuit never had laws or maligait. Why? They say because they are not written on paper. When I think of paper, I think you can tear it up, and the laws are gone. The laws of the Inuit are not on paper.27

Three major concepts exist in Inuit traditional culture:

  • maligait refers to what has to be followed
  • piqujait refers to what has to be done
  • tirigusuusiit refers to what has to be not done.23

If someone's action went against the tirigusuusiit, maligait, or piqujait, the angakkuq (shaman) might have to intervene, lest the consequences be dire to the individual or the community.28

Traditional Beliefs

Some Inuit believed that the spirits of their ancestors could be seen in the northern lights

Inuit religion was closely tied to a system of rituals that were integrated into the daily life of the people. These rituals were simple but held to be necessary. The harshness and randomness of life in the Arctic ensured that Inuit lived with concern for the uncontrollable, where a streak of bad luck could destroy an entire community. By believing that all things, including animals, have souls like those of humans, any hunt that failed to show appropriate respect and customary supplication would only give the liberated spirits cause to avenge themselves. To offend a spirit was to risk its interference with an already marginal existence.


While the dominant religious system of the Inuit today is Christianity, many Inuit still hold to at least some elements of their traditional religious beliefs. Some see the Inuit as having adapted traditional beliefs to a greater or lesser degree to Christianity, while others would argue that it is rather the reverse that