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Constructing an igloo from blocks of snow around the turn of the 20th Century
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Library of Congress Prints and Photographs, Photograph by Frank E. Kleinschmidt

Inuit Culture, Traditions, and History

Traditional Inuit way of life was influenced by the harsh climate and stark landscapes of the Arctic tundra – from beliefs inspired by stories of the aurora to practicalities like homes made of snow. Inuit invented tools, gear, and methods to help them survive in this environment. Read on to learn more about traditional Inuit ways of life, and how Inuit culture has been changed over the past century.

Geography
Inuit communities are found in the Arctic, in the Northwest Territories, Labrador and Quebec in Canada, above tree line in Alaska (where people are called the Inupiat and Yupik), and in Russia (where people are called the Yupik people). In some areas, Inuit people are called “Eskimos” however many Inuit find this term offensive. The word “Inuit” means “the people” in the Inuktitut language.

Inuit Homes
In the tundra, where Inuit communities are found, there are not many building materials. No trees grow in the tundra so houses can not be made from wood unless it is transported from elsewhere. However, during a large part of the year, the cold part, there is a lot of snow in the tundra. And it turns out that snow can be a very good construction material. In the winter, Inuit lived in round houses made from blocks of snow called "igloos". In the summer, when the snow melted, Inuit lived in tent-like huts made of animal skins stretched over a frame. Although most Inuit people today live in the same community year-round, and live in homes built of other construction materials that have to be imported, in the past Inuit would migrate between a summer and winter camp which was shared by several families.

Getting Around
To travel from one place to another, Inuit used sleds made of animal bones and skins pulled over the snow and ice by dogs. Strong dogs with thick fur like huskies, bred by Inuit, were used. On the waters of the Arctic Ocean, small boats called “kayaks” were used for hunting while larger boats called “umiaq” transported people, dogs, and supplies.

Finding Food
Because Inuit live in places where most plants cannot grow, the traditional diet consisted of almost entirely meat. Inuit fished and hunted to get their food. Whales, walruses, seals, fish were staples of their diet.

Clothing for Staying Warm
Traditional Inuit clothing was made from animal skins and fur. Boots were also made from animal skins. Large, thick coats with big hoods called “parkas” were worn as an outer layer. Today the parka style of coat is worn in other places in the world and it is made of many other materials.

Traditions
Although Inuit life has changed significantly over the past century, many traditions continue. Traditional storytelling, mythology, and dancing remain important parts of the culture. Family and community are very important. The Inuktitut language is still spoken in many areas of the Arctic and is common on radio and in television programming.

Changes to Inuit Life during the 20th Century
Inuit a century ago lived very differently than Inuit today. Before the 1940s, Inuit had minimal contact with Europeans. Europeans passed through on their way to hunt whales or trade furs but very few of them had any interest in settling down on the frozen land of the Arctic. So the Inuit had the place to themselves. They moved between summer and winter camps to always be living where there were animals to hunt. In winter camps they lived in snow shelters called igloos. In summer camps they lived in tents made of animal skins and bones.

But that changed. As World War II ended and the Cold War began, the Arctic became a place where countries that didn’t get along were close to each other. The Arctic had always been seen as inaccessible, but the invention of airplanes made it easier for non-Arctic dwellers to get there. Permanent settlements were created in the Arctic around new airbases and radar stations built to watch out for rival nations. Schools and health care centers were built in these permanent settlements. In many places, Inuit children were required to attend schools that emphasized non-native traditions. With better health care, the Inuit population grew larger, too large to sustain itself solely by hunting. Many Inuit from smaller camps moved into permanent settlements because there was access to jobs and food. In many areas Inuit were required to live in towns by the 1960s.

Last modified June 5, 2007 by Lisa Gardiner.

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