Imagine living in a place where all you can see is frozen rock, frozen snow, and frozen ice; where the temperature can get as low as 50 degrees BELOW ZERO; where it is dark outside around the clock, 24 hours a day, for months at a time! The ancient Inuit were (and still are!) a very clever people. In olden times, they found ways to adapt to the landscape and the climate. Some of these ways are still used today. Welcome to the world of the Inuit!
Winter Homes: When the weather was cold, the Inuit relied on the igloo. An igloo was easy to build and could be constructed anywhere. Igloos were made from snow that had become hard enough to walk on. When you see pictures of igloos being made, it looks like people are building with blocks of ice. But it's really blocks of frozen snow. Solid snow is easier to cut than solid ice. To make an igloo, blocks are arranged in a circle to form the base. Then more blocks are placed on top, slanted slightly towards the center. This system continues until the blocks touch at the very top. A window was made with a block of ice to let some light in. Then, the Inuit packed the cracks between the blocks with loose snow. Then another cover of loose snow was packed against the igloo. Finally, an entrance tunnel was carved out of the frozen snow just under ground level.
Some igloo builders added a roof over the entrance tunnel to provide more protection. Animal skins blocked the doorway for additional warmth. Animal skins were piled on the ground to provide a warm flooring. Amazing! And functional. Some igloos were build large enough to hold a large family including cousins and aunts and uncles.
Summer Homes: When the weather was nice, the family went back to living in tents made of the same animal skins they had hung over doorways and laid on the ground and walls of the igloo.
Furniture: Beds and other furniture was made of ice covered with animal skins. Sleeping bags were made of animal skin.
Invention of Parkas and other Clothing: Warm clothing was, of course, very important! Walrus intestines were used as waterproof material. Walrus intestines are while in color, and hollow, forming very long tubes. Inuit children and women would blow into these tubes to inflate them. Then they made waterproof clothing from the inflated intestines and sealed it closed. They added fur trim for warmth and beauty. Jackets had parkas or hoods trimmed with fur. Boots were made from pieces of seal skin. The seal skin was kept wet while the boots were being made. Then they were set aside to dry. Once the boots had dried, they were waterproof.
Invention of Snow Goggles: In the Arctic, it is dark for 24 hours a day, for months at time. It is also light for 24 hours a day, for months at a time. The sun never sets during this time. If you have ever seen sunlight reflected off of snow or ice, you know how bright it can be. It can hurt your eyes. In a frozen world, like the Arctic, it was critical to invent something to protect their eyes from sun glare, or they could suffer from "snow blindness". The Inuit invented snow goggles made from antlers or wood. These goggles had a thin slit over the eye so the wearer could see out, but only some light got in.
Hunters and Gatherers: There are almost no trees in the Arctic. Large areas of the ground is covered with bare rocks or frozen earth. There are few plants. It is cold most of the year. The Inuit could not become farmers. Like the other early people who lived in the Arctic, they were hunters and gatherers. In the short summer, they gathered berries, seaweed, and eggs. Their main food year around was meat.
Preserving Meat and Fish: Most cooking took place in the summer. To preserve food, some food was dried. Meat and fish were sometimes preserved by storing them in an airtight sealskin bag that was buried in the summer, and dug up in the winter. The Inuit also ate food raw. A treat was a raw seal eyeball.
Caribou and Seals: Because food was scarce, the Inuit could not live in the same place all the time. They had to keep moving, following the herds. Of all the animals, the caribou was the most important. It provided food and warm fur to make clothes. They made thick gloves to protect themselves from the sub-zero arctic weather. Seals were also very important as sealskin could be made waterproof for boots and boats, provide oil for lamps, and airtight sealskin sacks to store food.
Invention of Dog Sleds: In the winter, the Inuit used dog sleds to travel across the snow and ice. The dogs wore special boots to keep their paws protected. The dogs were very important. Either they had their own igloo, or they were brought inside the family igloo at night.
Invention of Kayaks: In the summer, boats were used to hunt animals. A kayak is a long, narrow boat. The kayaks were made strong enough to carry one hunter and one seal. The Inuit made kayaks from driftwood and sometimes bone. This was covered with sealskin to make it watertight, using the same system they used to make their snow boots. They also made larger boats that could carry several warriors. These larger boats sometimes had sails made of sealskin.
Invention of the Inuksuk: An Inuksuk is a stone landmark. People built them so they knew where they were as they trekked across the snow and ice, in search of food. You could see them from some distance away. They were used as a form of communication. A particular design might tell of good places to fish. Other designs would alert others to hidden storages of food and warm furs in case of need. Today, in Canada especially, various Inuksuk designs serve as cultural symbols of the Inuit.
Daily Life: The Inuit life was a hard one. During the day, they hunted for food. At night, the Inuit sheltered in tent homes made of animals skins, or in igloos, a skill they learned from the Central Eskimos. They made spears, harpoons, and pipes. They carved animals from soft soapstone. They found time for storytelling. Songs that told tales of hunting and hardship accompanied their stories.
Sports and Games: All the Inuit people, men and women, boys and girls, played active sports and games. One popular game was a form of football. All games took endurance and strength. They also played a bone game that was really fun. In the bone game, there were teams. One person on a team would take a bag of small bones, give it a shake, dump it out, and use those bones to create a flat shape. Your team had to guess what you created - a walrus, an igloo, a whale, a polar bear, a person, whatever. Your team had one guess. If they guessed wrong, the opposing team got to guess. And so it went, back and forth, until someone was right. They also played string games with nearly the same rules, only using string.
Dolls: The Inuit made dolls, usually carved from bone or driftwood. Using scraps of animal skin, mothers helped daughters make clothes for their dolls.
Religion: The Inuit believed in magical beings. They believed that all living things had a spirit. Before a hunt, they offered gifts to the animal they hoped to catch. These gifts were offered through the shaman. They believed their shaman could talk to spirits. If the hunt was successful, the shaman got the credit. If it was not successful, that was the fault of the people - they had not been generous enough with their gifts.
Finger Masks: The Inuit women wore little masks on their fingers when dancing. This was to help attract the attention of the many spirits in which they believed.