Eskimo / Inuit Natives

The Inuit (also called Eskimo) are a group of culturally similar indigenous peoples inhabiting the Arctic regions of Canada (Northwest Territories, Nunatsiavut, Nunavik, Nunavut, Nunatukavut), Denmark (Greenland),  Russia (Siberia) and the United States (Alaska).

Inupiaq MapInuit means “the people” in the Inuktitut language. An Inuk is singular for Inuit person, whereas Inuit is plural. The Inuit language is grouped under the Eskimo–Aleut languages.

The Inuit live throughout most of the Canadian Arctic and Subarctic:

The territory of Nunavut (“our land”).

In the northern third of Quebec, is an area called Nunavik (“place to live”).

The coastal region of Labrador, are areas called Nunatsiavut (“our beautiful land”) and Nunatukavut (“Our Ancient Land”).

In various parts of the Northwest Territories, mainly on the coast of the Arctic Ocean and formerly in the Yukon.

The Canadian Inuit are divided into eight main groups

The Labrador Inuit live on the Atlantic Coast of Labrador.

The Ungava or New Quebec Inuit live on Ungava Bay, on the south shore of Hudson Strait and east coast of Hudson Bay.

The Baffin Island Inuit live on Baffin Island in Nunavut.

The Igloolik, (or Iglulik), live on Western Baffin Island and Melville Peninsula. The name “Igloolik” means “there is an igloo here” in Inuktitut.

The Caribou Inuit take their name from the animal, which they are dependent on for almost all of their needs, including food, clothing, and shelter. They are located West of Hudson Bay.

The Netsilik Inuit live on the Arctic coast of Canada, west of Hudson Bay. Their name means “people of the place where there is seal.”

The Copper Inuit take their name from the fact that they use the copper deposits in their region extensively. They live on Banks and Victoria islands, and the mainland region of the central Arctic.

The Western Arctic Inuit were formerly known as the MacKenzie Inuit because they live in the MacKenzie River valley.

Collectively these areas are known as Inuit Nunangat.

In the U.S., Alaskan Inupiat live in two areas.

Alaskan Inuit are called Inupiat on the North Slope of Alaska and along the Siberian Coast, on Little Diomede Island.

In Russia, the Inuit live on Big Diomede Island.

Greenland’s Kalaallit are citizens of Denmark.

Is Eskimo or Inuit the correct terminology?

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 term other than Eskimo is inclusive of all Inupiat and Yupik peoples.

While a small number of individuals may be offended by the term Eskimo and prefer their native tribal name, most Alaskans are not offended by usage of Eskimo.

In Canada , the Natives prefer the word Inuit. As they consider “Eskimo” pejorative, it has fallen out of favour.

In Canada, the Constitution Act of 1982, sections 25 and 35 legally recognized the Inuit as a distinctive group of Canadian aboriginals, who are neither First Nations or Métis.

In Greenland, they prefer to be called by their original native name, Kalaallit.

The Inupiaq and the St. Lawrence Island Yupik People, or “Real People,” are still hunting and gathering societies. They continue to subsist on the land and sea of north and northwest Alaska. Their lives continue to evolve around the whale, walrus, seal, polar bear, caribou and fish.

The north and northwest region of Alaska is vast. The land and sea are host to unique groups of people. To the people of the north, the extreme climate is not a barrier, but a natural realm for a variety of mammals, birds and fish, gathered by the people for survival.

Main Groups

The Inupiaq and St. Lawrence Island Yupik tended to live in small groups of related families of 20-200 people.Population at time of contact included five main units:

  • 1,500 St. Lawrence Island Yupiget
  • 1,820 Bering Strait Inupiat
  • 3,675 Kotzebue Sound Inupiat
  • 1,850 North Alaska Coast Inupiat (Tareumiut, people of the sea)
  • 1,050 Interior North Inupiat (Nunamiut, people of the land)

The Inuit were the last native people to arrive in North America.

All the good land to the south was already occupied by hostile Indians so they settled in the Arctic. Nobody else wanted it because it is one of the most extreme climates in the world.

When the first Inuit arrived in North America, they brought dogs with them for hunting. Teams of these animals also became their primary method of travel. Today, most Inuit use snowmobiles and ATVs.

The languages of the Inuit can be divided into many different languages and dialects.

However, all of the Inuit languages come from one main language family: the Inuit-Aleut, also known as the Eskimaleut language family.

The languages groups can be grouped into an Eastern branch and a Western branch, which can then be further divided into individual languages and dialects of those languages.

Eastern Branch (Inuktitut languages):

The Eastern Branch languages have three different names for the language.

Inuktitut (in Canada)
Inupiaq (in Alaska)
Kalaallisut (in Greenland)

There are three different names, but it is considered to be the same language.

There are also many dialects from this language branch spoken in the three countries.

Western Branch (Yupik languages):

Yupik is divided into three distinct languages.

Central Alaskan Yupik
Pacific Gulf Yupik (Alaska)
Siberian Yupik (Canada and Alaska)

Each of these three languages has several dialects as well.

The Inuktitut and Yupik languages are both quite hard to learn and speak, because they are very complex languages.

House Types and Settlement

The people used a variety of designs and materials, but three key features were common:

  • An underground tunnel entrance below the living level to trap cold air;
  • A semi-subterranean structure, using the ground as insulation.
  • A seal-oil lamp from soapstone or pottery, for light, heat and cooking. Homes were usually made from sod blocks, sometimes laid over driftwood or whalebone and walrus bone frames, generally dome-shaped. The shape was usually rectangular, except on St. Lawrence Island where the houses were circular of varying sizes. The rectangular houses generally were 12-15 ft. x 8-10 ft., holding 8 to 12 people. In the summer many of these houses flooded when the ground thawed, but most people had already moved to their summer camps.
  • Community houses, called qargis, were used as a work area in Inupiaq settlements.

Culture and Social Organization

Family and bartering connections were respectful and meaningful. Division of labor was by gender. Competitive games tested stregnth and stamina of participants; also song duels in a unique style called throat singing, exchanging and other activities were part of the culture.

Traditional Subsistence Patterns

Traditional subsistence patterns depend upon location and season of the resources, such as whales, marine mammals, fish, caribou, and plants. For instance:

  • Whales and sea mammals were hunted in the coastal and island villages.
  • Pink and chum salmon; cod, inconnu and whitefish were fished whenever ice formed; herring and crab and halibut were also caught.
  • Birds and eggs formed an important part of the diet.

Traditional Tools and Technology

The traditional Inupiaq and St. Lawrence Island Yupik tool kit had a variety of stone, wood, bone and ivory tools made for butchering, tanning, carving, drilling, inscribing, sharpening and flaking.

The bow drill was an important tool, used for starting fires, drilling holes in wood, bone, ivory. Hunting equipment and tool kits are kept in different containers.

A sophisticated package of toggle-headed harpoons, lances, lines, and seal bladder floats was used for the bowhead whale hunt.

Seal skin floats are used for whale hunts, as are water-filled seal bladders which attract and lead bowhead whales closer to the shore.

  • Other tools include scratching boards for attracting seals to breathing holes, bows, arrows, spears, spear throwers, bolas for taking birds, snares.
  • Fishing gear includes nets, traps made from branches and roots, hooks.


  • The Umiaq/Angyaq is a large open skin boat, 15 – 25 feet long (although some are nearly 50 feet from Kotzebue area). It is used for hunting whale and walrus, travel and bartering. A large umiaq/angyaq could carry up to 15 people and a ton of cargo.
  • The kayak, a closed skin boat, is typically for one person.
  • The basket sled is used for land travel. A flat sled is used for hauling large skin boats across the ice.
  • Snowshoes are used in interior regions (e.g., Kobuk River valley). Small sleds attached in the bottom of a skin boat transport the watercraft across ice.


Trade has always been important, but became even more important after the arrival of Europeans.


Traditional clothing consisted of outer and inner pullover tops (parkas or kuspuks / qiipaghaq – the outer garment); outer and inner pants, socks, boots (kamiks).

Tops and pants were made of caribou skin, with the fur facing inward on inner garments and outwards on outer.

The woman’s pullover had a larger hood for carrying small children, except on St. Lawrence Island, where they do not carry the baby in the parka.

Gloves were made from various skins, with the fur turned inside and usually connected with leather strip around the neck. Waterproof outer garments made from sea-mammal intestines completed the wardrobe.

Ceremonial & Beliefs:

Both groups believe in reincarnation and the recycling of spirit forms from one life to the next, both human and animal. Names of those who died recently are given to newborns.

Only if animal spirits are released can the animal be regenerated and return for future harvest. This explains the elaborate treatment of animals killed, even today.

Landmark cases defining how Canada regulates industrial activity on indigenous lands to be decided this week 


Article Index:

Chief of the King Island Native Community gives her perspective on historical trauma

The historical trauma that my community has experienced is still with us today and manifests itself in the social ills of poverty. Yet, it is the rich culture provided by the wealth of the land and sea that defines the health of our community.