Shaped and influenced by the forbidding landscapes they’ve inhabited for thousands of years, the Inuit culture of the Arctic region is one of the most fascinating on the planet. Hardy, resilient, mysterious and immensely ingenious, the Inuits of the northernmost regions of the Americas, Europe and Russia have not only survived on some of our planet’s harshest environments but indeed thrived, in spite of seemingly insurmountable obstacles. The frozen Arctic tundra which for most of us mere visitors seems unliveable, has provided the very livelihood which has ensured the unique culture’s survival through the eons.
Ancient Inuit culture & the long walk across frozen lands
Scientists widely believe that the ancestors of the modern Inuit migrated across a frozen Bering Strait some 5,000 years ago. The Paleo-Eskimos (or pre-Inuit as they are commonly referred to) originated in the present-day Chukotka region of Russia and they are believed to have reached North America approximately 15,000 years after the Paleo-Indians (predecessors to Native Americans) first tackled the route. Linguistically and culturally, the Inuits are more closely related to indigenous Mongolians of Fareast Asia then, say, Native Americans. Due to the harsh climate of their chosen land, the Inuit culture of the Arctic managed to evolve over thousands of years with very little influence from other indigenous tribes, like the Native Americans, retaining an authenticity and uniformity that’s not usually found in other ancient cultures which also boast such a wide, if not numerous, distribution.
A change of climate on our planet and the broadening of wildlife roaming enticed the Inuits to scatter over the Arctic region, rapidly and extensively. Today, the Inuit is considered one of the most dispersed indigenous cultures in the world, with their inhabited area covering six million square kilometres, from the furthest reaches of Siberia in Russia, through to Greenland, Canada and Alaska. Their numbers remain relatively low, however, certainly adding to their anthropological value. The greatest Inuit population is found in Canada (65,000) followed by Greenland (50,000) Alaska (16,000) and finally Russia, where less than 2000 Inuits remain.
Eskimo or Inuit – What’s in a name?
The Inuits were named ‘Eskimos’ by a southern native tribe in America, a term that means ‘eaters of raw flesh’ and one which seemed to stick for hundreds of years. Nowadays, the term Eskimo has become redundant and is deemed to be offensive, certainly by the Inuits of Canada themselves. However, if you’re headed on an Arctic expedition in Alaska, you’d do well to note that there, it is the term ‘Inuit’ that’s not so well received and Eskimo that is still the most used blanket term. The Inuits of Alaska prefer being referred to by their respective tribal name, be it Yupik or Inupiat, the US sate’s two main indigenous groups. Visit Russia, on the other hand, and you’ll still find the term ‘Eskimo’ still widely used, although the ICC (Inuit Circumpolar Council) voted for the use of Inuit in favour of Eskimo as far back as the late 1970s. Confused? Don’t be! The wonderfully diverse world of indigenous Arctic inhabitants is one of the most complex and fascinating you’ll come across and, best as we can recommend, you’d do well simply to enquire as to the origin of locals when meeting them.
Of course, irrespective of names, the cultural and ethnic similarities of people across the Arctic region cannot be denied. The Inupiaq of Canada and Kalaallit of Greenland, for example, have quite different languages but they can still understand each other, hinting at the fact that what they actually developed are not distinct languages but rather dialects of the same language.
The Inuit way of life
For thousands of years, Inuits used dog-pulled sleds made of animal bones to cover great distances across frozen and snowy terrain. Back ‘home’ in Siberia, researchers have found evidence of ancient dogsleds, used by Paleo-Eskimos, dating back as far as 9,000 years ago. Husky-like dogs were purposely bred to pull heavily loaded sleds whilst on land-based hunts, whereas to facilitate fishing, Inuits built boats of varying sizes, lined with animal furs. The word kayak actually derives from qajaq, the name of a small narrow boat used by Greenlandic Inuits in their whaling exploits.
The first Inuits enjoyed a diet that primarily consisted of fish-meat and fat, with whale, walrus and seal making up the largest portion of their diet. The distinct lack of fruits, vegetables and grains (all impossible to grow at such high latitudes) in the diet of the Inuit people is one of the most researched characteristics of the culture. The Inuit paradox, as it is so often named, relates to the general (and relative) wellbeing and impressive lifespan of indigenous people who were deemed to have such a restricted diet devoid of variation. Yet in this really interesting article, various well-based explanations are given as to why that may be.
Inuit Culture in the 21st century
What contributed to the preservation of the Inuit culture, up until a few decades ago, had all to do with the very harsh conditions of their chosen latitude. Although Europeans sailed far north in search of whaling waters, they were none too interested in settling down that far north, so the indigenous populations were left, undisturbed and free to roam, for centuries. That was until the heat of the Cold War managed to entice rival nations, like the USA and USSR primarily, to show unprecedented interest in the Arctic region. The building of foreign scientific and military settlements in the Canadian Arctic would forever alter the course of the Inuit culture there and with the added western-style health and education systems offered, not to mention access to jobs and food, the indigenous population boomed and changed irreversibly.
By the 1960s, Canadian Inuits became all but wholly dependent on Western commodities, losing their self-sufficiency and ancient way of life, and becoming victim to Western diseases like polio and tuberculosis, to which they had no immunity. With the introduction of Christianity and a value system based on Western beliefs, the Inuit Culture also underwent some very fundamental changes. Once polygamous, pagan and hunter-gatherers with quite defined gender roles, the Inuit culture has been absorbed in mainstream society – and expected to adhere to mainstream values and lifestyle – in the space of less than 50 years in some regions of the Arctic.
Ironically enough, one of the biggest risk factors for the health and wellbeing of the indigenous Inuits in Canada and Alaska today, has been the introduction of our 21st century overly-processed and nutritionally-lacking foods. Yet aside from the widespread obesity rate (which is more than double the national average), indigenous Inuits also suffer from shockingly high suicide, drug dependency and poverty rates, compared to non-native inhabitants. You can read more about the Inuit struggles in Canada, right here.
It is abundantly clear that the lightening-fast integration of native Inuits into mainstream society – or rather, the intrusion of Westerners on their land – has had detrimental effects on this incredibly long-lived and impressive ancient culture, although it is wonderful to know that, In Canada and Alaska at least, the Inuit people are striving to find a healthy balance between preserving their traditions and embracing a new way of life.
The Inuits of Chukotka – a world apart
The Yupiks of far-eastern Siberia, the most traditional Inuits living today, are found along the coast of the Chukchi Peninsula, home of Wrangel Island and its impressive concentration of denning polar bears. Almost culturally and ethnically identical to their Alaskan counterparts and immensely similar to those from Greenland and Canada, the Inuits of Russia have managed to avoid assimilation into mainstream Russian society, due primarily to their incredibly remote location. Still living as reindeer herders and virtually cut off from the rest of the world, the Inuits of Chukotka have attracted the interest of adventure photographers in recent years with truly stunning photographs appearing in media outlets worldwide.
Here at ChimuAdventures, we pride ourselves in offering the best Arctic expeditions around. From the remote Chukotka region to the broader Russian Arctic and North Pole region, the thriving hub of Spitzbergen, dramatic Greenland and the titillating Canadian Arctic, we offer a wide array of fantastic and unforgettable adventures to the northern end of our world, a place where history, culture and unique wildlife combine to created one of the most magnificent destinations on earth.
Intrigued to know more? Visit our Arctic Cruises page or contact one of our polar specialists for more info.
Author: Laura Pattara
“Laura Pattara is a modern nomad who’s been vagabonding around the world, non-stop, for the past 13 years. She’s tour guided overland trips through South America and Africa, travelled independently through the Middle East and is now in the midst of a 5-year motorbike odyssey from Germany to Australia.”