The Inuit - Conquerors of the Arctic


The term Eskimo is commonly used in reference to the native people of the Arctic region. The name Eskimo is generally said to mean “eaters of raw meat” and was probably a name given to the people by other native people that they encountered in history. Today, the generally accepted term for the native people of the Arctic is Inuit–meaning “the people” or “human beings” in one of the commonly spoken Inuit languages.

The Inuit are probably the most direct descendants of those that crossed the Bering Strait, if the theory of Beringia is to be believed. The Inuit have lived in Alaska for at least the last 7,000 years and have since migrated all around the Arctic.

The Inuit adapted to their environment, and because the environment in the Arctic is so unique, the people that inhabit it are masters of surviving in one of the harshest environments on Earth.


The Inuit survive by using the natural resources that the Arctic provides, though few these resources may be. Ice, snow, and sea animals are the most abundant resources in the region, but in the warmer months, the Arctic also provides some land based resources like stone and caribou (reindeer).

In winter, the Inuit generally lived in what we call igloos. The Inuit refer to just about any house as an igloo, but we think of them as houses of ice and snow. In summer, the Inuit lived in tents made of animal skins or houses made from stone, earth, and sod.

Generally the Inuit kept themselves warm by wearing thick clothes made from polar bear, seal, or caribou hides. They also burned whale blubber for light and a source of heat. A well made igloo is well insulated, and even the dim flame from a whale blubber candle could provide enough heat to keep them cozy at night.

The Inuit also domesticated wild arctic dogs and trained them to pull their sleds, hunt, and help guard their homes.

In the winter months (most of the year in the Arctic), the Inuit cut holes in the ice to catch fish to eat. Near the sea, they could wait for sea mammals (seals, walruses, otters) to come up for breath and hunt them for food. When the ice on the Arctic Ocean began to melt, the Inuit could venture out for bigger game–whales. They used harpoons to when they hunted at sea.

The Inuit believed, as most native people do, that all parts of the animals they killed should be used. This was a sign of respect to the gods and to the animals that the Inuit killed. They used skins for tents, clothing, and to make boats (kayaks). The organs and meat were eaten, blubber was burned, and bones and teeth could be used to make tools or art.


The Inuit generally lived in small groups of only a few families because they moved around a lot to hunt for food. The Inuit rarely fought among themselves. Food and resources were shared, and the younger Inuit were expected to take care of their elders. Shamans were important leaders in Inuit society. Shamans are spiritual leaders that are believed to talk to the gods that control nature.


Eventually, the Inuit, like most other indigenous peoples of the world, came into contact with new technologies. In the case of the Inuit, some of these that became important parts of their life were guns, metal animal traps, and modern housing.

Today, many Inuit live in modern homes, use clothing made of synthetic materials designed to protect against extreme cold, and speak languages such as Russian, English, or Dutch. They use motorboats and snowmobiles, in addition to the traditional dog sled, to get around, but many Inuit still hunt and fish for much of their food.

In 1999, Canada gave political control over 1/5 of the area of Canada to the Inuit that live there. This area is now a province of Canada called Nunavut, which is Inuit for “our land.”

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