Whalebone, Harpoon and Mask: Life and Art of the Inuit

By Stern, Fred | The World and I, January 2007 | Go to article overview

Whalebone, Harpoon and Mask: Life and Art of the Inuit


Stern, Fred, The World and I


No one seems to know when they crossed the land bridge over the Bering Strait, to settle in the coldest, most desolate regions of North America.

It was probably between 13,000 and 40,000 years ago, that native people from Asia--most likely from Mongolia--immigrated across the Bering Strait on a bridge of land that experts believe had at one time been as wide as 1,000 miles. Where once the bridge allowed people to travel by foot between the two continents, or where at other times, the Bering Sea was only a narrow flow of water easily traversed by boat, today the straits of the Bering Sea stretch from Siberia to Alaska's Seward Peninsula for a length of 55 miles.

Traditionally these immigrants, were called, "the Eskimo" (meaning, people who eat raw meat). This designation is still used primarily in Alaska and of course, commonly throughout the United States. Many, however, prefer to be addressed as "the Inuit" (meaning, the people), their long time designation in both Canada and Greenland. In this paper, we will use their preference: Inuit.

Often in the popular mind the Inuit are lumped together with the American Indians as originating from a common background. But ethnologists and archaeologists have long established that the origin of the American Indian differs from the Inuit's Mongolian background. This can be observed in their facial characteristics and bone structure which differ from those of the American Indian. The two groups are also fundamentally different in language, habits and life styles. Not surprisingly they also differ in their approach to the arts.

The animal in Inuit life: Necessity and spirituality

The northern rim of the American continent offered an exceptionally hostile environment, yet the Inuit took on the challenge, soon realizing that their survival depended on their ability to hunt the animals of the ice shelf and the fish of the Nordic Seas.

Fortunately there was an abundance of animal and marine life. In fact, animals that the immigrants would eventually hunt had actually crossed the land bridge into North American with the Inuit. And of course, there were the sea mammals which swam over from Asia, animals such as walruses, and bowhead and beluga whales.

The Inuit hunted for food, clothing and shelter, and their prey were the caribou, polar bears, walrus, beaver, reindeer and seals on land surfaces or near the sea. In winter they hunted foxes and hares. Whale hunting proved difficult but was nevertheless attempted more or less successfully by the more enterprising groups.

Every part of the animals they hunted found an important function in Inuit life, a frugal approach that is used by the Inuit to this day. Caribou fur, for example, which is warm as well as light-weight, was fashioned by Inuit women into dresses, parkas or boot lining. The women who were the tailors, as in many civilizations, were not satisfied with a mere assembly and stitching of garments but incorporated all manner of refinements, mixing various animal skins, paws and claws as well as fish skins to provide an element of elegance to each garment. These tailors prided themselves on the originality of their design and its execution.

In those days, the hunting tools of the Inuits were snares and traps. Harpoons, spears, knives, and bows and arrows were equally vital to the hunt, and ivory from walrus bone and tusks were used to make tips for harpoons and knife blades. Stone and, later, iron shafts and points were also employed.

Animal skins provided insulation for roof coverings of the half-buried wooden structures in which the Inuit lived in the summer; igloos were reserved for use during the harsh times of winter or during brief hunting expeditions. Blubber, the layer of fat under the skin of sea mammals provided lighting and heat. Inuit boats, kayaks for solo operation and umjaks, the larger boats that accommodated hunting parties for more hazardous sea operations, were also sheathed in animal skins.

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