10 things you didn't know about Inuits

September 19, 2019

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Eskimo child

Who are the Inuits, this mysterious people you only hear about from time to time? The term means "humanity" and indicates an Arctic population descended from Thule civilization. The Inuits belong to the group of Eskimo peoples together with the Yupiks: the first live in northern Alaska, Greenland and Canada, the latter in western Alaska and in the Russian Far East. The term Eskimo means "raw fish eater", but do not call an Inuit "Eskimo": it seems that they prefer to be indicated by their specific name.

The Inuits of Greenland inhabit a territory with extreme climatic conditions, the tundra and the permafrost, and make up about 90% of the Greenland population, while the remaining 10% is made up of Europeans, especially Danes (Greenland is part of the Kingdom of Denmark).

If you are planning a trip to Greenland, surely a meeting with this incredible population is to be taken into account. Here are 10 things to know about Inuits before leaving.

Eskimo sleigh with reindeers
Inuit peopole with reindeers

Culture: private property does not exist

For the Inuit, the concept of private property does not exist and there are no leaders or government structures. The Inuit society is based on the solidarity between villages and on the collective possession of goods. Children are constantly the object of attention, but are allowed to grow free, without any punishment or reproach. The Inuits live mainly on hunting and fishing. Fishing takes place in rivers, while hunting focuses on caribou or seals, whales and walruses. Over the centuries, Inuits have learned to adapt to the cold by cleverly exploiting available materials and hunting residues, making heavy leather garments, sled shoes with frozen meat and horn or ivory harpoons.

Since only mosses grow in their land, they have no idea what a tree is like. They are perhaps the only people in the world who have never fought a single war.

Language: they have many terms to define snow

The Inuit language is an idiom spoken on a vast territory, from Greenland to Alaska (in Russia it is almost extinct) and presents various differentiations according to the regions. What unites all the linguistic subgroups, however, is the lexical richness to indicate snow. Think of living in an area where everything depends on snow: it is used to build igloos when it is massed on the ground, it can be drunk when it melts, it can prevent movement when it is abundant. Depending on the snow, you choose the routes to be sled, where you can build houses, where and how to go hunting. Snow can even become a danger.

So it's no wonder the Inuits have so many terms to define each of its forms; from the snow that falls to the recent fall, from the soft one to the one that makes it difficult to walk, from the one on which it has rained to the one that precedes the arrival of winter. There are even specific verbs related to snow, for example to indicate the activity of working snow or melting snow in a drink.

Religion: the shaman is often a woman

The Inuit religion is based on the belief that animals and natural elements possess a spirit. The main figure for religion is the shaman, often female, who can fall into a trance at the sound of drums during sacred ceremonies. On this occasion, he or she intercedes with the walrus goddess Sedna and brings the requests of the inhabitants of the community. It is thought that the shaman in this state can even foresee the future.

How the Inuits protect their rights

The culture and survival of the Inuits is strongly threatened. On the one hand, climate change is strongly modifying the environment in which this population has grown accustomed to living for centuries. On the other hand, the activities of extraction and exploitation of Greenland's natural resources by Western multinationals are subtracting resources and spaces, forcing these populations to abandon their traditional way of life. The consequence is that Inuit men and women are prone to depression and disorientation, which often results in alcoholism and suicides.

Finally and paradoxically, the strong pressure from environmental organizations for the prohibition of seal hunting subtracts their main source of livelihood. Today, the Inuits have formed the ICC (Inuit Circumpular Council), a non-governmental organization that protects the environment and cultural instances of about 160,000 indigenous people who live in Greenland, Alaska and Siberia, in order to raise awareness among the governments of the nations on their needs.

How an igloo is made

The igloo is the traditional spherical dome house of the Inuits for the winter. The igloo, a housing solution now abandoned since the seventies, was once created by interlocking ice bricks on each other. Once the dome was built, an entrance was dug at the front, which continued in a corridor that allowed access to the interior. On the opposite wall a window was created, closed with a seal skin or a thin sheet of ice. On the roof there was a hole, from which the smoke from the fire used to heat and cook could come out. The interior was lined with reindeer skins, also used for the beds.

The interior lighting was given by a seal-grease lamp. In some villages, the igloos were communicating with each other through corridors, so as to make it possible to move from one house to another without going out in case of particularly difficult weather conditions. In summer, the Inuits moved instead into tents made of seal or caribou, supported by wooden poles or whale ribs.

A white tent in Greenland
A Inuit's tent

The music of the Inuits

Music for Inuits is very important for ritual ceremonies and has very ancient origins. Based on the use of drums, leading the shaman to a state of trance, is accompanied by dances and guttural recitative chants with complex rhythms, called katajjaq. Since the nineteenth century, with the arrival of the first Europeans in Greenland, Inuit music has undergone some influences: for example, Irish and Scottish settlers have introduced the accordion and the jig.

Kayak is an Inuit word

Kayak is a boat used for hunting in the water during the summer and is an Inuit term. The traditional kayak was extremely functional to its purpose and to its user, for example it had to be three times the height of the hunter. The kayaks were once made of boards and covered with seal skins sewn together with threads, once made with tendons of marine animals. Once so assembled, the kayak was left to dry in the sun to make perfectly fitting seal skins. Finally, the boat was covered with whale fat.

Kayak is still used today, with appropriate modifications: nylon, dental floss or bins are also used for its construction. The kayaks are sometimes motorized or made of fiberglass.

Robert Peroni: how to become an Inuit

Robert Peroni is an Italian climber, a graduate in piscology and a native of South Tyrol, who falled in love with Greenland at forty years old, in 1980, after leading an expedition of thirty people for three weeks, an expedition in which he met the Inuit people for the first time in Tasiilaq. From then on, and for a dozen years to follow, he started shuttling between Italy and Greenland dealing with expeditions, also for scientific purposes, finally deciding to settle permanently in the Inuit community, to give support and voice to their instances.

Peroni took a few years to adapt to the new lifestyle, very different from the western one and to the climatic conditions, but finally managed to integrate completely. He bought a house, the Red House, where it helped young Inuits in difficulty, which then became a hotel for tourists and explorers. The house also gave work to local people, who because of seal hunting bans, are struggling to find new forms of sustenance. Peroni wants, with his lifestyle and with his publications, to give voice to a population that is in danger of disappearing.

Where the Inuits live in Greenland

Does the Inuit population fascinate you? Before leaving for your trip to Greenland, you need to know that the huge island is inhabited by about 56 thousand indigenous people, scattered in many distant settlements (Greenland is one of the least populated lands in the world). During a tour in Greenland, the meeting with this population, used to living even at -40 degrees in winter, is definitely a recommended experience. The Inuit population, who live in houses and not in igloos since the Seventies, mainly reside in Kulusuk and Tasiilaq. Do not miss the experience of kaffemik, a traditional gathering in a house where coffee is served.

The Inuits in movies

There is a film that gives an insight on the Inuit culture, "Atanarjuat the fast runner", released in 2001, whose plot is based on an Inuit legend handed down orally from ancient times. The story tells of an Inuit man who escapes an attempted murder, runs naked in the snow and comes back for revenge. This film is important for at least three reasons: the first, because it was the first to be directed by an Inuit director, Zacharias Kunuk; the second, because it offers a glimpse of this culture, its history and especially its language, having been shot in Inuit with subtitles in other languages. Finally, it is a film that helps the young Inuits understand the roots of their people in a difficult time for this population. The film was shot by consulting the Inuit elders of Greenland.

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