Most people know the Inuit as Eskimos. That name was given to the Inuit by a neighboring tribe many years ago. They refer to themselves as Inuit, which simply means “the people.” They are one of the most widely scattered native peoples on Earth. Most of them live in Alaska, but there are also Inuit in Greenland, Canada, and Siberia. There are only about 60,000 Inuit people in the world.
The Inuit were one of the last native groups to arrive in North America. They arrived sometime between 6000 BC and 2000 BC. The earliest Inuit spent part of the year wandering, and part of the year in a fairly permanent camp. Their year was divided into three hunting seasons. Each season was focused on a particular animal—caribou, seal, and whale. They hunted for long periods of time, and feasted in between hunting seasons.
One of the most important Inuit feasts was nalukataq, or the spring whaling festival. The feast was held to appease the spirits of the whales killed in the hunt. Part of the festival involved members of the community tossed into the air from a walrus-skin!
Most of Inuit history is unknown. Their history was unrecorded for many thousands of years. That changed when Inuit encountered Europeans. As far as is known, the Vikings were the first Europeans to encounter the Inuit, in Greenland in 984. In the 1700s, Russian explorers and fur traders began to move into Inuit lands. Once the whaling industry began to grow in the 1700s and 1800s, European traders were in fairly constant contact with the Inuit. Much of Inuit culture was destroyed by the large numbers of European whalers.
After the United States purchased Alaska in 1867 meant that the number of whalers in Alaska increased yet again. This greatly affected Inuit culture. The population of whales declined. Inuit traders were no longer able to support themselves. Entire Inuit villages disappeared.
In the late nineteenth and earlier twentieth centuries, the US government attempted to improve living conditions for the Inuit. They started schools and imported reindeer from Siberia so that they would be able to hunt again. However, the reindeer population declined after a few years, and the Inuit began to take more stable jobs. Traditional artwork is now a source of income for many Inuit.
Facts About the Inuit:
- The Inuit are closely related to the Mongoloid peoples of east Asia
- Because of the harsh environment in which they live, the Inuit have had little outside influence
- About half of all Inuit live in Alaska