The Inuit People: A People Preserved By Ice


Thousands of years ago, during the last ice age, mile-thick
glaciers covered a vast portion of North America, and the
Asian continent was joined to North America by a land
bridge. The Arctic areas of Alaska, Beringia, and Siberia
were free of ice. Vast herds of caribou, muskoxen, and
bison migrated to these plains. Following them were the
nomadic Asian ancestors of today's Inuit and Indians. The
doorway to Asia closed about three or four thousand years
later as the glaciers receded and melted. These people: the
Inuit (meaning the people), adapted to their harsh tundra
environment and developed a culture that remained untainted
for a long time.
The Inuit people relied solely on hunting for their
existence. With summers barely lasting two months,
agriculture was non-existent. Animals such as caribou and
seal were vital. Groups of hunters would stalk and kill
many caribou with fragile bows made of driftwood, and their
bounty was split evenly amongst the tribe. Bone spears were
fashioned to hunt seals which provided food, oil, clothes,
and tents. The seal skins were also used to construct
kayaks and other boats that the Inuit would use to travel
and to hunt whales. One advantage of the sterile cold of
the arctic was that it kept these people free of disease
(until they met the white man.)
Inuit tribes consisted of two to ten loosely joined
families. There was no one central leader in the group: all
decisions were made by the community as a whole. Nor was
there any definite set of laws; the Inuit, though usually
cheery and optimistic, were prone to uncontrolled bursts of
rage. Murder was common amongst them and it went unpunished
unless an individual's murders occured too often. At that
point, that person was deemed unstable, and the community
appointed a man to terminate him/her.
In their society, the duties of men and women were strictly
separated. The males would hunt, fish and construct the
tools used by the family. Women, however, were responsible
for cleaning the animal skins, cooking, sewing the clothes
( a woman's sewing ability was equally as attractive to a
man as her beauty was), and raising the children. Male
children were preferred because they could care for their
parents in their old age; female children when often
strangled soon after birth.
Although today Christianity has breached some of the
southernmost tribes, the vast majority practice a form of
animism. Their rituals are based mainly on the hunt and the
handling of slain animals. Magic talismans and charms are
believed to control spirits, and shamans are consulted in
the case of injury or illness. There are traces of beliefs
in an afterlife or reincarnation, but they are very minor.
The Inuit people, like many other tribal minorities, are
greatly stereotyped and misunderstood by the common man.
For example: the Inuit word igloo means house and can refer
to the cabins made of sod that most Inuit occupy. Also, the
word Eskimo is a misnomer meaning "eaters of raw flesh"
given to the Inuit by the Algonquin Indians. This is a
simple culture that remained undisturbed until whales
became a precious commodity. Their isolation is slowly
coming to an end as western civilization puts them into
government housing and snowmobiles are increasing as a
means of transportation. They are beautifully eccentric,
and we must work to preserve their culture. 
References: "Seasons of the Eskimo: A Vanishing Way of
Life" by Fred Bruemmer; Microsoft Encarta96 Encyclopedia;
Microsoft Bookshelf.

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