Eskimo, more commonly called Inuit, is a term used to describe people who primarily live in the far north, usually the Arctic. The Arctic is located north of the Arctic Circle, and although it has extreme cold temperatures, Eskimos have adapted to the harsh environment both physically and culturally. Most Eskimos are compactly built, having a barrel-shaped torso and short arms and legs, which minimize heat loss. In addition, it is only in the last 50 to 100 years that the Eskimo way of life, which remained virtually unchanged for tens of thousands of years, has become more “modern.” Before the 1900s, the Eskimo lifestyle mainly varied depending on the environment and season. The most important aspects of Eskimo life at that time included shelter, food, clothing, and transportation.
In the winter months, some Eskimos built igloos or snow houses, while others lived in sod houses. The igloos were built for temporary shelter while the Eskimos moved to find food. During the summer, they lived in tents made of seal or caribou skin, depending on which animal was readily available.
Eskimos also hunted seal and caribou and fished for food. Seals were hunted year-round, while caribou were hunted only during the summer and fall. Eskimos hunted seals using different techniques depending on the season. In the fall and winter, seals were taken from the sea ice close to shore. During the spring, hunters killed seals as they slept on the ice, and during the summer, Eskimos hunted seals with harpoons from kayaks. When hunting caribou, women and children helped by chasing the animals toward the waiting men, who then used spears or bows and arrows to make the kills.
Fishing was also common in Eskimo culture. Eskimos fished with forked spears that had hooks made of bone or antler. Salmon, cod, and seal provided the majority of the nutrients from the sea. Many Eskimos preferred to eat meat raw, because otherwise it took a long time to cook over small flames. In addition, raw meat provided Eskimos with essential nutrients that cooking destroyed. This is one of the theories of how Eskimos got their name, which in Abenaki means “eaters of raw meat.” Others believe that Eskimo is a Montagnais word that refers to the way Eskimo snowshoes were laced.
Hunting and fishing provided Eskimos not only with food but also clothing. Clothes were made from animal skins, usually caribou because it was lightweight and warm. The style of dress varied between regions, but all Eskimo clothing was similar. The general attire consisted of a hooded jacket, trousers, socks, boots, and mittens. Many women decorated their clothing with beads and furs. Sealskin was used for soles because it allowed moisture to escape, but it kept in heat. During the winter months, it was common for Eskimos to wear two suits of clothing. An inner suit with fur was worn next to the skin, while an outer suit with fur facing outside was worn on top. The air between the suits kept body heat in and allowed perspiration to evaporate. When the weather was warmer, only the inner suit was worn.
To make hunting easier, various types of transportation were used. The Eskimos used dog sleds, which were especially helpful when traveling long distances on snow and ice. Also, boats were used to sail across water, and walking was common during the summer months.
Dog sledding is the method of transportation most commonly attributed to Eskimos. There were two types of wooden sleds: plank sleds and frame sleds. The plank sled was used mainly in Canada and Greenland, and it resembled a long ladder. The Eskimos of Alaska and Siberia used frame sleds that had a basketlike frame built on runners and slanted from the front to the back of the sled. The sleds were propelled using a team of dogs tied to the front. However, the Eskimos were able to keep only as many dogs as food would allow, and in some regions this meant only one or two.
Eskimos also used kayaks and umiaks for transportation across the sea. The kayak was similar to a canoe, with a deck and a wooden frame covered with sealskin, usually made for one person. A long paddle with a blade at both ends was used for propulsion. The umiak was an open boat with a wooden frame, also covered with sealskin, which could hold up to 12 people. These boats were used to hunt large sea animals and for long trips.
Group life was an important aspect of Eskimo culture. Eskimo group size varied and was usually related to type of hunting. Large Eskimo groups usually split into smaller groups when it was time to move in search of food. The subgroups usually consisted of a husband and wife, their children, and the married children’s families. In addition, some Eskimos practiced infanticide to keep the population from outgrowing the available resources. Also, Eskimos did not have a formal system of government, but instead followed very strict rules rather than laws. Generally, the elder men were in charge of making sure that the rules were followed and that people who committed serious crimes were executed.
Religion played an important role in Eskimo culture. Eskimos believed that spirits controlled nature and the forces of life, such as the wind, weather, sun, and moon. Eskimos felt that the souls of the dead lived in another world. After a death, the body was wrapped in animal skins, laid on the tundra, and surrounded by a circle of stones. Tools and other items were placed next to the body for the soul to use in the next world.
For the majority of Eskimos, many of the traditional ways of life ended in the 1900s. Today, most Eskimos live in towns or small settlements and eat food purchased from stores. They live in wooden homes and wear modern clothing. In addition, technological advances allowed Eskimos to replace dog sleds with snowmobiles, and kayaks with motorboats. For many, traditional beliefs have melded with or been substituted by Christianity. Also, most Eskimos now compete with the economy instead of nature. Some work in labor intensive jobs, while others do not. There is, however, a high unemployment rate among Eskimos, and many use financial assistance from the government.
The majority of Eskimo peoples currently inhabit four countries: the United States, Greenland, Canada, and the Soviet Union. The United States has about 57,000 Eskimos, or Inupiaq and Yupik, who began U.S. citizenship in Alaska in 1924. During World War II, many of them worked at U.S. military bases. Although education is available for all in the United States, most Eskimos do not finish high school.
The total population of Greenland is 56,309, of which 87% (48,989) are Eskimo or Inuit and Kalaadlit. In Greenland, although most Eskimos work in the manufacturing and service industries, unemployment is still high. Greenland has programs to assist Eskimos with education, housing, and health care.
Canada has a population of 33,000 Eskimos or Inuit. The Canadian government offers assistance in developing commercial fishing cooperatives and handicrafts to help lower the high Eskimo unemployment rate. Last, the Soviet Union has a population of 1,500 Eskimos on the northeastern tip of Siberia.
No matter where they’re found, Eskimos embody a unique coalescence of cultures. Whether they live in igloos or wood houses, hunt or buy commercially manufactured foods, use dog sleds or snowmobiles, Eskimos have remained a people of mystery until recently. Because of their isolation in the far north, Eskimos arrived late in their adoption of modern goods and customs. In the last 50 to 100 years, this modern adoption has demystified Eskimo culture and permitted a better understanding of the Eskimo people, both past and present.
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