A Guide to the Inuit: Location, Population, and More

Written by Eliana Riley
Published: October 25, 2022
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The Inuit tribe is known commonly as the Eskimo tribe. People of the Inuit tribe, though, find that name to be offensive. They prefer Inuit, as it means “human beings”. While debated, some experts believe the word Eskimo derives from Native Americans in Canada. The Mi’kmaq natives have a word in their language structured similarly to Eskimo that means “eaters of raw flesh.” This terminology encouraged a negative perspective on Inuit lifestyle, making the term Eskimo outdated and offensive.

Inuit Tribe History

The Inuit people are said to have existed up to 3,800 years ago, according to archeology. Inuit people appeared before most Native Americans due to both linguistic and biological differences. They descend from the Thule culture, who originated in western Alaska and spread east throughout the Arctic. When Thule moved east, they encroached on Tuniit — who were related to the Inuit — territory. Although they traded with southern tribes, the Inuit did not advance into the south because their inventions and traditions were best utilized in the Arctic territory alone. However, some Inuit groups fought over land claims with other indigenous people. In the late 14th century, the Little Ice Age displaced many Inuit in the higher Arctic zones. This meant they could no longer hunt for whales and use whale skins and bones for tools, warmth, and shelter.

The first Inuit contact with non-Natives took effect through the arrival of the Vikings. Viking arrival didn’t affect Inuit tribes in any significant way, but the tribes did trade with the Vikings. In 1576, however, an explorer named Martin Frobisher encountered an Inuit tribe. He brought an Inuit person to England for the first time in history. At the end of the 18th century, missionaries of the Moravian Church helped manage trade between the Inuit and the British. Throughout the 1800s, numerous explorers and traders documented Inuit and European relations. Eventually, though, European interference in Inuit lands led to negative outcomes for the Inuit. Europeans brought a host of diseases to the Inuit people, whose population declined by 90% as a result.

At the beginning of the 20th century, the Canadian government, missionaries, and traders began to encroach on Inuit territory. Eventually, Canada decided that Inuit tribes had to live under the rules and regulations of the Canadian government as Native Americans. Over time, the traditions and rituals of the Inuit tribe degenerated. After World War II, the Canadian government displaced many Inuit and they had to learn to assimilate into Canadian culture. Luckily, the Canadian government began to provide access to education and healthcare to the Inuit. Growth of the Inuit population forced them to live in settlements year-round, disrupting their previous nomadic lifestyle.

Population and Location of the Inuit Tribe

The Inuit population numbers approximately 180,000, including politically-identified and culturally-identified Inuit tribes. People of the Inuit tribe live in Arctic regions in Greenland, Canada, the Alaskan United States, and the eastern tip of Russia called Chukotka. The largest portion of Inuit live in Greenland and Alaska, while a medium number of Inuit live in Canada. The smallest number of Inuit live in Chukotka.

The Several Inuit Tribes

Inuit houses in Nuuk, Greenland

Inuit houses and cottages scattered across the tundra landscape in a residential suburb of Nuuk, Greenland.

©iStock.com/Vadim_Nefedov

Unique identities and languages categorize Inuit tribes, because large distances separate them. They populate various Arctic areas, and their names correlate to their location. Below, some prominent Inuit tribes are listed.

Greenland

  • Kalaallit
  • Inugguit
  • Iit

Canada

  • Inuvialuit
  • Inuinnaat
  • Inuit

Northern Alaska

  • Inupiat

Southwest Alaska

  • Yupiit*
  • Cupiit

Chukotka and St. Lawrence Island, Alaska

  • Yupiget
  • Yupik
  • Sugpiat

*culturally distinctive but politically affiliated as Inuit

Inuit Language

Although there is a main language called Inuktitut, approximately ten other dialects stemmed from it. The Inuit language contains two main sectors called Inuit and Yupik. However, many Inuit languages are dying out and degenerating over time. These languages are difficult to protect, as some Inuit tribes live far distances from other Inuit communities. The following are the different dialects of Inuit people:

  • Iñupiatun
  • Inuvialuktun
  • Inuinnaqtun
  • Inuktitut
  • Inuktun
  • Kalaallisut
  • Tunumiisut
  • Sugcestun
  • Yugtun
  • Yupigestun

Inuit Culture

Fishing

Inuit Fisherman in Nunavik

An Inuit fisherman in a canoe in Inukjuak, a northern village in Nunavik, which is part of Quebec.

©iStock.com/danica dragon jacimovic

Historically, Inuit people are fishers and hunters, living off of animal life because vegetation was extremely scarce in Arctic regions. Inuit primarily hunted for whales, caribou, seals, and walruses, but they also ate other beasts like polar bears if needed. For greens, they ate seaweed.

In fishing, the Inuit people used boats made of seal skin called qajiat. The qajaq was the first version of the modern-day kayak, which the Europeans invented after borrowing this boat design from the Inuit people. One fisherman could handle the operation of a qajaq.

The Inuit also invented larger boats. The umiaq was a larger boat that could hold multiple people and goods. Made from skins and bones, umiaq could transport a larger load than the qajaq.

Hunting

Weapons were crucial to Inuit success in hunting. Weapons were often made from bones or softer stones, but the Inuit also crafted knives from walrus ivory. Inuit people used harpoons and spears to kill walruses and other small animals, respectively. When the Inuit needed more force to throw their spear, they created spear throwers that were unique to the hunter’s arm measurements. In this way, spear throwers not only increased the power necessary to project a spear, but they also complemented an Inuit’s hunting style and allowed them to hunt more easily.

Another hunting and transportation tool the Inuit used was dog sleds, or qamutiit. Impressively, dogs like the husky dog not only pulled a dog sled together, but they also navigated the landscape together after some practice.

To hunt sea mammals, the Inuit would create holes in the ice to fish and spear from. After observing the polar bear, who looked for holes in the ice to hunt sea mammals, the Inuit tribe realized that these holes became a bait for their prey. Sea mammals would use the holes to breathe in the fresh air above water. When the walruses or seals came up for a breath, an Inuit hunter could spear the animal.

Clothing

Inuit Woman In Traditional Clothing

Inuit made their clothing of caribou, seal, polar bear, and oxen skin.

©iStock.com/IPGGutenbergUKLtd

Women made clothing out of caribou, seal, polar bear, and musk oxen skin. Using these skins for clothing ensured that the Inuit people could stay warm in the harsh winters of the Arctic. Men and women wore their clothes similarly. Both wore boots and pants with hooded tunics draped over them. Although, women’s tunics were made oversized so that they could carry their babies inside the tunic.

Home and Family

Inuit people lived in two kinds of houses, one being igloos and the other being a stone or sod house with a frame comprised of whale bones or wood. Both these designs served to keep the Inuit warm in the winter. In the summer, Inuit people often lived in tents made of animal skins. The Inuit used blubber-burning lamps for light, warmth, and cooking.

The main social unit within Inuit communities was the nuclear family. There was no explicit leadership within Inuit communities, so the families acted cooperatively but more independently in Inuit communities as compared to other indigenous people groups. Children were typically named after someone who had recently passed so that the deceased could live on and be remembered through the child. As children grew older, they were celebrated for their achievements. For example, a child that killed his first seal gave the meat to those living within the community.

Inuit Tribe Beliefs and Religion

Inuit people were animists, meaning they believed all of nature had a soul called an inua. The inua of the air, sea, and moon alongside the inua of animals were most important to the belief system of the Inuit. The Inuit were respectful to the animals they hunted because they believed in the power of their inua. For instance, the Inuit gave sea mammals a drink of water after pulling them from the sea. Inuit believed that the inua of the animals returned to where they were caught, telling other animals not to be afraid of the hunters.

Many Inuit religious practices related to hunting and fishing, as they hoped for success in providing for their families and communities. Inuit tribes also placed a large emphasis on the importance of the whale-hunting season. They believed that all weapons needed to be cleaned and that they should wear new clothing. Hunters engaged in rituals before they set out to hunt the whale. At the end of the season, Inuit people aimed to please the whales by throwing a large feast in their honor. Another feast called the Bladder Feast entailed the return of all seal bladders acquired in the previous year back to the ocean. In this way, the souls of caught seals were reincarnated to be caught again in the next season.

Many taboos existed within Inuit culture, which resulted in fear in the Inuit people. Breaking a taboo could lead to social and personal consequences. To reduce the effects of an infraction of a taboo, the transgressor could make a public confession alongside a shaman. Inuit tribes also believed in the power of amulets, that they would make them successful hunters and keep them in good health. It was traditional that grandparents would purchase amulets and give them as gifts to children. These amulets were usually made from animal parts and other natural objects. They could be worn or placed in houses or boats.

Inuit people believed in two distinct afterlives. One afterlife existed in the sea, the other in the sky. Different Inuit tribes describe aspects of these afterlives in their own unique ways. In Greenland, Inuit tribes found the sea a more prosperous afterlife than the sky because those in the sea could hunt whales, while those in the sky led a lazy existence. However, Canadian and Alaskan Inuit found the sky afterlife to be a better existence, and even some Inuit believed in no afterlife at all. Rituals for mourning and celebrating death usually only consisted of close family and a few neighbors for an individual. However, some Inuit celebrated the Great Feast of the Dead, which involved many Inuit in attendance. Hosts provided food, clothing, and gifts to those attending.

Shamans were also a large part of Inuit religion. Shamans were either called to or taught the ways of a shaman, including how to garner spirits and create ecstatic trances. They used drums and masks in trances and religious rituals. Shamans often traveled spiritually to various locations such as the sea or moon to acquire animals for an Inuit community. Shamans could also be doctors, healing people by sucking out their disease from a wound.

Finally, the Inuit people also believed in deities that controlled the natural world around them. Sedna was an Inuit deity known as the Sea Woman, who controlled animals of the sea and punishment for taboos. While Sedna was the main female deity, Aningaaq was the main male deity, who represented the inua of the moon. Aningaaq was an experienced and successful hunter, as many Inuit believed that the inua of the moon controlled the animals that they were to hunt. Sila represented the inua of the air, who brought snowstorms and harsh weather conditions to the Inuit when taboos were infringed upon.

Inuit in Modern Times

1977 saw the founding of the pan-Arctic Inuit Circumpolar Council (ICC). This organization aims to unify different Inuit tribes and protect their culture and communities. The ICC also aims to make known various Inuit rights issues and Inuit interests throughout the globe. The Inuit have fought to rule themselves as their own tribe through several forms of Inuit government. They have taken many steps and made many arrangements to achieve self-determination. Along with their triumphs have come plenty of struggles such as climate change and social and economic inequalities.

In 1999, Canada allowed for a new, Inuit-dominated territory called Nunavut. This agreement between Canada and the Tunngavik Federation of Nunavut allowed the Inuit to receive portions of their land back for personal and residential use. As a result of the creation of Nunavut, land agreements protect the remainder of traditional Inuit lands in Canada.

Over time, the Inuit began to embrace many aspects of modernity such as purchasing clothing and using money for trade. Today, many Inuit use snowmobiles for transportation rather than dog sleds, and they use modern rifles for hunting over traditional harpoons. Inuit do not practice their traditional religion in modern times. In fact, most Inuit have converted to Christianity. Urbanization has threatened Inuit communities because many Inuit have traded their traditional lifestyle to live in cities. Several Inuit people work in oil fields and mines, while others have become artisans, merchants, and work in tourism.

Up Next…

The photo featured at the top of this post is © iStock.com/Vadim_Nefedov


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About the Author

Eliana Riley is a writer at A-Z Animals where her primary focus is on geography, travel, and landmarks. Eliana is a second-year student at Miami University majoring in English Education and Spanish. A resident of Tennessee and Ohio, Eliana enjoys traveling to national and state parks, hiking, kayaking, and camping.

FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions) 

Are Inuit and Eskimos the same?

The Inuit tribe and the Eskimo people are the same indigenous people group. However, the term Inuit is preferred over the term Eskimo.

Is an Inuit a Native American?

Inuit differ from Native Americans both culturally and biologically. Inuit are their own people group, even though they are native to areas in North America.

 

Does the Inuit tribe still exist?

Inuit tribes exist today in many regions of Canada. Although, many Inuit traditions, languages, and rituals have been forgotten as the Inuit people have moved toward modernity.

 

Thank you for reading! Have some feedback for us? Contact the AZ Animals editorial team.

Sources
  1. Britannica, Available here: https://www.britannica.com/topic/Inuit-people
  2. Encyclopedia.com, Available here: https://www.encyclopedia.com/environment/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/inuit-religious-traditions
  3. New World Encyclopedia, Available here: https://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/inuit
  4. Alaskan Nature, Available here: http://www.alaskannature.com/inuit.htm