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Inukshuk Sculpture

Inukshuk Sculpture

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What is an inukshuk?

An inukshuk (inuksuit plural) is a stone formation traditionally built by the Inuit. Originally spelled inuksuk, the word inukshuk means “to act in the capacity of a human.”

Historians once thought inuksuit were a relatively modern phenomenon, but evidence suggests otherwise. Formations dating as far back as 2400-1800 BCE can be found on Canada’s Baffin Island.


What purpose did they serve?

In a vast, barren region where much of the landscape looks the same, inuksuit were vital for navigating the area. The presence of an inukshuk might indicate a food source (like a food cache or a good fishing spot), serve as a warning marker (if an area was icy or unsafe), or act as a coordinate for travelers. Inuksuit were also used to herd and hunt caribou: women and children would chase caribou towards the rock piles while male hunters waited behind them with bows and arrows.

Inuksuit also served more symbolic purposes. Someone might construct an inukshuk to mark a sacred area or commemorate the loss of a loved one.

Inuksuit not only had various meanings, they were also built with various shapes and sizes. Formations known as inuksummarik, for example, tended to be much bigger than most inuksuit and thus were used as navigational points. In contrast, a style called tikkuuti was built as a directional marker and often consisted of triangular-shaped rocks lined all along the ground (this represented the direction one should travel). The most well-known inukshuk formations, which resemble large humans, are referred to as inunnguaq, and have tended to be more symbolic.


Why are they important?

While the Inuit embrace modern lifestyles today, the inukshuk remains a prominent icon of Inuit heritage and Canadian pride. The Canadian territory of Nunavut has one emblazoned on its flag. The Canadian embassy in Washington, DC boasts a large inukshuk statue, as does Pearson International Airport in Toronto.  In 2010, an inunnguaq was used as inspiration for the official logo of the Vancouver Winter Olympics.

Inuksuit served many purposes. But perhaps more than anything, they once indicated to travelers that they weren’t alone, that someone had previously stood where they stood. With their powerful impact, it is no wonder that people are still so awed by these ancient creations.


Who are the Inuit people?

The Inuit are a distinct Indigenous people who primarily inhabit the Arctic regions of North America, specifically in Canada, Greenland, Alaska (United States), and parts of Russia. They are traditionally known as skilled hunters and gatherers who have adapted to the harsh environmental conditions of the Arctic over thousands of years. They were previously referred to as "Eskimo," a term now considered derogatory when describing the Inuit people.

Here are some key aspects of Inuit culture and lifestyle:

  1. Language: The Inuit speak Inuktitut, which is a language with several dialects. Inuktitut is part of the Inuit-Yupik-Unangan language family and is written using a syllabic script.
  1. Subsistence Lifestyle: Traditionally, the Inuit relied on subsistence hunting, fishing, and gathering for their survival. They hunted marine mammals such as seals, whales, and walruses, as well as land animals like caribou and polar bears. Fishing, particularly for Arctic char and other cold-water fish, also played a significant role in their diet.
  1. Culture and Traditions: Inuit culture is rich and diverse, encompassing art, music, storytelling, and spirituality. Inuit art includes sculpture, carving, printmaking, and textiles, often depicting animals and scenes from daily life. Traditional storytelling, drum dancing, and throat singing are important cultural practices that have been passed down through generations.
  1. Adaptations to the Environment: Living in one of the harshest environments on Earth, the Inuit developed specialized tools, clothing, and shelters to survive in the Arctic. For example, they crafted kayaks and umiaks (large skin boats) for hunting on the sea, as well as snow houses (igloos) and sod houses for shelter on land.
  1. Community and Social Structure: Inuit societies traditionally lived in small, nomadic bands or extended family groups. Cooperation and sharing were essential values, as resources in the Arctic were often scarce and unpredictable. Elders played a central role in Inuit communities, passing down knowledge, traditions, and oral history to younger generations.
  1. Colonial History and Contemporary Issues: Like many Indigenous peoples around the world, the Inuit have faced challenges due to colonization, including forced assimilation policies, loss of land and resources, and social and economic disparities. However, they have also been actively involved in advocating for their rights, preserving their culture, and promoting self-determination.

Overall, the Inuit have a resilient culture that continues to thrive in the modern world, while maintaining strong connections to their traditional way of life and the land of the Arctic.



Handmade by Canadian Inuk Artist.

Gii Etungat

Kinngait - Cape Dorset

Inukshuk 242-1270605



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