Arctic Peoples

Three ulusThe shores of the North American continent around and to the north of the Arctic circle are inhabited by people speaking related, though distinct, Eskimo-Aleut languages: these are Aleut, Alutiiq, Yup'ik and Inupiaq in Alaska; Siberian Yup’ik, spoken by the Yuit in Alaska and Siberia; Inuktitut spoken by the Canadian Inuit; and Greenlandic spoken by the Greenland Inuit.

In the past these peoples have been collectively known as Eskimos. This word, meaning 'snowshoe netters', is often mistakenly translated as 'raw meat eaters'. It is today largely rejected, especially by Canadian groups, who prefer using the term 'Inuit', which means 'people' in their language.

Traditionally, all these people were dependent on the hunting of whales, walrus, seals and caribou, as well as fishing. They shared certain cultural elements, such as the kayak and umiaq (both types of boat), dog sleds, toggling harpoon heads, the ulu (woman's knife), seal oil lamps, and double-layer skin clothing, as well as certain hunting and fishing techniques, and some religious beliefs and practices.

However, there were considerable differences as well. Not all of them lived in snow houses, even seasonally,  for example. This common stereotype was mainly informed by the accounts of explorers, who, in their search for a Northwest Passage, came into contact with Canadian Inuit.

Today, there are about 130,000 Native people living in the North American Arctic. In Canada (Nunavut) and Greenland, they have attained some degree of self-government. In Alaska, much economic and political power is held by Native corporations.

The British Museum collection includes objects from across the region, many of which were collected by explorers looking for the Northwest passage in the nineteenth century. Artefacts include clothing, snow goggles made from caribou antler and tools used to make clothing.

Image caption: Three ulus
Iglulingmiut, AD 1980s. From Igloolik, Nunavut, eastern Canadian Arctic

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