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Eskimos: the Ice People

By Edited Oct 4, 2015 1 2
Eskimos: the Ice People
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Eskimos (or Inuits) are indigenous tribes that have lived over the centuries in the ice-covered areas of Canada, Alaska, Siberia and Greenland. They are the perfect example of adaptation to the environment. Specifically, due to the harsh weather conditions in the North Pole, plants cannot survive, so much that their activity has always been only hunting and fishing. The most widespread theories claim that their settlement in the colder regions of the planet is due to rejection they suffered by American Indians 12,000 years ago when they came to Alaska from Northeast Asia and across Bering Strait. Despite inhabiting a very large area and having little chance of meeting other tribes, they have retained their habits and culture with impressive uniformity. After such an extreme isolation, the contact with western civilization has altered their lifestyles. Despite this, and although they don’t belong to any nation, they are a united community, peaceful and hospitable.
They are short in stature, men are 1.60 m tall and women are 1.50 m. tall, they have a solid and strong body, with relatively short arms and legs. They live by hunting and fishing, now with firearms, but traditionally with bows, arrows and spears with bone points. They use dogs both to harass their preys and drag their sleds, which were their main means of transport and were initially invented to be pulled by men. During the winter they travel to the coast and hunt seals, bears and walruses on the ice. In spring, they do it at the sea, from their kayak made of skin on a frame of whale bone and wood. This big boat, which is called umiak, has enough space for half a dozen hunters (they currently fish with motor boats). This nomadism is more marked in the Eskimos who live further north. They don’t have a sense of ownership due to their nomadic nature, nor recognize borders or inheritances. Their civilization is based on the family, patriarchal and polygamous, in which every man has more women according to his wealth. All of them, but especially the mothers, worship the children as they are considered reincarnations of ancestors, and very rarely reprehend them.
They use all the parts of the animals they hunt: meat, fat, skin, bones and intestines. Their usual diet was boiled meat, but the slowness of this process and animal fuel shortages often forced them to eat raw meat. This fact derived the term Eskimo, provided by the Algonquins (inhabiting northern Alaska) from its eskimau term "raw meat eater". In winter they live in wooden huts or if they do not find any wood, they use slate plates covered with peat or snow. In summer, during hunting expeditions, they live inside snow igloos, which are one of the most ingenious architectural solutions in the world. Within a few hours they can be built with ice only, and they can be transformed into a spacious and comfortable warm room. A fire is lit with fat or oil in the center, and the temperature is maintained thanks to the insulating capacity of ice, as the access tunnel is in its middle part lower than the inner floor. Sometimes they build a network of tunnels so that several families can live together.
Women’s dresses are based on skins with hair on and fur-lined bear or fox that women chew with their teeth and tan with urine. These clothes are sewn together with animal tendons. The anorak and parka, invented by them, have become popular worldwide due to their high efficiency. Their language is the Eskimo, with four dialects that very similar, with only nouns and verbs and is based on putting parts of a sentence together to form a word that has many syllables. They have an extensive oral literature, from epics and songs.
Their coexistence is based on the hospitality and camaraderie. Their disputes, if any, are resolved peacefully through a kind of poetic-musical ritual (tordlotut) where they try to ridicule each other before the tribal assembly. The head’s only responsibility is tolead  hunting expeditions, being always best hunter. Trade is present between the coastal Eskimos and inland Eskimos, using a type of commercial expeditions in which parsimony and haggling are badly considered.
Their religion believes in the existence of superior beings who do not need to be worshiped or prayed. Sedna is the goddess of the sea and Sila is the air spirit. The Moon, who lives in incest with her brother the Sun, is the goddess of reproduction. They believe in many spirits inhabiting all beings and objects of Nature and understand the disease as an evil that steals the soul. Their ritual magicians use language but are generally limited to conjure spells and prepare amulets to keep spitrits off. They also perform rituals to try to control the weather and establish a link with the spirits.
Since the eighteenth century, the Christian faith has spread among them as a result of the contact with missionaries, trappers and American traders, who also brought diseases that were unknown (tuberculosis, influenza, syphilis, alcoholism). Low fertility of women and high infant mortality imperilled their survival as a race but during this century their population has been recovering.
However, their greatest threat is the discovery that there’s plenty of oil and gas hiding under the ice where they live. The fact that they don’t have a national organization and their open and friendly approach place them in a disadvantageous position that endangers their way of life.

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May 20, 2013 11:57pm
Interesting article with a lot of information. I think that your last paragraph sums up pretty well the real danger that eskimo's culture faces.
May 21, 2013 12:05am
Yes, I think it's the same as with American Indians. If someone comes and shows you there's an easier/faster way of doing things, then wouldn't you change? But of course this is at the expense of the traditions. It's a pity all that is being lost.
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