I have always admired people who are able to live and thrive in areas and under conditions that most of us would find intolerable. One of the Peoples I most admire are the Inuit, the indigenous people of Canada's far north, of Alaska, and of Greenland.
The Inuit, lived and thrived in the north centuries before explorers ever set foot in America. Their lives were hard, but they thrived, finding food, protecting themselves, travelling across their vast homeland, and finding ways to clothe themselves, keep warm, and amuse themselves and their children through the long winter days - some of which consisted of twenty-four hours of darkness.
Food, Dogs, And Clothing
Throughout the spring, summer, and fall, the Inuit travelled and hunted. Their survival depended on their ability to find food, any food. In order to survive the bitter winters to come, a great deal of meat was needed for the family, and for their dogs.
The Inuit's dogs could easily pull twice their weight. With a light load, they could travel up to one hundred miles in twenty-four hours. During summer travels, they were expected to carry individual loads of fifty pounds. To work and survive winter's cold, the dogs needed at least a pound of meat per day, plus fat. Like the wolf, these dogs could consume vast quantities of meat. They seldom got the opportunity. Some days they got nothing. During hard times, they were the food that kept the Inuit alive.
Labor was divided, the men hunted, made the weapons and some utensils. The women cared for the children, and made the clothing.
When winter came, the Inuit set up camp, and for the most part, stayed close to home, except to hunt for seal, arctic fox, wolverine (wolverine fur was prized to trim their parkas), and, with the help of their dogs, the mighty polar bear, for its flesh, and fur. Seal skin was used for clothing and the sinew for thread. Needles were made from bone. In the spring, the Inuit hunted for caribou, as a meat source, but also for the bones, from which they made weapons, utensils, and the hides, from which they made most of their winter clothing. The Inuit winter clothing was in two layers, the under layer being worn fur side in, and the outer layer fur side out. The Inuit also hunted ground squirrel, and ptarmigan. At every opportunity, they fished for char and whitefish, picked berries and searched for bird's eggs.
The Inuit seldom ate vegetables, and seemed to get all the nutrition they needed by eating some meat, fish, and fat raw. The word 'Eskimo' taken literally means 'eater of raw meat'.
THEN AND NOW
Today, the Inuit live much as we do, considering the winter climate of the north and the long distances between them and the good and services, they need or want. Now the Inuit live in larger settlements, which enable them to have more employment opportunities as well as access to medical facilities and schools. They now use ATVs, motor boats, planes, snowmobiles, and rifles, where in the past, they used kayaks, dog sleds, lances, bows and arrows, and spears. In the past if they wanted to travel, they often walked over great distances, carrying all they needed on their backs, and on the backs of their dogs.
Even in their stark landscape, the Inuit never became lost. They have an uncanny memory for slight variations in the landscape, a strange rock, a distant hill, or an unusual patch of lichen. If they travelled a route even once, they will still remember it many years later. Inuit were not disoriented by a winter white-out, as they understood the prevailing winds and the effect they had on drifting snow.
The Inuit were, and still are, a kind, generous, hospitable, cheerful, and gentle people, who shared what they had, including food, supplies, and skills. They respected, not those who possessed great wealth or came from powerful families, but those who possessed great skill. Although today the Inuit have computers and television for amusement, they still speak their own languages, and pass on to their children the oral histories, and songs and dances of old. They also try to pass on to the next generation, the skills that kept them alive, when they lived alone and unconnected, in the harsh climate of the northern arctic. One of the skills that kept them alive, was the ability to build an igloo.
THE PURPOSE OF THE IGLOO
Eskimos did not live in igloos. They lived in lean-tos or tents, consisting of a shell, made of any available driftwood or bones. These they insulated with moss and covered with animal hides for warmth.
Small igloos were built by hunters and travellers, who were caught far from home in a winter blizzard. Because the Inuit lived in small single family dwellings, they would occasionally build a larger igloo, when getting together with friends.
A single skilled male could build a travel igloo within an hour.
THE BUILDING OF THE IGLOO
To build an igloo, takes a great deal of skill, and strength. Individual blocks of snow can weight up to fifty pounds. The builder also needed a long-bladed snow knife. These knives were originally made of animal bone or ivory.
Igloos can only be built of snow that has been packed by strong winds and is capable of holding its shape and supporting weight. The igloo is built on an area of hard-packed snow.
The blocks for the igloo are placed in a continuous spiral. This takes a great deal of skill, considering that each block must lean slightly inward and slightly to the side.
The igloo had a short tunnel-like entrance, and a hole is left at the top to act as a chimney. The chinks in the structure would be packed with loose snow, and drifting snow would build up on the outside, adding further insulation.
The igloo would be lit with a small soapstone lantern.
Within the igloo, the hunter, alone or which his family, could rest, safe and warm until the blizzard blew itself out.
IGLOOS COULD ONLY BE LIVED IN FOR A DAY OR SO
Arctic snow can be hygroscopic, which means that it is capable of absorbing considerable moisture at least for a short time. Eventually the breathing of the inhabitants, as well as the moisture lanterns put out, produces more moisture than the snow is capable of absorbing. The walls of the igloo would eventually glaze over, and begin to drip.
In the event that the traveller had no ice knife, he would simply hunch down, back to the wind, allow the snow to bury him, and simply wait out the storm, knowing that the garments he wore would keep him safe.
*Today, large groups gather with modern tools and equipment to build massive igloos. These are not true igloos. They are merely evidence of what modern man can do with all his various gadgets. True igloos were built out of necessity, using the most basic of tools and the skill passed down from father to son. The is the kind of achievement I most admire.
Some of the world's most beautiful art, comes from the Inuit. Their art depicts their way of life, and the creatures that were a part of it. Their carvings, made from bone, ivory, and especially soapstone, are sought after by collectors around the world. As are their drawings. Both are a testament to the fact that beauty lies in simplicity.
Today, much of the Inuit art is produced for commercial purposes. In the past, the Inuit carved tiny perfect sculptures from soapstone, bone, horn, and ivory. These sculptures, depicted their lives, and the animals of the north. These may have been carried as talismans, to bring luck to the hunt.
HOW DID THEY SURVIVE
The Inuit were able to survive, and thrive, in one of the world's most inhospitable environments. They were able to do so because they possessed courage, confidence, determination, and skill, and because they, uncomplainingly, and with good humor and optimism, accepted the hand that they were dealt.
There is so much more to know about the Inuit way of life, their music, their languages, their oral history, their social organization, the materials they made use of, and their religion, among other things. For example, the Inuit could not understand how those who committed heinous crimes in life, would pass on to a place where they never again had to contend with the bitter cold.
What I have written is just the proverbial grain of sand, but I hope it is enough to peak your interest and make you search for more.