Traditional Way of Life
For those Eskimos far removed from population centers, life in the harsh Arctic remains little changed from that lived by their ancestors hundreds of years ago. Traditionally Eskimos were hunters and gatherers. They lived in groups that moved from one area to another, according to the season. They depended largely on products obtained from the seal and caribou for food, clothing, heat, and light. There were no chiefs. Leadership was mainly advisorythat is, the person most skilled in a particular activity, such as hunting or fishing, was consulted when advice on that activity was needed.
In some parts of Greenland and in treeless regions of arctic Canada, such as Baffin Island, the Eskimos built snow houses for winter homes. These domed houses, built of blocks of fresh-cut snow, are commonly known as igloos. (The Eskimos themselves call any kind of shelter an igloo, not just snow houses.)
In other parts of Canada and Greenland, and in Alaska, some Eskimos built winter homes of turf and stone. Others packed thick layers of earth over frames of driftwood or whalebone. The homes usually had one room, with sleeping benches covered with caribou hides. In summer, almost all Eskimos lived in tents made of seal or caribou skins sewn together with sinews.
The traditional Eskimo diet varied with the seasons. Seals, whales, and other sea mammals were hunted in the winter months. The meat was eaten cooked, raw, or dried. In summer and fall the major food sources were caribou, small game, fish, and berries.
A traditional Eskimo delicacy was akutok (often called Eskimo ice cream), made from arctic berries, seal oil, and caribou meat. Strong hot tea and hard biscuits, made with flour bought from a trading post, were served in nearly every home.
Eskimo clothing was made from animal skins. Traditionally, men, women, and children dressed much alike. They wore waterproof sealskin boots, hooded fur jackets called parkas, and fur trousers made of pelts from seal, caribou, fox, or polar bear. Waterproof jackets were made from seal gut. An Eskimo mother carried her baby in a pouch on her back under her parka.
Married couples were the nucleus of an extended family. Parents, brothers, unmarried sisters, or other relatives often shared the same household. All members worked together to survive the Arctic winters. Men were responsible for providing food. Women made clothes and prepared food. During the winter months families entertained themselves by telling and acting out stories handed down from generation to generation. Often they danced to drum music.
During the 20th century most Eskimos converted to Christianity. In remote regions, some families retained the ancient Eskimo belief that certain men and women, called shamans, have the ability to call upon supernatural spirits for aid in curing illness, ensuring good hunting, and controlling the weather.
For land travel many Eskimos used showshoes and dogsleds. The teams of roughcoated dogs, known as Huskies, pulled loads of 500 to 1,000 pounds (225 to 450 kg). The driver trotted alongside or sometimes briefly rode the runners.
Two kinds of boats were used. At sea among the ice floes, the hunter paddled a kayak, a decked-over small boat with a driftwood frame lashed together by rawhide and covered with sealskin. Larger skin boats, called umiaks, carried several people. They were used for whale hunts and for moving entire families from place to place.
Bows and arrows were used for hunting caribou and polar bears until the 19th century, when rifles and bullets became available in trading posts. Seal was hunted with a harpoon flung from a kayak or thrust into a seal's breathing hole in the ice. During the long winter, fox and other fur-bearing animals were hunted for food and clothing, and for sale at trading posts. Fish were caught through holes in the ice in winter and in rivers and streams in summer.
The most widespread Eskimo art form was miniature sculpture of objects in daily life, such as animals, boats, and dogsleds. The material commonly used was whalebone and walrus tusk ivory. In some areas highly imaginative masks of skins were made, largely for religious or magic purposes such as pacifying evil spirits. Women decorated clothing with animal fur, appliques of seal skin, and carved ivory pins.