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Inuit Figures


Beast of the sea!
Come and place yourself before me
In the dear early morning!
Beast of the plain!
Come and place yourself before me
In the dear early morning!

Igloolik Hunting Song, from The Arctic Imagination: Arctic Myth and Sculpture, by Seidelman and Turner (New York: Thames and Hudson, 1998)

This hunting song and the animal carvings you see here were created by the Inuit (IN-oo-it), Native Americans who live within and just below the Arctic Circle. In the past, the Inuit were called “Eskimos” by people outside their own culture. Roughly translated, Eskimo means “eaters of raw meat,” and the Inuit themselves generally consider it an insult. Today, many prefer being known by the name of their own band (such as Igloolik), the region where they live (the North Alaska Inuit), or the more general term Inuit, which means “the people.”

The ivory animals and the hunting song provide clues to the Inuit view of nature. The Inuit do not think of their carvings as art; in fact, there is no word for art in the Inuit language. They call such sculptures sananguagait, meaning “objects that are made” or “small replicas of real articles.”

Arctic region, Inuit, Figures, late 19th century, walrus ivory, pigment

These carvings reveal a great deal about the Inuit’s relationship with nature.
Ivory carving has been practiced by the Inuit for over 2,000 years.
Though among the world’s harshest environments, the Arctic is full of life.
Today, the Arctic and its wildlife are threatened by climate change.

Animal Associations: The Inuit believe that each person has a particular animal as a guardian spirit and protector. And they often associate certain animals with specific personal qualities. For example, because caribou live in large herds, a caribou represents a friendly and sociable person. What animal seems most like you? Make your animal out of clay. Show its main features in an abstract way by using shapes and the fewest lines possible. Finally, write a short poem about why you chose your animal.  

S.O.S.: Using the Inuit sculptures as a starting point, find out more about Arctic animals. Which Arctic animals are on the endangered list today? Why? What are people doing to help them? What can you do? Begin your research at the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) Web site.  

Exploring the Arctic: The Arctic is a huge place. Draw a map and label the countries that overlap the Arctic Circle. What is the latitude of the Arctic Circle? What type of climate does the Artic have? What does that tell you about how the Inuit adapted to their environment in order to survive?  

It's Getting Hot Up Here: Global climate change is an important subject in the world today. Using the NOAA Web site, find out how scientists are measuring changes in the Arctic. Then, look at an Inuit Web site. How do the Inuit view climate change? Write an essay comparing their views with those of the scientists, and explain what you think should be done about climate change.  

See It for Yourself: The Inuit carvings are currently on display at the museum in Gallery 259.  

April 2007