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Inuit Figures

An Inuit hunting party complete with sled, dogs, and kayak. Note the captured seals and what looks like an arctic fox on the sleigh. Traditionally, only the men hunted, so the female figure is out of place in this scene.
Artic region, Inuit, Figures, late 19th century, ivory, pigment, string



key idea
These carvings reveal a great deal about the Inuit’s relationship with nature.

To survive in the harsh, ice-covered landscape of the Arctic, the Inuit hunt land and sea animals for food and once used the skins for clothing and shelter. As a result, the Inuit developed great respect for nature and believe that every living and nonliving thing has its own spirit, or inua (IN-oo-ah). To ask the spirits for assistance, the Inuit made rules, rituals, and amulets (charms) for hunting. Traditionally, they used carvings and sang hunting songs to lead a hunter to a specific animal, like a caribou, or to call a herd of animals to the hunter.

Carved figures attached to weapons like harpoons and spears, or to small canoes called kayaks, could guide hunters toward their prey. Images of guardian animal spirits worn on clothing could protect an Inuit man or woman from dangerous animals like walruses and polar bears.

The Inuit believed that cruelty to an animal killed in the hunt would cause its spirit to warn other animals away from hunters in the future. Therefore, they made offerings, or presents, to recently caught or killed animals. When a seal was captured, Inuit hunters gave it a drink of fresh water as thanks for letting itself be caught. Every part of an animal that could be used, such as the meat, skin, and bones, was kept; anything not usable was given back to nature.

April 2007