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Inuit Figures

Map of the Arctic Circle.

Caribou were an important source of food and other materials for the Inuit.

These figures depict a seal-hunting party.

key idea
Though among the world’s harshest environments, the Arctic is full of life.

When most people think of the Arctic or the North Pole, they imagine a flat, treeless, ice- and snow-covered landscape where few things can live. While it is true that much of the region is made up of ice floating on the ocean and land that is permanently frozen (permafrost), the Arctic is in fact home to diverse plants, animals, and microorganisms. In order to survive, the Inuit had to adapt to their cold, harsh surroundings. They learned which mammals, birds, and fish to hunt for food and other uses.

A close look at the two sets of ivory carvings reveals some of the Arctic creatures central to Inuit culture and hunting. The caribou was one of the most important land animals. It provided meat, skins for clothing and shelter, and bones and other materials useful for making tools, weapons, and boats. Other animals represented by these carvings include the arctic fox, arctic hare, weasel, vole, and ptarmigan (a type of bird). Many were especially prized for their fur.

Sea mammals, too, contributed to the Inuit way of life. The 19th-century figurine set includes some Inuit men engaged in a seal hunt. Walruses and certain types of whales provided ivory for making sculptures and tools, and the filterlike “teeth” of bowhead whales supplied a horny substance called baleen, which the Inuit fashioned into boxes and other items. Today, trade in ivory is illegal because most ivory comes from endangered animals. As a result, many Inuit artists use bone and stone for their carvings.

April 2007