Eskimos--The People of the Arctic
by Stan Griffin


"Eskimo" is an American Indian word which translates to "eaters of raw meat." Ironically, scientists put the Indians in a separate anthropological category while the Eskimos are considered more closely related to the natives of northern Asia.

People we call Eskimos originally came from Asia across a land bridge (which no longer exists) into northern North America (now called Alaska). They gradually spread across the Arctic regions of the continent. Eventually they came to live in four countries:

(1) the Soviet Union;
(2) the United States (Alaska);
(3) Canada; and
(4) Greenland.

They do not use the word "Eskimo" when speaking of themselves. Instead they use a term that means (to them) simply "people." In Canada that word is "Inuit," while in Alaska Eskimos refer to themselves as "Inupiat" and "Yupik." The word "Yuit" is used in Siberia.

Eskimo people share similar physical characteristics: light brown skin, straight black hair, dark eyes, and wide faces with high cheekbones. Languages spoken are basically the same throughout the region.

Eskimos lived in some of the world's coldest areas near the Arctic Circle. Surviving was a struggle, a constant battle with the elements.

FOOD: The cold waters of the Arctic provided the Eskimos with a great deal of their food. They lived on seals (the single most important part of their diet), salmon, cod, whales, and other sea life. On land were caribou and geese in the summer. (You had to go inland to find caribou.) During the winter they hunted polar bears, foxes, and hares. Their favorite foods were seal and caribou meat, walrus liver, and the skin of whales.

SHELTER: In order to find those animals, it was necessary for the Eskimos to live a wandering life, following their migrations. Generally, they would have a summer home and a winter home. Tents made of skin (seal or caribou) provided shelter during the summer months. In winter, most of them built
sod houses. A dome-shaped snow house was built by some groups as temporary shelter when traveling or hunting. This would consist of blocks cut from the snow and built upward in a spiral shape. Outsiders would call this an "igloo," although to the Eskimo any place for living can be called by that name.

CLOTHING: Animal skins provided clothing for the Eskimos; their favorite was caribou because it was warm and lightweight. Lacking caribou they would settle for seal, polar bear, or even Arctic fox. Styles varied from area to area, but in all regions everyone wore the same combination: a hooded
jacket, trousers or leggings, socks, boots, and mittens. Sometimes goggles made from wood or bone were worn. In winter two sets of clothes were used. The inner layer would have fur next to the skin. The second layer would have fur on the outside. Air between the two layers helped keep body heat in
and allowed perspiration to evaporate. A single layer was enough during summers.

Eskimos lived in groups of several families; they might contain as many as several hundred people. Generally, a family would consist of a husband and wife, unmarried children, and married sons with their wives and children. Eskimo children were considered "treasures" and rarely punished. There was never any scolding or slapping. That doesn't mean that they were spoiled.

The man's role was to hunt food, drive the dog sled, row the boat, and build shelters. A wife's most important duty was to make the family's clothing, being sure it was warm and windproof. She also looked after the children, cooked for her family, and sometimes even helped her husband with his duties. Eskimo men and women treated each other as equals; women were not "second-class citizens."

Eskimos had no laws as such, simply rules of conduct. The most important of those rules were:
(1) All members should help each other in the struggle for life; and
(2) Each person should live peacefully with the others.

Anyone who refused to hunt or do their share of the work were despised; but in spite of such feelings, they would be provided with the necessities of life by the others.

A disagreement might be settled by a fight. A more peaceful solution would be a contest in which the opposing parties would throw insults at each other. The first one to get upset would have lost both the contest and the dispute.

A person who committed murder or another serious crime could be executed, but that order had to come from the older men of the group.

Eskimos believed that spirits controlled the wind, weather, sun, waters, and the moon. Probably the most important of these spirits was the sea goddess Sedna. The Eskimos thought that Sedna ruled over the seals, whales, and other sea animals. She lived at the bottom of the ocean. If they did not please Sedna by following certain rules, she might drive away these very important animals.

Each community usually included a man or woman believed to have the power to communicate with those spirits. He or she was called an "angatkuq" by the Eskimos and a "shaman" by white people. They tried to bring good weather, heal the sick, increase the supply of game, and generally improve community conditions.

Eskimos also believed that both people and animals had souls that lived in another world after death. Special rules were followed to keep the spirits and souls from inflicting punishments (such as sickness) on the living. An Eskimo's death required that the body be wrapped in animal skins and laid on the tundra (land frozen most of the year but which thaws partially during the summer). It was surrounded by a circle of stones. Tools and other items would be placed next to the body for its soul to use in the next world.     To Part 2


More stories by Stan Griffin:

The Navajos

The Hawaiians

Human Rights: Then and Now


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