Inuit Culture

Inuit Culture


“Welcome” in Inuktitut


Inuit culture is located in the Arctic region of the world. Most populations of Inuits live in Alaska, northern areas of Canada, Russia, and Greenland.

Inuk is the singular of Inuit

Only Alaskan Inuits can be referred to as Eskimos, to other Inuit cultures this term can be derogatory.

Inuit culture is being affected by climate change. According to Professor James Ford at McGill University “Compromised food security, increasing danger of engaging in traditional practices, and the inability to hunt at certain times of the year have been noted across northern Canada. Increasing sea levels, coastal erosion, and permafrost thaw are also threatening the viability of some Inuit settlements, damaging important heritage sites, and compromising municipal infrastructure and water supply” (2010)


Traditionally, children, especially sons, were valued because so many chores had to be done in order to survive.

The Inuit treat their children with great care. Historically, European visitors held the opinion that Inuit children were spoiled.

Inuit children are allowed to play freely wherever they want and are rarely scolded.

The Inuit feel that it is a joy to watch childrens careless play, since wisdom and good sense will come naturally with adulthood.

Baby boys were expected to grow up to be fine hunters.

When a boy was about eight, he would begin learning how to build snowhouses or to track game and make weapons.
A boy’s first caribou or seal kill was celebrated with a small feast.

Girls were taught how to set traps, how to trim the wick of the kudlik, or stone lamp, and how to make and mend clothes.

Mothers passed down knowledge to their daughters of patterns and stitches.

Both boys and girls learn how to handle dogs and drive a sled.


Most of their clothing is made from the skins of animals they hunt. Outfits generally consist of a large parka over pants with socks, mittens and warm boots.

Two layers are worn in the cold months for extra insulation. During warmer months only one layer is necessary.


There has been enormous change in the economy in the last 40 years, from a hunting and trapping base to diversification involving tourism, arts and crafts, and the development of both renewable and non-renewable resources.


Parents, children, aunts, uncles, and grandparents live in one shelter, or in several close by.

Traditionally, orphans or relatives who had no hunters to provide for them were also taken into the Inuit family.

Historically, an elderly person who believed himself to be a burden might voluntarily stay behind to die when the family moved on.


Inuits often hunt whales to provide food for their entire village.

Fish and other oceanic creatures are a very big part of their diet.

They eat a lot of meat that is specific to their area. Caribou, seals, walruses, whales, polar bears and other smaller animals are often their main sources of meat.

Traditionally it is taboo to eat animals of the land and sea together. Seal and caribou should never be mixed.

The raw skins of beluga whales and narwhals have as much vitamin C as oranges. And raw liver, another Inuit food, is rich in vitamins A and D.

Games and Recreation

Games included various activities like:
Inuit style Tug-of-War which involved two people tying one end of a rope to his or her head, and the other end to an opponents head, then lying on flat on the ground and pulling.

Iglagunerk: an Inuit laughing game. Each player faces a partner, generally holding hands. At an agreed-upon signal everyone begins to laugh. The partners who laugh the longest and hardest are declared the winners.

Blanket toss: traditionally, durable blankets were made by sewing together several walrus hides. These blankets were usually ten to twelve feet in diameter. A player would sit or stand in the middle of the blanket while 20-30 players would spread out around the blanket and move the blanket up and down, launching the player on the blanket into the air.

String games like cat’s cradle were played and gambling games were especially popular. Children often played with toy bows and arrows, leather balls, and dolls.

Storytelling was a large part of Inuit social life. Social life was centered in a kashim, or big snowhouse. The community would gather here to dance, sing, feast, tell stories, or hold religious ceremonies.
The Inuit have an oral culture, which means that they remember and preserve their past through stories, poems, and songs that they pass down through the spoken word from generation to generation.

They sang about nature and the spirit world that they believed lived in all nature.

Objects a part of daily life were mainly what the Inuit decorated. Often they would carve buttons and pins into the shapes of animals, and other items made of bone, antler, or ivory were carved with intricate designs. Clothing was decorated with these carvings, as well as dyed animal skins and furs.


The Inuit of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries had to be able to build houses out of the material at hand: snow, animal skins and bones, earth, stones, wood and driftwood.

Where there were forests, and in southern Alaska, the Inuit had above-ground wooden houses.
Others constructed wood-and-sod houses that were partially underground.
Greenland Inuit lived in houses made of stone and turf, with waterproof gut-skin windows.

The typical winter dwelling of the northernmost Inuit was the igluviak, which means “snowhouse”.

People from non-Inuit cultures refer to these as “igloos”, however Inuits use the term “igloo” to mean all houses.

The men traditionally cut the wedge shaped blocks and piled them up, the women and children would pack snow between the blocks and throw snow over the whole house.

Upon completion, the igluviaks were almost 9 feet from the floor to the center of the ceiling and 15 feet in diameter.

The dome shape prevented the structure from being blown over from the arctic wind. In fact, the wind would just pack the snow tighter making the igluviak more secure.

Since heat rises the warmest spot in the house was closest to the dome. Platforms were built off the ground for cooking, sleeping, working, and playing. The family slept together all in a row beneath blankets of fox, caribou, and duck skins.


Dialects of the Inuit-Inupiaq language were spoken by communities from northwest Alaska to Greenland, southward into Hudson Bay and the Labrador coast.

Yupik was spoken in eastern Siberia and along portions of the Alaskan coast.

Many Inuit words are formed by using a root word, and adding suffixes up to five syllables to expand the meaning -i.e. igdlo means “house”. Igdlorssualiorpoq means “he who builds a large house.”

They have many specific words for things important in their life, like many words to describe seals, snow, etc.


Marriages took place as soon as a man could provide enough food for a wife and after a woman had reached puberty.

Sometimes young people were promised each other from birth. Other times a man visited his chosen’s family to ask the approval of her father. In some cases, a hunter would simply decide to take a woman in her home and begin living with her. A successful hunter might have more than one wife to do all the work that had to be done.

Wife exchanges among hunters were also common. If a hunter was going on a long trip and for some reason his wife could not travel, he might ask to “borrow” a neighbor’s wife for the journey.

This was a form of partnership between hunters and it was considered rude for a man to refuse to “lend” his wife, and women had little or no say in these matters.

Spirit World and Religion

Certain Inuit men and women were considered to be shamans, or angokoks; people with supernatural powers who could cure and cause disease, control the weather, and find lost people.

Angakoks  usually acquired their power through long periods of fasting and isolation. During certain rituals, angakoks put themselves in touch with the spirit world.

Inuits viewed the soul as a miniature image of the person and it lived inside the body. The Inuit believed that when a person died, the soul was reborn in a newborn infant. So when a baby was born, he or she would be named after a relative who had recently died.

People with the same name were thought to share a soul relationship.

If the souls fell ill or died, the body would too. Loss of the soul was believed to cause illness, and angakoks cured the sick by restoring the soul to the body.

The Inuit also believed that the soul lived on after a person’s death, and angakoks would conduct ceremonies during which they would be taken over by the dead person’s soul.

Angakoks were also said to be able to leave their own bodies and take the shapes of different animals.

The Inuit word “ajurnamat” means “it cannot be helped.” This exemplifies the “calm and stoic approach toward life typical of the Inuit.”


Many taboos required the strict separation of anything having to do with land and sea animals.

Inuit women were not allowed to sew caribou skins in snowhouses that were built on the sea ice during the months of darkness or while the men were hunting walruses.

Angakoks, or shamans, would suggest way of soothing the offended spirits with special gifts. They also set punishments for whoever broke the taboo.


Bladder Dance- A festival to set the spirits free of all the animals they’d killed during the year. The Inuit believed that animal’s spirits resided in their bladders, and so the bladders were inflated with air and returned to the sea after several days of dancing and rituals.


Sleds are common means of transportation. They are usually made of wood, whalebones or frozen animal skins. Most sleds are pulled by dogs.

Kayaks and umiaks were also popular means of transportation. Kayaks generally carried only one passenger and were used more for hunting and umiaks carried larger groups of people.

Inuit poem from 1920’s translated by a famous Arctic traveler, Knud Rasmussen:
Glorious it is to see/The caribou flocking down from the forests/And beginning/Their wandering to the north/Timidly they watch/For the pitfalls of man/Glorious it is to see/The great herds from the forests/Spreading out over plains of white/Glorious to see


Geographic region: Northeast Siberia, western and northern Alaska, northern Canada, western and eastern coasts of Greenland, and northern Labrador (Aleut on Aleutian Islands off Alaska).

Current Inuit Health and Social Statistics:

According to the Aboriginal People Survey, 2006: Inuit Health and Social Conditions,

  • Half of Inuit adults aged 15 and over (50%) stated that their health was excellent or very good, down from 56% in 2001.
  • Inuit adults were less likely (56%) than those in the total Canadian population (79%) to have contact with a medical doctor like a family doctor or specialist.
  • The most commonly reported diagnosed chronic conditions among Inuit adults were arthritis / rheumatism (13%) and high blood pressure (12%). For Inuit children aged 6 to 14, they were ear infections (15%), allergies (10%) and asthma (7%).
  • In 2006, the percentage of Inuit smoking daily (58%) was over three times that of all adults in Canada (17%).
  • Just over 6 in 10 Inuit children aged 6 to 14 were reported to have received dental treatment in the previous year.
  • Growing numbers of Inuit are moving on to post-secondary studies but many do not finish elementary / high school. About one quarter of Inuit women said they did not finish because of pregnancy or looking after children. Main reasons given by Inuit men included wanting to work (18%), boredom (18%) and having to work (14%).
  • Over half of Inuit children (aged 6 to 14) had attended an early childhood development program. Of these, 59% attended a program designed specifically for Aboriginal children.
  • Three in 10 Inuit children aged 6 to 14 were reported by their parents to have experienced being hungry at some point in their lives because the family had run out of food or money to buy food.

The following statistics come from the 2008 Canadian Inuit Statistical Profile published by Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami.   For more information please visit the following URL:

    • Inuit in Canada = 50.480
    • Growth of the Canadian Inuit population from 1996-2001 = 26%
    • Growth of the total Canadian population from 1996-2001 = 8%
  • The Inuit population is young with 35% under the age of 15 compared to 18% of the total Canadian population.
  • While 69% of Inuit could have a conversation in the Inuit language, 50% used it as the language spoken most often at home.
  • Inuit in Inuit Nunaat are nearly 8 times more likely than Non-Aboriginal people to live in crowded homes.
  • The life expectancy gap between those in Inuit communities and all Canadians has grown. Inuit life expectancy has likely declined in recent years.
  • The TB rate for Inuit is almost 23 times higher than the rate for all Canadians.
  • The Inuit suicide rate is more than 11 times higher than the overall Canadian rate.
  • The infant mortality rate for Inuit communities has declined with time but is still about 4 times higher than that for Canada as a whole.
  • Inuit are much more likely than other Canadians to be daily smokers. For example, 18% of Canadian women aged 25-34 smoked daily compared to 72% of Inuit women.
  • The death rate from lung cancer for Inuit men is 2.3 times higher than for all men in Canada. For Inuit women, it is 3.7 higher than the rate for all Canadian women. Source: 13
  • Lung cancer death rates for Inuit in Canada are the highest in the world.
  • Main reasons for Inuit not finishing elementary or high school, 2001, (all Canadian Inuit)
  • Wanted to work – 11%
  • Had to work – 9%
  • Bored with school – 13%
  • Pregnancy or taking care of children – 13%
  • To help at home – 8%
  • No school available – 7%
  • The median income for Inuit adults was much lower than that for all Canadians: $13,699 compared to $22,120.  Considering the much higher cost of living in the north, these lower incomes have to go a long way.



According to Jamieson and Kuhnlein (2008), anemia is prevalent in Inuit culture despite high meat intake. Many doctors and researchers are baffled by these pieces of contradicting evidence. Upon further investigation, anemia was found to be more common in women and children of Inuit background. Researchers also noticed that many Inuit had vitamin deficiencies as well. The most common deficiencies were found with vitamin A, C, E and folate. The authors noted, “Nutritional health for Inuit is clearly compromised by the currently occurring nutritional transition away from traditional, country foods with the quality of these foods not being maintained in foods purchased” (268). However, research found that iron deficient anemia could not be defined as the main cause of anemia in Inuit culture.

Blood Pressure

Overall, blood pressure within the Inuit populations tends to be lower than that of the corresponding white population living in the same country. It was, however, higher than that of Asian populations. This difference is attributed to the higher rate of rural and subsistence living, and lifestyle of the Inuit. Even within the Inuit population, those living in more rural areas show lower blood pressures than those in more urban ones- “it is probable that the rural life of the Inuit protects them from high blood pressures.” This could be contributed to also by the high incidence of smoking in the Inuit population, as several studies have shown that blood pressure tends to be lower in smokers than non-smokers. Interestingly, in several of the populations rate of hypertension did not increase with modernization and the consumption of more packaged foods. It did however increase with BMI, age, and glucose intolerance across all of the populations, making Inuit risk factors for hypertension much the same as other populations- obesity, older age, and male gender.


In many Inuit communities, poverty combined with a high cost living has a significant impact on health.  Families are not able to purchase fresh fruits and vegetables, and according to one Community Health Representative (CHR) “a healthy lifestyle…is really expensive, and a lot of our members don’t have that benefit so they can’t really do it” (p. 1428).  Even though individuals in an Inuit community may desire a healthier lifestyle, it is not always within their means.

As well as not having the resources to purchase healthy foods, families may not have the resources to purchase other material goods.  This can lead to emotional and mental stress which takes its toll in the form of an increase in alcohol and drug abuse, as well as domestic violence.  These behaviors are learned from one generation to the next and “overtime these behaviors can become normalized” (p. 1429).  It is important for health care professionals working in these communities to be aware of these issues, as they will significantly impact the lives of those they are caring for.

Family and community are both celebrated in the Inuit culture.  While these values provide support and a sense of comfort and unity, it can also mean that it is harder to break away from the group and establish different behaviors to improve one’s health.  According to Richmond and Ross (2008) when “individuals attempt to improve their health behaviors and life-styles, they often have no choice but to limit contact with members of their social context, which can include their friends and families” (p. 1430).  This makes the process of changing one’s health behaviors even more difficult, which may discourage some from even starting that process.

Traditionally, the Inuit have very strong ties to their physical environment.  However, according to Richmond and Ross (2008), as the traditional culture of the Inuit has mixed more and more with “western” culture, people within Inuit communities are experiencing “limited access to the physical environment and a decline in the skill needed to harvest and procure traditional foods” which has resulted in a “significant shift to store-bought foods” (p. 407).  This, along with a decrease in traditional physical activities such as gardening or cutting wood, has had a negative impact on the health of these Inuit communities.


Inuit suicide is the most significant mental health issue in the newly created Nunavut Territory of Canada’s eastern Arctic. Suicide rates in Nunavut are six times those of Canada’s southern provinces. Consistent with other Canadian populations, males aged 15–29 years of age are most at risk.

The rate in the area comprising the former Northwest Territories (N.W.T.) was six times greater than southern Canada. The Baffin Region of what is now Nunavut Territory (N.T.) had the highest male rate at 133.9/100,000, and the highest female suicide rate at 47.1/100,000. Inuit accounted for 87% of all suicides within the area.

Three models are used to describe the issue and make sense of why suicide rates are as outlandish as they are the organic/quasi-organic model which depicts the stress of adjustment of the Inuit to Western Culture, Social change-social disorganization which depicts the struggle of changing of male/female roles in the Inuit population, and the socio-psychological model focuses on the risks that Inuit youth undergo that put them at risk for suicide.

Nursing Considerations

-Knowing potential barriers to healthy lifestyle choices

-Integrating traditional practices or approaches to health care

-Being comfortable with silence

-Demonstrate an interest in the language and learning key words

-Humor, patience, persistence, and respecting personal choices

-Alcohol and drug addiction may be something you commonly come across, if you have difficultly providing equal, quality care to such patients, consider your involvement with their care.

-Domestic violence is also a problem among Inuit culture.

-Cultural differences between Inuit culture and culture in the United States are mostly based on family and community values. Inuit culture puts more of a central focus on family, whereas people in the United States value independence.

-Use of traditional medicines involve herbs, rituals, medicine men and midwives.


Ager, S. (2010). Omniglot: writing systems and languages of the world. Retrieved from

Bjerregaard, P., Dewailly, E., Young, T. K., Blanchet, C., Hegele, R. A., Ebbesson, S. E. Blood pressure among the Inuit  (Eskimo) populations in the artic. (2003). Scand J Public Health, 31, 92-99.

Champagne, D. (2001). The native North American almanac. New York: Gale Group.

Dobbelsteyn, J.L. (2006). Nursing in First Nations and Inuit communities in Atlantic Canada. Canadian Nurse, 102(4), 32-35.

Ford, J. (2010, January 21). Inuit can adapt to climate change with the right support mechanisms. Retrieved from       support-mechanisms/

Hirschfelder, A., Kreipe de Montano, M. (1993). The native American almanac. New York: Prentice Hall General              Reference.

Inuit. (2010). The World book encyclopedia. Willard, Ohio: RR Donnelley.

Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami. (2008). Inuit in Canada: a statistical profile. Retrieved from  /files/InuitStatisticalProfile2008_0.pdf.

Jamieson, J.A., & Kuhnlein, H.V. (2008). The Paradox of anemia with high meat intake: a review of the multifactorial    etiology of anemia in the Inuit of North America . Nutrition Reviews, 66(5), 256-271.

Fleischner, J. (1995). The Inuit: people of the arctic. United States: Millbrook Press.

Malinowski, S., & Sheets, A. (1998). Inuit. (1998). The Gale encyclopedia of native American tribes. Detroit, MI: Gale  Research Inc..

Richmond, C.A.M., & Ross, N.A. (2008). The Determinants of first nation and Inuit health: a critical population health  approach. Health and Place, 15, 403-411.

Richmond, C.A.M., & Ross, N.A. (2008). Social support, material circumstance and health behaviour: influences on      health in first nation and inuit communities of canada . Social Science & Medicine, 67, 1423-1433.

Tait, H. (2008). Aboriginal peoples study, 2006: Inuit health and social conditions. Statistics Canada: Social and          Aboriginal Statistics Division, 89-637-X(001).

Tester, F.J., & Nicoll, p. (2004). Isumagijaksaq: mindful of the state: social constructions of Inuit suicide. Social                 Science and Medicine, 58(12).


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