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When most people think of Native Americans, they picture the tribes of the Plains, riding on horseback, hunting buffalo and waiting out the winter in their teepees.
But not all Native Americans lived this way. Consider the people we often call Eskimos.
The word “Eskimo” means “eaters of raw meat” in the language of the Algonquin tribe. It was the French who began calling the native people they found up north by this name. While there are numerous tribes, such as the Inupiat, the Inupiaq, and Yupik, for the sake of this article, we will refer to these tribes as the Inuit.
The Inuit tribes that lived in the far north somehow survived in far harsher climates than the Plains people ever had to endure. How could humans have survived in areas with low light levels for part of the year, extreme wind chills, and temperatures of minus 30 or more?
There were a great many skills that helped these native people survive. While not many of us have a chance to hunt seals, we would be wise to take note of some of the survival skills that allowed these native tribes to thrive in a very unforgiving climate.
The Inuit people consumed a diet that was perfectly suited for the environment in which they lived. During the summer, the Inuit would move inland, away from the coast, and hunt caribou, which, like the Plains tribes, provided them with almost everything they needed. The tough skin on the head was used to make the soles of shoes, and the softer skin from the belly for clothing that was close to the skin. The Inuit were careful to use everything from their kill, as it took four animals to make one jacket or parka. A pair of pants for one person required two more caribou hides. The antlers were used as tools, tendons were used for thread, and fat was rendered to store food for later, also to use as fuel for “lamps.” During the short summers, berries were gathered, birds were caught and the meat dried, eggs were enjoyed, berries and herbs were gathered and stored. Fresh water fish also were caught from lakes or streams. The Inuit diet consisted almost entirely of meat, with only the few plants that could be found during the very short summer to add some variety.
During winter, dogs were invaluable hunting partners. The Inuit stayed close to the coastline. Before the sea edges froze, seals would often sun themselves on the sand or rocks. Killing a seal during these times was a challenge and took real teamwork. In the winter, dogs would sniff out the air holes these mammals used. The Inuit would lie in wait and when the seal came up for air, they speared it. Seals were as prized as caribou, but for different reasons. Their hides were waterproof, making them valuable for shoes and gloves. Seal and walrus meat was extremely nourishing. Whales were difficult to catch, as the Inuit had to hunt them using kayaks and spears; however, when they did kill them, they used every single part. The fat, or blubber, is very high in calories and helped the Inuit stay warm as they burned many calories to maintain their body heat. The blubber also was used as oil for lanterns, which provided heat and light.
Before you can get around, you need to know your way around! The Inuit used the stars and sun (when it was available) to navigate, especially on the water. On land, they often used landmarks or erected one, if they thought it was necessary.
The Inuit used sleds made from whale bones with skins stretched over them. Dogs would pull the sleds through the snow. On the water, kayaks were the usual means of transportation, but when moving larger families or supplies (such as whale meat) larger boats, called umiaqs, were used. If the umiaq used oars, it was usually the women who operated them. Paddles were used by men. While most kayaks were made from driftwood, umiaqs were made from whale bones lashed together or pegged together. Seal skins were then stretched over the frame.
For a typical umiaq of about 30 feet, seven to eight seal skins would be needed to cover it. While these boats were large, they were fairly lightweight and could be carried by two or three men. A 24-foot umiaq weighs a mere 150 pounds, on average. Dogs also were counted on to carry or drag packs during the summer months. The husky dog that the Intuits used comes from the Inuit breeding of dogs with wolves. Huskies can survive the harsh winters with their thick coats and are very strong. Most huskies easily can carry a 40- to 50-pound pack all day.
One of the best-known traits of the Inuit people was their wintertime shelters, called igloos. Igloos were houses made of snow and ice and were the best winter shelters, as snow causes air to be trapped, making it a very good insulator. A typical igloo could be built in less than one hour by two men with sharp knives. After the blocks were cut and stacked, the snow was packed on the outside for further insulation. Sometimes, several igloos would be connected via tunnels, enabling large families to have some privacy, but still stay together. Igloos often were warmed with homemade lanterns, fueled by the melted fat from seals and whales. So while outside temps might be -50 degrees Fahrenheit, inside the igloo, it could be 60 to 70 degrees.
Summer shelters usually were made of whale bones lashed together and covered with hides. The floors also would be covered with hides for insulation and comfort.
Almost all clothing was made from seal and caribou hides. In the coldest winter months, two layers of clothing were worn. The one next to the skin had the fur turned inward; the outer layer had the fur facing outward. Caribou hide has natural air pockets, which make it super-insulating. Parkas often were made from caribou hides, with the fur inside, and waterproof seal hides on the outside. Many parkas had hoods edged in fur. Gloves were made much like parkas. While polar bear skins were valuable, these were not hunted often as the risk was too great.
Perhaps we never will live in environments like those of the Inuit people, but we all can learn from the creativity, resourcefulness and determination that kept them alive.
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