Inukshuks of the Arctic Region
Stone Markers Dot the Tundra Biome
Who Built Them?
In areas considered the coldest in the world, inukshuks stand sentinel, outlined against the sky. These stone markers are distinctive landmarks and can be seen across the tundra biome, dotting the landscape from Alaska to Greenland.
The stone formations were built by hardy inhabitants of the North--Inuit, Inupiat, and Yupik peoples, to name a few.
Inukshuk or inuksuit (plural) were fashioned in different shapes and sizes, from a single stone to a number of stones stacked one on top of the other. Inukshuks were difficult to construct due to the sheer weight of the stones and the shapes needed to form them. In most cases, a number of flat stones were used, crowned by a round stone.
The meaning of inuk is "person" and suk "substitute." A loose definition of inukshuk would be: something that symbolizes or performs the function of a human. The widely recognized innunguaq, in fact, represents a human figure, and in some of these, the Inuit stuffed Arctic heather to resemble human hair.
Why Were Inukshuks Built?
Inukshuks served different functions. An inukshuk with an open leg might have pointed to a navigable marine channel; an inukshuk with an open arm or designed with one longer arm may have suggested a directional route; an inukshuk perched on a shoreline could have indicated good fishing nearby.
- An interesting aspect of inuksuit is that some were built with a peephole in the middle, which would reveal another inukshuk in the distance.This may have proved invaluable for pointing forward on a trail to be followed.
- Hunters hid behind larger inuksuit to hunt caribou.
- An Inukshuk could mark a cache of food.
- An inukshuk built on top of a hill served to mark the territory of an Inuit family group.
- Inuksuit marked settlements.
- It is believed that some of the inukshuk were built to memorialize a person, showing honor and respect.
- Inukshuk may have held spiritual or sacred significance.
In a place where man was largely at the mercy of the elements, the inuksuit, constructed as they were of stone materials, were impervious, withstanding extreme weather conditions across a barren, snow-covered wasteland.
Author Norman Hallendy, in his book Inuksuit: Silent Messengers of the Arctic, August 2001, remarks "For traditional Inuit, survival meant adapting perfectly to the environment." This entailed using materials at hand: "blocks of snow for winter shelter, and stone, skin, ivory and bone as the foundation of their material culture."
Inukshuks were more than an Inuit art form, the structures may well have been lifesaving, providing critical information to passersby.
At a Glance
For encampments of people nearby
In a barren landscape, these withstood the elements
For food caches
For migration routes for caribou
Communicated critical information to travelers
For open navigable channels
Could be used to hide behind for hunting
Could be used for a windbreak
A Symbol of the North, Inukshuks Stand Impervious to the Elements
Did You Know?
Because of their importance to human safety and survival, Inuit tradition forbids their destruction.
Inukshuks: More Than Just Stones
Each stone in an inukshuk balanced on and was supported by the other stones, thus the stones as a unit made for a stronger structure. For the Inuit, the inukshuk represented a philosophy of survival, made possible by friendship, cooperation and team effort.
Inuksuit endured because Inuit tradition forbade their destruction. In modern times, the innukshuk is portrayed in replicas crafted in varied materials, souvenirs that touch a chord with a global audience.
Modern-Day Adoption of This Symbol of the North
The 2010 Vancouver Olympic mascot, Llaanag, (friend) is based on the Inuit inukshuk, paying homage to indigenous peoples. This inukshuk symbol is fitting, a reminder to the human family at large of the importance of global friendship and interdependence.