Eskimo Culture and Traditional Way Of Life


The traditional way of life of eskimo. Information about hunting, fishing, the harpoon, spiritual beliefs, crafts and language of eskimo.

The ability of the Eskimos to survive in the Arctic has long been judged one of the most remarkable adaptations by man to stringent environmental conditions. The popular conception of the Eskimos is derived from those who live farthest north, on the Arctic islands of Canada and along northwestern Greenland. In these high Arctic areas, with their short summers and very long winters, Eskimos dressed in heavy fur clothing during most of the year. They lived in snow-houses, hunted seals at their breathing holes, sought walrus at the edge of sea ice, and pursued polar bears across the ice fields with the aid of dogs. Most Central Eskimos followed such a way of life, but these high Arctic dwellers formed a minority among Eskimos as a whole. No single environmental adaptation existed throughout the area of Eskimo occupancy. Instead there were major and minor regional variations.


Eskimos along the Bering Sea and Pacific Ocean shores of Alaska, as well as those along rivers, probably obtained as much of their food by fishing for salmon as by hunting for seals and white whales (beluga) or walrus. In Siberia and along the northwestern coast of Alaska the economies were based on hunting great bowhead whales, seals, walrus, and caribou. By contrast, Eskimos in the Brooks Range of Alaska subsisted mainly on caribou, whereas those on the tundra between the Yukon and Kuskokwim rivers depended most heavily on whitefish.

Eskimo Culture and Traditional Way Of Life

The high Arctic way of life previously described prevailed among the most northerly Eskimos, the Polar, or Smith Sound, Eskimos of northwestern Greenland. But the Central Eskimos of the Barren Grounds of Canada were pri-marily caribou hunters. Labrador Eskimos depended most heavily on seals, white whales, and caribou. In Greenland, south of the Polar Eskimo region, the people subsisted largely by sealing, but they also hunted caribou and the nar-whal—a 20-foot (6-meter)-long Arctic sea mammal—in addition to flshing for trout and capelin.



The animal of primary importance to most Eskimos was the seal, and one of the most effective methods for taking seals was to harpoon them at their breathing holes. On ice fields where there is no open water, seals must maintain a series of holes in order to breathe. After a seal’s breathing hole was located, often with the aid of dogs, a hunter cut away most of the crusted snow above the hole. He inserted a thin ivory rod into the hole and waited with his harpoon poised. When a seal surfaced at the hole, the ivory indicator rnoved, and at that moment the hunter thrust his harpoon into the hole. The harpoon head was attached to a stout line, and as the wounded seal sounded (dived), the hunter played the animal until it surfaced from exhaustion and could be killed.

In the spring, when seals basked in the sun on the ice, they were hunted in a different manner. A hunter with a harpoon in hand crawled toward a napping seal. When it wakened and looked around to make certain it was safe to doze again, the hunter paused and imitated a seal’s behavior in order to escape recognition. Reassured of its safety, the seal dozed again. Each time it wakened, the hunter repeated the process until he had crawled near enough to launch his harpoon. In the spring and summer, seals swimming in the ocean were hunted from kayaks. A swimming seal surfaces for only a moment to breathe. At the proper instant the hunter launched his harpoon. The line from the harpoon head was attached to an inflated sealskin or other form of float, which the sounding seal was forced to drag beneath the water. As the seal approached the surface to breathe again, the float bobbed up first, indicating to the hunter the locality where the seal would be most likely to appear so that he could be prepared to launch another harpoon.

In Greenland and Alaska small white whales were hunted cooperatively by men in kayaks. The schools of whales were frightened and driven into shallow water, where they could easily be killed with harpoons or lances. During the spring, great bowhead whales were hunted in northwestern Alaska by eightman crews hunting from large open boats called umiaks. As a whale surfaced nearby and sounded, an umiak was launched from the edge of the ice, and the crew paddled as silently as possible toward the spot where they expected the whale to surface again. The harpooner at the bow had his weapon poised but refrained from thrusting it until he was reasonably certain that it would drive deep into the whale’s back. Connected to the harpoon head was a heavy line with a series of sealskin floats attached at the end. Repeated harpoon strikes usually were necessary to wound great whales seriously, and they were finally killed with stonetipped spears.

Another animal hunted was the polar bear, a solitary wanderer at home only on the pack ice. When an Eskimo hunter located fresh polar bear tracks, he followed them until he was close enough to confront the animal with a spear or, more frequently, to turn loose his dogs to bring the bear to bay. As the bear attempted to fight off the dogs, the hunter speared it at the most opportune moment. Hunting polar bears was hazardous, for not only might the dogs be killed or wounded by an angry bear, but the same fate might also await the hunter.


The most important land animal sought by many Eskimo groups was the caribou, the species from which domestic reindeer developed. Caribou were hunted during their migration northward in the spring and again when they wandered southward in the fail. The hunting was especially intensive in the fail, when the skins were prime for clothing and the meat at its best. Caribou are herd animals and tend to follow the same migration paths from one year to the next. They were often intercepted while crossing a river or lake. Under such conditions they could be lanced by hunters in kayaks. By employing this hunting technique, Eskimos could sometimes kill hundreds of animals in a single day. Another caribouhunting technique was to erect lines of cairns (piles of stones or clumps of turf) along hilltops adjacent to a narrowing valley. As caribou wandered into the broad valley entrance, they were unaware of the cairns. However, as they ambled on, they perceived the markers and mistook them for men. The caribou bdlted toward the narrow end of the valley, where concealed hunters were then able to kill them with arrows shot from bows.

The Harpoon.

By far the most important Eskimo hunting implement was the toggle-headed harpoon, one of the most complex weapons found anywhere among primitive hunters. A typical harpoon consisted of a wooden shaft, about 5 feet (1.5 meters) in length, with an elongated ivory socket piece fîtted and lashed to one end. into a hole at the rounded end of the socket piece was fîtted an oblong ivory foreshaft, which had a hole drilled through it. A rawhide line was passed through the hole, drawn taut, and lashed to the shaft. An ivory toggle harpoon head had a stone point wedged into the tip, a barb at the rear, and a hole at the base into which the foreshaft fîtted. Through a hole in the midsection of the harpoon head was passed a stout rawhide line. Depending on the conditions under which the harpoon was to be used, this line might be wrapped around the shaft and tied to it, coiled and held in the hand, or attached to inflated sealskin floats. A basic harpoon of this nature might have an icepick at the base or a basal recess to receive the peg of a throwing board, again depending on the weapon’s intended use.

Eskimo Culture and Traditional Way Of Life

A harpoon could be thrust or thrown. When the head struck a quarry, the stone point penetrated deep into the flesh. As the wounded animal wrenched away, the harpoon head toggled, as does a button in a buttonhole, and became detached from the foreshaft. The foreshaft partially dissipated the force of impact and thus prevented the harpoon head from breaking. The harpoon served primarily as a means of securing a sea mammal so that it could be played until it was exhausted from loss of breath and blood. Finally it was killed with a club, lance, or knife.


The Spring Bait.

Eskimos are renowned for their clever hunting techniques, of which the most famous is perhaps the spring bait. A short, flexible piece of willow stick or a section of baleen from the mouth of a whale was sharpened at each end and bound with a piece of sinew into an S-shape. This “spring” was placed in a ball of fat, which was then frozen. These balls of fat were scattered over the ground when foxes, polar bears, wolves, or wolverine were known to be nearby. A hungry animal usually would swallow the entire frozen mass without attempting to chew it. After the acids in the animal’s stomach disintegrated the fat covering, the sinew binding began to separate, and the stick sprang back into its original form. In the process it pierced the animal’s stomach and caused death from internal bleeding.


Fish were a major item in the diet of Alaskan Eskimos but were used to a lesser degree by Eskimos of other regions. In Alaska various species of Pacific salmon were caught as they entered bays or ascended rivers to reach spawning grounds. These fîsh might be taken individually with dip nets or by using harpoon darts with barbed but nontoggling heads. Great numbers of salmon were caught in gill nets or seines made from rawhide lines or from the inner bark of willows. Another salmon-fishing technique was to build a fîsh weir of poles across a section of a stream or river. At openings in the weir were set funnel-shaped traps made from splints of straight-grained spruce. Salmon swam into the small opening at the mouth but were unable to fînd their way out of such traps.

Similar traps were constructed to catch white-fish and other species. A widespread method of stream fishing was to build a stone weir across a narrow, shallow area. As the fish struggled through, they would be lanced with a leister (multipronged fish spear). In the fail after the lakes were covered with ice, a hole might be chopped and an ivory lure in the shape of a fîsh lowered into the water. The lure was jigged up and down to attract fish, and when one could be seen near the surface, it was impaled with a leister. Fishing through holes in sea ice, usually for some variety of cod, required the use of a barbless, hooked lure that was jigged.

Shelters and Settlements.

The dwellings of Eskimos varied widely in form. The type of construction depended not only on the building materials available but on the length of time to be spent at a particular settlement. Most Eskimos lived in single-room, semisubterranean houses with interior benches or platforms on which the occupants lounged and slept. The houses were usually rectangular and were entered through tunnels. Each had a skylight. They were constructed of driftwood logs covered with sod, or else they were made from whalebone or stone and covered with turf. Tents were used in summer in many areas as a substitute for the underground houses, which remained damp throughout this season. Snowhouses were built by the Central and Polar Eskimos as well as by Labrador Eskimos. The Eskimo word for house is igloo, which is applied to any dwelling form, not just to the snowhouse.


Eskimo Culture and Traditional Way Of Life

To build a snowhouse it was necessary to locate a spot with fîrm, compact snow deposited during a single storm. Layered snow breaks apart. With a short, swordlike snow knife made of ivory, the builder cut blocks measuring about 3 feet (1 meter) long, 2 feet (0.6 meter) high, and 8 inches (20 cm) thick. The blocks were placed in a circle and trimmed to fit snugly. The top of each block was cut to slant inward, and as more blocks were added, they were similarly trimmed so that together they formed an inward-sloping spiral. As the top of the vault was approached, the degree of slant increased greatly. After the key block was fitted at the top, ali of the blocks were trimmed, and small openings were chinked with snow. A large winter dwelling of this type was about 15 feet (4.5 meters) wide and 12 feet (3.9 meters) in height. In order to reach this height, the builder constructed a snow platform from which to work. The tunnel entrance to a snowhouse was constructed of one or more smaller domes. In the house itself, a block above the tunnel was removed and replaced with a window of freshwater ice or sewn gut.

A small, temporary snowhouse used by travelers was of the same form but only 7 feet (2 meters) in diameter and 5 feet (1.5 meters) in height. Eskimos who lived in snowhouses during the winter abandoned them in the spring and moved into coneshaped tents constructed of wooden poles over which were placed coverings of sewn caribou skins. They lived in such tents until snow suitable for constructing snowhouses was available in the late fail.

Eskimo settlements ranged in size from a single house occupied by one or two families to villages with as many as 400 occupants. Those who subsisted primarily on seals or caribou tended to move about most frequently, living in snowhouses during the winter and caribouskin tents in the summer. In general, the more sedentary Eskimos lived in semisubterranean houses, and their settlements were larger.



The most suitable skins used for clothing were those of caribou killed in the fail. The upper garment, or parka—the Russian name applied to this form among Siberian peoples— was thigh-length, sleeved, and usually hooded. Fitted trousers reaching from the waist to below the knees were worn. In areas where temperatures were severe, two sets of clothing made up the basic winter outfit. The inner set had the hair or fur facing inward. Fur mittens and boots with sealskin soles and caribouskin uppers completed the basic outfit. Eskimo infants were not carried in the hoods of their mother’s parkas, but in a pouchlike recess at the back of the parka. Significant variations from this basic clothing style prevailed in certain Eskimos areas. Kodiak Island Eskimos, for example, often wore parkas that were longer and sleeveless, and they might not wear trousers or footwear.


In the summer, Eskimos used two kinds of boats for hunting and travel. The kayak was decked over except for a manhole that accoınrnodated one person. Such craft had frames made of pieces of driftwood bound together. The frames were covered with dehaired sealskins sewn with waterproof stitehing. The umiak was a large, open boat made by covering a driftwood frame with split walrus hides or sealskins. Kayaks gave single hunters mobility. Umiaks moved families to new hunting grounds or summer fishing camps or served as the means to travel to trading centers or homes of relatives. The umiak was also used by parties of Eskimos hunting whales off the north coast of Alaska.

Eskimo Culture and Traditional Way Of Life

In the winter, sleds pulled by dogs were the chief means of transport. The Central Eskimo sled looked like a long ladder. The dogs were attached by individual traces of varying lengths and guided by flicks of a long-lashed whip. Alaskan Eskimos had a modifled version of the ladder sled as well as sleds with built-up beds. The dogs were hitched in tandem or in pairs and usually were guided by a man who preceded the team.


Social Customs.

Social life was organized around the family as a nucleus, with a man, his wife, and their children functioning as a unit.

However, a dwelling was often shared by two closely related nuclear families and the aged parents of the husband or wife. The men and adolescent boys were responsible for obtaining food, while the women and young girls prepared it for consumption.

An old man offered advice, and an old woman assumed much of the responsibility for the care of young children. Everyday decisions were made by the adult hunters, but they sought the advice of their wives and elders conceming any long-range plans. The members of a settlement were bound together by bonds of blood and marriage, but the well-being of each family was primarily its own responsibility. In times of food scarcity, hunters shared their kills with everyone, but in normal times food was shared only with near relatives.

Eskimo Culture and Traditional Way Of Life


In their interpersonal relations they went to great lengths to avoid overt aggression. If someone behaved in a reprehensible manner, con-formity was induced primarily through gossip. In some areas songs of ridicule were sung in the presence of the nonconformist, and nearly everywhere a persistent offender was socially ostracized or in rare instances killed.

A pregnant woman was surrounded by dietary and behavioral restrictions that were designed to ensure the well-being of her offspring. A woman gave birth either in her dwelling or in a separate stmcture built for this purpose. In times of great stress, when the survival of the entire family was in question, an infant might be killed. Eskimo parents were known for their permissive attitudes toward the behavior of children, and corporal punishment was rare. A child soon learned, however, that life was difBcult and by the age of eight was expected to begin acquiring adult skills.

Girls married soon after reaching puberty, but males usually did not marry until they were in their early twenties and had killed at least one of each species of local animal. Marriages were arranged by parents, and economic concerns were foremost in their minds. Formal marriage ceremonies were rare. It was most common for the potential wife simply to move into her husband’s househola. Sooner or later the couple set up their own household, in which they might be joined by the family of a married brother or cousin of the man.

Because of the conditions of northern living, accidental deaths were not unusual, and this, coupled with a relatively high divorce rate, made nuclear family membership far from stable. The daily stresses of Arctic living did not weigh heavily, however, on the overt personalities of Eskimos, who were well known for their carefree dispositions and tendency to be jovial even under very trying conditions. The Eskimos also accepted death philosophically. In some areas an aged or ill person might request to be killed by a near relative or would accept abandonment and starvation without remorse. If an individual died in a dwelling, the body usually was removed through a hole in the wall so that the soul could not find its way back to harm the living. Bodies were disposed of by various means, depending on the area. They might be exposed on the tundra, covered with stones, or placed in small wooden coffins. A brief mourning period by near relatives usually followed the death of an adult.


Spiritual Beliefs.

The supernatural system focused primarily on souls, or nonmaterial representations of a form. Men as well as most animals and some inanimate objects possessed souls. The souls of deceased animals and men were appeased after death, and it was thought that they often reentered a newborn of the same species. Each species had a generalized guardian spirit, and often another generalized spirit of the universe was believed to exist. Eskimos con-ceived of a host of good and evil dwarfs, giants, and beasts that were half human and half animal.

An Eskimo protected himself spiritually by observing taboos, wearing charms, reciting formulas, and in extreme stress by consulting a shaman, the part-time specialist in supernatural matters. Eskimo shamans appealed to the same supernatural forms as other individuals, but the shaman’s spirits were more powerful. A man might acquire control of such a spirit after serving as an apprentice to an established shaman or by seeking a spirit during prolonged meditation, isolation, and privation. Occasionally, such powers came to an individual seemingly unsought. Shamans used powerful formulas, special songs, and trance-inducing techniques to establish contacts with their helping spirits. The shaman’s purpose often was to remove the cause of an individual’s illness or to predict the future.


The Eskimoan languages typify a structural form that is termed polysynthetic—that is, diverse word elements are combined into a single word that is the equivalent of a sentence in most other languages. In Eskimo, word stems may stand alone or be joined with a number of infixes and sufBxes in various combinations to construct a sentence of a single word. To the word igloo may be added 80 different infixes. To any one of these, innumerable other modifying elements may be added, and a suffix then appended to the second set. Thus, a sentence begins with a word stem, is expanded with infixes to make its meaning more specific, and ends with personal suffixes.

Another notable characteristic of these languages is the elaboration of terms that refer to environmental particulars. For example, Eskimos have several word stems for snow and many infixes to further express its various qualities, just as they have many diverse and particular terms for seals and caribou by which they express the relative age, sex, and condition of these animals. In addition to this ability to be highly specific, an Eskimo is fully capable of expressing complex and abstract thoughts. Eskimo is not primitive in its forms of expression. It is, rather, a language spoken by a people who have sometimes been judged primitive, or nonliterate.



The manufactures of aboriginal Eskimos are among the most sophisticated found among people with a hunting economy. The diversity of the parts that made up the toggle harpoon, the precision with which a kayak or umiak frame was constructed, and the component complexity of some traps and some containers attest to the great technological skill of Eskimos.

The most important tools for working antler, ivory, and wood were the adz, an end- or side-bladed knife, and a rotary drill. Each of these tools usually had a cutting surface made from stone. Iron was also available to some Eskimos through trade. In Greenland wrought iron was obtained from the Norse in the llth century, and later the Polar Eskimos obtained iron from local meteorites. In Alaska, early in the Christian era, small pieces of iron were acquired in trade from Siberia. Although most Eskimo people had access to wood, the Central and Greenlandic groups had only those pieces that drifted ashore from the sea. In order to make bows and other artifacts, they cleverly joined small pieces of wood or antler.

Eskimo Culture and Traditional Way Of Life

East Greenlandic Eskimos were famous for their ivory inlays, and Alaskan Eskimos were accomplished woodworkers. The Alaskan groups also made baskets and some pottery, whereas in the Central area cooking vessels and lamps were carved from soapstone (steatite). Virtually everywhere the tools and weapons were fashioned with great skill and precision. Craftsmen took greater care than was required to produce merely utilitarian products. Some of their carved bone weapons, for example, are works of art.



Leave A Reply