Inuit

An ancient society of hunters, they thrive in a world of ice and rock.

Field & Stream Online Editors

That morning the village of Arviat moved much faster. A few pickups and a dozen all-terrain vehicles bounced east along the muddy streets toward the gravel peninsula known as Eskimo Point. Inuit women in parkas, some with babies strapped to their chests, hiked the shoreline, older children following, carrying knives and washtubs.

"You want to go whale hunting?" Sam Alagalak asked. We all nodded, half a dozen middle-aged white men from tropical places like Montana and Ontario. Sam nodded. "You can go with Leo and Frank."

Leo Otuk and Frank Nutarasungnik, sitting on Leo's red ATV, pointed toward Hudson's Bay, just visible behind the post office. "Meet us there," Frank said. We gathered our gear from Sam's pickup truck.

At 6 feet, Leo is much taller than the average Inuit man, who stands 5-foot-8 or less. Like many northern Native Americans, Inuits are tremendously strong. When I shot my musk ox, David Ameganik insisted on packing out the head and cape. He was 50 years old, maybe 5-foot-3, 105 pounds. The load weighed more than he did, but he carried it half a mile to the boat, never stopping.

By the time Leo's green freight canoe headed out, a dozen other boats-freight canoes, open fishing boats, one small cabin cruiser-were patrolling the waters off Eskimo Point. Leo steered the Yamaha outboard while Frank checked the knots that tied his harpoon and an empty plastic gas can at opposite ends of 50 feet of stout polypropylene rope.

Leo, who is not only taller but quieter than the average Inuit (most love to talk and joke), lifted his hand. "There's one," he said. We saw the white back of a beluga whale curve above the blue water of the bay, then its tail flukes as the whale dove.

Frank, stockier and much more talkative than Leo, stood in the bow. "Got your cameras ready?" he asked, grinning. Then he squinted at us. "You from Greenpeace?" We shook our heads, puzzled, since we'd just spent two days hunting caribou with Leo and Frank. Frank laughed, then hefted his harpoon, looking for whales, smiling at his joke.

Caribou at Arviat
Three days before, we "Southerners" had arrived in Arviat, supposedly to take a floatplane to a local lake to hunt caribou. But this September the caribou had decided not to migrate past the lake. Instead we camped outside Arviat, and Leo and Frank and some of the other men of Arviat took us to their favorite caribou grounds.

Sam, manager of the Arviat Hunters and Trappers Association, had warned us to pack light for caribou hunting. While my partner Len Murphy and I reduced 80 pounds of gear to 15, I remembered People of the Deer, Farley Mowat's 1952 book describing the summers he had spent with caribou-hunting Inuits west of Arviat. Mowat found the "people of the deer" perfectly adapted to the tundra-except for their leaky caribou-hide summer tents, no barrier to mosquitoes and very little to rain. Eventually Mowat realized the Inuits wore their summer tents: parkas that shed rain and kept out bugs, and sealskin boots sewn near-watertight to walk the soggy summer tundra. The caribou-hide tents simply provided shade and a windbreak for cooking.

So I wore all my gear except for my rifle and sleeping bag, including rubber-bottomed boots and a Gore-Tex parka. But instead of paddling kayaks or hiking cross-tundra like the Inuits of 1950, we jumped behind Johnny Mamgark and Darryl Baker and rode their ATVs. The tide was out on Hudson's Bay, and we headed south along the tidal flats, a wide landscape of salty mud. We stopped twice to stretch, first at an Inuit cemetery, where rocks were piled over the graves, and then again at an Inuit signpost: a driftwood pole draped with caribou skulls, hookless fishing lures, a broken outboard propeller, empty cans, and other artifacts of the North. In an almost featureless land, these signposts tell Inuits where they are.

We crossed a wide rer, the current rising over the ATV tires, then headed inland along the top of Wolf Esker. (Eskers are the sandy outwash left when the continental glacier melted 11,000 years ago, and from a floatplane, they can appear like giant snakes traveling over the tundra.) Wolf ran for miles into caribou country. Near dark we found a herd, too late to shoot but soon enough for Len to see his first caribou. We camped in a communal plywood shack, used by whichever Inuit trappers or hunters get there first and just big enough to sleep four men. Before moving in, Johnny and Darryl brought the rotting floorboards outside.

"Bugs?" I asked.

"Mice," Johnny said, poking through the mouse nests on the rocky floor.

"They carry disease?"

"No, they bite like hell!" Darryl said. "Inuits are more scared of mice than polar bears."

With the hut mouse-free, we laid the floorboards down again, covering them with caribou hides tanned with the hair on to serve as pads for our sleeping bags. We stayed up late, the light from a single candle flickering the shadows of Johnny's and Darryl's hands against the walls as they described their hunting life: autumn for caribou, winter for polar bears and seals, spring for geese, summer for char and whales. Polar bears are hunted for the meat and fat and for the hides, which the Inuit sell for around $250 a linear foot. They do some guiding for the animals, but mostly they love to get the dog team out and chase bears. I've tried to go along on a polar bear hunt, but it costs $5,000 for the privilege.

Like many urban Canadians, Len rather resented Inuit hunting privileges. But that night on the tundra changed his mind, especially our meal of peanut butter and white bread, which tasted awful compared to the dried caribou meat Johnny and Darryl had brought.

"You guys have to hunt. Nothing will grow up here," Len said, chewing caribou.

"You think this is good-tomorrow we eat fresh meat!" Darryl said.

Eaters of Raw Meat
Europeans first explored the North American Arctic during the search for the Northwest Passage, encountering "wilde" people who wore animal hides, lived in snow huts, and ate raw meat. In 1846 Sir John Barrow summed up civilization's judgment of so-called Eskimos: "Nothing short of persecution could have driven them to take up their abode in these extreme parts of the globe, amidst ice and snow." Barrow came from a world where humans grew crops, herded animals, and built houses of wood and masonry. To him, Eskimos were obviously too lazy or ignorant to build proper homes or store food for the long Arctic winter.

These friendly people called themselves Inuit, their plural for "people," and lived north of the spruce-birch forest that stretches across Canada. The people living in the forests were mostly Cree Indians. Eskia cmo is a corruption of a Cree word meaning "eaters of raw meat." Crees had plenty of wood for cooking, so like the Europeans, they regarded Eskimos as primitive savages.

we saw several caribou herds that morning, including one that wandered by camp as we tested our rifles on a rock. Johnny and Darryl tried theirs too, as they had dozens of times before. "If you can hit that rock," Johnny said, "you can kill a caribou."

Bearberries ripened on sandy eskers; knee-high willows bordered the ponds; and everywhere stood inukshuk, the stone "men" that Inuits build to mark their way around boggy tundra. We saw snow geese and more caribou, but no big bulls. Darryl said that now, just before the rut, Inuits themselves only hunted bulls, because bulls were fattest. After the rut, they switched to cows, for both meat and the thinner hides, which made the best clothing.

Toward noon we found another herd with a big bull. The caribou weren't spooky-many never see humans because only 40,000 people, almost all Inuit, live in the new Canadian territory called Nunavut-and Darryl and Len closed within 200 yards before Len's bullet broke the bull's neck.

We butchered the caribou quickly. The two Inuit men sliced off chunks of fat and ate as they worked. Darryl offered Len a piece of caribou stomach, a prime source of vegetable vitamins. Len took it, chewing a few times before swallowing.

Darryl watched, smiling. "Doctors say that stuff is why Inuits don't have heart attacks."

"Aren't you going to eat the eyes?" I asked. Johnny and Darryl looked at me, their own eyes wide. "The first time I hunted caribou, north of Yellowknife, my guide ate the eyes from my caribou."

"He ate them raw?" Darryl said. "He must be from out west. We eat some stuff raw, but not eyes. We boil the head, then eat 'em."

A Technological People
Riding ATVs might seem too technological to be "true" Inuit hunting. However, precontact Inuits were one of the most technologically proficient people on earth if you think of this not in terms of computer chips but in terms of using tools to live successfully. Today, even most older Inuits admit that oil-heated frame houses, snowmobiles, ATVs, outboard motors, and scoped rifles beat skin tents and igloos, dogsleds, walking and paddling, and bows and arrows. But store-bought food doesn't beat caribou, seal, and char. And welfare or pounding nails doesn't beat hunting.

North of the treeline, food must be caught or killed, not grown. Caribou, snow geese, and Arctic char move constantly, seeking food. Except for a few berries during the brief summer, the Inuit diet originally consisted almost entirely of wild meat, so most of their technology applied to hunting and traveling. The Arctic winter, feared by Europeans, actually made Inuit life easier. The permafrost that keeps trees from growing also keeps melted snow from soaking into the earth; except for scattered eskers and rocky hills, the summer Arctic lies nearly submerged in ponds, or bogs in the form of hummocks that resemble gelatinous bowling balls. In winter, dogsleds easily cover miles of frozen tundra that would require days of walking in summer.

Along the coast, Inuits often built whalebone frames for their winter homes, covering them with wind-packed snow, one of nature's finest insulators. But if the caribou moved elsewhere, Inuits would follow, building houses entirely of snow.

Machines Are People, Too
Eventually, white men insisted that Inuits live in permanent villages, rather than as nomadic family clans. They had to travel farther to hunt. Being practical-minded, Inuits had already adopted many useful industrial technologies. Rifles made hunting easier but didn't solve the problem of summer travel. Inuits did use boats on open water and readily took to outboard motors. When the ATV arrived in the Arctic, it was not viewedritory called Nunavut-and Darryl and Len closed within 200 yards before Len's bullet broke the bull's neck.

We butchered the caribou quickly. The two Inuit men sliced off chunks of fat and ate as they worked. Darryl offered Len a piece of caribou stomach, a prime source of vegetable vitamins. Len took it, chewing a few times before swallowing.

Darryl watched, smiling. "Doctors say that stuff is why Inuits don't have heart attacks."

"Aren't you going to eat the eyes?" I asked. Johnny and Darryl looked at me, their own eyes wide. "The first time I hunted caribou, north of Yellowknife, my guide ate the eyes from my caribou."

"He ate them raw?" Darryl said. "He must be from out west. We eat some stuff raw, but not eyes. We boil the head, then eat 'em."

A Technological People
Riding ATVs might seem too technological to be "true" Inuit hunting. However, precontact Inuits were one of the most technologically proficient people on earth if you think of this not in terms of computer chips but in terms of using tools to live successfully. Today, even most older Inuits admit that oil-heated frame houses, snowmobiles, ATVs, outboard motors, and scoped rifles beat skin tents and igloos, dogsleds, walking and paddling, and bows and arrows. But store-bought food doesn't beat caribou, seal, and char. And welfare or pounding nails doesn't beat hunting.

North of the treeline, food must be caught or killed, not grown. Caribou, snow geese, and Arctic char move constantly, seeking food. Except for a few berries during the brief summer, the Inuit diet originally consisted almost entirely of wild meat, so most of their technology applied to hunting and traveling. The Arctic winter, feared by Europeans, actually made Inuit life easier. The permafrost that keeps trees from growing also keeps melted snow from soaking into the earth; except for scattered eskers and rocky hills, the summer Arctic lies nearly submerged in ponds, or bogs in the form of hummocks that resemble gelatinous bowling balls. In winter, dogsleds easily cover miles of frozen tundra that would require days of walking in summer.

Along the coast, Inuits often built whalebone frames for their winter homes, covering them with wind-packed snow, one of nature's finest insulators. But if the caribou moved elsewhere, Inuits would follow, building houses entirely of snow.

Machines Are People, Too
Eventually, white men insisted that Inuits live in permanent villages, rather than as nomadic family clans. They had to travel farther to hunt. Being practical-minded, Inuits had already adopted many useful industrial technologies. Rifles made hunting easier but didn't solve the problem of summer travel. Inuits did use boats on open water and readily took to outboard motors. When the ATV arrived in the Arctic, it was not viewed