In pictures: The lifestyle of the Inuit people

Stefan Andrews
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The Inuit are fascinating people, particularly for their resilience and adaptability to the harsh, cold winters of the North American Arctic.

For centuries, the ice-cold temperatures in the inhospitable polar region have dictated the lifestyles of the Inuit, a word which stands for “the people” in one of the dialects of Inuit language.

In the vast coldness of the Arctic, many tribes of Inuit sought comfort in snow-bricked, circular igloos.

While some were permanent living spaces–a typical igloo could sometimes house up to 20 people–smaller igloos were erected as temporary homes, for example, when on a hunting trip by kayak.

Aside from the igloo, the most well-known type of Inuit housing, people have utilized other shelters. During warmer periods, a tepee-like tent would do the trick.

Some Inuit would also use earthhouses, which are dug several feet below the surface and only up to three feet above ground. Whalebone and wood would typically support their construction.

A group photo of Inuit men in traditional dress, dated between 1900 and 1930.


A man is from the Umingmaktormiut tribe, 1924. It’s so cold that his beard is covered with hoarfrost.


Three Inuit children on Nome, Alaska. It looks frosty, but they don’t seem to have any problem with the cold.


Interior of an Inuit hut, 1916, with the wooden ceiling lined with animal skins. There are plenty of furs, snowshoes and mukluk ready for a trip outside.


Ammassalik Eskimo. The woman on the left is wearing a fur jacket for the cold.


A woman working on her stitching outside the family tupiq. Their spring and summer home would be made from the skins of between five and ten ugjuit seals.


Two men in hooded parkas docking a kayak. These tiny boats were used year-round for hunting birds and sea mammals.


A woman and a child. It is cooking time outdoors. The year is 1916.

Photo of an Inuit woman by American photographer and ethnologist Edward S. Curtis


Inuit woman at Cape Prince of Wales, Alaska. Photo by Edward Sheriff Curtis.


An Inuit girl named Minnie, c. 1906

Food? Largely what comes from the sea: fish, as well as larger marine prey including seals, walruses, sea lions, and whales. The diet might include some reindeer too.

Inuit garments often incorporate a lot of fur to cope with the hostile weather. Invention of the original parka is attributed to the Caribou Inuit.

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These fur-lined jackets traditionally had an outer layer of caribou or seal skin and could be waterproofed with fish oil. Don’t forget the heavy boots for the snow. Mukluks are the traditional soft Inuit boots, also made from caribou or seal skin.

Intriguingly, latest research has confirmed that the earliest inhabitants of the Arctic, from thousands of years ago, are not genetically linked to the modern-day Inuit.

Inuit child sits for a studio portrait in her fur parka, Alaska, c. 1903


Inuit child in the traditional outfit, the 1960s


An Inuit couple ready to face the harshest of weather in their fur garments.


The frame of an Inuit kayak would be made from driftwood, and sometimes whalebone, covered with carefully prepared seal skins which were cleverly stitched together so there would be no leaks. Animal fat or blubber was applied for further waterproofing..


An elderly Inuit man, Cape Prince of Wales, Alaska, 1928.


Mukpie, Point Barrow Inuit girl, 1914. She was the youngest survivor from HMCS Karluk which was trapped in (and eventually crushed by) the ice on a journey to Herschel Island, a year before this picture was taken.


Inuit family here photographed in 1917. The child is very cosy, strapped to its mother’s back.


Inuit man in profile, Kings Island, Alaska, 1906.


A group photo of Inuit people, all armored with fur.


One more group photograph. The year is probably 1914.


Inuit woman with a child taking a nap on her back, c. 1912


An Inuit woman draped in fur parka, Alaska, ca 1901


Inuit mother with her little one on her back, Alaska, c. 1901


Ola, an Inuit girl with a gorgeous face peeking from her hood. Photographed by Edward S. Curtis.

Groups and cultures in the Arctic have changed over the millennia, therefore they are divided into Paleo-Eskimos, who first appeared some 6,000 years ago, and a much later wave of settlers who are termed Neo-Eskimos.

Both groups migrated to the region via the Bering Strait.

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The first group helped form the pre-Dorset as well as the Saqqaq cultures. Later on, around 800 B.C., the Dorset culture appeared and it existed until around 1200 A.D., when it suddenly disappeared.

Inuit woman wearing a quilted jacket, Alaska, c. 1907.


Inuit woman poses next to a fishing hole. She has already caught some fish.


Family portrait of an Inuit family. A mother, father, and their son.

A photo of berry pickers, taken close to Nome, Alaska, in the early 1900s.


A man is enjoying some music on the record player, 1922.


Building an igloo is a science in its own right. It also takes a family to build one.


He has a grumpy sad face. An Eskimo child, 1929


Time to see what’s in the news. A man is reading a copy of the Saturday Evening Post in 1913.

This is when the Thule culture, which originated in Siberia, migrated into the area from settlements in Alaska. Modern-day Inuit are believed to be genetically derived from the Thule, from between the 16th and the 19th centuries.

The Thule culture is also believed to have been among the first to master whale-hunting in the world. In heritage, they left a number of cultural goods to the modern-day Inuit, including some of the immediate associations we have when we think of them. Dog sleds as a means of transport is one example.