The word “Iñupiaq” (the plural is “Iñupiat”) might be unfamiliar to some teachers and students. It is the term that a large group of indigenous people in Alaska, those who live between Norton Sound to the south and the border with Canada on the Arctic Ocean to the northeast, call themselves. It means, literally, “real person,” from the stem “inuk,” meaning “person,” and the post-base “-piaq,” meaning “real or genuine.” The name is sometimes said to differentiate Iñupiat from other people of other ethnicities, but a more appropriate differentiation is between human beings and other sentient beings (e.g., animals, plants, natural features).
A related ethnic designation used in Canada is “Inuit,” but this is not used often in Alaska. In Canada, the term “Eskimo” is considered pejorative and ignorant, since it was originally a derisive term applied by outsiders. Fewer Native Alaskans are offended by the word, since they accept the fact that it explains who they are to people who do not live in Alaska and are unaware of their correct name. Thus, one might hear a person say, “I’m an Iñupiaq Eskimo,” or “I’m a Yup’ik Eskimo.” Further, there are other groups in Alaska who are related linguistically and culturally to the Iñupiat – two groups known as Yupiit – and the term “Inuit” does not embrace them. The Yupiit name for themselves, Yupik or Yup’ik (there is a difference in pronunciation), derives from the word for person, “yuk,” and the post-base meaning “real or genuine, “-piaq,” shortened to “pik.”
Our newest shelter investigation explores a North Slope ivrulik, located in extreme Northwestern Alaska. As we learned in the last blog post, these homes are dug into the ground and built up with sod and whale bone. This post will describe several cultural elements of the Iñupiaq people who lived in these shelters and introduce Mr. George Leavitt, an Iñupiaq elder living in Barrow, Alaska.
The Iñupiaq people utilize hunting and gathering to collect resources throughout the year, a lifestyle that changes with the seasons. In the winter, while living in their Ivruliks, they hunt for sea mammals, from boats made of skin. Large boats, called umiaq could carry up to 20 people and 2,000 pounds of cargo while a qayaq (known to us as a kayak) could carry one person comfortably. To protect themselves from the elements, Iñupiaq wore several layers of clothing made from caribou skin, while an outer layer of intestines provided waterproofing. During these cold months, the Iñupiaq relied mostly on sea mammals, like whales and walruses, and other sea creatures, such as halibut, crab and herring to help them survive.
During the warmer months, Iñupiaq moved out of their flooded Ivruliks and into mobile tents that they would carry with them on sleds as they followed game and resources throughout the landscape. Iñupiaq people collected roots, berries, and bird’s eggs, and hunted for fish, birds and caribou. These people had a complex tool kit made up of stone, wood, bone, and ivory tools and weapons, and they utilized many different weapons for different types of hunting; toggle harpoons for whales, bow and arrow for caribou, snares for birds, and nets for catching fish.
As Westerners began to move into the territory the Iñupiaq traditionally lived on, their ways of life changed. Metal stoves with smokestacks and wooden doors were added to traditional Ivruliks. Later, frame houses began to replace traditional Ivruliks, insulated with fiberglass and powered by solar panels.
Mr. George Leavitt, an Iñupiaq elder who lives in Barrow, Alaska, is the featured biography in “Investigating a North Slope Ivrulik.” His story emphasizes the importance of oral histories as a way to learn about the history of not only his people, but all people. Information about how to build temporary shelters for winter hunting, how to speak the language, and basic survival skills can be passed down from elders to children through oral histories.
Our next blog will feature the Toggle Harpoon, the Iñupiaq’s specialized tool for hunting sea mammals.