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The Inuit & Aleut Civilizations of the Far North

The Inuit & Aleut Civilizations of the Far North
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  • 0:02 Northern Native Civilizations
  • 0:34 Inuit
  • 2:43 Aleut
  • 4:26 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Sailus

Chris has an M.A. in history and taught university and high school history.

In this lesson, we explore the northern North American civilization of the Inuit and the Aleut, who eked out livings in the roughest of North American climates.

Northern Native Civilizations

'The North' has a certain mystique in popular folklore and culture. For European explorers, the North was a strange, ice- and snow-filled landscape that mysteriously attracted the needle of the compass. While the northern regions of North America were a land of natural wonders which frustrated Europeans in their search for a sea route to Asia, for several Native American tribes and civilizations, these desolate regions were home. In this lesson, we will explore the history and customs of two such civilizations, the Inuit and the Aleut.

Inuit

There's a vast and diverse range of Inuit who live in the Arctic. For example, the Inuit of northern Alaska have likely resided there since Inuit ancestors first crossed the Bering Sea land bridge, sometime between 6000 and 2000 B.C. However, the Inuit of northern Canada first migrated to their traditional homeland (in what is today Nunavut, the Northwest Territories, and northern Quebec) around 1000 A.D. The range and diversity of Inuit people created great cultural diversity from region to region and tribe to tribe.

In such a harsh environment, where snow and ice covered the landscape for most of the year, traditional human agriculture was an impossible endeavor for the Inuit. Instead, the Inuit were forced to make do with the resources they had on hand. For example, the lack of trees in the Canadian tundra make building homes out of wood in the Arctic borderline impossible. Instead, the Inuit lived in earthen huts during the short summer period, and during the long winter months, they built and lived in the iconic igloo. The igloo was a usually circular dwelling built out of compressed bricks of ice and snow. Believe it or not, frozen snow is actually a terrific insulator and building material.

In addition to their location-specific homes, the Inuit also had to eke out a living from the animal resources present in the Arctic. Considering that agriculture is impossible, the Inuit diet consisted largely of meat, though berries and other foraged plants supplemented Inuit diets in the summer months. As such, the Inuit were skilled hunters of whales, walruses, seals, and fish. They used most parts of the animal. For example, whale teeth were often carved into tools or ornamental items, and coats were often fashioned out of animal skins and furs. Another iconic image of Arctic people that was an Inuit tradition is the dogsled. Inuit often used large sleds pulled by a team of huskies, which were specially bred and trained for this purpose.

According to Inuit oral tradition and evidence found by paleontologists, the Inuit in the Canadian Arctic likely traded with Norse explorers and merchants for a few hundred years before the arrival of Western Europeans in North America.

Aleut

The Aleut people traditionally inhabit parts of southwestern Alaska as well as the Aleutian Island chain. The Aleut were likely one of the first people to cross the Bering Sea land bridge that connected North America to Asia during a time of low sea levels and may be North America's oldest civilization, with some scholars dating their arrival at around 6500 B.C. Like other Native American tribes, the Aleut kept no paper records. Most of what we know about them comes from Aleut oral tradition and the work of paleontologists.

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