It is made from unworked stones carefully piled in an arrangement for a specific purpose. While one may come across it in fairly populated parts of the Great White North, it is more often found in the vast Arctic landscape. This singular and mysterious stone structure is Inukshuk – plurally known as Inuksuit. It is the single most familiar symbol of the Inuit and their homeland.
The Inukshuk is a location marker – to mark a place of respect or a memorial for a loved one, a migration route or simply a place to do some ice fishing! The arrangement of the stones indicates the purpose of each Inukshuk. The directions of arms or legs could indicate where lies an open channel for navigation, or a valley for passage through the mountains, or showing the path the ancient Inuit would herd the caribou where they could more easily be hunted during their annual migration. An inukshuk without arms, or with antlers affixed to it, is often a marker for where a cache of food has been hidden.
For thousands of years the Inuit people had not built any permanent settlements in the Arctic. They had simply adapted how they lived to seasonal changes in climate and the behaviour of the animals they hunted. During the long dark nights of winter the Inuit would gather together in large groups living in igloos sharing food and other resources. Most modern Inuit though now live in houses, not igloos …
As the long nights gave way to days of continuous sun the large Inuit camps would break up into smaller ones as they would move to follow migrating animals and birds. But whether in the dark of winter or the endless days of sunshine the Inuit culture revolved around the closeness of the family. Rooted in their culture is the importance of each family member towards their survival as a group in the harsh climate and terrain of the Arctic. Whether it be the children or the elderly, each of their contributions are valued. The elders teach their social values by example, by sharing their food and other items freely with others.
And during the summer hunts they built Inuksuit with piles of stones carefully chosen for their shape and purpose. In the severe landscape of the Arctic this was the only sign that someone had passed through.