For more than 4,000 years, Inuit have occupied the vast land, marine waters and islands that stretch from the Mackenzie Delta in the west to the Labrador coast in the east and from the southern reaches of Hudson Bay to the High Arctic islands in the north. Based on a unique adaptation to the climate, landscapes, seascapes and ecological systems, Inuit culture has developed, Inuit history has unfolded and the healthy Inuit diet has been maintained.
Many mammals, fish and birds live in the Arctic environment and Inuit have historically relied on this abundance to provide nourishment and a healthy quality of life. The availability of animals still dictates Inuit seasonal activities of hunting and fishing in order to ensure a well-balanced and nutritious diet. This annual cycle is evident in the Inuit relationship with the Land and in their dietary patterns.
Arctic Char — Iqaluk (tariurmiutaq)
Arctic char, the northernmost freshwater fish, has been an important and healthy food resource to Inuit for centuries. Char is eaten raw, frozen (referred to as quak), dried (referred to as pipsi), smoked, aged or cooked. Char meat, head and eggs are excellent sources of protein and B vitamins. Arctic char contains omega‐3 fatty acids, which may help prevent heart disease and cancer. The skin and head of char provide a source of calcium, especially when the soft bones are eaten. Arctic char not only provides the nutrients to repair tissues, but also helps in the development and growth of body tissues and muscles. Highly nutritious, abundant and relatively easy to catch, Arctic char is indispensable to the Inuit lifestyle. In some instances, skins from char were made into waterproof coats and the bones of char were made into sewing needles along with pouches that carried the sewing equipment.
The availability of animals still dictates Inuit seasonal activities.
Beluga — Qilalugaq (qaulutaq)
Beluga whales are an important food source in many Inuit communities. The thick skin and thin layer of blubber of whales (maktaaq or muktuk) is a traditional delicacy in the Arctic. Beluga blubber is a good source of protein and omega-3 fatty acids. It contains zinc, retinol and other essential nutrients, but is especially rich in vitamin C, which is why Inuit traditionally never suffered from scurvy. Beluga skin and blubber are eaten raw, aged, dried, cooked or boiled in soups and stews. The dark red meat of whales is eaten dried (nikkuk), frozen, raw or cooked. The blubber of the beluga is also often rendered into oil for cooking and lamp fuel. Rendered oil (misirak), must be anaerobically fermented, meaning fermented without the presence of oxygen. It continues to be a highly prized Inuit delicacy and is eaten as a condiment with dried, frozen or cooked meats. A large beluga can yield up to 200 kg of meat and 50 kg of maktaaq. Some 300 litres of oil can be produced from the blubber of one beluga. Traditionally, the skin of beluga whales was used to cover boats.
Caribou — Tuktu
Caribou provide one of the most important food sources for Inuit in Canada and have been a major part of Inuit diet and culture for many generations. Most parts of the caribou are eaten, providing Inuit with the rich source of nutrients needed to maintain their health. Caribou meat is eaten raw, frozen, aged, cooked or dried. The meat and liver are high in protein and iron, and the liver and stomach contents are an important source of vitamin A. The fat of the caribou is a tremendous source of energy, while the lining of the stomach is eaten as a special treat. Caribou bone marrow is a highly prized treat as well. Not only are caribou an exceptional food source, but they also provide clothing and the tools necessary for survival. Caribou hide acts as a thermal insulator and doesn’t allow harsh temperatures or moisture to penetrate it, making it excellent for warm winter clothing and sleeping mats. Other uses for caribou include using the dorsal tendons found along the spine and back legs to produce sinew (ivalu) for thread, cordage and even snowshoes. Bones and antlers provide necessary tools like needle cases and scrapers, while traditionally, the velvet on the antlers was used by men to tie back their hair. Caribou continue to have many uses today and remain an essential part of Inuit life.
Muskox — Umingmak
Muskox are located only in specific areas of the Arctic and are a valuable local food source. Muskox meat provides many important nutrients for growth and health. It is an excellent source of protein and iron and a good source of vitamin B. The density and the length of muskox hair is useful on caps to keep off mosquitoes and makes excellent bedding. Today, muskox inner wool (qiviut) is used for knitting and is often considered to be more valuable than cashmere. Muskox horns become semitransparent and malleable (similar to molten glass) when heated to extreme temperatures and finely polished and are therefore highly valued by Inuit artists and craftspeople. Muskox group together in mixed herds of 10-20. When threatened by a wolf or other predator, muskox will form a circle around their young to protect them, facing outwards with their sharp horns at the ready. They have been known to scoop up wolves with their horns, hurl them into the air and then trample them. Today, the Inuit hunt muskox under a quota system in order to protect this unique ice age species.
Narwhal — Tuugaalik
In northern Baffin Island, narwhals are a very valuable food source. Dried narwhal meat is an excellent source of protein and iron. The skin and the attached blubber (maktaaq) is delicious and rich in vitamin A and protein. It is also a good source of vitamin C, which is otherwise very difficult to obtain in a region where fresh fruit is rarely available. When narwhals are hunted, most people like to eat the maktaaq first. Narwhal blubber is eaten raw, aged and cooked or boiled in soups and stews. Traditionally, the blubber was used as oil for lamps — its clear-burning oil was more valuable than seal oil, which tends to leave the igloo covered with black soot. Narwhal rendered oil (misirak) continues to be a highly prized Inuit delicacy eaten as a condiment with dried, frozen or cooked meats. Narwhals also supply ivory from their long, spiral tusks, which are generally only found on male narwhals and are actually more closely related to a canine tooth than a horn. Narwhals are sociable marine mammals, generally forming pods of about 15-20, although during migration, groups of hundreds have been seen.
Polar Bear — Nanuq
Polar bears derive all their food from the sea and are seldom found far from the drifting pack ice. Polar bears live mainly on the sea ice, hunting ringed seals as their primary source of food. Travelling on the sea ice in search of seals for nourishment can result in home ranges of 50,000 to 350,000 square kilometres for an individual bear. Although polar bear meat is considered delicious, it is never eaten raw like other meats because it carries many parasites. Polar bear liver is never eaten because it can cause vitamin A poisoning, which results in severe illness or even death. Polar bear meat, like most country foods, is an excellent source of iron and protein. It is usually baked or boiled in a soup or stew. Polar bear fat provides Inuit with vitamin A and omega-3 fatty acids. Polar bear pelts are used to make clothing, but this practice is not as widespread in Canada as it is with the Inuit of Greenland.
Ringed Seal — Natsiq
Ringed seals are the most abundant sea mammal in Inuit Nunangat. Seal meat is the main staple of traditional diets in almost every Inuit community. Seal meat and organs provide Inuit with an excellent source of protein, iron and some B vitamins. Seal liver and blubber are an excellent source of vitamin A and contain some vitamin C as well. Seal meat and organs keep Inuit healthy and warm. Seal is also a major source of selenium in the Inuit diet. The skins of ringed seal are extremely valuable for clothing, as they weigh less than caribou skins and are full of oil, which helps increase their water repellency. Yet they are also porous, which allows body humidity to escape. These characteristics make sealskin an ideal material for boots (kamiks) and for clothing worn while hunting at the ice edge or at seal breathing holes. Sealskin parkas and trousers are still worn in the spring and summer by many Inuit. In the past, the skins were also made into boats and kayaks, and sometimes were even used to make tents. When camping on the Land, Inuit still use seal fat for fuel oil in seal oil lamps (kudlik). While seals provide important nutritional and economic benefits, sealing also continues to play an important role in the social aspects of Inuit culture. This is reflected in the rich vocabulary in the Inuktitut language for different species, varieties and characteristics of seals. Sealing provides the context in which modern knowledge, as well as Inuit traditions about hunting and the ecology, are most fully expressed and transmitted through the generations.
Walrus — Aiviq
Walrus meat provides a well-balanced source of nutrients. The meat of young walruses is particularly enjoyed, either raw or boiled. Walrus skin (kauk) is an excellent source of protein. Walrus blubber eaten raw, aged or boiled is rich in vitamin A and also contains omega-3 fatty acids. Anaerobically fermented and aged meat (igunak) remains a traditional Inuit delicacy. To make this, hunters will cache walrus skin, blubber and meat and leave it to ferment. The skin and blubber of four or five walruses are piled into a heap of about three metres across, then large rocks weighing up to 50 kg are stacked on the meat to ensure it’s protected from scavengers. In the past, walrus hides were a very important source of leather. The Inuit used them to cover the frames of large family boats (umiaq) used for transporting people and their camps. Walrus hides were also used as roofs and leather for boots.
Bowhead Whale — Arvik
Bowhead whales were once an important part of the traditional diet and an essential resource for Inuit — and may become so again if their numbers continue to increase. The successful capture of a bowhead whale meant food, tools, equipment, shelter, heat and light for a whole community. The blubber was not only an excellent food source, but it was also the best source of oil for light and heat. The bones provided some very useful resources as well. For example, the large rib bones and jawbones were used as roof supports, the vertebrae were used as blocks for chopping and cutting, and the bones were made into tools and sled runners. The baleen was used like ties to lash together sleds (kamutiks), harpoon lines and kayak frames. One bowhead whale could ensure the well-being of an Inuit settlement for an entire year. A limited and well-managed hunt has recently been revived in both the eastern and western Arctic under the Nunavut and Inuvialuit land claim agreements. Tests carried out on bowhead whales from the western Arctic have estimated that these whales can live to be more than 200 years old, making them one of the oldest living species on Earth, outlasting even the tortoise. Bowhead whales are so strong that they can break through thick Arctic ice to create breathing holes.
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