In contemporary times thought of as a marker, inukshuks were
more traditionally used by the Inuit for hunting caribou. These human like
cairns were built of stone and placed in lines on the tops of hills on
each side of narrow valleys. The caribou were often deceived and would
be drawn into the hunting area strategically placed at the head of the
The word 'inukshuk' comes from the Inuit Eskimos and
means an imitation person. An Inukshuk symbolizes the Arctic better perhaps
than any other recognizable artifact. It is intimately linked with animal
and human life, and reaches back to cultures in the distant past.
Inukshuk had many uses. Large ones without arms were built on top of hills
or promontories to indicate the territory of a family group.
A single inukshuk, or two close together on the banks of a
river would indicate a fording place. On the barren lands where the terrain
is repetitive in appearance, they were used to guide travelers. Even in
more rugged country they were used as signposts on long land crossings
by a people who rarely ventured far from sea. Some had only one arm,
pointing towards the correct valley or pass to use. Others had a peep hole
in the center. Travelers looking through the hole towards the far horizon
would see the tiny dot of another inukshuk. They were also built along
the coast line for navigation by travelers on the sea.
Two common patterns were employed in hunting animals, caribou
in particular. Sometimes they were erected in two parallel lines. While
some hunters, usually the women, startled the caribou towards the inukshuks,
the men hid behind them with bows and arrows at the ready.
As the caribou threaded their way through the channel of stone markers
they came within range of the primitive weapons. In other areas the inukshuks
were built in a funnel pattern towards a deep part of the river. Once again
the caribou were herded through the channel, and
when they were forced to swim in the river they became slow moving targets
waiting in their kayaks.
Sometimes people erected an inukshuk simply to break the loneliness.
Anyone who has traveled in the far north appreciates how incredibly vast
and lonely the Arctic can be. One can go for hours, days, even weeks without
seeing another living being. In such a setting it is amazing what an emotional
effect the sight of an inukshuk can have.
And it is hard to resist putting up one's own inukshuk on some isolated
hillock. No real reason, just a sign of one's passing.
A part of the human continuum.