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Forgotten Survival Skills That Kept The Eskimos Alive

Forgotten Skills That Helped The Eskimos Survive Winter

Image source: Wikipedia

When most people think of Native Americans, they picture the tribes of the Plains, riding on horseback, hunting buffalo and waiting out the winter in their teepees.

But not all Native Americans lived this way. Consider the people we often call Eskimos.

The word “Eskimo” means “eaters of raw meat” in the language of the Algonquin tribe. It was the French who began calling the native people they found up north by this name. While there are numerous tribes, such as the Inupiat, the Inupiaq, and Yupik, for the sake of this article, we will refer to these tribes as the Inuit.

The Inuit tribes that lived in the far north somehow survived in far harsher climates than the Plains people ever had to endure. How could humans have survived in areas with low light levels for part of the year, extreme wind chills, and temperatures of minus 30 or more?

There were a great many skills that helped these native people survive. While not many of us have a chance to hunt seals, we would be wise to take note of some of the survival skills that allowed these native tribes to thrive in a very unforgiving climate.

Food

The Inuit people consumed a diet that was perfectly suited for the environment in which they lived. During the summer, the Inuit would move inland, away from the coast, and hunt caribou, which, like the Plains tribes, provided them with almost everything they needed. The tough skin on the head was used to make the soles of shoes, and the softer skin from the belly for clothing that was close to the skin. The Inuit were careful to use everything from their kill, as it took four animals to make one jacket or parka. A pair of pants for one person required two more caribou hides. The antlers were used as tools, tendons were used for thread, and fat was rendered to store food for later, also to use as fuel for “lamps.” During the short summers, berries were gathered, birds were caught and the meat dried, eggs were enjoyed, berries and herbs were gathered and stored. Fresh water fish also were caught from lakes or streams. The Inuit diet consisted almost entirely of meat, with only the few plants that could be found during the very short summer to add some variety.

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During winter, dogs were invaluable hunting partners. The Inuit stayed close to the coastline. Before the sea edges froze, seals would often sun themselves on the sand or rocks. Killing a seal during these times was a challenge and took real teamwork. In the winter, dogs would sniff out the air holes these mammals used. The Inuit would lie in wait and when the seal came up for air, they speared it. Seals were as prized as caribou, but for different reasons. Their hides were waterproof, making them valuable for shoes and gloves. Seal and walrus meat was extremely nourishing. Whales were difficult to catch, as the Inuit had to hunt them using kayaks and spears; however, when they did kill them, they used every single part. The fat, or blubber, is very high in calories and helped the Inuit stay warm as they burned many calories to maintain their body heat. The blubber also was used as oil for lanterns, which provided heat and light.

Eskimos near Thule Air Base in 1968Using the food that was available to them to their best advantage was one of the Inuit’s secrets to survival.

Transportation

Before you can get around, you need to know your way around! The Inuit used the stars and sun (when it was available) to navigate, especially on the water. On land, they often used landmarks or erected one, if they thought it was necessary.

The Inuit used sleds made from whale bones with skins stretched over them. Dogs would pull the sleds through the snow. On the water, kayaks were the usual means of transportation, but when moving larger families or supplies (such as whale meat) larger boats, called umiaqs, were used. If the umiaq used oars, it was usually the women who operated them. Paddles were used by men. While most kayaks were made from driftwood, umiaqs were made from whale bones lashed together or pegged together. Seal skins were then stretched over the frame.

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For a typical umiaq of about 30 feet, seven to eight seal skins would be needed to cover it. While these boats were large, they were fairly lightweight and could be carried by two or three men. A 24-foot umiaq weighs a mere 150 pounds, on average. Dogs also were counted on to carry or drag packs during the summer months. The husky dog that the Intuits used comes from the Inuit breeding of dogs with wolves. Huskies can survive the harsh winters with their thick coats and are very strong. Most huskies easily can carry a 40- to 50-pound pack all day.

Shelter

One of the best-known traits of the Inuit people was their wintertime shelters, called igloos. Igloos were houses made of snow and ice and were the best winter shelters, as snow causes air to be trapped, making it a very good insulator. A typical igloo could be built in less than one hour by two men with sharp knives. After the blocks were cut and stacked, the snow was packed on the outside for further insulation. Sometimes, several igloos would be connected via tunnels, enabling large families to have some privacy, but still stay together. Igloos often were warmed with homemade lanterns, fueled by the melted fat from seals and whales. So while outside temps might be -50 degrees Fahrenheit, inside the igloo, it could be 60 to 70 degrees.

Summer shelters usually were made of whale bones lashed together and covered with hides. The floors also would be covered with hides for insulation and comfort.

Clothing

Almost all clothing was made from seal and caribou hides. In the coldest winter months, two layers of clothing were worn. The one next to the skin had the fur turned inward; the outer layer had the fur facing outward. Caribou hide has natural air pockets, which make it super-insulating. Parkas often were made from caribou hides, with the fur inside, and waterproof seal hides on the outside. Many parkas had hoods edged in fur. Gloves were made much like parkas. While polar bear skins were valuable, these were not hunted often as the risk was too great.

Perhaps we never will live in environments like those of the Inuit people, but we all can learn from the creativity, resourcefulness and determination that kept them alive.

Would you want to live as an Inuit? Do you believe you’d have what it takes? Share your thoughts in the section below:

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9 comments

  1. Today I had to go outside to get something and it was only -20 so I just threw on my boots and a jacket, no gloves or warm pants. Thought I was only going to be outside about 10 minutes or so.

    I was only outside for 5 minutes when my hands and face started to ache with the cold. I pushed through the pain and finished the task I’d come outside to do, but I suffered for my haste and lack of preparation.

    When I got back inside, I hurt all over and had to lie down for about 10 minutes before the pain was gone. Bottom line is that cold can kill you and the only difference between 0 degrees and -20 is that it will definitely kill you faster. You’ve got to give these people a lot of credit for learning how to live in conditions that are almost beyond human endurance.

    • Great point, SueJean!

    • I know what you mean. I’m originally from L.I. N.Y, and though we didn’t get (normally w/o wind chill) -20° weather. However I learned that lesson well, I was 15’ish (62½ now). I went outside for what supposed to be a 10-15 minute task. It was in the dead of winter, wind chill factor around -08°. After 5 or so minutes I started to shiver. Went back inside to sit by the fired (we had a fireplace). Than went back out looking like nanook, but warm.

      Shal’aam Aleichem
      AAPiY
      Mike

  2. I’m an Alaskan Native, and a lot of what you post here, we still do! I’m not from near the coast, but I know people that are and they still hunt seal and the one time I was at a coastal village, someone got a beluga whale, so a lot of people from the village went to go get some of the whale.
    Thanks for writing this up, and I’m really impressed at how accurate this is (still to this day).

  3. Many overlook a group. Invisable and irritation to most but have honed survival skills among us for many decades. The homeless. many survive sub-zero temps with little effect. they survive on very little money and collect what they survive on from the castoffs of others. should we take a look?
    Grampa

  4. The inside temperature of an igloo is around 30-32 F, at 60 it would melt. Even at that low temperature after a while it has to be abandoned because the ice built up inside.

  5. This group of people are among the ones who would survive without problem. they are at the apex of inganunity and inventive skills. the lesson we need to take is while man needs to live without waste and utilize everything the lesson that lies below the surface of consious thought is that it was doen without legislation or passing mandentory laws that all must follow. It has been done with the efforts needed that provide maxium advantage for man. this can only come from making the mistakes and adjusting your methods before you must depend on them for your life. Using their methods for your survival will not guerentee it. You may have the knowlege but lack the skill to perform. The lessons given that count is one that tells us that to truly prepare it takes time and practice. they have learned their skills from their fathers and mothers who with practiced hands have given worth to the lessons to be passed down yet again. Man with all his civilization can only pass on knowlege. it is only the hands of a parent that can pass on skill. This alone will insure mans survival. Where do you stand? Best find your parent that wants you to survive………….Grampa

  6. I admire people groups like these immensely. I couldn’t survive for an entire hour in those conditions. However, I have always been a curiosity nut and look beyond the obvious parts of living and wonder about the less obvious. For example:

    How about toilet needs? Where do they go to take care of them and what serves for toilet paper?

    Do they have enormous dental issues being almost strictly meat eaters?

    Why did the author not mention their unique snowglasses?

    What about their use of wolf fur which uniquely will not form frost from warm breath?

    Do they or do they not hunt wolf by dipping a hunting knife-blade in blood, letting it freeze and dipping it again over and over until it builds up a thick, frozen amount, and then cutting a small hole in the ice, they insert the handle and pour water on the handle until it freezes; the wolf will smell it and come an begin licking it. Before long the wolf’s tongue will grow numb and it won’t realize that it has cut itself and will keep licking…now it’s own blood…until it dies from blood loss. True or false?

    What is their concept of God? Or have they any?

    Do the original tribes cut their hair?

    Do they have enough beards to shave?

    How do they pick their mates?

    What traits or other consideration would a Inuit man consider an attractive and desirable woman? How do they join in ‘matrimony’? Or do they?

    Are their offspring about equal (male to female) or has “Mother Nature” played a hand in this and adjusted accordingly to insure survival?

    The answers to any or all of these idle questions would please me. Can anyone enlighten me?…Old Geezer (80)

  7. The Inuit are amazing as are all the original natives that were here in Interior AK. I’ve lived here for 35 years and I’m still learning new tricks. I take the cold seriously and prepare accordingly.

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