In the earliest times of the Inuit people, around 2200-2000 B.C, a tradition which is now known as the Arctic Small Tool tradition (ASTt) began to develop. This tradition is generally considered the cultural basis for the later Inuit of Alaska, Canada, and Greenland. The Luther Anthropology Ethnographic collection houses objects from Alaska, most collected during the latter part of the Inuit Historic Period ranging from 1770s - 1940s. At this time the Inuit peoples were making their first contact with Europeans and they began crafting items specifically for trade. The items became larger, more delicate and the decoration of the items were intentionally artistic, portraying traditional life and themes. However, their personal objects were often small enough to be carried on their person, while the larger items were necessary to hunt or build shelters. It is in these small items that we see the Inuit material culture as an expression of their long survival of the harsh Arctic landscape and nomadic lifestyle.
Personal items were not common among the Inuit people. As a nomadic people they carried with them what they could, so personal items often showed wealth and status. Some jewelry would be used specifically for rituals. Some of these personal jewelry items such as earrings and necklaces were often made from ivory or antler. Earrings and necklaces would also utilize other stones such as amber or turquoise, shells, beads and metals such as copper or silver. Combs typically made from ivory or antler may have served two purposes, to comb through hair but also to prepare skins.
It was the role of the women to care for children, prepare food, and sew clothing. The Inuit were constantly moving, working, and hunting, activities which made their clothing susceptible to tears and holes. Inuit women were regularly sewing and repairing clothing and blankets as these items were much needed for warmth. Sewing kits were invaluable for keeping tools together and would contain many objects including: a thimble, needles, an awl, spools of thread, and a moccasin creaser. These items would be tied together via caribou sinew thread and then tied to a belt, attached to the drawstrings of her coat, or hung around her neck. Needle cases were carved by their husbands and decorated with images ranging from geometric shapes to depictions of day-to-day life.
Beads were often made from ivory, bone, or shells. They were commonly found on clothing, often decorating the shoulders and front flaps of jackets, as well as on shoes and mittens. The design of the beads ranged from small, nondescript squares to animal shapes. Occasionally, strings of breads were used to attach objects such as pipes or tobacco pouches to belts.
The Inuit carried with them small charms or fetishes. Their exact purpose is still unknown to some degree. Many of the Inuit informants hold that they were used as good luck charms for hunting and protection against illness and injury. Others say they may also have been used as game pieces, objects used to illustrate legends, history, religious beliefs, or used in shamanic rituals. Here we see a variety of marine animals carved from ivory that functioned in this manner, as charms or fetishes.
Living in the Arctic, where temperatures can drop as low as -58 °F during winter months, items of warmth were essential. The Inuit developed a wardrobe to survive the low temperatures with caribou parkas and pants. Socks were often made from grass that served the dual purpose of providing warmth as well as drawing out moisture. Boots were made from a variety of materials such as seal skins; salmon skin was also used along with the furs from caribou. To be successful, they needed to be warm and water proof. They often had hard, high-crimped soles. Shoe design varied from tribe to tribe and went as high as the knee or higher and then tied onto their jacket for support.
The Inuit’s staple food was seal, but they also hunted walruses and whales and fished for salmon. Fishing lines were made from plaited deer or caribou sinew. They used many styles of hooks and harpoon heads. Lures were carved from ivory or bone in the shape of fish. The harpoon was an invaluable weapon to hunt animals such as seals, as they were designed to pivot sideways upon entering the prey, holding onto an animal while it was pulled towards the hunter. The size of the harpoon head varied depending on what was being hunted. While hunting from a kayak, the harpoon head would often be larger than if they were hunting from the ice.
Other items used during hunting were plugs and qanging. Plugs were used to plug the wounds on a seal made from the harpoon. This would stop the bleeding but also help preserve the animal’s flesh from decay. It was pushed into the wound, under the skin. A qanging is a piece of ivory or bone that was carved into one of many different shapes — some resembled seals while others were ‘Y’ shaped. They were used to secure a thong that had been strung through a hole in the seal's throat and mouth. This was then used to tie the seal to a buoy or kayak.
Hunting was an important skill for Inuit men, learned through a variety of games or toys played during childhood. The Eskimo or Alaska yo-yo is a toy that resembles a bolo, which is a weapon used to hunt birds. These toys helped boys to develop skills like dexterity, speed, aim, coordination, strength, and stamina. The object of this toy is to get the balls swinging in the opposite direction at the same time.
This interpretive display was created by Clara Miller ('15), exhibited on third floor Koren in 2015.