Social Customs of the Inuit

Published on March 14, 2014 by Amy

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Inuit Dance Near Nome 1900
Inuit Dance Near Nome 1900

The Inuit are a group of people that live in the inhospitable Arctic region in an area that stretches from Siberia across Alaska and Canada to Greenland. Once labeled Eskimos by outsiders, this group is now commonly referred to as Inuit, the name by which they have always identified themselves. Their distinct culture and social customs are related to the Mongoloid peoples of eastern Asia, their closest relatives. Many Inuit social customs have been shaped by the Arctic climate, and changes in the climate continue to have an influence on those customs.

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Social Organization

Traditional social organization for the Inuit people is based upon family relations as opposed to tribal groups. Usually an older man, called a umialik, heads up each clan. The Inuit have traditionally been a patriarchal society. Today the role of family clans has been diminished by the establishment of a central government. Though still a patriarchal society, the roles of both men and women in the society are beginning to shift.


Traditional Inuit clothing was made from animal skins and fur with two suits of fur worn during colder months and waterproof items created from the intestines of animals. Today this clothing has been replaced by manufactured clothing such as down parkas and rubber boots, while cloth clothing is worn during the summer months. Traditional clothing is still crafted and sold to outsiders interested in owning genuine Inuit garments.


In Inuit culture, dance had both secular and religious roots. Many dancers were also shamans. Dances were performed during feast times and to accompany story and song. The Inuit culture was oral in nature and the dances accompanied stories passed down from generation to generation. Many of these stories and performances occurred during the cold winter months when much time was spent indoors. The Inuit later learned and adapted square dancing from European whalers. Though traditional dances are no longer regularly performed, interest in them has increased, and some cultural groups are working to revive and continue this part of Inuit culture.


The two big holidays celebrated by the Inuit were the Messenger Feast held in December inside the community building and the spring whaling festival held after the annual whale hunt. The Messenger Feast was a display of social status and wealth, while the whaling festival was a way for the Inuit to give thanks for their good fortune in the whale hunt. Smaller trading fairs occurred throughout the year. A modern trading fair has been revived as has the Messenger Feast, though it is now celebrated in January.


Traditionally, Inuit marriages were arranged by parents. When first married, couples would set up home with the husband’s parents. Today teens date and men and women choose their own spouses. While divorce has always occurred in Inuit society, it has never been as common as in traditional American society. Though the traditional role was for the men to go out hunting while the women stayed home and cared for the home and children, these roles are gradually shifting as many Inuit move into more modern communities.

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