Tools & Weapons of the Inuit

A historical ulu knife on display in a museum.
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The indigenous peoples of Alaska, Greenland and the Canadian Arctic are referred to collectively as the Inuit, although there are several different Inuit cultures that speak different languages, or dialects of the Inuit-Aleut language family. The Inuit traditionally used a variety of tools and weapons for hunting and fishing, including bows, knives and harpoons, although many of these have now been replaced or largely supplemented by modern tools.

1 Hunting Weapons

Inuit hunters pursue different creatures depending on the season and the region, including caribou, whales, polar bears, foxes, birds, hares, seals and walruses. Historical Inuit hunting weapons include the bow and arrow, the harpoon, the club and the knife. The harpoon is a type of javelin with a wooden shaft, a long and slender thrusting tip and a rope so the hunter can retrieve the weapon after a cast. The knife is traditionally made of stone, bone, ivory, horn, antler or teeth. The Inuit also use a skinning and butchering knife called an "ulu" for preparing game. The ulu can have a large, crescent-shaped blade mounted parallel to the grip. Many Inuit still hunt on a regular basis, but often use rifles and commercially made spears rather than bows and hand-made harpoons as in the past.

2 Fishing Tools

The Inuit fish for Arctic char, trout and whitefish. The Inuit fishing spear has three heads like a trident, and is used in conjunction with nets and fishing lines. The harpoon, often used for seal hunting, can also be used as a fishing tool. When fishing or hunting seal, the person using the harpoon waits at a hole in the ice for a chance to strike when the animal appears. The Inuit fishing rod is short enough to be held in just one hand, allowing the fisherman to stand directly over the hole in the ice.

3 Other Tools

The traditional one-person Inuit boat is called a "qajak," the source of the English word "kayak." Along with the qajak, the Inuit also use boats made of sealskin, called "umiait," which can carry multiple riders. Many Inuit now use motorized canoes and speedboats instead. For traveling over land or ice, the Inuit craft dogsleds called "qamutiit" or "qamutiik." These sleds are still used, but ATVs, trucks and snowmobiles are how more popular. Several specialized tools were used for specific chores before modern alternatives were available. For instance, the bow drill was used to light a fire through friction. The blubber pounder was used to extract lamp oil from blubber. Some Inuit still use the "qulliq," or stone lamp, occasionally, but canola oil is often used in place of whale oil.

4 Regional Differences

Some Inuit tools were used only in one particular region. For instance, Inuit people of Canada's Nunavut region used a snow probe made of antler to test the depth of snow at a potential igloo site or to look for breathing holes used by seals in the ice. This type of antler probe was unknown in other regions. Some tools varied from one Inuit group to another even though the tool itself was widely used. Blubber pounders were made of musk-ox horn in some areas, but not in others. Archeologists have also been able to distinguish between different Inuit settlement phases in Greenland based on differences in the design of harpoon heads.

Scott Thompson has been writing professionally since 1990, beginning with the "Pequawket Valley News." He is the author of nine published books on topics such as history, martial arts, poetry and fantasy fiction. His work has also appeared in "Talebones" magazine and the "Strange Pleasures" anthology.