Native North America: The Arctic


Aivillik woman Niviatsinaq (“Shoofly Comer”) in gala dress (Cape Fullerton, Nunavut, Canada) (photo By Unknown – A.P. Low/Library and Archives Canada/PA-053548, Public Domain,

The Arctic was populated by nomadic hunter-gatherers whose main diet relied on fish, sea mammals and meat, with little vegetation. The ancestors of the Inuit, Aleutians, and Yup’ik (Eskimo), first arrived from northeast Asia 4000 years ago, and spread across the Arctic to Greenland. Their near relatives are in Siberia, and they differ genetically, linguistically, and culturally from Native Americans south of the tree line. The bands were scattered over a large area of land. The territory of the Arctic peoples is one of the largest territories of indigenous people in the world. The nomadic bands followed migrations of animals. Relationships of reciprocity and respect bound the human and animal populations together, and bound both to the land.


Map, Arctic Cultural Regions

About 500 BCE, a cultural complex called the Norton Tradition, or the Old Bering Sea Culture, came to the fore in the western Arctic area. In the eastern Arctic, the Dorset Culture is prominent in this period, and was a culture of skilled toolmakers, artists and sea mammal hunters. Polar bears are predominant in their art, and the carving style is rough, expressive naturalism. With these cultures, the beginnings of ceremonial carvings can be found, as well as semi-abstract designs on the surfaces of hunting objects appear. The Old Bering Sea Culture is known for the morphing of designs into one another, called polyiconic. The emphasis is on small-scale, portable carvings.

Old Bering Sea Culture, Figure, 150 BCE-100 CE and Ipiutak, Burial Mask, c. 100 BCE (photo and


Thule Culture, Human Figure, c. 1000 

These cultures last through 1000 CE, then the Thule culture rises to the fore. Contemporary Arctic people are directly descended from the Thule. The Thule were successful whale hunters. Art was made by these people in many media, from ivory, wood and bone carvings to ephemeral works in snow and ice. Most of these were smoothly modeled human and animal forms that were polished, and sometimes decorated with incised dots and lines. Some of these were made as shaman’s tools or children’s toys, but most were utilitarian objects in animal forms or masks. Toys were often used as part of the socialization process as models to practice adult skills. Soapstone lamps were also made. These were crescent-shaped basins with mossy wicks in which was burned blubber.


Léon Coginet, A Woman from the Land of the Eskimos, 19th century (photo By Léon Cogniet – [1], Public Domain,

Carving was the men’s art form in the Arctic, and the making of clothing was the women’s art form, with the style and amount of decoration varied by area. Most patterns are geometric, and are created by varying colors and textures of furs. Clothing made from animals was fundamental for survival. The general style was a tailored, slip-on parka, although the tailoring and decorative patterns vary. Tattooing was the most widespread 2-D art form, created mostly by women, with the patterns were made by rubbing ashes into pin pricks or passing a needle and thread covered in grease and ash under the skin. Tattoos, such as on the Inuit woman at the top of the page, enhanced the beauty of features, as did piercings, hair styles, and face painting. The tattoos were aesthetically and erotically appealing. Some tattoos were believed to influence the future, and one’s fate after death. The Yup’ik, of Alaska, also made baskets and pottery. Dance, music and song were important in ceremonial and recreational settings. The subject matter focused on hunting animals and birds and the legendary beings of the mythic past. The dances done were traditional. Storytelling was another important art form. There was a high degree of manual and perceptual skill among the Arctic people.

Inuit, Qarmaq remains and Eskimo building a snow house south of Cape St. David, Cumberland Gulf, Baffin Island, Northwest Territories, Canada. (photos By Ansgar Walk (photo taken by Ansgar Walk) [CC BY-SA 2.5 (, via Wikimedia Commons and By Frank and Frances Carpenter –, Public Domain,

There was specific housing for the season. The summer house was a tent of animal hides, called a qarmaq, while the winter house was a snow house. Survival was the primary and overriding concern. Igloos were a recent development limited to the central Arctic groups, and housed 5-6 people. These were used continuously over the winter, even if the original builder moved on. They were only abandoned and destroyed if there was a death inside since this brought in malicious spirits. The word “igloo” originally meant any winter house. More common were winter structures framed with whale bone, stone or driftwood, and insulated with dirt, sod, skins or packed snow. The Kashim was the men’s assembly house, and menstrual huts, child-bearing structures, and houses for the first 3 months a mother and child were together were also built. For the Arctic peoples, there was a symbolic tie between the house and the womb.


Old Eskimo Kashim, or Dance House, on the Bank of the lower Yukon River. The opening to the passageway leading to the interior is shown at the left of the picture (photo by J. C. Cantwell [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

Although media, quantity of production and skill of production varied from area to area, there was a uniform culture, especially in the conceptual and symbolic areas of language, myth and religion. The main concern of Arctic art is with human-animal relationships, and a highly elaborated ceremonial and artistic life. There was also a belief that art exists to make today’s life more livable. As much enjoyment was derived from creation as from the use. The word used for “art,” as well as many other things, is takminaktuk, which means “it is good to look at or beautiful.” Visual art enhanced life by giving pleasure to the creator and by adding sensuous beauty to the environment. Art had a role in religion as well as daily life. Taboos prohibited specific activities. Shamanism is important as a way to cure illnesses, mitigate crises in the environment, and bring harm to enemies. The world was believed to be inhabited by numerous spirit beings, some dangerous, some benign, who were conceptualized in concrete terms, and could be influenced by art. Art was often made in religious service. Amulets were made from hand-carved or naturally occurring objects. These were often homeopathic or sympathetic magic. Arctic world view is broken up into 3 realms: the supernatural, the social and the natural world. Art makes the transformations between these worlds possible. Art created as sympathetic magic relies on its ability to cross boundaries between the 3 realms, and also aids the transformation into death. This is true for both the performing and the visual arts. Art helps define social relationships in this homogenous society with only a few distinct social roles. Body decorations and clothing displays status, and sets apart men, women and shaman. Art also records past events.

Yup’ik, Swan Mask, Shaman’s Dance Mask and Finger Mask (1 of 2) 1883 (photo By Daderot (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons and By Daderot (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons)

Masking was highly developed in the Yup’ik area. Some masks represent animal spirits encountered by shaman, and some depict animal spirits in the broader sense. Women rarely wear masks unless they are shaman. Finger masks are worn to accentuate the movements of the hands. Masks were made for 1 occasion, and then destroyed. The baleen basket is an introduced art form made by men. The baleen was cut into strips, and then woven into a basket. An ivory knob was carved as a handle.

Aleut, Men’s Hunting Hat and Gut-skin Parka (photo and

The Aleutians are known for gutskin parkas that are lightweight and waterproof, and made from walrus intestine. Carvings on hunting hats are done to please the walrus, and so to make hunting easier. Ivory artifacts signaled the importance of animals, and the powers of the human realm. Clothing also reflected this, and was physically and spiritually protective. Respect for the animal dictates respect for each its component parts. Sometimes the Yup’ik and Aleut used the steamed bent wood technology for hats and boxes. The Aleutian population was decimated by disease as well as capture and relocation during WWII.


Kenojuak Ashevak: Window at John Bell Chapel of Appleby College (Oakville near Toronto 2004) (photo By Ansgar Walk – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

There was a transformation in Arctic art as a result of contact and the resulting changes in society. Souvenirs begin to be sought after, and made, in ivory, as well as engraved walrus tusks and tradition items. In Alaska, drawings, paintings and baskets are made for the tourist trade. The Inuit begin to make soapstone carvings, reserving ivory for details in mixed media sculptures, and become printmakers. The art production had a major economic impact, and cultural pride is shown through the mastery of technique. There is permanent village settlement in the 1950s, and art becomes a defining feature of Inuit life. Co-ops are used as responses to the breakdown of the traditional economy and the reliance on cash-based system. Few women in the region are stone carvers, most are printmakers. The subject matter of contemporary art is depictions of the part as part of a historicizing impulse. The Yup’ik often open a dialogue with the past while using modern materials.


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