Traditional Inuit Hunting: Dog Sleds and Gratitude

Sled dogs resting.
Inuit hunters hacking holes in the ice.
Inuit children dressed in clothes made from animal skins and fur in a photo from around 1925.
A polar bear patiently waiting at a seal breathing hole.
Various traditional Inuit shoes on exhibit.

The Inuit’s native land, the cold, unforgiving Canadian north, was for centuries dismissed by European settlers as too icy and too remote. As a consequence, the area was never really colonized, resulting in old lnuit traditions remaining more or less uninterrupted here until the late 19th century. Among the long-standing traditions that were kept was a nomadic hunter-gatherer lifestyle using dog sleds, where dogs would pull hunters and their equipment long distances in search of prey.

Polar bear-style hunting

Riding their dog sleds over snow-covered ice, traditional Inuit hunters often steered towards seal breathing holes. Here, equipped with spears, they then patiently waited for seals to stick their heads up, practically imitating how polar bears hunt seals.

On other occasions, hunters had the dogs pull their sleds to locations where thick ice met open water. From here they tried to spot whales, and if they got lucky, they sent out row boats to sneak up on the big marine mammal. Armed hunters in the row boats would then harpoon one or several of the whales and start pulling the animals in the direction of the thick ice. Safely recovered, the heavy catch would thereafter be divided up, and the hunters would heave a collective sigh of relief. They would also, furthermore, thank the caught animal for giving itself up. This show of gratitude was part of the veneration Inuit had for nature and animals, and a demonstration of how animals were thought to have souls that could connect with human souls.

Food and clothing

Having brought one or more carcasses back to the camp, when a hunt was over, out of necessity, practically all parts of the caught animals were harvested and used. Meat and organs were consumed as food, and whale blubber was used as fuel for heating. Animal skins were turned into such things as clothes and shoes, while bones and sinews were made to function as needles and threads to piece the warm skin garments together.

Outdated as it may seem to big city people of the 21st century, making threads out of sinews and relying on traditional-style dog sled hunting for survival is still something that certain Inuit do today. As explained in the next chapter, though, this lifestyle is becoming ever more difficult to maintain.