Inuit shelters

When people hear the word Inuit, they often think of the iglu (or igloo), the iconic snow house that sheltered Inuit for millennia. Iglus are amazing structures and feats of engineering. They’re also environmentally-friendly. This image from the North West Territories Archives shows two unnamed Inuit women relaxing inside an iglu.

They’re not, however, the only Inuit shelter. You can’t live in an iglu year-round in much of the Arctic and none of the subarctic so Inuit have needed other structures, too.

One Inuit home is the tupiq, similar to a tipi and used in summer. The tupiq is a tent made from seal or caribou skin and used on the land, not on sea ice like the iglu. A family of ten might live comfortably in a tupiq.

(Inuit family in 1915; like so many photos of Inuit, the people here are not named.)

In the last century, these shelters gave way to canvas tents, which are hugely popular among Inuit and can be purchased commercially or made. Canvas tents are a great place to stay while you’re back in a relocated community or a favorite summer, catching char or picking berries; they usually manage to keep you at a comfortable temperature.

Another Inuit structure is the sod house. Inuit used various mosses, later supplemented by windows and wood from shipwrecks, to build cozy structures. The photo below shows an Inupiat sod house in the early 20th century in the Western Arctic, some decades after American whalers were established in the region. Sod houses were built throughout Inuit Nunangat (land), as far away as Southern Labrador.

The Chukchi of eastern Russia used arrangas, dwelling fashioned from driftwood and skin. In 1914, Bob Bartlett and Claude Kataktovik stayed in several as they tried to initiate a rescue of the Karlik survivors, stuck on Wrangel Island. The unexpected visitors enjoyed Chukchi hospitality as they slept on deerskin on platform beds under a domed-shaped roof made of young saplings. Walrus skins were laid over the top and secured with ropes which were attached to large stones on the ground. Inside was a large room where everyone ate and slept, while a vestibule stored sledges and equipment. Bartlett reported that the Chukchi did not use iglus and that their arrangas were uncomfortable. “The air was hot and ill smelling, and filled with smoke from the Russian pipes which the Chukches (sic) used…” Yet, after weeks on the ice, these arrangas and their inhabitants saved his life, and he was grateful for that.

It’s hard to discuss Inuit housing types and technology without spouting clichés about how resourceful Inuit are, so I’ll end this noting that I’ll do a blog post on the Inuit architecture of today in the coming months.

This blog is written by Maura Hanrahan, the author of Unchained Man: The Arctic Life and Times of Captain Robert Abram Bartlett. I’m also a retired Sub-lieutenant (NCS) and a member of the Department of Geography & Environment at the University of Lethbridge, Alberta, Canada. You are invited to subscribe to the blog by going to the Contact page, clicking the bars in the top right corner, and then clicking the small blue bar that says “following.” Then you’ll get an entry every couple of weeks or so delivered right to your inbox.

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