Inuit Figures


late 19th century
Walrus ivory, pigment


Beast of the sea!
Come and place yourself before me
In the dear early morning!
Beast of the plain!
Come and place yourself before me
In the dear early morning!

Igloolik Hunting Song, from The Arctic Imagination: Arctic Myth and Sculpture, by Seidelman and Turner (New York: Thames and Hudson, 1998)

This hunting song and the animal carvings you see here were created by the Inuit (IN-oo-it), Native Americans who live within and just below the Arctic Circle. In the past, the Inuit were called Eskimos by people outside their own culture. Roughly translated, Eskimo means eaters of raw meat, and the Inuit themselves generally consider it an insult. Today, many prefer being known by the name of their own band (such as Igloolik), the region where they live (the North Alaska Inuit), or the more general term Inuit, which means the people.

The ivory animals and the hunting song provide clues to the Inuit view of nature. The Inuit do not think of their carvings as art; in fact, there is no word for art in the Inuit language. They call such sculptures sananguagait, meaning objects that are made or small replicas of real articles.


These carvings reveal a great deal about the Inuit’s relationship with nature.


To survive in the harsh, ice-covered landscape of the Arctic, the Inuit hunt land and sea animals for food and once used the skins for clothing and shelter. As a result, the Inuit developed great respect for nature and believe that every living and nonliving thing has its own spirit, or inua (IN-oo-ah). To ask the spirits for assistance, the Inuit made rules, rituals, and amulets (charms) for hunting. Traditionally, they used carvings and sang hunting songs to lead a hunter to a specific animal, like a caribou, or to call a herd of animals to the hunter.

Carved figures attached to weapons like harpoons and spears, or to small canoes called kayaks, could guide hunters toward their prey. Images of guardian animal spirits worn on clothing could protect an Inuit man or woman from dangerous animals like walruses and polar bears.

The Inuit believed that cruelty to an animal killed in the hunt would cause its spirit to warn other animals away from hunters in the future. Therefore, they made offerings, or presents, to recently caught or killed animals. When a seal was captured, Inuit hunters gave it a drink of fresh water as thanks for letting itself be caught. Every part of an animal that could be used, such as the meat, skin, and bones, was kept; anything not usable was given back to nature.

Artic region,
Inuit, Figures,
late 19th century,
ivory, pigment, string

An Inuit hunting party complete with sled, dogs, and kayak. Note the captured seals and what looks like an arctic fox on the sleigh. Traditionally, only the men hunted, so the female figure is out of place in this scene.


Ivory carving has been practiced by the Inuit for over 2,000 years.


The animal figurines we are focusing on were carved in the late 1800s, but another ivory set in the museum’s collection was made sometime before 1500. Archaeologists scientists who study objects to learn about people from the past have found ivory carvings in Alaska and elsewhere in the Arctic that date from more than 2,000 years ago. Today, some Inuit continue the ivory-carving tradition carried on for so long by their ancestors.

Traditionally, only Inuit men were allowed to carve objects out of ivory, bone, and wood, but now some Inuit women carve, too. Ivory items like these were generally made from walrus tusks and carved with a sharp stone or metal tool. Usually, a sculptor would be inspired to make figure and just start carving, without making any sketches first. He might indicate the basic outline with a few guide marks.

Artists found their inspiration in daily life and the natural world around them. Often they based their work on older carvings. For example, the two sets of figures shown here, though created at least four hundred years apart, include many of the same animals. But there are some important differences. The figures in the later set have a lot of detail, making them easy to identify. The earlier ivory figures are more abstract. Their shapes and sizes, rather than any specific marks, suggest what kind of animal or person they are meant to be.

The two figurine sets were also made for different reasons. The earlier one probably served ceremonial and hunting purposes, helping Inuit men find animals and protecting them from fierce ones like the walrus. However, the 1800s set was meant for sale to non-Inuit people.

Artic region, Inuit,
before 1500,
baleen, wood, ivory

These carved figures and the baleen box were made before 1500. To maintain the power of the amulets, the Inuit kept representations of land and sea mammals, along with the weapons used to hunt them, in separate places.

The Ivory Carver,
Northwestern University Library,
Edward S. Curtis’s The North American Indian, vol. 20.

This photograph was taken in 1928 by the famous American photographer Edward Curtis. The Inuit artist is using a basic metal tool to carve designs on a large walrus tusk.


Though among the world’s harshest environments, the Arctic is full of life.

When most people think of the Arctic or the North Pole, they imagine a flat, treeless, ice- and snow-covered landscape where few things can live. While it is true that much of the region is made up of ice floating on the ocean and land that is permanently frozen (permafrost), the Arctic is in fact home to diverse plants, animals, and microorganisms. In order to survive, the Inuit had to adapt to their cold, harsh surroundings. They learned which mammals, birds, and fish to hunt for food and other uses.

A close look at the two sets of ivory carvings reveals some of the Arctic creatures central to Inuit culture and hunting. The caribou was one of the most important land animals. It provided meat, skins for clothing and shelter, and bones and other materials useful for making tools, weapons, and boats. Other animals represented by these carvings include the arctic fox, arctic hare, weasel, vole, and ptarmigan (a type of bird). Many were especially prized for their fur.

Sea mammals, too, contributed to the Inuit way of life. The 19th-century figurine set includes some Inuit men engaged in a seal hunt. Walruses and certain types of whales provided ivory for making sculptures and tools, and the filterlike teeth of bowhead whales supplied a horny substance called baleen, which the Inuit fashioned into boxes and other items. Today, trade in ivory is illegal because most ivory comes from endangered animals. As a result, many Inuit artists use bone and stone for their carvings.

Map of the Arctic Circle.

(detail) Owl,
late 19th century
Walrus ivory, pigment

Caribou were an important source of food and other materials for the Inuit.


Related Activities

A Quilt Story

Learn about another Baltimore album quilt at Mia by checking out this story! Compare the details of the quilt and quilt top. What do they have in common? How are they different?

Animal Associations

The Inuit believe that each person has a particular animal as a guardian spirit and protector. And they often associate certain animals with specific personal qualities. For example, because caribou live in large herds, a caribou represents a friendly and sociable person. What animal seems most like you? Make your animal out of clay. Show its main features in an abstract way by using shapes and the fewest lines possible. Finally, write a short poem about why you chose your animal.


Using the Inuit sculptures as a starting point, find out more about Arctic animals. Which Arctic animals are on the endangered list today? Why? What are people doing to help them? What can you do? Begin your research at the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) Web site.

See It for Yourself

Come visit Mia’s Native American art galleries to see Inuit, Yu’pik,and Inupiaq artworks from the Arctic region in addition to art from many other regions of North and South America. Think about what the Arctic region artworks have in common. How are they different from each other? If you want to visit as a school group, use our online tour request form.

Exploring the Arctic

The Arctic is a huge place. Draw a map and label the countries that overlap the Arctic Circle. What is the latitude of the Arctic Circle? What type of climate does the Arctic have? What does that tell you about how the Inuit adapted to their environment in order to survive?