Inukshuk (singular), meaning "likeness of a person" in Inuktitut (the Inuit language) is a stone figure made by the Inuit. The plural is inuksuit. The Inuit make inuksuit in different forms and for different purposes: to show directions to travellers, to warn of impending danger, to mark a place of respect, to store food, or to act as helpers in the hunting of caribou.

The Inukshuk is so common across the Arctic that they have become a distinctive feature of the region. The Inukshuk is simply a pile of stones arranged in the shape of a human being. At some time in his lifetime every Inuk feels the need to erect his own Inukshuk.

Examples of Inukshuk

Examples of carved and built Inukshuk

The Inuit and Tuniit (Inuit from Cape Dorset) used the Inukshuk to mark trails, indicate caches of food, the location of nearby settlements and the location of good places to hunt or fish. They are not monolithic structures only averaging between 5 and 7 feet in height.

At one time the Inuit built Inukshuk in long lines on each side of the Caribou trail. The woman and children would hide behind the Inukshuk until the caribou herd came between the lines. The women and children would stand and start making noise and the caribou would start running in straight lines to avoid the people on both sides. The Inukshuk made it look like there were many people. The caribou would then run right to the end of the trail where they would be trapped by the hunters with bows and arrows.

The Inukshuk symbolize the fortitude and determination of the Inuit. The Inukshuk though made of inanimate rock embodies the spirit and persistence of the Inuit who live and flourish in one of the worlds’ harshest environments.

Inukshuk's represent strength, leadership and motivation, it was not therefore surprising when in 1999 on the creation of Nunavut to symbolize their autonomous region formerly the North West Territories the people of the region chose to show the Inukshuk on their flag. A trip to Trafalgar Square in London will find the flag flying outside Canada House on a permanent basis alongside the older more heraldic flags of the other provinces of Canada.

In common with other Canadian symbols such as the maple leaf and the beaver, the Inukshuk has already taken its place in contemporary Canadian society and has been chosen as the symbol for the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics.

[return to top]



Traditional Miniature Ivories

Canadian Arctic/Greenland

Ivory has been used by the inhabitants of the Arctic dating back to an ancient Inuit people, who flourished between 1000 B.C. and 1100 A.D. Originally it appears that these early Inuit produced mainly amulets and fetishes used to adorn their clothing, today examples can be found in anthropology collections in all major ethnographic museums. One of the best, and most famous collections, was started by the Danish Royal family in the 19th century and is today still housed privately in Copenhagen.


Russian Billikins, owned by Narwhal on long term loan to NIAEF

During early contact between Inuit commencing in the late 18th century with the whalers, it was common for walrus tusks to be traded and then halved and turned into cribbage boards, whilst whales teeth left over after the whaling hunts were often etched with whaling scenes and are today coveted as scrimshaw work. Chess pieces were also often made from the marine ivory. During the latter part of the 19th century the Inuit copied some of these ideas and the production of etched and incised tusks and teeth commenced. Whether from the walrus, the narwhal, or other toothed whales, this marine ivory was primarily a by-product of subsistence hunting.

In particular it was the Moravian missionaries who settled along the Ungava peninsular and Labrador coast who encouraged trading in small ivory pieces with the Inuit as an early economic means. This practice continued until the final Moravians abandoned the Arctic in the late 1950s. As a result occasional small detailed pieces of primarily human figures and animals can still be found, a rare example of which is presented at Art London.

As the production of Inuit Art became firmly established across the Canadian Arctic from the early 1950s, many communities chose to use the ideas of the Moravians to utilise the otherwise abandoned tusks and teeth to create miniature carvings and scenes. The hamlets of Pelly Bay, Inukjuak and Repulse Bay became particularly well known for ivory figure production. This form of sculpture continued into the 1970s but was then severely curtailed with the introduction of CITES regulations (Commission for International Trade in Endangered Species).

Although CITES was particularly aimed at restrictions of land mammal ivory (elephant, rhino) its inception blanketed the world and effectively resulted in the end of production of even marine ivory for export from the Arctic. A small amount of ivory carvings are still produced locally in Alaska, the Canadian Arctic and Greenland, but are for the domestic market only.

The Narwhal Inuit Art Gallery is delighted to be able to present several examples of these early Canadian and Greenlandic pieces acquired in the secondary market that pre-date the CITES regulations.

[return to top]




The history of the tupilak goes back 5,000 years. The tupilak proper was a magically created troll animal, which the Greenlanders manufactured out of the bones of children or various animals. The tupilak was made at a lonely well-concealed spot, the individual bones being put in place by the thumb and little finger only. If other fingers were used, the attempt would be a failure.

Earth or seaweed was used for the musculature. The whole thing was wrapped in a piece of old skin and life was given to it by the singing of a magic song. The creator had no need to be a shaman, as tupilak magic came more under witchcraft and consequently anyone skilled in the latter could make a tupilak provided he adhered to the proper procedure.

The tupilak’s purpose was to be rid of an enemy, and the tupilak attacked in the form of the animal it represented. If it was a seal, it would drag down the hunter and drown him. As a polar bear, it would eat the enemy.


The tupilak was a magical implement devoid of independent will. It was, thus, compelled to obey a person possessing insight into the supernatural world. Were the tupilak given orders by two different people, it would obey the one with the greater magical ability. Should the victim prove to be the more adept at the magic art and had reason to suspect what was taking place, he would return the tupilak in order that it would hunt its creator instead.

When the Greenland explorer, Gustav Holm, reached Angmagssalik in 1884, he asked what a tupilak looked like. The people of Angmagssalik found it difficult to draw it on the spot, and therefore carved one in wood. This was the beginning of tupilak production which gradually spread all over Greenland. Only in rare instances will a Greenlander use his tupilak to bring misfortune or disaster to his neighbor.

Today the artist is under the spell of goodness, of laughter, humor and kindness and not under the demonic control of the diabolic shamans. He creates what he has envisioned in his dreams, from what others have told him and from his own experiences with his fellow men. They still assume "unnatural" forms as did the original tupilaks.

There is no definite or single theme behind the tupilak. Some are funny, some are droll, some sad and tragic, some show old superstition. Others catch a weird monster of the imagination. They appear as fetishes, totemic figures, and as fertility designs in various seemingly pornographic stances. However, this was not intended by the shaman or the artist.

Having originally been carved from tooth ivory, with the ban the artists moved to primarily caribou horn for making tupilaks. As the caribou sheds its antlers annually this is more ecologically sound.

[return to top]