An inuksuk is a messenger, a bearer of information. This stone figure is much more than a visual symbol in Inuit culture, for its age-old purpose is to communicate knowledge.
The word inuksuk combines two elements in the Inuktitut language: inuk (“human”) and –suk (“substitute”). Together they mean “which acts in the capacity of a human.” Inuksuit (the plural of inksuk) are made of stones piled in various shapes and sizes, occasionally incorporating pieces of dry wood or bones. Each inuksuk is unique, created with the material at hand and bearing specific information. The inuksuk offers important knowledge to whomever is able to decipher its message.
Archaeological investigations have shown that the Tuniit (Dorset people) made inuksuit over 2 000 years ago. Since that time, these stone figures have played several roles. An inuksuk may identify nearby danger, a cache or a good place to set up camp. It can transmit a personal message or information for future generations. They can be monuments in memory of a loved one. Some point to the best hunting or fishing grounds. Others act like navigation aids or have windows, framed with horizontal and vertical stones, that show a traveller which direction to follow.
A form of inuksuk has even been used in caribou hunting. Rows of these aulaqquat (“scarecrows”) were set up along riverbanks to form a kind of fence that diverted a herd of caribou towards a place where it was easier to hunt them.
An inuksuk does not always have a specific purpose – people can build one simply to mark the fact that they were there or to express a state of mind.
Today, the inuksuk retains a multi-functional role. It can be a geographical marker to identify landmarks in a landscape that is often homogeneous. It can become the messenger of past travellers. It also marks strategic locations for hunting, gathering or fishing.
The inuksuk is a symbol. Keeper of traditions, bridge between generations and bearer of a unique collective identity, it bears witness to the strength and longevity of ancestral knowledge.