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Close-up of an inukshuk, which is a visual composition of stones stacked in the shape of a human.

Culture

Detail of an inuksuk

A Voice Carried by Stone

Man in winter repairing a stone sculpture using pieces that had fallen.

Alec Tertiluk reinforces an inuksuk made vulnerable by the elements and the passage of time.

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.


Gallery of Inuksuit in Nunavik

Stone sculpture, in winter, having the appearance of a human with open arms.
Stone sculpture of human appearance, overlooking a village from the top of a hill.
Details of a stone sculpture, with circular and triangular pieces, facing a winter sunset.
Stone sculpture of human appearance, facing a bay at low tide.
View over a stone sculpture of human appearance, in winter.
Two stacked stone sculptures, from the top of a coastal landscape in winter.
Sculpture of stacked stones of human appearance, from the top of a hill where one can see a village down below during a summer sunset.
Sculpture of stacked stones of conical shape, facing a winter tundra at sunset.
Detail of stacked stones of orange color, bathed by summer light.
Stone sculpture of human appearance, with open arms, over a coastal winter landscape.
Stone sculpture of human appearance, with a triangular head, standing on a rock at the end of the day.
In a landscape of summer tundra, remains of a stone sculpture whose components have been scattered on the ground over time.
In a landscape of winter tundra, sculpture of stones stacked in a conical column.
Snow-covered sculpture of stacked pyramidal stones.
Two stone sculptures stacked in human form, on a coastal rock, with a clearing sky in the background.
Stone sculpture of human shape, on a rock in summer.
Stone sculpture stacked in the form of a column, overlooking a large bay and small islands in the distance.
Sculpture of stacked stones depicting a human with open arms, in front of a snowy landscape.
Detail of a sculpture of stacked stones, bathed in a summer light at the end of the day, with warm colors such as orange and brown.
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