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Do you know what an inukshuk is?

 

Photo by Darren Brefoot licensed CC BY-NC 2.0

The flag of Nunavut has one on it and if you visit northern Canada, you’ll probably run into quite a few of them. They’re called an inukshuk (say "i-NOOK-shook") and you might be surprised at the many uses Inuit people have for them.

But what are they?

small stone inukshuk

Photo credit: origamidon via VisualHunt.com / CC BY-NC-ND

An inukshuk is a structure made of stones piled on top of each other.  Inuksuit, or inukshuks (which means more than one inukshuk) were used for navigation in the frozen north where, in the snow, everything could look the same. They were also used to mark sacred places. An inukshuk could also work like a signpost to make a good hunting or fishing spot.
 

very tall inukshuk

Photo credit: vl04 via VisualHunt.com / CC BY

A long time ago, hunters would pile rocks up to build a path with inukshuks on both sides. The women would chase the caribou down the path where the hunters were hiding behind the inukshuks with bows and arrows.

Are they all inukshuks?

a painting on an inukshuk

Inunnguat artwork courtesy of Melanie Florence.

What most people call an inukshuk isn’t actually what the Inuit call and inukshuk. Stones piled up to look like a person, with arms and legs and a head are usually called an inukshuk. But those amazing human-shaped structures are actually called inunnguat or inunnguaq, which means "imitation of a person," or "pretend person."

How are they made?

Inukshuks are made of stacked stones that are picked because they fit well together. There is no glue or cement that holds them together, they stay up because they are balanced on each other. Each stone supports the one above and below it. There are both large and small inukshuk — because you can use any stones you find to make your inukshuk or inunnquaq, every single one is different. Kind of like a snowflake.

Cool inukshuk facts

inukshuk in the snow

Photo by Valerie licensed CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

In Inuit tradition, it’s forbidden to destroy an inukshuk. So if you’re lucky enough to see one, leave it standing for the next person. You never know. It may have been there for hundreds of years.
 

inukshuks at Baffin Island

Wikimedia/Ansgar Walk/CC BY-SA 2.5

If you make a trip up to Inuksuk Point on Baffin Island in Nunavut, you will see 100 Inukshuk. It's considered a National Historic Site of Canada.
 

the Vancouver Olympics with and inukshuk in the logo

Wikimedia/kris krug/CC BY-SA 2.0

An inunnguaq — a human shaped stone structure — was use as inspiration for 2010 Vancouver Olympics.