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Do you know what an inukshuk is?

 

An inukshuk at Whistler Olympic Park in B.C. (Don Emmert/Getty Images)

The flag of Nunavut has one on it. If you visit northern Canada, you’ll probably run into quite a few of them.

They’re called an inukshuk (say "i-NOOK-shook"). You might be surprised at the many uses Inuit people have for them.


But what are inukshuks?

a large stone inukshuk with light shining through

An inukshuk on a mountain in Iqaluit, Nunavut. (Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press)

An inukshuk is a structure made of stones piled on top of each other.  Inuksuit, or inukshuks (more than one inukshuk) are used for navigation in the frozen north. There in the snow everything can look the same.

Inukshuks are also used to mark sacred places. They can also work like signposts to make a good hunting or fishing spot.

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. The hunters would be 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 what the Inuit call an inukshuk. We think of those stones that are piled up to look like a person, with arms and legs and a head, as an inukshuk.

But those amazing human-shaped structures are actually called inunnguat or inunnguaq. That means "imitation of a person," or "pretend person."


How are they made?

three little inukshuk along the shores of a lake

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. That's because you can use any stones you find to make your inukshuk or inunnquaq. So every single one is different. Kind of like a snowflake.


Cool inukshuk facts

 

  • 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.
  • There are 100 inukshuks at Inuksuk Point on Baffin Island in Nunavut! It's considered a National Historic Site of Canada.
  • An inunnguaq was use as inspiration for Vancouver 2010 Olympic Games.