The Inuits’ sled dogs

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During these coronavirus times I have been exploring YouTube for documentaries on polar Eskimo culture. This has led to a little reading on the subject as well. The Eskimo people, more properly known as Inuit, have for centuries survived year-round in the most inhospitable environment in the world. They were nomads who had to constantly travel to survive as hunters. The documentary footage from the 1920s through 1960s is amazing, showing walrus hunting from skin kayaks and seal hunting through holes in the ice as well as interesting family life. This is cultural anthropology information that has been preserved and shows how these happy people lived and survived.

What I find fascinating is that this culture could not have survived without dogs. The dogsled was the principal means of transportation in the Arctic. In this way groups of families could follow the game to the hunting grounds. In the early days when wood was not available, the sleds were made out of caribou antlers and whalebone lashed together with sinew. The dogs were lashed to the sled in a fan shape using sealskin lines and harnesses. The dog’s teeth would be filed smooth to prevent them from chewing the sealskin lines, harnesses and sleds. They would be fed large chunks of meat and wolf it down rapidly without chewing.

The dogs were also very important for hunting polar bears. Not only did the bears provide an excellent source of meat but three pairs of trousers could be cut from one skin. All the men wore white polar bear pants with the long warm fur. There are fascinating descriptions of the whole team of dogs hunting bears at night with the dogs swarming the snarling beasts until the hunters could get their spears into the bear. The dogs then calmed down with a strange suddenness and waited for the warm meat of their enemy.

Seals are the most important game for the Inuit people. The blubber is used for the soapstone lamps to heat and illuminate the winter houses. The meat is most delicious. Seal skins are sewn into waterproof kamiks (boots) by the women. The kayak is a sealskin boat and the kayakman wears watertight garments of sealskin. In the winter when the waters freeze the kayaks cannot be used to hunt seals. This is when the hunter must take advantage of the need for the seals to come to their blowholes to breathe. These holes are quite small and difficult to find. The dogs can sniff out the holes and help the master locate the seals. Once the seals are harpooned the dogs are useful to haul the seals from the water and to drag their heavy quarry home.

An Inuit’s dog team is his pride and joy. In summer they carry packs and heavy loads on treks. The dogs appear very happy in their natural environment, which is still true today. They take great care of their puppies and do their best to feed and care for them.