Arctic and Subarctic Culture Area

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The Arctic Culture Area encompasses the coastal and inland areas of the Arctic Circle inhabited by Eskimos and the Aleutian Islands of the Aleut peoples. These two groups, Eskimos and Aleuts, are related groups that probably separated about 1,000 BCE. The Subarctic Culture Area stretches from the Pacific Ocean to the Atlantic shore in Alaska and Canada. The Subarctic is defined primarily by vegetation, particularly coniferous forests and wetlands.

The museum holds baskets from two areas of the Arctic: Pacific Eskimo/Aleut and Central Eskimo which includes the Copper, Netsilik, Igluik, Caribou and Baffinland peoples. The baskets from the Subarctic are of unknown provenience.

As is typical of extremely cold climates, human subsistence for all Arctic peoples relies heavily on hunting. The Copper Eskimo group is most commonly associated with Arctic imagery. They traditionally used snowhouses “igloos” for winter shelter and lived in caribou or seal-skin tents in summer. Social groups were small, a nuclear family unit, but could expand when food was more plentiful. Men hunted and fished, women sewed and cared for households. Communal eating and gift-giving of meat were important. The Copper Eskimo used dogs for transport and caribou skins for clothing. All groups used baskets for storage and carrying. Food was often served in wooden bowls. Coastal groups are noted for their carving of ivory.

The Tanana provide an example of traditional Subarctic lifeways about the time of contact with Europeans around 1880. They lived as numerous small bands, hunted large game with lances or arrows for much of the year and fished with nets in the spring. Furs, hides and snowshoes were used for clothing and the first two were also traded. 
Contemporary Eskimos and Aleuts maintain aspects of traditional cultures and ways of life with modern materials and within contemporary economic and political systems. After contact with western cultures, many traditional ways of life of Subarctic Native cultures were subsumed into contemporary economic, social and political systems.

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Arctic Subarctic A

A. Eskimo, Pacific/Aleut Basket – Twinned; Rye Grass with Yarn

Arctic Subarctic B

B. Inuit Harpoon Head – Carved; Whale bone

Arctic Subarctic C

C. Athapascan Basket – Coiled; Willow

Basket weaving is a staple in many cultures worldwide. Basket weaving is an intricate and detailed skill that varies in form throughout different locations. The baskets seen here come from the Aleut/Pacific Eskimo people as well as the Central Eskimo communities. The elegant baskets created by the Aleut women were made of dried rye grasses that grow on the beaches. The weavers would split the grasses to create thread like pieces that would then be intricately woven together. Dyeing the grasses allowed for more depth and intricacy to their designs. 

The Aleut are very skilled in carving, particularly in the creation of tools for hunting. Since marine mammals were a central part of their resources the Aleut created harpoons. There were three main styles of harpoons: the simple harpoon has a head that keeps its original position in the animal after striking it, a compound (toggle-head) harpoon in which the head would move into a horizontal position in the animal after hitting it, and the throwing-lance that was specifically used to kill large animals. To enhance accuracy and precision in hunting the Aleut added “throwing boards” to their harpoons. This extra feature provided more distance and efficiency to the weapon. The tips of the harpoons were made from ivory, bone and even stone.

Arctic Subarctic D

D. Eskimo, Central Basket – Coiled; Rye Grass


Arctic Subarctic E

E. Eskimo Tray – Coiled; Rye Grass