The arctic region of North America, which extends from Alaska across Canada to Greenland, is a harsh physical environment, with little vegetation due to cold temperatures year-round. Despite the challenges of living there, several indigenous tribes — original inhabitants who live in groups of families or clans — have lived in this arctic region for centuries. One thing these tribes share in common is the ability to adapt to harsh weather conditions and live in harmony with the natural elements. In this Arctic Native American tribes for kids unit we will share information about the tribes living in these areas, some of their ways of living and customs, classroom activities & worksheets, and a wonderful printable diorama scene art project!
While the term “Eskimo” is still in use among some native people of Alaska, it has fallen out of favor among those in Canada and Greenland. “Inuit,” the word in the Inuktitut language for “the people,” has replaced the term Eskimo in Canada and Greenland. (Note: While Greenland is culturally and politically considered part of Europe, it is geographically part of the arctic region of North America and native peoples there share similar ways of life.)
This lesson plan is designed to give a broad overview of some of the cultures and traditions of indigenous peoples of the arctic region of North America.
Eskimo – A broader term referring to some Alaska native peoples; today, it’s considered rude to refer to Canadian Inuit tribes as Eskimos. “Alaska Native” is a more inclusive & accepted name.
Inuit – Canadian Inuit people live in the Nunavut Territory of Canada and Arctic regions of Canada to the east. There are also Inuit tribes in Alaska and Greenland.
Inuvialuit – Inuit people who live in the Arctic region of Western Canada.
Inupiat – An Alaska native Inuit tribe also known as “Eskimos” that live in the northwest Arctic and Bering Straits region of Alaska.
Yupik – An Alaska native tribe that are related to the Inuit people, and are also known as “Eskimos.” The Yupik who live along the Western coast of Alaska.
Kalaallit – An Inuit tribe of Greenland.
Transportation by Land and Sea
While many arctic peoples around the world used to travel via dogsled, today snowmobiles are the primary means of traveling long distances. Dog sledding, also known as “mushing,” is a form of transportation where a person stands on a sled that is pulled by several dogs. Common breeds of sled dogs include the Malamute and Husky. Today, dogsledding is more of a recreational sport adopted by non-native Alaskans and other people living in cold, snowy northern climates like Northern Minnesota. It wasn’t until 2011 that an Eskimo won the Iditarod, the most famous dog sledding race in the world. The race was founded in 1973 as a way to pay tribute to this traditional mode of transportation.
Travel over water to hunt and fish is still a staple of arctic life, as it has been for generations. Kayaks are narrow human-powered boats that are pointed at both ends, with a cover on top to make the craft easier to recover if it capsizes (tips over). Originally made from driftwood frames and covered with animal skins, today kayaks are made from a variety of materials, such as fiberglass and plastic.
Shelter – Where they Live
Did you know that igloos were never used as permanent homes, but rather temporary shelters for nomadic hunters? Although commonly associated with Eskimos, igloos were also never used in Alaska, but rather by The Inuit peoples of Canada and Greenland. While today people living in arctic regions live in modern houses, earlier generations of Eskimo and Inuit people used seal skins and animals hides stretched over driftwood and whale bones for housing.
Food – What they Eat
Because the land is permanently frozen, people in arctic regions cannot raise crops for food, and no trees grow near the Arctic Circle. Instead, they hunted animals and foraged for plants found nearby, known as subsistence living. Depending on where these animals were found, people hunted musk-oxen, caribou, polar bears, seal, walrus, whales, and fish.
During the short summer season, instead of planting and harvesting, arctic residents would forage for berries and vegetation, though today fresh foods can be flown in to communities. It was often common to cache, or store, food underground to preserve it. The native people in arctic regions of today live in modern homes, but due to the high cost of transporting food, hunting is still both culturally and practically important.
Clothing – What they wear
Traditional Eskimo clothing was designed to survive the extreme winter climate and was made from caribou hides and fur from other animals for warmth. The fur-lined hooded parka is a well-known traditional mode of dress that comes from Eskimo and Inuit culture. Even boots were made from caribou skin and are extremely warm, comfortable, and tough enough to last in freezing weather.
Arctic Native Tribes Vocabulary Word List
Indigenous – Original inhabitant of a place, region, or country.
Tribe – A group of people that includes many families, clans, or generations.
Tradition – A story or belief that has been a part of a society for a long time.
Inuit – Indigenous people of North America (Alaska, Canada, and Greenland) who live just below the Arctic Circle.
Eskimo – A word used by some Alaska native peoples living in arctic regions.
Subsistence – Using just enough locally available resources (food, clothing) to sustain life.
Nomadic – Roaming from place to place in order to find food.
Igloo – A temporary shelter made of blocks of ice or firmly packed snow.
Kayak – A small boat that is pointed at both ends with a cover on top that makes it easier to navigate in cold water.
Dogsledding – Also known as “mushing,” dogsledding is a traditional Inuit way of traveling long distances across snow in a harsh cold environment.
Cache – To store something away for later, like food.
Parka – A long winter coat with a fur-lined hood.
Reading Comprehension Questions
- ___________ is a word describing the original inhabitants of a place, region, or country. (Indigenous)
- A __________ is a group of people including many families, clans, or generations. (Tribe)
- A ____________ is a story or belief that has been a part of a society for a long time. (Tradition)
- The _________ people are indigenous to Alaska, Canada, and Greenland just below the Arctic Circle. (Inuit)
- Today, the word ___________ is mainly only used in Alaska to describe native people living there. (Eskimo)
- People who roam from place to place in order to gather food are known as ________. (Nomadic)
- An __________ is a temporary shelter made of blocks of ice or firmly packed snow. (Igloo)
- A _____ is a small boat that is pointed at both ends with a cover on top that makes it easier to navigate in cold water. (Kayak)
- Also known as “mushing,” __________ is a traditional Inuit way of traveling long distances across snow in a harsh cold environment. (Dog sledding)
- A way of being that uses just enough of available resources to sustain life is called ___________. (Subsistence)
- Storing food underground to retrieve later is called ________. (Caching)
- A long, warm winter coat with a fur-lined hood is called a _______. (Parka)
Social Studies Lesson Plan: How technology can change traditions
Discuss with students how cultures can change as technology advances. Have them consider the shift from dog sled teams to snowmobiles, from traditional housing and igloo shelters to modern homes, and living off the land to shopping at a grocery store or online.
Have students think of examples from the last century that have changed the way their families live compared to prior generations. Draw two columns on a whiteboard or chalkboard and label them “traditional” and “modern.” (Examples: horse and buggy vs. car, postal mail vs. email and texting.) Discuss these traditional vs. counterparts and how life is different in the wake of newer innovations and inventions, and have students consider how these adaptations have affected the peoples of Arctic North America.
Science: Subsistence and Conservation
If subsistence means to use only locally available resources necessary to survive, have students consider what would that look like in their everyday lives. Have students consider the idea of conservation, which is planned management of resources in order to conserve, or save them from being used up. Then compare subsistence living and conservation and see how they complement each other; if we each used fewer resources, would we need to make as many conservation efforts? What would our society look like if we applied both principles to how we live today? As a group discussion, have students list examples of both subsistence and conservation in their daily lives.
Art: Inuit / Eskimo Diorama
General Diorama Instructions:
- Color all pages before cutting them out. You’ll need scissors, a razor blade/exact knife, and stick glue to assemble them.
- All tabs that are to be inserted into slots are marked with corresponding numbers. Slots are indicated by short, heavy lines.
- Each figure stands up with a paper support – those that are of special sizes are labeled as such. Unmarked supports will fit any of the remaining figures.
To Construct Paper Igloos
- Cut out the main igloo, scoring and folding on the dotted lines. Paste each section to the adjoining section to form the cup-like structure.
- Cut out tunnel entrance, scoring and folding on the dotted lines. Paste the tab to the the other side of the tunnel as indicated. Allow the tabs on the front of the tunnel to overlap and paste. (We needed to use some binder clips to hold this in place until the glue was dry.) Insert the three tabs on the back of the tunnel into the corresponding slots and paste.
To Construct the Kayaks
- Note the places on sides of boats where the tops fit, indicated by arrows, and mark these points with pencil.
- Cut out kayak parts, cut slots, and score and fold on dotted lines.
- Paste the tabs on the top of the boat to the sides between the two pencil marks. Insert the tabs on the sides into the slots on the bottom of the boat. Fold the tabs inward and paste. Then, paste the ends of the boat together.
To Construct Dog Sleds
- Cut out the bottom section of the sled, cut slots, and score and fold on dotted lines. Fold at end of sled as indicated and paste.
- Cut out back of sled, and score and fold on dotted lines. Fit tabs into the corresponding slots on the bottom of the sled and paste in place.
- Hitch all dogs with harness to one of the sleds. Use a piece of floss or cord about 40″ inches long. Place it through the holes indicated on the front of the sled, and with ends even, hitch the dogs by passing the cord through the holes in the harnesses. Place 5 dogs on one half of the cord, and 4 on the other half, which will give you two rows of 4 dogs and 1 lead dog. Knot the ends behind the lead dog. Line them up so that the lead dog is in front and the four pairs are following.