What Is An Inukshuk?

If you travel around northern Canada, Alaska, or even Greenland, you may spot large rock formations towering over the landscape. But what are these massive rock piles and what do they represent?

The Origin of Inuksuit

An inukshuk (pl. inuksuit) is a stone formation traditionally built by the Inuit. Originally spelled inuksuk, the word inukshuk means “to act in the capacity of a human.”

Historians once thought inuksuit were a relatively modern phenomenon, but evidence suggests otherwise. Formations dating as far back as 2400-1800 BCE can be found on Canada’s Baffin Island.

The Multiple Meanings Behind Inuksuit

In a vast, barren region where much of the landscape looks the same, inuksuit were vital for navigating the area. The presence of an inukshuk might indicate a food source (like a food cache or a good fishing spot), serve as a warning marker (if an area was icy or unsafe), or act as a coordinate for travelers. Inuksuit were also used to herd and hunt caribou: women and children would chase caribou towards the rock piles while male hunters waited behind them with bows and arrows.

Inuksuit also served more symbolic purposes. Someone might construct an inukshuk to mark a sacred area or commemorate the loss of a loved one.

Inuksuit not only had various meanings, they were also built with various shapes and sizes. Formations known as inuksummarik, for example, tended to be much bigger than most inuksuit and thus were used as navigational points. In contrast, a style called tikkuuti was built as a directional marker and often consisted of triangular-shaped rocks lined all along the ground (this represented the direction one should travel). The most well-known inukshuk formations, which resemble large humans, are referred to as inunnguaq, and have tended to be more symbolic.


An Icon of Pride

While the Inuit embrace modern lifestyles today, the inukshuk remains a prominent icon of Inuit heritage and Canadian pride. The Canadian territory of Nunavut has one emblazoned on its flag. The Canadian embassy in Washington, DC boasts a large inukshuk statue, as does Pearson International Airport in Toronto.  In 2010, an inunnguaq was used as inspiration for the official logo of the Vancouver Winter Olympics.

Inuksuit served many purposes. But perhaps more than anything, they once indicated to travelers that they weren’t alone, that someone had previously stood where they stood. With their powerful impact, it is no wonder that people are still so awed by these ancient creations.