The Impact Of The 21st Century On Alaska’s Inuit Culture

March 23, 2012
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Although they may use motor boats today, Inuit men continue their cultural heritage of hunting seal in the Kotzebue Sound. Photo Credit: tyglobalist.org

The Alaskan Inuit, also known as the “Eskimo” are one of the indigenous people from the Arctic regions of Alaska as well as Canada, Denmark, and Russia. The word Inuit actually means “the people” in the Inuktitut language.


While the Inuit kept some of their culture intact above the Arctic Circle, the 21st century impact has affected this group, particularly those living on Alaska’s North Slope. The search for petroleum in the Alaskan North Slope affected the Inuit culture, and by the end of the 20th century, a number of other issues faced the Inuit, including the use of technology, and urban flight by the young, which has only gotten worse in this century.


The 21st century also brings a growing identity struggle with the younger generation, such as, teens changing to a more western diet, healthcare, and how changes in education affects local village life. An Inuit symbol was used in the 2010 Winter Olympics, and many communities continue to feature Inuit sports in their Arctic Winter Games, but today’s worldwide love for Hockey has also crept in.


“Caught between two worlds, the Inuit now use snowmobiles and the Internet in place of the umiak and the sled,” Every Culture explains. “Nonetheless, they have designed legislative and traditional ways to maintain and protect their subsistence lifestyle. Since 1978, this lifestyle has been given priority, and it is legally protected.”

Although the Inuit lifestyle has changed a lot over the years, the local villages continue their history of storytelling, music, dancing, and art, including carvings and prints. Family and community are also still very important and the Inuktitut language is still spoken in many areas of the Arctic north.


According to Every Culture, “a number of actions were undertaken in attempts to improve the conditions of the Inuit at the end of the nineteen century and the early years of the twentieth century. The U.S. government intervened, ostensibly, to ameliorate the situation with improved education. However, the motivations behind this strategy by the U.S. government are the subject of much debate by many Natives and scholars of Inuit culture and history.”


Historian Ken Coates described the effect of the Alaska Highway on the area's native population, "Construction projects transformed aboriginal life in the northwest very quickly and very profoundly. There was only occasional work to be found, they didn't hire very many aboriginal people to work. The women got involved selling handicrafts and doing some domestic work... There were a lot of attacks on aboriginal people… A lot of misuse of alcohol with aboriginal people. So, a world had ended. A lifestyle that had been in place in many ways for centuries, but certainly since the arrival of the fur traders in the middle of the 19th century. It's a hundred years of fishing, and trapping, and sort of casual engagement with the market economy, poof, gone. Overnight."


Today, Alaska Natives account for just over 15 percent of the total Alaskan population of approximately 648,000 people. The Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971 saw the eventual end to native land ownership claims, but even today, the Inuit remain a strong culture, and some have begun legal battles to regain their rights to ancestral lands.