Mary Wallace - The Inuksuk Book

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Silent Messengers

Oct 23, 2005 (Updated Oct 25, 2005)
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Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:great photos, lovely illustrations, well-written text of all kinds of inuksuit and their functions

Cons:None

The Bottom Line: A fascinating look at the various functions of inuksuit and the life and culture of the traditional Inuit; highly recommended for every child and all curious adults


During my trip up north into the Canadian wilderness, I noticed many little stone statues placed high up on large rocks alongside the highway and smaller roads. They’re made by stacking pieces of broken rocks and stones together. Most of them took the primitive form of a human figure. They’re obviously made by the native aboriginal people who inhabit the northern part of Canada, but even though I’ve seen these little stone statues both in British Columbia and Ontario, I had no idea what they were for. But I was most taken by their form and intrigued by the fact that they showed up so frequently in the part of the world I found myself in.

In British Columbia (I had lived in Vancouver for many years), I had noticed them only in more remote places—by a river at a provincial park, for instance, or on a large rock facing the ocean at a secluded beach. But in the areas leading up to Arctic Canada, they appeared quite often and even alongside widely-used roads. I wanted to know more about them and was able to find The Inuksuk Book at the Art Gallery of Algoma where I also bought a beautiful replica of an inuksuk made of glass.

The book starts with an introduction by Norman Hallendy, a research fellow of the Arctic Institute of North America, the Nunavut Research Institute and the Smithsonian Institution. He has travelled throughout the Arctic for over 30 years and has studied inuksuit (the plural form of inuksuk) and written about what he has learned from Inuit elders. He is also the author and photographer of a book on inuksuit called The Silent Messengers.

He explains that an inuksuk means ‘thing that can act in the place of a human being’. For instance, a scarecrow scares away birds or a set of traffic lights tells us when to cross or an arrow on a sign tells us which way to go. In the same way, an inuksuk is used to communicate information to other travellers who may be a long way from home and on a land that is as harsh as it is beautiful.

There are many different kinds of inuksuit, each of a different shape and built for a different purpose. There are inuksuit that can show direction, tell about good hunting or fishing spots, show where food is stored, indicate a good and safe resting place, act as a message centre, warn of danger, store equipment, serve as a memorial to a loved one who has passed away, or even guide caribou to waiting hunters.

There is the inunnguaq, the one that I’ve seen a lot of over my travels in northern Canada. It means ‘like a person’, and does indeed have an uncanny resemblance to a human being, even from far away. The niugvaliruluit (‘that has legs’) are built with sighting holes in their middle for navigation, each one pointing to another further away. Tupjakangaut is an important inuksuk that steers hunters toward good hunting ground for caribou. They are usually covered with lichens and mosses, the caribou’s favourite food.

Caribou is the Inuit’s major source of meat. No part of the caribou is wasted: their fat is used for candles, bone for tools, sinew for sewing and hides are used for clothing, bedding and summer tents. To catch the caribou, Inuit hunters used a special type of inuksuk, called the aulaqut, arranged in converging lines, to spook the caribou and herd them towards the waiting hunters.

Qajakkuvit are built tall and converging upwards and pairs are used as rests for kayaks and to keep food away from dogs and bears. Pirujaqarvik are built on high spots to point towards where food has been buried as the harsh winters will bring deep snow that would remove other landmarks. There are inuksuit built simply to express joy for a beautiful place and there are sacred inuksuit built out of respect for a much-loved person’s spirit.

Inuksuit should never be touched. It is said that if one destroys an inuksuk, his or her life will be shortened.

Throughout this book, the author weaves the history and lifestyle of the Inuit and their land (Nunavut) into the descriptions of the various inuksuit. I found the minutiae of everyday traditional Inuit life fascinating. There are photographs and illustrations on almost every page and the writing is at a level that can be understood by a child of 10 years or so. I can imagine my 8- and 9- year-old nephews reading the book with interest, even though they may need some help here and there.

The illustrations are of the various types of inuksuit on the Arctic landscape. They are done by the author and are beautiful, colourful and most appropriate, as they reinforce the relation between the inuksuit and the landscape where they belong. The photographs are mostly dated from the mid 1900s to the 1930s (necessarily so, as the vast majority of modern Inuit live a much different life now than they did only a few generations ago) and show the Inuit as they hunted, fished, and otherwise lived their fascinating lives in a very harsh and dangerous environment.

Near the end of the book is a section called Build Your Own Inuksuk that takes you step by step from choosing the right stones to finding the best place to put the finished statue as you create your work of art. I think this will be a fun project for any child and/or adult who’s young-at-heart.

At the end of the book is a guide to Inuktitut words, their symbols and related sounds, and a list of interesting words with their meanings and pronunciation.

I think this is a great book that satisfied my curiosity about the inuksuit. I also learned a great deal about traditional Inuit culture, all of it presented in a way that’s relevant and interesting. The layout, with the preponderance of photographs and illustrations, make it a wonderful visual experience, adding very much to the enjoyment of the text.

I look forward to showing it to my nephews the next time they visit. They will, of course, have to get their own copies, as I’m keeping mine.


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Gateway to the Canadian Wilderness
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