Arctic Wayfinders: Inuit Mental and Physical Maps, by Michael Engelhard

Arctic Wayfinders: Inuit Mental and Physical Maps

By Michael Engelhard

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1) A sign, landmark, or other indicator used to assist people in navigating to a particular location.
2) A person navigating to a particular location.
                    — Oxford English Dictionary

To survive, any organism must understand its environment, and circumpolar peoples excelled at this. During William Edward Parry’s 1821-23 push for the Northwest Passage, Lieutenant William H. Hooper queried Toolemak, an Iglulingmiut shaman, about conditions along their prospective route. After some chanting, Toolemak called upon his spirit helper or tuurngaq, who told the assembled that pack ice would force the explorers’ ships to turn around and sail back to kabloona-noona, “White Man’s Land.” As predicted, jams in Fury and Hecla Strait south of Baffin Island thwarted the expedition, which promptly left Canada’s Arctic.

Lt. Hooper had watched Toolemak’s “conjurations” with skepticism and only because the geographical knowledge of Inuit shamans reputedly was extensive. The incident illustrates a keen literacy of place more than it does any ability to contact supernatural powers, Toolemak’s impressive performance notwithstanding.

Esquimaux Chart No. 2
Detail of “Esquimaux Chart No. 2. The shaded parts drawn by Iligliuk at Winter Island 1822.” A local Inuk, Iligliuk collaborated on this annotated map with William Edward Parry who wintered south of the Melville Peninsula during his 1821-23 quest for the Northwest Passage.
Image courtesy Pan-Inuit Trails.

“It is known,” editorialized the New York Sun on January 24, 1897, “that Indian tribes, and the Eskimos also, frequently have the geographic instinct well developed, and their rude sketch maps have sometimes been of considerable assistance to explorers.” Such paternalistic assessments ignored the fact that Inuit geo-spatial concepts and navigational dexterity equal those of Australian Aboriginals and of South Pacific seafarers, which both have been commended for their accuracy. But with Arctic societies in transition, with language loss, handheld GPS gadgets, and with long-distance travel overland and by sea greatly diminished, this knowledge is fading. Artificial features such as radar towers and radio masts are replacing drift patterns and stars as beacons for young Inuit hunters. Where formerly one world assembled nature’s components in mental maps, another now devises instruments that with each improvement weaken our bonds with nature. There no longer are scores of men in a valley who are that valley, Wallace Stevens laments, men whose souls, like the poet’s, are “composed of the external world.”

Map of West Greeland's Disko Bay
The Inuit hunter Silas Sandgreen made this map of islands in West Greenland’s Disko Bay of for the Library of Congress in 1925. He painted the carved driftwood islands, which were sewn onto sealskin, in colors resembling the islands, differentiating rocky from vegetated areas.
Image courtesy U.S. Library of Congress.

Far from being a mere “instinct,” orienteering and the related canon of environmental knowledge had to be painstakingly learned and then practiced. The kit of wayfinding aids was passed on orally from one generation to the next, by listening to and observing expert elders as much as by trial and error. The role of pupil routinely fell to Caucasian explorers, whose traveling savvy and charts could be spotty or nonexistent.  

Traversing pack ice and landscapes that the untrained mind perceives largely as featureless, often in whiteout conditions or darkness, mimics travel at sea, and similar methods can be used for plotting a course. The Inuit repertoire comprised landmarks hitched to stories that grounded people while giving mnemonic assistance. It required deciphering currents and triangulating constellations, interpreting atmospheric phenomena, migrations of birds, whales, and caribous, and registering the shapes, angles, and bedding of “land waves”—snowdrifts. Like Polynesia’s transoceanic mariners who gauged wave sets lying blindfolded in an outrigger’s bottom, experienced Inuit hunters could tell the aspect of snow crests while sledding over them when visibility was poor.

Snowdrift pattern
A snowdrift pattern known by the Russian word as sastrugi near Tromsø, in Arctic Norway.
Photo by Bo Eide, courtesy Flickr.

Auditory stimuli mattered too. In Arctic Dreams, Barry Lopez describes how the racket of cliff-nesting birds on one side and surf on the other kept a sledder on shore-fast ice in thick summer fog properly oriented. In Nunavut’s Repulse Bay, Jose A. Kusugak snowbound as a child in his family’s sod igloo was told to look and listen intently to the outdoors as though it were a symphony merging land and ice into one. Eavesdropping on the elements, playing aaqsiiq or the “Silent Game,” young Jose heard “rolling snow, driving and building and shaping snowdrifts.” He heard a different sound and the faster tempo of impetuous natiruviaq—“flooring snow” falling on the igloo roof. The boy knew that this layer meant good nursery lairs for seals and smoother travel on sea ice for people.

Signs remain plentiful for those who can sense the lay of the land. “Water sky” darkly reflects open sea off the underbelly of clouds; it guides marine mammal hunters to leads in the ice. A common polar refraction, “looming” conjures up boats, ice-shelves, or land from below a viewer’s horizon line. Temperature inversions cause these bent-light illusions, which hover above the object’s actual position, distorted and sometimes inverted. A person who can read a puikkaqtuq or “pop-up” mirage might be able to steer to distant walrus basking on ice floes. Resembling a dune field’s contours, boreal snow-rises hold clues about prevailing winds and thereby can help fix the cardinal directions. Inuit call large ridges kaioqlaq and small ripples tumarinyiq. Warm, mainly southeasterly winds blowing across a lake melt ice along its northwestern banks, so on calm days the white-lidded eye becomes a compass. Elsewhere, snow-bearing northeast winds weigh down tundra grass and freeze it pointing in a southwesterly direction. The same gales tilt balsam poplar or scattered, scraggly black spruce that way, which grow most of their branches and leaves on the trunks’ lee side.

Methods had to account for the changing weather and seasons. The waxing light of spring, for example, renders stars indistinct. And in winter, Polaris, then visible, stands too high in the sky to serve as a true marker of north—the Greek root for the region’s name arktikos, after all, refers to lands that spread below the Great Bear.

Inuit constellations
Inuit constellations illustrated by Johan Meuris. “Caribou” (Tukturjuit, the Big Dipper) and “Two in Front” (Sivulliik, “the first ones,” Boötes—an orphan boy chased by an angry grandfather). Arcturus is the Old Man.
Image courtesy Johan Meuris.

Even voyagers momentarily lost had a shot at succeeding by tuning into a landscape or seascape or by accessing information contained in their elders’ tales. An Igloolik old-timer recalled an incident in which two hunters drifted out to sea on moving ice. With the wind and the sun’s position guiding him, one of the men tried to reach shore directly by heading south. His companion deployed a harpoon float instead, to check tidal currents. He knew that initially the ice would move seaward but that the incoming tide soon would take charge. He therefore walked north, away from land. The one who’d headed south changed his mind, followed his companion, and eventually, the volatile mass delivered both men back to shore-fast ice and safety.

Ethnographers working with veteran Inuit travelers falsely claimed that, although those had never before seen a map, they could read one, recognizing nuna, “the land,” in its graphic abstraction. They switched as easily to a bird’s eye perspective as shamans transformed into ravens. However, impromptu, ephemeral maps drawn on snow, mud, and into the air long had been customary. In 1825, Captain Frederick William Beechey noted how Inupiat of Alaska’s Kotzebue Sound upon his request built a relief map of Cape Krusenstern’s littoral from sand, sticks, and pebbles. Place names like usuarjuk or “small penis” portrayed landforms envisioned from above. Another toponym, encrypting dead reckoning, translates as “a fjord of such length that a kayak cannot even in a whole day paddle from the mouth to the head of the fjord and back again.” Three days by dog team on easy terrain approximated 70 miles. When prompted, informants could reproduce a landscape with great detail and topographic context.

Wetalltok 1919 map of Hudson Bay's Belcher Islands
Wetalltok’s 1909 remarkably accurate map of Hudson Bay’s Belcher Islands or “Sanikiluaq,” penciled on the back of a missionary lithograph. Wetallok explained the intricacies of the bay’s island system to Robert J. Flaherty, director of Nanook of the North, who was prospecting for iron ore deposits.
Image courtesy American Geographical Society Library, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Libraries.
Hudson Bay's Belcher Islands from the air
The same archipelago seen from the air. Photo by Mike Beauregard from Nunavut, Canada.
Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Contrary to the explorers, for the “Human Beings” living at high latitudes there existed no wilderness, no terra incognita. Unpeopled lands were inconceivable to the Inuit. Trail networks, though invisible, nevertheless were reminders of deep-time occupancy and use. Consequently, “here are dragons” became “many walruses,” a crucial “stream of fresh water,” or “asbestos here”—19th century Europe already itched for this mineral—and a few newcomers’ maps were thus annotated. During his dogsled trip through the Northwest Passage on the Fifth Thule Expedition of 1921-24, the Danish-Greenlandic adventurer Knud Rasmussen elicited sheaves of cartographic representations covering hundreds of square miles. Judging from these, the Inuit had fully internalized the Arctic, their larder and refuge of spirits.

Stone cairn near Nunavik
Stone cairn or inuksuk near Nunavik, northern Quebec.
Photo by Martin Tuchscherer, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

To any careful observer the idea of the North as a pristine landscape quickly was revealed as a fallacy. The tundra had been claimed, although subtly. Cairns or inuksuit everywhere stood out like lithic thumbs. Honoring shamans’ graves, acting as dummies that funneled caribou during game drives, and marking meat caches or Arctic char spawning grounds, they could equally pinpoint the best way home. Different designs fit different purposes. There were single upright stones, stacks, and rock pyramids. There were “pointers” and “deconfusers” and window-shaped types framing sightlines that linked them to what in this horizontal, low-key expanse passes for other “events.” Some indicated river fords, others deeper, hard-to-cross channels or similar hazards. The word’s singular, inuksuk, can be translated as “acting in the capacity of a human.” Sure enough, one couldn’t just stop at a village or camp to ask for directions. Habitations were spaced far apart, and outsiders greeted with caution. 

Biases expressed in maps that trace these nodes and corridors likewise are telling. Some Inuit depicted familiar settings, their bays, lakes, lagoons, and hills in a detailed scrimshaw denoting their travels and toils. Exaggeration in size could signify vital shelter or good hunting sites. Lesser known coasts or mountains on the periphery appeared vague, diminished in detail and size compared to their home ground. Women intimately knew areas near camps, the orbits for snaring hares, picking berries, digging up roots. Men focused on distant trading locations, on portages, passes, furbearers’ whereabouts, and on braided grooves caribou herds scored into vast tundra.

Map of Southampton Island drawn by Autdlanaq
Autdlanaq’s map, drawn from memory, of Southampton Island at the mouth of Hudson Bay was collected on the Fifth Thule Expedition (1921-1924). Greater detail of the inlets’ shores indicates that the best fishing grounds and campsites were found there.
Image courtesy Pan-Inuit Trails.
Satellite image of Southampton Island
Satellite image of the same island.
Image courtesy NASA.

The rare Inuit driftwood maps of Greenland’s Ammassalik Archipelago could be fingered under a parka or inside a kayaker’s hatch, in rain, fog, or polar night. Washed overboard, these charts would float. Their carved nobs and notches—capes, islands, and inlets of that sea-riven stretch—embody a passable fringe close to shore. They ascend one side of the artifact and descend the other, as if north did not matter. A man named Kuniit whittled these memory-sticks before in the 1880s his small, mobile band met the first Europeans. In their sculptural plainness, the burls condense ingenuity. Touching the dear objects like worry stones or rosary beads must have been reassuring to any storm-tossed soul. Now employed to teach 3D printing and digital modeling, the technique of tactile visualization likely has been around for millennia.

Ammassalik driftwood map
One of three driftwood maps from Ammassalik, with corresponding islands on the Greenlandic coast.
Carved map photo courtesy of Greenland National Museum and Archives. Illustration courtesy Mark Garrison, Hakai Magazine.

Staking out further new frontiers, etchings of Kuniit’s Ammassalik maps in 2019 will be launched on the Moon Ark—a landing-craft art museum with over 200 works—among other tokens of human creativity and endeavor.

Summer night shot of the Greenlandic-Eskimo settlement Tasiilaq, formerly Ammassalik, on the Island of the same name.
Photo by Christine Zenino, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

For nomadic cultures settling extreme, marginal environments, traveling light was a requirement for survival; “tools” were best carried inside one’s head, fashioned from local materials as needed and readily discarded.

In some contemporary Inuit communities, orienteering know-how has endured the arrival of snowmobiles and TVs although climate change makes much sea ice lore obsolete. A researcher from Ontario’s Carleton University accompanied a hunter who retrieved seven fox traps his uncle had set across 20 square kilometers of seemingly flat, monotonous tundra 25 years ago. The traps lay buried under snow. The hunter collected them all in roughly two hours.

Linguists say that about one-third of the world’s languages label the space surrounding a person’s body not with the terms of “left” and “right” but with cardinal directions. Speakers of such languages are said to be more skilled at keeping track of their relative position even in unfamiliar places. Psychologists now categorize sensitivity to the natural world as a type of intelligence that augments musical, spatial, emotional, logical, linguistic, and other forms. Indigenous northerners honed their perception through lifetimes of traveling in shifting, treacherous terrain. Teaching and learning such orienteering skills anchors the present in the past. It bonds generations to each other and to the land.



Michael EngelhardA longtime wilderness guide in Arctic Alaska, Michael Engelhard has long been fond of maps. While training as a cultural anthropologist, he researched Inupiaq Eskimo place names and land-use patterns and their relation to cognitive maps. He is the author of Ice Bear: The Cultural History of an Arctic Icon.

Header photo, Alaska Inupia Eskimo in his skin-covered keyak, circa 1929, by Edward Sheriff Curtis, courtesy U.S. Library of Congress. Photo of Michael Engelhard by Tuti Minondo. is the world’s first online journal of place, publishing a rich mix of literature, art, commentary, and design since 1998.