Native People of the Arctic and Subarctic


Between 15,000 and 20,000 years ago, people began crossing the Bering Strait from Asia into what is now Alaska. Over time, some of those people moved into the Canadian Arctic and Greenland. Today their descendants call themselves Inuit, which means “the people.”

Others traveled south to the evergreen forests of Canada, and the descendants of those people now have individual tribal names but refer to themselves together as First Nations.


Many tribes survived the cold, harsh environment by hunting caribou, musk ox, bowhead whales, and even seals through the ice. They then put all the parts of the animal to use: Caribou and polar bear fur were perfect for warm winter clothing, sealskin was used for waterproof summer garments, and furs from wolves, wolverines, and rabbits added warmth inside boots and socks.

To show respect for these animals, tribes created masks and charms in those shapes. Members of the Eyak (pronounced EE-yak) tribe wore painted wooden masks during traditional tribal ceremonies, the Yup’ik (pronounced YOO-peek) carved wooden masks with animal characteristics to ensure a successful hunt for the wearer, and the Inupiat (pronounced IN-yoop-yat) tribe carved hunting charms out of walrus tusks in the shape of seals.

But life for these people wasn’t all about survival: They also knew how to have fun. Today members of these tribes still play traditional games like the knuckle hop, which tests skill and toughness when competitors hop forward on just their knuckles and toes. Another popular game still today is the blanket toss. Holding a blanket tight, people raise it up and down to throw another person into the air as she tries to land on the blanket without losing balance. Some talented jumpers can even do twists and flips midair.


Today most of these people live in modern communities and have adapted technology to their lifestyle. Snowmobiles often replace cars when snowy roads become impassable, and GPS receivers help them navigate. But members of these tribes are working hard to keep their culture alive: The Inuvialuit (pronounced in-oo-vee-ah-LOO-it), Inuit people of the western Canadian Arctic, have even developed an app to teach kids their native language.

This seal-shaped Inupiat hunting charm is made of a walrus tusk, with glass beads for eyes and whiskers made of feathers.
This seal-shaped Inupiat hunting charm is made of a walrus tusk, with glass beads for eyes and whiskers made of feathers.
Photograph by Walter Larrimore, Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of the American Indian

Text and photos adapted from the Nat Geo Kids Encyclopedia of American Indian History and Culture.