The inuksuk (pl. inuksuit) is a human-made stone landmark or cairn used by the Inuit, Iñupiat, Kalaallit, Yupik, and other peoples of the Arctic region of North America and other nations. These structures are found from Alaska, US, to Canada, and Greenland. This region above the Arctic Circle is dominated by the tundra biome and has areas with few natural landmarks. The inuksut is a signpost for Arctic regions where timber for signs was likely non-existent, and where wooden signs wouldn’t have lasted long had they been erected. Stone were plentiful, however, and could weather whatever Nature forced them to endure.
The word inuksuk means “that which acts in the capacity of a human.” The word comes from the morphemes inuk (“person”) and -suk (“substitute”). While the predominant English spelling is inukshuk, both the Government of Nunavut and the Government of Canada through Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada promote the Inuit-preferred spelling inuksuk.
Also known as Silent Messengers (or Patient Navigators), the inuksuit resemble human beings pointing the way to something, from caribou routes to the nearest habitation, or the direction to camps, fishing places, hunting grounds, or to mark food caches.
Inuksuit are made of stacked stones that are picked because they fit well together. There is no glue or cement that holds them together, and they stay up because they are balanced on each other. Each stone supports the one above and below it. There are both large and small inuksuit — because one can use any stones to make an inuksuk, every single one is different. Kind of like a snowflake. Historically, the most common types of inuksuit are built with stone placed upon stone, and the simplest type of which is a single stone positioned in an upright manner.
In Inuit tradition, it’s forbidden to destroy an Inuksuk. So if you’re lucky enough to see one, leave it standing for the next person. You never know, it may have been there for hundreds of years, or it could have been erected just recently in homage to those that have been built before. Whenever you see one, let it be.
Today, Inuksuit are common souvenir items here in Alberta, as elsewhere in Canada. We have one standing sentinel by Monty and MacLean, our Canadian Mounties.