The History and Meaning of the Inuksuk

For centuries, the Inuit people of Canada’s Arctic stacked rock in human form to create the Inuksuk, a steadfast guidepost that provided direction across the vast horizons of the North. Over time, the Inuksuk has become a symbol of hope and friendship, an eternal expression of the hospitality of a nation that warmly welcomes the people of the world with open arms every day.

By Ansgar Walk (photo taken by Ansgar Walk) [CC BY-SA 2.5 (], via Wikimedia Commons
Inunnguaq (which means ‘like a human being’, Rankin Inlet, Nunavut, Canada) photo taken by Ansgar Walk CC BY-SA 2.5 
The Inuksuk is a symbol with deep roots in the Inuit culture, a directional marker that signifies safety, hope and friendship. Inuksuit are among the most important objects created by the Inuit who were the first people to inhabit portions of Alaska, Arctic Canada, and Greenland. The term Inuksuk (the singular of Inuksuit) means ‘to act in the capacity of a human.’ It is an extension of Inuk, meaning ‘a human being.

These stone figures were placed on the temporal and spiritual landscapes. Among many practical functions, they were employed as hunting and navigation aids, coordination points, indicators, and message centers. The Inuit also constructed a stone figure called an Inunnguaq which means ‘in the likeness of a human.’ In addition to their earthly functions, certain Inuksuk-like figures had spiritual connotations, and were objects of veneration, often marking the threshold of the spiritual landscape of the Inummariit — the Inuit who knew how to survive on the land living in their traditional way.

Inuksuit (the plural of Inuksuk) serve in a spiritual capacity to indicate a place where life is renewed or where spirits reside; where judgements or decisions are made or where celebrations and festivals are held. The Inuksuk, by standing along the way, may guide seekers on their journey helping them to find the way forward as well as the best path to their spiritual home. An Inuksuk may also indicate an object that should not be approached or touched, or an object that brings good fortune.

The skill of building an Inuksuk is traditionally passed down from one generation to the next. Each stone structure has a purpose, such as pointing the way to a good fishing spot or indicating where meat is cached. Inuksuit are used as directional markers and functions as instruments of navigation and astronomy. The longest arm may point to the closest village where you will find safety. Some will point to Niqirtsuitug (the North Star). Inuksuit can serve as a spiritual symbol, a place of worship, a place of judgement and decision making or a location for celebration.

The Inuksuk is a symbol of the human spirit. It recognizes our ability to succeed with others, where alone we might fail. It reminds us of our need to belong to something greater than ourselves and prompts us to reconnect with our individual responsibility to invest our efforts today so that we may all have a better tomorrow. The Inuksuk conveys the importance of personal contribution and it reinforces our ability to commit to common goals.

Popular appeal combined with official recognition has expanded the Inuksuk’s realm from the cold Canadian Arctic to the warmth of Canadian hearts.

“When you look at an old Inuksuk, you are seeing more than just a stack of stones. You are seeing the thoughts of another person left upon the land.”
Norman Hallendy