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Songs of the Alaskan Inuit

By Sarah Hansen


Music today is usually categorized by the genre to which it most stylistically relates. A quick scroll through the iTunes genres sections reveals the familiar categories, among them Rock, Pop, R&B/Soul, Country, Classical, and Alternative. Songs or musical compilations today seem to have a readily apparent identity.

For the Inuit people of Alaska, this is not the case. Inuit music is distinguished according to its function rather than style, and most songs serve either a secular, social, or religious purpose. Many religious songs tend to be reserved for traditional ceremonies, while secular songs might be focused on the individual. Secular songs are sung to ease the birth of a child, to locate lost objects, or to cure illnesses.

There are, of course, many sub-categories of songs. For example, the Inuit of St. Lawrence Island, have terms that distinguish between nighttime and daytime singing, while the Inuit of the Northwest region of Alaska categorize songs by whether they are used in games, in stories, for dance, or in traditional ceremonies.

One such traditional ceremony that is still important for Alaskan Inuit culture is the whaling ceremony. All of the stages in the whaling process are celebrated, and there are songs to reinforce the hunting materials, bring forth the whales, and control the weather. Once the captain and crew return with the captured whales, the materials of the animal are distributed at a celebration called Nalukataq, which takes place during the month of June. Nalukataq, literally meaning “to throw and toss up,” refers to the whaler’s skin toss dance, and celebrates the bounty and distribution of Quaq (whale meat) and Muktuk (whale blubber).

Nalukataq Blanket Toss Barrow, 2006 by By Floyd Davidson. CC-BY-SA-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

To celebrate Nalukataq, communities gather to sing songs, dance, and take part in the traditional whale-toss, in which men and women in the community hold a Nalukataq blanket, generally made from seal or walrus skin, and toss the captains and captains’ wives up into the air. Traditionally, the wives of captains would throw out tools and food whilst being thrown into the air to mimic the distribution of whale meat among members of the community, but the tradition has since evolved to be candy thrown out to children.

As can been seen from Nalukataq, aspects of the original ceremony live on, but traditions have changed with the times. Festivals are often associated with US holidays, such as Independence Day, or with special community events. Although music might not still be used as frequently to help cure illnesses or ease childbirth, it still plays an important role in Alaskan Inuit culture, and will certainly continue to do so.

All information from this post is taken from an article on Alaskan Inuit music from Oxford Music Online.

Sarah Hansen is a Publicity Assistant at Oxford University Press.

Oxford Music Online has made several articles available freely to the public, including its entry on Inuit Music. Oxford Music Online is the gateway offering users the ability to access and cross-search multiple music reference resources in one location. With Grove Music Online as its cornerstone, Oxford Music Online also contains The Oxford Companion to Music, The Oxford Dictionary of Music, and The Encyclopedia of Popular Music.

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2 Responses to “Songs of the Alaskan Inuit”
  1. C says:

    Great article! I wonder how Inuit music came to promote function over style. Another thing to learn about! Thanks for providing a great resource to explore.

  2. Brady says:

    Very informative article on a very cool topic!

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