Claudia Nussbaumer continues her series, ‘Gender roles in indigenous communities,’ this week looking at Inuit communities of Greenland, Canada and Alaska. 



The Inuit (meaning, ‘the people’) are a large group of culturally similar communities living in the Arctic regions of Greenland, Canada, and Alaska. The total population is around 150,000.

There are four aspects, which are markers for social hierarchy in traditional Inuit culture: The community as a whole, leadership, gender and marital relationships and the relationship between the Inuit and the people of Canada.

As Inuit people hold their traditions in high regard, elders play a crucial role within the Inuit community. They are thought to be the best source of knowledge when it comes to practices and teachings. Women and men alike are recognised as elders. Elders are not literally regarded as leaders of the community, yet their philosophy is the foundation of Inuit society.

Those chosen to lead are elected on the basis of their ability to communicate the elders’ teachings to the entire community. They act merely as spokespersons rather than decision makers. Inuit society is very communal and governing is regulated by consensus. There is no obligation to obey the decisions made by leaders, though most of the time they are respected as they have the elders’ blessing and the best interests of the community in mind.

Modern conceptions of gender often experience tension with more traditional practices, long considered the norm within Inuit communities. Traditionally, men would be in charge of hunting and gathering, leaving women to bear the brunt of household decisions. Men and women were divided and tasked with gendered roles for the continuance of society. While men would engage in the hunt itself, women would look after the men when they returned, sewing their clothes from the animal skins, cooking meals and performing other tasks vital to survival. Women were, however, free to learn traditionally male skills.

With government-led forced resettlement, traditional Inuit society underwent a radical change. Inuit communities stopped living in camps and started living in more ‘modern’ communities where hunting became less important for survival. Modern wage-jobs became the norm and consequently, had a major effect on gender roles. Women entered the workforce and were empowered through doing so. This change grated with traditional practices of gender that Inuit society had long practiced.

Women have become, in many cases, the primary provider within their families. However, working a wage job whilst looking after children and doing domestic housework is a ‘double burden’ for many women. The opinion of many women is that their traditional social roles should be modified to reflect their changing society, and it should be recognised that these roles often limit the power of women within their communities. The ideas of equality pose potential conflicts with the communitarian ideas of Inuit society, especially as older generations are more likely to conform to the traditional values.

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