What’s an inuksuk?

Inuit in the Canadian Arctic have been building these big rock formations for thousands of years, and they still capture the imagination.

There we were, standing at the top of the world—literally—pondering the giant, black, lichen-covered rocks, somehow stacked to make a towering structure overlooking Cape Dorset and the floe edge, glittering sapphire-blue in the sun. Mysterious. Magnetic. You see them all over Nunavut Territory, huge mirages in the distance; here, on Baffin Island, and all across the Canadian Arctic.

“What is an inuksuk, exactly?” I ask my hosts, Kristiina Alariaq and her Inuit husband Timmun Alariaq.

“A celebration of ‘I am here,’” Kristiina Alariaq says.

“Or, you have lots of spare time,” says her husband, smiling like a sly fox.

Traditionally, Inuit constructed stacked and carefully arranged rock formations—some served as hunters’ trail markers, reference points or messages; others “material forms of the oral tradition” or spiritual communication. Some are flat, some rounded, some wide, some tall; some look like doorways, or a window, or a rock haystack, the likeness of a raven or a single, vertical stone. The plural is “inuksuit, meaning ‘to act in the capacity of a human,’” according to Inuksuit—Silent Messengers of the Arctic, by Norman Hallendy (Douglas & McIntyre). Some may look like inuksuit, but are actually human likenesses or “objects of veneration.”

In a nod to the Inuit of the North, the Vancouver 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Games has an inuksuk-like figure in its logo. It’s actually a stone figure, the most familiar of Arctic stone figures to “southerners,” called Innunguait—“in the likeness of a human.”