The Tie that Binds: Sinew (Ivalu) in Iñupiaq Life: A Traditional Knowledge Learning Center

What's so important about sinew?

What's so important about sinew?

How have Iñupiaq people survived in Alaska's Arctic for more than a thousand years? What knowledge and skills were necessary to keep them warm? How did they make tools that were strong enough for successful hunting and fishing?

The traditional Iñupiaq "toolkit" is extremely complex, with a specialized tool or implement for every activity you can imagine -- but at the base of most of it is one single material: Sinew, or, in the Iñupiaq language, ivalu.

Sinew is the tendon, either from the leg or back of a mammal.">Sinew


Sinew is a synonym for "tendon," the band of tissue that connects muscle to bone. Tendons are made of long thin fibers that can be separated from each other into thread-size strips.

As thin as a spider's silk but strong enough to keep a boat afloat: sinew has been used in bows -- the strongest natural bow having a double curve with sinew along the back to increase its strength and tension. It has been used to lash points onto spears, and as cordage to tie an infinite number of objects together. It makes an excellent snare to catch small mammals and birds. But its most common, and perhaps most useful function has been as thread to sew clothing together.

Enter this Traditional Knowledge Learning Center to see a skill that few people in the world have mastered: the process of harvesting and preparing sinew, from removing the tendon from a caribou's legs and backs to making it into thread. The video clips you will see were recorded during a sinew-making workshop held in Barrow, Alaska, produced by the North Slope Borough, and used with permission of the Iñupiat History Language and Culture commission (IHLC).

Sinew thread is basic to all the manufacture of clothing nearly world-wide. Archaeological evidence suggests that it has been used to sew furs and skins together for more than 70,000 years -- first by Homo sapiens neanderthalensis (Neanderthal Man), and later by our ancestors, Home sapiens sapiens (modern human beings).

This Learning Center will show the techniques used in the Iñupiaq areas, represented on this map of Alaska in light orange.

Extracting the sinew

Extracting the sinew

The first step in removing sinew from the hind legs of the caribou (tuttu in Iñupiaq) is to skin the legs. Video used with permission of IHLC.

Next, the sinew has to be removed from the leg, taking care not to cut through the long fibers.

The backstrap, or sinew along the tuttu's backbone, has to be removed carefully as well.

Cleaning the sinew

Cleaning the sinew

After the sinew has been removed from the animal's body, it needs to be cleaned and dried. Video used with permission of IHLC.

Splitting the sinew

Splitting the sinew

The dried tendon needs to be split into individual threads before it can be used. Each thread needs to be as long, straight, and smooth as possible. Video used with permission of the IHLC.

Braiding the sinew

Braiding the sinew

(Note: These videos are used with the permission of the IHLC.)

There are three steps in braiding the individual threads to make a usable length that won't break:

  1. Start the basic housing of the ivalu thread

2. Extend the braid by piecing in additional threads

 3. Finishing the braid, making it smooth and even by pulling and trimming it.

National and Alaska Standards

National and Alaska Standards

National Geography Standards

NSS-G.K-12.4: As a result of activities in Grades K-12, all students should:

  • Understand the characteristics, distribution, and complexity of Earth's cultural mosaics.
  • Understand the patterns and networks of economic interdendence on Earth's surface.

NSS-G.K-12.5: As a result of activities in Grades K-12, all students should:

  • Understand how physical systems affect human systems.
  • Understand the changes that occur in the meaning, use, distribution, and importance of resources.

Alaska Geography Standards

D: A student should understand the dynamic and be able to interpret spatial (geographic) characteristcs of human systems, including migration, movement, interactions of cultures, economic activities, settlement patterns, and political units in the state, nation, and world. A student who meets the content standard should:

  • Analyze how changes in technology, transportation, and communication impact social, cultural, economic, and political activity.

E. A student should understand and be able to evaluate how humans and phyusical environments interact. A student who meets the content standard should:

  • Understand how resources have been developed and used;
  • Determine the influence of human perceptions on resource utilization and the environment.

Alaska Cultural Standards

B. Culturally-knowledgeable students are able to build on the knowledge and skills of the local cultural community as a foundation from which to achieve personal and academic success throughout life. Students who meet this cultural standard are able to:

  • Acquire insights from other cultures without diminishing the integrity of their own.

C. Culturally-knowledgeable students are able to actively paerticipate in various cultural environments.  Students who meet this cultural standard are able to:

  • Perform subsistence activities in ways that are appropriate to local cultural traditions.
  • Enter into and function effectively in a variety of cultural settings.

D. Culturally-knowledgeable students are able to engage effectively in learning activities that are based on traditional ways of knowing and learning. Students who meet this cultural standard are able to:

  • Acquire in-depth cultural knowledge through active participation and meaningful interaction with Elders.
  • Identify and utilize appropriate sources of cultural knowledge to find solutions to everyday problems.

E. Culturally-knowledgeable students demonstrate an awareness and appreciation of the relationships and processes of interaction of all elements in the world around them. Students who meet his cultural standard are able to:

  • Understand the ecology and geography of the bioregion they inhabit.
  • Recognize how and why cultures change over time.