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

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 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.

All vertebrates have tendons, but the Iñupiaq have learned that the best sinew for thread that is available in the Arctic comes from the caribou. This is one of the largest and most abundant land mammals in the region. There are two places on the caribou's body that have tendons long enough to make good thread -- its back and its legs.