Itchalik: Caribou Skin Tent

Overview and Background

Produced by the North Slope Borough, Iñupiat History, Language, and Culture.

This Learning Center demonstrates the ingenious adaptations to the Arctic environment that the itchalik embodies. Like all successful shelters, it provided protection from the elements using materials that were readily available. It could be easily repaired and was especially suited to the nomadic Nunamiut of Alaska.

The information contained here is based on an educational unit researched and written by Grant Spearman when he was curator of the Simon Paneak Memorial Museum in Anaktuvuk Pass, Alaska, in the Brooks Range. It was prepared with the assistance of Anaktuvuk Pass Elders.

The Itchalik

The itchalik tent, with its characteristic dome-shaped willow framework and caribou skin covering, was one of several types of shelters traditionally used by the Nunamiut, or inland Eskimos, of Alaska's Brooks Range. Until as recently as the 1950s, the Nunamiut were nomadic hunters and gatherers, frequently on the move throughout the year in their pursuit of hunting, fishing, and trapping resources. The itchalik was an important part of that freedom of movement. All the materials they needed to fashion and maintain the tent were locally available and easily obtained.

Short Language Lesson

The name itchalik is derived from the Iñupiaq word itchaqsraq, meaning "six," and refers to the six skins traditionally used to cover such a tent.

The tents were also sometimes called qaluugvik, which refers to the wooden tent framework.

Other Iñupiaq terms that relate to the itchalik include:

  • qaliqsraq: the modern canvas cover, often used instead of caribou skins as early as 1900. It comes from the English word "calico," a common trade item in the Arctic for more than a hundred years.
  • paalisat: the two tent poles that frame the doorway of the tent. They take their name from "paa," the Inupiaq word for mouth or opening.
  • igaleq: the gut window panel of the tent
  • pigut: stones used in the summer to weigh down the edges of the tent
  • saggun: a low wall of snow packed up along the side of the tent to prevent the tent's outer covering from being blown off in the winter
  • talu: the door skin of the tent, usually made from the hide of a grizzly bear
  • alliat: willow branches used to floor the tent
  • naniq: the traditional lamp fueled with seal oil for light and heat
  • uyaqiqun: the practice of using fire-heated rocks inside the tent for warmth
  • iġnivik: a metal stove used to heat the tent, particularly after 1900

Used in Both Winter and Summer

The itchalik was the main type of shelter the Nunamiut used when they traveled throughout northern Alaska. It was used in all seasons and all kinds of weather. Its sturdy dome shape and round floor plan made it capable of withstanding the strongest Arctic gales, while its caribou skin covering kept it warm in the bitter cold of winter and cool in the heat of summer.

For winter, the tent was outfitted with two sets of skins: a fully furred inner set with the hair side facing outward, covered by a second outer set of skins with hair removed. Under extreme conditions, the tent could be covered with several inches of snow that provided additional insulation. When the tent was disassembled, this was done from the inside, leaving the hardened snow dome intact and available for use by any other travelers who might happen along later.

In summer, the heavy inner set of skins was safely cached and only the light, waterproof outer set of dehaired skins was used to cover the frame.

If people were traveling very light, they might carry only the tent skins, and improvise a set of poles from willows along the way.

The itchalik's versatility and portability made it the shelter of choice throughout the Nunamiut territory.