Itchalik: Caribou Skin Tent

The Tent Framework

The size of an itchalik could vary considerably, depending on the number of people living in it. A tent used by a single person or a couple might stand less than five feet high and measure no more than eight or nine feet around.

On the other hand, the tent of a family with several children would typically measure 12 to 15 feet in diameter and stand 6 feet high. Each pole was 12 to 15 feet long and would have been pre-bent to shape.

As the framework was erected, the sharpened ends of the poles were forced into the ground facing each other, and their tops were lashed together where they overlapped. This formed the basic dome shape with an oval or round ground plan. Since the poles overlapped, the tent frame could be made larger or smaller depending on need.

The framework was known as a qaluugvik. Each pole had its own name with an assigned position and the order in which it was added to the frame.

The poles were carefully selected before construction began. Tall, straight willow was cut to the proper length and stripped of its branches and bark while it was still green. A sharp knife smoothed the poles and was used to sharpen the bottom ends to points that could be pushed into the ground.

While it was still wet and pliable, the pole was bent to its intended shape and allowed to dry for several days. In the summer, a frame was built on the ground and the poles were shaped within the frame, where they dried in two or three days. In the winter, the poles had to be brought into the tent and temporarily lashed to an existing pole of the right shape to bend and dry.

The Arctic is home to several species of willows, each with distinct characteristics. Some tent-makers preferred poles made from kanuŋŋiq or diamond-leaf willows (Salix pulchra), while others only used uqpipiaq or felt-leaf willows (Salix alexensis). Everyone preferred young, relatively straight willows with few branches.

Sometimes tent poles were made from young spruce saplings (napaaqtuayaat) gathered at the edge of the forest -- but the Nunamiut preferred willows because they weighed less and were easier to transport.