Igloos and accuracy

A review of Molly Lee and Gregory Reinhardt's 'Eskimo Architecture'

Posted: Sunday, November 23, 2003

Whenever I visit my hometown on the East Coast, people ask me about life in Alaska. Once in awhile someone will say, "Do you live in an igloo?? I've always thought I was setting people straight with my responses until last summer, when my husband said, "You should have told them that igloos were never built in Alaska."

This was hard for me to believe so we made a bet. The bet remained unsettled until I began reading a book called "Eskimo Architecture" by Molly Lee and Gregory Reinhardt. There on the first page of the introduction, I found out that he was right.

Igloos were a predominant form of winter housing for only a small percentage of the Eskimo population, which stretched from Greenland to Siberia during the historical period studied in this book. Igloos were most common in the Central Arctic areas of Canada, near the Hudson Bay. They were built in areas where there was little or no wood, by Eskimos who needed a quick construction that enabled them to move camp frequently to follow food sources. Alaskan Eskimos generally made their winter houses from wood insulated with turf, and, because they had an abundant food supply, often remained in the same houses for years.

But you can hardly blame people like me for giving the igloo more prominence than it actually enjoyed. A house made of snow is the stuff of childhood fantasy, like a snow fort you can actually live in. And the descriptions of igloos given in this book only add to the mystique. Not only could you burn your oil lamp inside without fear of melting the igloo, but you could also dance on the roof if you wanted to, according to Lee and Reinhardt's sources. Even more interesting to me was learning that windows were almost always an integral part of the igloo - so important in fact that the windows (which were made of ice and incredibly heavy) were often pulled on sleds from camp to camp, sometimes on a special sled constructed specifically for this purpose.

The igloo may be a captivating and pervasive symbol of Eskimo architecture, but the authors make it clear that there was a wide variety of housing styles that varied dramatically from season to season. The most common winter house was a semi-subterranean wooden structure, insulated with snow or sod, and accessed through a long narrow passageway. Winter houses were usually equipped with one or more windows and a ventilation system designed to keep the smoke and heat from the oil lamp from becoming overpowering.

In summer, Eskimos usually moved into some kind of tent made of seal or caribou skin supported by wood poles. Summer houses also had windows, made of gut or skin, and a door curtain made of the same material. Cooking was done outside whenever possible, and home life in general was, understandably, much less confining. The differences between winter and summer, say the authors, orchestrated every aspect of Eskimo existence, so it makes sense that they have divided the book into sections on winter and summer houses.

This seasonal system of classification works well but, because of the scope of the project, the sheer volume of information being communicated may overwhelm the casual reader. Also, I found myself wishing that the authors had spent some time analyzing their findings, instead of just reporting them. But this kind of writing is left out on purpose; the authors attempt to reduce analytical noise in the wealth of detail that would be a distraction from the pursuit of typological classification.

They provide a catalogue of information about the structures and leave it to other scholars to analyze their findings. They have certainly succeeded in providing an extensively researched, extremely thorough overview, one that provides a fascinating look at human ingenuity and resourcefulness.

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