Marking the Right Path with an Inukshuk

The English Bay Inukshuk stands two storeys tall at English Bay Beach Park, near Beach Avenue at Bidwell Street, in Vancouver. This well-known Vancouver landmark was created by Alvin Kanak, an artist from Rankin Inlet, Northwest Territories, in 1987. Inukshuk means “in the likeness of a human” in the Inuit language. Built with eight large granite boulders, the sculpture guards the shoreline and the entrance to Stanley Park like a proud soldier. 

English Bay Inukshuk at sunset (photo credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/voyagesetc/)

English Bay Inukshuk at sunset (photo credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/voyagesetc/)

Insuksuit, the plural form of inukshuk, have been around for thousands of years in northern Canada and elsewhere in the Arctic. An inukshuk is a monument built with stones found nearby its location, so it can be built in many ways: small or large, round stones or flat, a single rock or several balanced on each other. An inukshuk that is shaped in the form of a human being is called an inunnguaq.

Traditionally meaning “someone was here” or “you are on the right path”, the Inuit commonly built insuksuit to indicate a navigational route. In the barren Arctic landscape, an inukshuk might have been the only sign that humans had passed through the area. “Up north is very desolate, so you need directions. If people were to look for us, we gotta let them know where we are going,” Jeff Ward of the Membertou Heritage Park on Cape Breton Island, told CTV News. “They give you directions. They give you hope. They give you, actually, a sense of trust.”

Today, hikers all over the world are used to seeing cairns, deliberately stacked rocks, along a trail, marking the way. Like the ancient Inuit who built insuksuit to aid those who followed, this practice can be particularly useful in the backcountry where trails are not always well-marked. Cairns are also commonly found on mountain summits. Perhaps these modern monuments connect hikers of past and present, indicating on an otherwise natural landscape that someone has passed by there before and they are not alone.

Marking the summit of a lava tower on Kilimanjaro. 

Marking the summit of a lava tower on Kilimanjaro. 

Besides navigation, the Inuit made inuksuit for other purposes: to indicate a good fishing or hunting place, to provide shelter from the wind, or to mark a memorial for a loved one.

It is for that latter reason that inuksuit have been appearing on Hamilton’s Chedoke Rail Trail in Ontario. Kristen Villebrun organized a group of about 10 people to build these statues for six hours a day, four days a week, according to CBC news. The statues represent the murdered and missing aboriginal women of Canada.

"I thought it was a great idea to do an art installation like this instead of blocking a road," she told the CBC. Hundreds of people have stopped to ask the group what it is they're building, and why, and Villebrun uses that opportunity to talk to the passers-by about the issue. “We'll continue to do what we're doing until we get our inquiry,” she said.

From ancient times to today, inuksuit symbolize human connection. Visiting the inukshuk at English Bay, it's nice to be reminded that someone has been here before and others will come after. You are on the right path.