How Igloos Work

The Inuit

People often confuse the Inuit with the Eskimos, believing them to be separate aboriginal, or native, tribes. Actually, the two groups are the same. The word "Inuit" means "the people." "Eskimo" is believed to mean "eaters of raw meat" [source: University of Waterloo]. Eskimo is considered a derogatory term because the name was bestowed upon them by non-Inuits. Some linguists now believe that the word "Eskimo" means "to net snowshoes," although it's pretty much impossible to prove. So, even though many people use the terms interchangeably or think they are separate tribes, the group prefers to be referred to as Inuit.

Inuit Indians build an igloo
Norbert Rosing/National Geographic/
Getty Images
Two Inuit Indians in Nunavut Territory, Canada, build
an igloo.

The impressive geographical reach of the Inuit makes them the most widespread aboriginal group in the world. They are arguably also one of the toughest, having survived one of the most unpleasant climates in the world for millennia. Inuit adapted long ago to the harsh Arctic conditions. Throughout history, the Inuit relied much more heavily than the rest of the world on animals for nourishment, largely because plants just can't grow where they live. Because of their largely carnivorous diets, Inuit hunters traveled from their homes to the much colder areas near sea ice, where they could hunt seals. The hunters stayed in their igloos for as little as few days at a time to entire winters. Many people believe incorrectly that Inuit live only in igloos. This myth couldn't be farther from the truth -- Inuit use igloos almost exclusively as hunting camps. In fact, although most Inuit live in regular old houses now, igloos are still used for the occasional hunting trip.

Traditionally, Inuit do not operate in an organized society or government. And, they've never established a widespread tribal identity. They prefer to live without class divisions. Everyone in a given settlement is equally responsible for finding food and clothing. The family is the central focus of the community, and the senior male serves as the figurehead. Boys are raised to have an almost religious devotion to hunting, and girls have traditionally been taught to seek a talented hunter for a husband.

Inuit hunter
Chris Anderson/Aurora/Getty Images
Mikeli, an Inuit hunter, hunts for polar bears with his dogsled team in northern Greenland.

Today's Inuit primarily support themselves as artists, specifically as jewelers, stone carvers and painters. Inuit culture is very much alive and well. In fact, a study by the Multiculturalism and Human Rights Program at the Department of Canadian Heritage projects that there could be as many as 68,400 Inuit in Canada by 2017, an increase from 41,080 in 1996 [source: 1996 Census of Canada].

Forget Chalets -- Rent an Igloo
Following a long day on the ski slopes, most people like to head back to a toasty lodge, sip on some cocoa and get a good night's sleep under a down comforter. Others are willing to forego all of those niceties if it means they will get a head start on the slopes the next morning. Igloo villages are an unconventional option for these brave souls.

Iglu-Dorf is a chain of igloo villages in five locations across the Swiss Alps. Standard and "romantic" igloos are available for rental during the ski season, from the end of December to the beginning of April. Some amenities include access to group sauna and Jacuzzi, fondue dinner, nighttime snowshoe walk and subzero sleeping equipment. A few upgrades can get you a private bathroom and sheepskin rugs. In addition to standard overnight stays, Iglu-Dorf also hosts weddings, corporate events and parties. And if you're looking for an icy room that's really luxurious, you can always make a reservation at an ice hotel.

In the next section, we'll debunk some igloo myths and learn what they're really like.