As I was riding my bike down Constitution Avenue on this lunchtime ride, I saw what looked like an unusual pile of rocks on the grounds of the Organization of American States, which is located at 200 17th Street (MAP) in northwest D.C.’s Foggy Bottom neighborhood. As I stopped to explore it further, I realized that it was, in fact, a pile of rocks. However, it was not just a random pile of rocks. It was actually an inuksuk.
An inuksuk (also spelled inukshuk, plural inuksuit) is a man-made stone landmark or cairn, which can vary in shape, size and complexity. Historically, the most common type of inuksuk is a single stone positioned in an upright manner, although the appearance of some inuksuit suggest that their construction was likely the effort of many, if not an entire community. The inuksuit have their ancient roots in the Inuit culture, but they are also used by the Inupiat, Kalaallit, Yupik, and other peoples of the Arctic region of North America. This region, above the Arctic Circle, is dominated by the tundra biome and, therefore, has few natural landmarks.
The word inuksuk means “something which acts for or performs the function of a person.” The word comes from Inuk, meaning “person,” and suk, meaning “substitute.” Inuksuit are used for a variety of purposes, including a marker for travel routes, fishing places, camps, hunting grounds, holy grounds, or to mark a food cache. There are even examples of Inupiat in northern Alaska using inuksuit as drift fences to assist in the herding of caribou into contained areas for slaughter.
The inuksuk I saw on this ride serves as public art, and an Inuit cultural symbol. It was a gift from Canada to the Organization of American States to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the country’s admission to the Organization. The inuksuk was built in April 2010 by Peter Taqtu Irniq, an Inuk artist and Canadian politician.