Inukshuk (in'-ook-shook - oo as in 'look' - plural inuksuit - in'-ook-shoo-it), or inuksuk, is an Inuktitut1 word defined by the Nunavut Arctic College Archaeology Glossary (D Stenton ) as:
A type of archaeological feature consisting of rocks piled in the shape of, or to indicate, a human form. Inuksuit are a common feature on the land, assume many forms and sizes, and serve a variety of different purposes.
It might be more accurate to describe the stones as stacked rather than piled.
The government of the new Canadian Territory of Nunavut2 uses the inukshuk as the central symbol of the territorial flag and as a prominent part of the territorial coat of arms. The government describes inuksuit as:
... stone monuments which guide people on the land and mark sacred and other special places.
A related monument, the inunnguaq, which is specifically made to look like a person, with a head, two arms and two legs, is often referred to as an inukshuk, although, strictly speaking, this use of inukshuk is inaccurate. The root words of inukshuk literally mean 'a substitute for a human', implying that the inukshuk is performing a human function - giving direction, marking a good hunting area, etc. The roots of inunnguaq, however, mean 'an imitation of a human', suggesting that such monuments don't necessarily have the informational function of inuksuit. For the non-Inuktitut speaking world, however, inukshuk has become the word for both types of monument.
The inukshuk is now a familiar symbol of the north throughout Canada and modern examples are found scattered across the country. Individual Canadians at home or abroad commonly build inuksuit with local stones on beaches or river banks and children often build snow inuksuit in the winter. A colourful inukshuk was chosen as the symbol of the 2010 Olympic Winter Games in Vancouver, bringing the symbol to the world.
'Sacred and Other Special Places'
In June 2002, Canadian soldiers in Kandahar, Afghanistan (far from the north) constructed an Inukshuk from local stone as a memorial to their four comrades who had been killed the previous April by a 500lb laser-guided bomb dropped on them by an American Air National Guard pilot. The pilot had mistaken a Canadian live-fire exercise on a designated training range for hostile fire directed at his patrol.
Corporal Ainsworth Dyer, Sergeant Marc Leger, Private Richard Green and Private Nathan Smith, died that night. Eight other Canadian soldiers were wounded. Their Inukshuk points home.