How did Inuit learn the eskimo roll?

just curious. we know they could roll , but how did they teach their kids when they didn’t know how to swim and a wet exit in arctic waters is potentially fatal?

were their kayaks possibly easier to roll?


The kayaks used by those who hunted were very light and way easier to roll than most. Look up info on building SOF’s, and how they are sized to the paddler.

However they managed it, it is erroneous thinking to figure that ability to swim in the way that those of us with warm water available was crucial in that progress. They had this one figured out a long time before swimming pools.

They also used very large craft, probably not much roll worthy, with whole families stuffed in there to get between home locations due to seasonal change or whatever.

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A small correction, the Inuit were not sewn into their kayaks. There was no bungee cord, but around the bottom of their their tuilik , there was a cord that was tightened to hold it on and then it was tied.

Another small note. The qajaq was part of the swim package. The Inuit learned to swim with their qajaq, not without it since that had no purpose. So rolling was just part of learning to swim. There was no luxury of being out without your qajaq .

There are other things that are little understood by the non skin boaters. The paddler, the qajaq and the tuilik were a package and as you roll or edge, the package of the three work as a team sort of. There is air transfer because it is one big bladder, {so the skin balloons slightly when the air from the tuilik transfers…shapes change slightly} nothing is separate. The air goes from the tuilik into the qajaq as you roll because everything is connected and part of the bladder. It is all part of your PFD which is air filled and… with a proper fit becomes alive.

This is also why the fiberglass or plastic kayak are not called qajaq, they are Qajariaq. Which means “like a Qajaq but not one.”


They also had off-water practice for rolls using ropes, what we now call rope gymnastics


A few years ago I got to take a trip to the Fjordlands of North West Iceland. We got to stay on a farm that was about 350 miles from the coast of Eastern Greenland. One interesting bit of Icelandic culture was that there were roadside geothermal heated baths on the edge of the coastline roads in several spots. You could soak in the tub with fellow travelers and go take a dip in the water of the Fjord (my guess was about 45 degrees F) and then go back in the warm tub. In one town there was a guy in the tub who told us that kids from small villages in Eastern Greenland come and learn to swim in geothermal public pools, and they are invited and housed by the local townsfolk. He also mentioned that it is a myth that all Greenlanders did not know how to swim until recent history. If current culture is indicative swimming wasn’t something done for recreation. They certainly weren’t going to be swimming much in the winter time, but in summer because of the ocean currents the water temps in southern Greenland are not much different than Iceland and Norway, where yes people swim without dying instantly (it’s not pleasant but if you are used to it, it’s certainly possible to swim for quite a while.)


Maybe not the OPs question, but you have to wonder about who was the first person who ever rolled a kayak. Was it intentional or did they flip, panic, and while flailing accidentally right themselves and think “Holy S#$%, that was cool!”

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You have to figure it was unintentional initially and then cultivated.

I wonder the same thing about atlatls… did a smart monkey simply think of it and execute? My guess is while taking on some mega fauna someones spear broke but not cleanly, and in the heat of the moment they chucked it anyways and made a happy discovery.

Both answers lost to time!

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just curious. we know they could roll , but how did they teach their kids when they didn’t know how to swim and a wet exit in arctic waters is potentially fatal?

were their kayaks possibly easier to roll?


IMHO, everyone came from someone before themselves. They learned to roll just like we do. Practice, and being taught. I’m no sociologist, historian of ancient peoples, nor paleontologist, but everyone learns from someone, and some wisdoms are passed and improved upon through the ages. You’re asking about something that surely developed over hundreds, if not thousands, of years.


My 5th grade teacher read my class a book called “Fire-Hunter” by James Arthur Kjelgaard. Kjelgaard’s fantasy answer to how the atlatl and lots of other stone age discoveries happened.
I think the book is kind of hoky and I have not read it for years, but when I was 10 I loved it and went out and made myself an atlatl and threw a long floppy dart clear through my neighbors laundry.


Small steps toward rolling?

Static brace, sculling with upper body on the water, etc.

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learn the end of the roll first. Go slow and a little farther each time. Sort it out while breathing air , not at the bottom.


Trial and error.
Practice in shallow water in summer with an assistant.

They developed a series of rolls according to the predicament they were in
A roll for an injured hand was not the same as a roll for being entangled in line from
a spear.
They were taught and mentored from am early age.
The balance brace was the starting point for all learning and no one was allowed to paddle alone till that was mastered
I saw a demo of 37 different rolls that were developed for 37 different bad situations

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The balance brace is also at times called a static brace. For anyone who has not seen it, this is a quite stable position halfway down floating on the water. A simple motion from there brings you up onto the back deck, having the outer hand holding something like a GP provides tremendous support.

That said, this position is easier in a full tulik and a true low volume Greenland boat than in a regular sea kayak. And requires some flexibility that comes as part of the training for the kids in Greenland. But the same flexibility may take some rounds of yoga for middle aged folks.

There are huge differences between young people being started early in this area and even people in their 30s starting it all from scratch. But the same is true for any learning process. Younger is an easier start.


Exactly! Thank you, Celia. Only a few months, so far, practicing lessons to manage efficiently in a sea kayak.

Progress takes time, and repetition is slowed by resting more often. Practicing yoga for a few years before starting this has been helpful. And it’s interesting to see how closely related to paddling a sea kayak yoga postures are. For example, while practicing edging, everything worked better to the right than to the left. It wasn’t the boat’s fault. I have known for a long time that certain yoga poses were easier (better flexibility and range) for me on one side than the other. It wasn’t helpful for learning sea kayaking, for my time paddling canoes while keeping to starboard-only for my onside.

Looking forward to when I’ll be able to start learning to roll (with the assistance of an instructor). I believe it is an essential skill needed to follow three basic rules for safe boating (…and Inuit hunters likely knew this instinctively):

  • Keep the boat in the water.

  • Keep the water out of the boat.

  • Stay in the boat.

Although it’s great fun learning to manage in a sea kayak, being in my mid seventies makes it way more challenging. It would have been much easier to start learning this 60+ years ago. Learning is living.

Thanks again Celia.

There are still Inuit who kayak. There are still Inuit who teach their kids how to paddle, roll and make a kayak. For the adventurous, a trip to Western Greenland to view or participate in the annual Greenland Kayak Competition is a thrill, and you can watch kids being taught and ask these questions in person from old men who once were “seal catchers”.

What I have seen in Greenland is that commonly the instructor stands at the bow of the kayak in shallow water and stays dry (in waders) and uses the forefoot of the kayak to lever it upright, should the student fail to roll. As to how the first person rolled, in my opinion it probably came after learning how to scull for support. The only thing needed after that, is to capsize, get into the static brace position, and scull up.


The study of old ways of kayaking shows many solutions to similar problems. Somewhere around here I have a book on Alaskan native kayaks. Some look similar to greenland boats most not so much. Each location, each tribe had their own solution in kayak design. Not all wore “skirts” of any kind. Some look like aleutian kayaks some not. I’m sure some rolled, and some didn’t.

I’m not sure it is important how ancient peoples learned to do things but how modern people learn the skills so we can adapt and overcome the hazards of the environment and enjoy what is now a sport.

Since a roll is just sculling up in a single stroke, I would guess that was the discovery.

That is how I got my left side - which I don’t have now - but it was a completely different start than the right. I was in pool sessions and spent session after session just working on a controlled scull for coming up. Down for three, up for three, that kind of thing. One evening I came up in a single one on the left, quite unintended.

Atlatl is one of many names for a throwing stick. This is a very ancient device that some feel was humankind’s first mechanical invention. It confers a huge advantage in the distance that a spear can be thrown. This is easy to see if you consider the point at which a spear gripped with the hand has to be released. The atlatl overcomes that limitation and allows more energy to be transferred to the spear. That’s how I understand it anyway.

Thanks for sharing this. I got to learn some strokes and rolling with Maligiaq (pictured on that linked page) and he also demonstrated ropes gymnastics. This is from Greenland and has been a part of conditioning for young people as part of preparation for paddling.