The inuksuk may have been used for navigation, as a point of reference, a marker for hunting grounds, or as a food cache. The Inupiat in northern Alaska used inuksuit to assist in the herding of caribou into contained areas for slaughter. Inuksuit vary in shape and size, with deep roots in the Inuit culture.
Historically the most common type of inuksuit are a single stone positioned in an upright manner. An inuksuk is often confused with an inunnguaq, a cairn representing a human figure. There is some debate as to whether the appearance of human or cross shaped cairns developed in the Inuit culture before the arrival of European missionaries and explorers.
The word inuksuk means "something which acts for or performs the function of a person." The word comes from the morphemes inuk ("person") and -suk ("ersatz" or "substitute"). It is pronounced inutsuk in Nunavik and the southern part of Baffin Island (see Inuit language phonology and phonetics for the linguistic reasons). In many of the central Nunavut dialects, it has the etymologically related name inuksugaq (plural: inuksugait).
Despite the predominant English spelling as inukshuk, both the Government of Nunavut and the Government of Canada through Indian and Northern Affairs Canada are promoting the Inuit preferred spelling inuksuk.
A structure similar to an inuksuk but meant to represent a human figure, called an inunnguaq (ᐃᓄᙳᐊᖅ, "imitation of a person", plural inunnguat), has become widely familiar to non-Inuit. However, it is not the most common type of inuksuk and is distinguished from inuksuit in general.
Inuksuit continue to serve as an Inuit cultural symbol. For example, an inuksuk is shown on the flag and Coat of Arms of the Canadian territory of Nunavut, and the flag of Nunatsiavut. The high school in Iqaluit is named Inuksuk High School after the landmarks.
Inuksuit — particularly, but not exclusively, of the inunnguaq variety — are also increasingly serving as a mainstream Canadian national symbol. On July 13, 2005 Canadian military personnel erected an inuksuk on Hans Island, along with a plaque and a Canadian flag, as part of Canada's longstanding dispute with Denmark over the small Arctic island. The markers have been erected throughout the country, including a nine-metre high inuksuk that stands in Toronto on the shores of Lake Ontario. Located in Battery Park, it commemorates the World Youth Day 2002 festival that was held in the city in July 2002.
Officials in various wilderness parks across Canada are forced to routinely dismantle inuksuit constructed by hikers and campers, for fear that they could misdirect park visitors from the actual cairns and other markers that mark various hiking trails. The practice of erecting inuksuit in parks has become so widespread that Killarney Provincial Park, on the north shore of Ontario's Georgian Bay, issued a notice in 2007 urging visitors to “stop the invasion” of inuksuit. In some areas, including Northern Ontario, a large number of inuksuit have also been constructed along the Trans-Canada Highway.
An inunnguaq forms the basis of the logo of the 2010 Winter Olympics designed by Vancouver artist Elena Rivera MacGregor. Its use in this context has been controversial, both among the Inuit and the First Nations of British Columbia. Although the design is under question, it is widely acknowledged that it pays tribute to the inuksuk that stands at Vancouver's English Bay, which was created by artisan Alvin Kanak of Rankin Inlet, Northwest Territories (which is now in the territory of Nunavut that separated from the Northwest Territories in 1999.) It was given as a gift to the city for Expo 86. The land has since been donated to the city and it is now a protected site. Friendship and the welcoming of the world are the meanings of both the English Bay structure and the 2010 Winter Olympics emblem, with Kanak's creation having the additional representation of the strength of his people and the modes of communication and technology before modern Canada.
Inuksuit have also begun to be recognized around the world as an iconic Canadian symbol, thanks in large part to the Vancouver 2010 logo, but also to the construction of inuksuit around the world. There are four authentic inuksuit around the world donated - wholly or in part - by the government of Canada: in Monterrey, Mexico; Oslo, Norway; Washington, D.C. and Guatemala City.
The most recent of these inuksuit was built in Monterrey in October 2007 by the renowned Inuvialuit artist Bill Nasogaluak. The sculpture was presented to the people of the northern state of Nuevo León as a gift from the Monterrey Chapter of the Canadian Chamber of Commerce in Mexico and the Government of Canada, to mark the Chamber’s 10th anniversary in the city. The sculpture stands over the Santa Lucia Riverwalk. Nasogaluak, of Tuktoyaktuk, NWT, personally chose the rocks for the structure from a local quarry near Monterrey. The Inukshuk also contains two rocks that the artist took to Mexico from Canada, one from the high Arctic and another from his home town of Toronto. Together these two rocks form the Inukshuk’s heart.
The Inukshuk is also used as the symbol of the Summit of the Americas, because of its connotations of friendship and cooperation.
The largest inukshuk is located in Schomberg, Ontario.