Because of the durability of sculptures, we know more about pre-historic carvings than we do about any other form of Inuit artistic expression. Most of the relics preserved are small engravings and carvings of whimsical, doll-like figures and spiritual talismans. Many of these date back to the pre-Dorset culture (2500-800 B.C.). In the historic period, through the 19th and early 20th centuries, Inuit traded representations of animals and mythical figures with whalers, explorers and other newcomers to the Arctic.

Everything changed for Inuit art when James Houston visited the arctic in 1948. Houston recognized carving's potential for easing Inuit into a modern wage economy. He gathered the support from the Hudson's Bay Company and the federal government and, with the Canadian Handicrafts Guild, staged the first exhibition of Inuit art in Montreal in 1949. Fascination with these Inuit sculptures created an immediate market, a new sector of the northern economy, and opened the way to marketing other Inuit arts and crafts.

Early carvings were usually made out of soapstone, favoured for its softness. However, better tools let artists today make most of their carvings with harder, longer-lasting serpentine. Marble, argillite and quartzite are also used, as are ivory, antler and bone.

Carving is practiced in every Nunavut community. You can often tell which community a carving came from by the stone used and the subject tackled. However, individual artists have their own styles and their own favourite themes.