The traditional objects of Nunavik are a repository of knowledge accumulated over the ages, testifying to a deep reflection on nature and the possibilities offered by available resources.
Taken for the most part from archival photographs, here is a gallery of a few of these objects. While some of them show a gradual modernization, they nevertheless continue to embody an enduring ingenuity passed from generation to generation.
The amauti is a traditional garment that is still worn frequently by the women of Nunavik. It is a parka that is ample enough for a mother to carry a baby on her back (with the child’s legs fitted into pockets under her arms) and has a hood large enough to protect the two of them. The looseness of the shoulders makes it easier to transfer the baby when it is nursed. The back of the amauti is longer than the front to minimize heat loss when the mother wants to sit down. Rather than relying on a pattern, the seamstress traditionally measures and cuts the garment according to a method based on hand measurements, guaranteeing a very comfortable fit. Traditional materials like sealskin, caribou skins and fox fur have been gradually complemented or replaced by calico or duffle.
These traditional goggles, made of caribou antler, ivory or wood, are attached with a sinew cord behind a person’s head. They were an indispensable aid for the Nunavimmiut, since they prevented the temporary blindness caused by long exposure to UV rays reflected by the snow. “Snow blindness” is a condition resembling a sunburn on the cornea or conjunctiva. The goggles are pierced by a long thin slit that sharply limits the amount of light reaching the eye. The interior of the iggaak is blackened with soot, further reducing reflections. Goggles first appeared in the Thule period.
The ulu is a knife with a semi-circular blade and a handle carved out of bone, antler or wood. The blade, formerly shaped from schist or slate, is generally made of steel today. The ulu has many functions – for example, it is used to scrape skins clean, to chop up food and even to cut children’s hair. In Nunavik, the ulu was introduced in the Thule period, although examples dating from more than 2 500 years ago have been found elsewhere in the Arctic.
The blade’s size can vary from 5 to 35cm wide, depending on the function. The smallest ulu knives can be used for sewing, cutting sinew or tracing patterns on leather. The larger ones are used for skinning. Its structure makes it possible to apply, without risk of injury, a greater pressure to cut hard materials such as bone. During mealtime, it also allows to cut meat with one hand.
Its design, ergonomics and multiple functions make it an object which, even today, finds its relevance and usefulness in the daily life of the Inuit of Nunavik.
The qulliq is a traditional oil lamp carved out of a piece of rock like soapstone. Its hollow half-moon form was partially filled with marine mammal oil that burned with a wick made of plant material such as moss or cottongrass. A multifunctional object, the qulliq was used to warm up the interior of tents and igloos, melt snow for water, cook food and dry out clothing. It also sometimes served as part of ceremonial events.
In Nunavik, the use of the qajaq dates back to the end of the Dorset period. It is a common object that serves many purposes, from travelling to hunting for whales, or seals or even caribou.
Traditionally, the qajaq was constructed out of local material, such as seal skins or caribou hides, whale bones, wood and oils obtained from marine mammals and certain fine minerals. These boats vary in size, and some of them are as much as eight metres long.
Although today the qajaq is manufactured with modern materials like fiberglass, it is striking how little the boat’s basic structure has changed since the period when it was crafted by hand. Here, in pictures, are of some of the steps in building a qajaq.
1. Women sewing skin together for Johnny Kopaqualuk’s qajaq. Puvirnituq, 1959.
2. The opposite edges of the cover are laced together across the top with skinline. The raised cross-piece amidships will form the front of the manhole for Johnny Kopaqualuk’s qajaq. Puvirnituq, 1959.
3. When the sewing is finished, the qajaq is taken out and put upside down over a box and the women scrutinize it for holes that need patching. Puvirnituq, 1959.
4. Men putting in wooden cockpit frame. Puvirnituq, 1959.
Photography: Frederica Knight, Hudson's Bay Company Archives (HBCA 1987/363-E-392/99, HBCA 1987/363-E-392/85, HBCA 1987/363-E-392/74, HBCA 1987/363-E-392/89)
Although baskets are crafted throughout North America, the basketry of Nunavik is distinctive because it is so finely woven and beautifully decorated. These containers are made out of fibres obtained from plants gathered in the surrounding environment. Iviit, or lime grass is remarkably sturdy once it has been woven.
This basket, made by Annie Novalinga of Umiujaq, is a magnificent example of spiral basketry, enhanced with coloured string and surmounted by a carved soapstone handle.