INUIT ART both pre and post European contact

Please accept my apologies for the disorganization in today’s post – last night and earlier this morning WordPress and I had a disagreement and I discovered I had lost all the pictures in my post, so I had to add them over again which currently has them all at the top  of the post, so if you will bear with me I will gradually fix that – but not now – half the day is gone and I’ve other things that must be done – Mich

mask dorset period

carved ivory polar bear
human figure – carved ivory
Thule period - carved and incised ivory comb
thule period – carved and incised ivory comb
Images of Justice – the Yellowknife Courthouse collection
Celebrating Inuit Art – co authored by James Houston
Art of the Far North – Carol Finley
doll: Spence Bay wool duffle fabric

Today I’m continuing on in my survey of the art of Canada’s First Peoples both before and after European contact.

I use the term “First Peoples” advisedly, as the Inuit – which is the plural form of Inuk – person, are unrelated ethnically and linguistically to the First Nations peoples who make up the rest of Canada’s aboriginal peoples. The term “Eskimo” has a negative meaningand was never used by the Inuit to refer to themselves.  Although it is still used in Alaska it is now completely out of use in Canada.
If you need to refresh your memory, check the map on my post about West Coast Haida peoples – the zone that the Inuit have historically occupied is  in the coastal areas of the far north – shaded in blue/green on the map.
There have been people in Canada’s north for at least 4000  years, having come from the Siberian land and island link and spread out to people the entire Arctic and down into Newfoundland and Labrador.
A distinct culture, called the Dorset  could be seen by around 600BC.
As with most aboriginal cultures at that time, the material culture reflected the blending of form and function – in other words there was no art for art’s sake, as the modern European concept entails.
Because this was a highly nomadic culture, living in a challenging and vast, empty land, most art occurred as embellishment of necessary possessions – dog harnesses, sleds,weapons, clothing, cooking vessels, sleds and boats – umiaks for women and family, and kayaks for hunters. Any  “unnecessary’ objects were quite possibly ritual and shamanistic objects worn as amulets and designed to offer protection and enhancement of the hunt and therefore, after all, very necessary.
The polar bear – nanook – has always occupied a high place in the Inuit’s regard and the polar bear theme is a constant through time right up to the current moment, as you will see later in the polar bear pack doll pictured below.
Above is a small carved ivory figure – human representations too are found throughout the timespan of the Inuit people. This one is from the Thule period. Around 1000AD, a new group of people moved across the arctic coming from Alaska and forcing the Dorset culture out or eliminating it through war and assimilation.
They brought with them a more secular approach to carving and decoration – this ivory carved and etched comb is typical of the decoration on utilitarian objects at that time.
Looking at this comb I am reminded of the output of many other groups of northern peoples both European and aboriginal North American from that time frame. The techniques to work ivory and bone were similar whether you were sitting in front of a roundhouse near the shore in the Orkney Islands, near a simple monastery in Ireland, or on a small farm in Greenland or Iceland – it was no different in an Inuit encampment.
I can see in my mind’s eye, an Inuit woman taking a needle from her ivory needlecase to sew a reindeer hide shirt, or the Norse woman in L’Anse Aux Meadows who was spinning wool to weave or knit warm clothing for her family group and overlooked her small spinning whorl in a corner of the longhouse as she and her fellow settlers left to return to Iceland. Their settlement and their trips up and down the Northeast Coast of Canada were designed to make use of the fur pelt and lumbering trade – both hot commodities in Europe of that time. Norse hunters and fur gatherers had been crossing and recrossing the arctic between Greenland and the Arctic regions of Canada for centuries.
Those few early Norse settlers around 1000AD were the beginning of centuries of exchange becoming increasingly structured and restrictive to the lives of the Inuit First Peoples.
I think we tend to forget just how long a period of contact most North American first peoples have had with encroaching Europeans.
I want to show a small selection of books reflecting the wealth of artistic images produced following the spread of governmental structure and policy into the settlements of the far north.
This was a gradual process that first involved trading posts run by the Hudson’s Bay Company, Nursing and Policing outposts, and the increasing entry of missionaries into the arctic. By the end of the Second World War in 1945 the penetration of governmental structure was becoming complete and Inuit were coerced into settling into formal and permanent settlements, often far from their normal hunting range and totally unfamiliar to them.
This destroyed a fragile balance with the land and of necessity introduced a monetary system into a system more used to trade and barter and reliance on food from the land.
In turn this led to poverty and suffering which disrupted an, until then, functioning social system.
The concept of crime and retribution for crime entered the culture and one of the results is a very large collectiuon of amazingly detailed stone carvings depicting court cases handled in the far north by the travelling justice system – this collection is housed in obscurity in the courthouse in Yellowknife and few people living in the south are aware of it’s existence. This was finally rectified by a book – shown above – which is now unfortunately out of print. The cover is shown below:
The next book covers that heady period in Inuit art between 1948 and 1970, as the art cooperative movement was getting established in the north.
James Houston was a young man working with the Department of Northern Affairs and  he saw the possibility of utilising and building on the skills Inuits displayed in working bone, ivory and stone and producing souvenirs for visitors to the north – they had been doing this for years. My friend’s uncle in the period between the two wars had been an officer on the arctic supply run up the coast of Labrador and brought back beautifully worked small ivory casrvings. At the same time the Grenfell Missions in Labrador encouraged and provided instruction in crafts that could be sold in the south and in Europe – they worked with white settlers, metis and Innu and Inuit peoples. The moravian missions also provided this sort of support in the same area and had been doing so since the late 1700’s.
Houston’s combination of workshops, cooperatives with instruction and support for supplies and also for shipment and marketing in the south was highly successful and today there are around 30 cooperatives scattered in settlements throughout the north and Inuit Art has taken it’s place in the mainstream of Canadian art, taking many forms and changing and eveolving constantly.
James Houston was an artist himself, and his son’s gallery:Houston North in Lunenburg Nova Scotia is a major player in this area, as well as representing regional Nova Scotian fine artists and Folk Artists.
At this point I was planning to briefly discuss prints from the arctic but on looking at the diversity of styles, subject matter and huge number of artists involved have decifded to delay this discussion until I can devote the time and space it deserves. Watch for it soon!

Ending on a light note, but carrying through the importance of two major themes of artistic expression  –  the first is nanook – the polar bear. Here a “pack doll”  has been updated into a stylish polar bear matron with her baby bundled in the hood of her blanketcloth duffle coat. Pack dolls were made to be carried by children when travelling out on the land – they often contained the family supply of tea, as all family members were expected to carry something belonging to the group. I can’t help but smile each time I look at Mrs. Nanook!

Above is a large wallhanging in bright cheery colours. This artisanal piece is felt applique and cotton floss embroidery executed on a dark as night wool duffle fabric. It expresses the continuing awareness of transformation in life that tells the Inuit that nothing ever goes away, it just changes form. This theme is constant in most aboriginal peoples thoughts and we see it again and again in Inuit art.

ADDITIONAL READING: come back to this often and expand your knowledge of one of the major streams in Canadian Art.


That’s it for now – expect a very brief post later in the week and then next week back to a featured artist and perhaps the post on Inuit prints! Enjoy your day – Mich!


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