Northern Doll Stories
and the People Who Make Them

by Solveig Gardner Servian


Book Reviews
Children's Books
DVDs & Videos
How to contact us
About us
Terms and Conditions



'Don't go looking for Antarctica without this book.' - Susan Solomon




In 1972 the French explorer Paul-Emile Victor wrote:

Eskimos are no more.

I was fortunate, between 1934–1937 (in Greenland), then 1942–1944 (in North-western Canada and in Alaska), to have known the Eskimos when they were still Eskimos. Today one may say, it seems to me, that they are no more. The race has become more and more integrated with other races, and the cultural characteristics have practically disappeared. The white man, through explorers, missionaries, merchants and administrators, has, as elsewhere, done its work of levelling, uniformising, ‘normalising’. But perhaps for once, the results are not negative. The atrocious famines that decimated the Eskimo people are no more. Christianity in its various forms has replaced the preanimistic beliefs based on fear, and have instilled respect for human life. Modern techniques and materials have sometimes brought with them better solutions. But sadly, as could have been expected, Eskimos – or rather what’s left of them – are no longer happy. For, despite the harsh and dangerous life they lead, despite the cold, the hunger, the constant struggle against hostile elements and wild animals, they were happy. As they had but few needs, often they managed (far more often than the homo occidentalis, with their consumer-based civilisation) to satisfy them all more or less. (translated from Victor, 1972: 5)

Well, Victor was right, of course, about Eskimos* being 'no more' - but in a way wrong, too. This summer the Polar Museum, located at the Scott Polar Research Institute in Cambridge, hosted a most remarkable exhibition. Sewing Our Traditions: Dolls of Canada's North is a collection of dolls created and hand-made by the many cultures of Inuit and First Nations of Canada's North: the Yukon, Northwest Territories and Nunavut. Not merely fine works of art, they are labours of love – 100 extraordinary dolls exquisitely detailed and created expressly to preserve their cultural heritage.

Assembled by the Yukon Arts Centre for a travelling exhibition through Canada in 2008, the collection then became part of the cultural exhibition accompanying the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games, a venture supported by VANOC and NACA (see below). Several of the dolls come from the Legislative Assembly of Nunavut, and the complete collection is on permanent display in Iqaluit, Nunavut's capital.

Cambridge's fine Polar Museum - one of four museums shortlisted for the 2011 Art Fund prize, the largest arts prize in the UK - was privileged to be the first overseas venue to partner this venture. Its intimate setting allowed for close scrutiny of each doll. Children could investigate interactive displays of materials used in making the dolls and a central workshop area invited visitors of any age to try their hand at doll-making under the expert guidance of three artisans from Canada's North, here for the opening week of the exhibition and to take part in a panel discussion open to the public.

Members of the panel discussion group comprised:

Theresie Tungilik (Government Advisor)

Lizzie Angootealuk (Inuit, doll-maker representing Nunavut)

Dolores Anderson (Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in, doll-maker representing the Yukon)

Lillian Wright (Teetl’it Gwech’in, doll-maker representing the Northwest Territories)

Jennifer Bowen (Exhibition Curator, Yukon Arts Centre)

Rowena House (Executive Director, NACA)

For most of the ladies this was their first time overseas. They each said how humbled they were to be in England and honoured to be selected to represent their communities. In their softly spoken, dignified way they talked passionately about their cultural histories and how the dolls have become historical testaments.

As in all cultures, dolls were important both as playthings and as developmental tools. In the Arctic they would have been made from driftwood or ivory and shaped like a person. A child would enjoy learning to dress it. Girls learned to sew by watching their mothers making such items as moccasins, parkas, mittens and mukluks. Such skills have been slowly dying out, but through the various arts and crafts schools throughout Canada's North an attempt is being made to encourage people to take them up again.

Dolores Anderson is from Dawson City. A doll-maker representing the Yukon, she was taught traditional crafts by her mother and grandmother, and started selling to tourists when she was only 8 years old. It was her grandmother’s idea to decorate the sash or belt with the name of the place or ethnic group as that appealed to the tourists. The decoration of strawberries, forget-me-nots and daisies are unique to Yukon designs.

Lillian Wright, a Gwech'in elder from Fort Macpherson (once a Hudson's Bay Company post), representing the Northwest Territories, said the last doll in that area was made in the 1950s. Taught to sew in the traditional manner by her mother and aunts, she started doll-making in 2006 through the Traditional Arts programme. She makes dolls and clothes for her grandchildren. 'Mother Nature provided for us before the stores came in,' she said. 'Bones were made into toys. What they didn't use then!' She dresses her dolls as she has seen them dressed in the past to record and preserve their history. The people want to preserve something from the past, she says. They always used dog teams, never skidoos, for instance. And the caribou was vital to their way of life, and still today they cannot throw even the smallest pieces of the animal away. Lilian said that contrary to common belief, the First Nations 'are not poor, it is just a way of life. Hard times make you strong.' Still, although they were happy, the people wouldn't want to go back to the past, she believes: progress is inevitable and important. Thrilled at the reception to her dolls, she says she never dreamed they would be seen by so many people.

Lizzie Angootealuk, from Cold Harbor, representing Nunavut, is an illustrator and makes wall hangings. A working mother, she started doll-making in 2006 when she joined a workshop in Rankin Inlet run by Tarralikitaaq Arts society. The Society invited a polymer clay expert from Disneyland, California, to travel to Nunavut to teach portrait sculpture, and Lizzie has sculpted some amazing faces for her own dolls. Surprisingly, she takes only three to four weeks to create one doll.

Theresie Tungilik, the government advisor, explained that reindeer and caribou were the original materials used for clothing: survival depended on them. Caribou skin is the warmest as the hairs are hollow and trap more air - the perfect insulation - and would last forever despite constantly shedding hairs. Being dependent on their environment, the indigenous people have great respect for nature and hate waste. Every part of the animal was used, even the skin between the hoof. Despite being so simple, the knowledge is being lost, we were told. Leg skins were sewn together in a block to use for a mattress in the tent, and to make bags. The bags were used for preserving dried meat, a process which today's young people are unfamiliar with.

The Inuit were nomadic. They followed the caribou on their migration, and made sure they did not deplete the stock. The seasons determined their lifestyle: ‘Our climate speaks of who we are,’ says Lizzie. Animal skins for clothing would be taken only in the fall, when the new hair growth had started. Processing was best done outside, softening the pelts for clothing or stretching the skins for bedding. Skin clothing, unlike manmade fibres, are watertight, even the seams. This is because the 'thread', or sinew, would be thicker than the needle, thus filling the hole made by the needle.

While the West coast depended on caribou, the East coast mainly had seal. They also caught birds with sling shots. 'The land gave us everything we needed,' said Lizzie. Now that seal meat is not so plentiful, 'even the huskies have changed; they have duller coats and are not so agile.' And global warming has caused the caribou to migrate earlier, in August/September, rather than October.

The Arctic is often thought of as a barren wasteland, a kind of desert where nothing thrives. This could not be further from the truth, as evidenced by the huge variety of local material used in this exhibition: beaver, caribou, coyote, eider skin, feather, fish skin, gopher (ground squirrel), grasses, horse hair, lynx, marten, moose hair, moose hide, musk ox, muskrat, muskrat, rabbit, sealskin, willow, wolf, wood and animal sinew. Soapstone and even a whale vertebra also feature.

Fabrics made from natural materials include canvas, cotton, duffel, fleece, melton, stroud, suede, wool and abalone seashell buttons. These became available as early as 1670 with the advent of the Hudson's Bay Company, along with manufactured goods such as knives, kettles and steel needles, which could be exchanged for furs. The only manmade materials used in clothing were glass beads and sequins for decoration; these would have been introduced by the early traders and whalers who used them for barter.

To make the dolls, the body is sewn first. Next, wire is added for form and stability. Then the body is stuffed with wool or cotton fibre, or possibly sand for a larger model. Designs of amauti (pl. amautiit), the large hooded woman's parka for carrying babies and infants up to about the age of 3 years, vary according to different communities. A further difference, though not relevant to this collection, is that Canadian amautiit have a long front while the Greenlanders' is quite short. Alaskan dress is different, too, where wolverine is much prized for the trim around a woman's parka hood, and along the Pacific Coast area tassels signify wealth.

The dolls' faces are either sewn, fashioned from wax, or crafted from polymer clay, as are some of the hands and feet. Generally, dolls from the western regions have no faces, nor do shamanist dolls, whilst eastern ones do. Each doll is usually given a name, whether intended for a child or an exhibition piece.

The dolls replicate both traditional and ceremonial clothing, as would be worn at a potlatch, community dance, wedding, funeral, drum dance or assembly. ‘It is so good to hear the drum beating, and a long time since I've heard throat-singing,' says Lillian. Some dolls represent people - a husband and daughter, a mother-in-law, neighbours from the local community. One represents a clan leader, others reflect legends. Many are shown performing activities that illustrate how people once lived. There is even a self-portrait.

Theresie told me that when she first saw the Olayuk Kigutikajuk’s Family of four in traditional caribou clothing, she immediately thought ‘That’s me, that’s me when I was a kid! I really related to it as a set, it took me back to my childhood days. My grandmother used to dress us like that.’ When she spoke of this during the panel discussion Theresie was visibly moved by the memory, an example of just how much these dolls mean to the Inuit and First Nation people.

Another major change to the First Nations is that is that they are loosing their languages. Despite being an elder, even Lillian is having to relearn her own language. 'The young don't hear it anymore,' she says. 'My parents said English is important for education.' She told how children living in remote communities spend 9 months a year at residential school, with just 3 months at home, for a total of 8 years, ‘so all the parents want to do when they are home is hug them, not teach them!’ The children miss the hunting season when boys would learn to fish, hunt, trap, dry meat and fish. Summer activities for girls would include picking berries, tanning hides and learning to sew. The general attitude is that school is beneficial because with education one can work or live anywhere, but so much else is lost.

'These dolls are beneficial to our culture how we lived before,' explains Lillian, 'We now want to show our cultural heritage to the world. Young people are not involved in traditional arts as they now have paid jobs. As First Nation people we want to spread doll-making through all communities. The presence of a doll is quite moving for some people. We want to teach young people their traditional skills. It is not their fault the skills have been lost.’

Theresie added: 'The creation of Nunavut made us become ourselves again.'

For Lillian, and some of the other doll-makers, their work is a spiritual experience, making them feel closer to their ancestors. The exhibition itself also exudes an aura of spirituality; indeed, it was commented on by every visitor I spoke to.




See also 'Let the Dolls Speak' for images of other fabulous creations in the exhibition.

To purchase a copy of the exhibition catalogue, email the Polar Museum, NACA or Yukon Arts Centre - and please mention this website when ordering. Thank you.



* Eskimo: In the territory of Nunavut the term ‘eskimo’, a Cree Indian word meaning ‘eaters of raw meat’, is considered derogatory and therefore should no longer be used.

VANOC: Vancouver Organizing Committee for the 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games, the non-profit organization responsible for planning, organizing, financing and staging the games. One of VANOC’s goals was to achieve ‘unprecedented’ First Nations, Inuit, and Métis participation in the planning and hosting of the 2010 Winter Games.

NACA: The Nunavut Arts and Crafts Association, a non-profit incorporated society, promotes the growth and appreciation of Nunavut’s visual artists and the production of their arts and crafts, and aims to create a better business and working environment for them.


Balikci, A. (1970) The Netsilik Eskimo. New York: Natural History Press.
Briggs, J.L. (1970) Never in Anger: Portrait of an Eskimo Family. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Duncan, K.C. and Carney, E. (1989) A Special Gift: The Kutchin Beadwork Tradition. Washington, DC: University of Washington Press.
Ernerk, P., Kuliktana, M. Landrhy, P. and MacDonald, J. (Eds) (1998) The Nunavut Handbook: Travelling in Canada’s Arctic. Iqaluit, NT: Nortext Multimedia.
Herbert, W. (1976) Eskimos. London: Collins.
King, J.C.H., Paulksztat, B. and Storrie, R. (Eds) ( 2005) Arctic Clothing of North America – Alaska, Canada, Greenland. London: British Museum Press.
Lee, M. (Ed.) (2006) Not Just a Pretty Face: Dolls and Human Figurines in Alaska Native Cultures. Fairbanks, AK: University of Alaska Press.
Oakes, J. and Riewe, R. (1995) Our Boots: An Inuit Women’s Art. London: Thames and Hudson.
Spencer, R.F. (1976) The North Alaskan Eskimo: A Study in Ecology and Society. New York: Dover Publications.
Strickler, E. (1988) Inuit Dolls: Reminders of a Heritage. Toronto: Canadian Stage and Art Publications.
Victor, P-E. (1972) Eskimos: Nomades des Glaces. Paris: Hachette.


Text and photographs © Solveig Gardner Servian, Editor of Polar Worlds online magazine, with thanks to Sam Matthews' grandfather and to Claudia Basran for allowing their children's photographs to be published on this website.




Home Arctic Antarctic Art Organizations Book reviews Children's books DVDs & Videos Events Museums How to contact us About us Terms and conditions

© Polar Publishing Ltd 2002-2012. All rights reserved.
Copyright infringement is a serious and criminal offence. Polar Publishing Ltd believes in policing copyright for the
benefit of both authors and readers. Polar Publishing actively pursues infringers of its or an author's copyright.