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