Personal Inuit Art Life Experience

History of Inuit Art
A Personal Reflection
Queen’s University  Kingston, Ontario February 10, 2011

The history of Inuit handmade products goes a very long way back, even before the arrival of James Houston who is often recognized as the person who helped Inuit become known for their artistic and creative skills in the early 1950s.

Before the arrival of non-Inuit into our territory bringing in merchants, Inuit had to be very innovative and skilled at producing their own traditional hunting and working tools, and toys for their young ones. After all there were no stores one could go to buy these things.

I would like to start by showing and introducing to you replicas of old Inuit tools made and owned by an elder of Rankin Inlet, Aupilardjuk.

It will give you an idea what they look like and how these tools were all handmade and so essential for an easier way of life back in the days.

I recall when my father Marc Tungilik had all his traditional tools that he had made. In those days, men were expected to make all their own hunting and working tools and animal hide processing tools.

The hunter made the thicker ropes out of bearded sealskin, and braided sinew thread for thinner but strong rope. The thicker ropes used for the sled and the dogs. Homemade ropes used to tie down the qamuti load. Ivory hitches were made to go from the sled to the dog’s ropes and from the dog harnesses to the rope attached to the sled. Thinner ropes were used for things like a bow and arrow, and fishing lines for the lures.

The whip is made from the thicker rope with a caribou antler handle, before wood was available. The harpoon handle is made from caribou antlers, and the harpoon head made from flint stone when no metal was to be found, while the rope that will pull the game is made from the bearded seal that detaches from the harpoon. The ropes were so strong they could pull a large game like a walrus and they can weigh up to one and a half tons.

Many of the tools were made either from stone, bones or skins of animals. Take the drill for instance, the handle is made from a rib of a polar bear and if one is not available it is made from caribou antler. The line is made from bearded seal rope. The drill bits are made from bone when no wood is available with flint stone tips known as bits and the mouth piece is from a knee cap of a caribou. Even things like combs were made out of ivory.

When it came to women’s tools the man was responsible for making them, unless the woman was skilled to make the tools herself.

The woman needed an ulu or uluit to use as eating utensils as well as using the ulu for fleshing marine mammal skins. In softening land or sea mammal skins different softening tools were needed at different stages of the process. This was at the time when Inuit were nomadic and were living in igluit, skin tents or sod houses. This was the time animal skins were widely used as they were the only things available then for clothing and bedding.

In the sixties when the federal government wanted us all to live in communities and they built houses for the Inuit, our traditional clothes were still the most useful for hunting and camping but not for living in community life.

The heating systems were too harsh on the skins and soon it was not fashionable any more to be wearing animal skins due to this new condition.

In all this the qulliq was one of the most essential item. The qulliq was the only source of heat, cooked the meals, dried the clothing and was a source of light in the dwelling, especially in the long 24 hour darkness winter days.

A Personal Reflection

My recollections of my dad’s artistic work is one that will always live within me with fond memories. My father’s ability to make carvings was his pride and his means of providing for his family.

Spring fishing through the ice Tungilik carving

Catching fish under ice Marc Tungilik carving. photo WAG

When I was a little girl, all I remember is the sound of filing on soapstone or whatever my dad decided he would carve that day. For he not only carved in soapstone. When he could get his hands on ivory from walrus or narwhal tusks, baleen, caribou antlers and hooves, polar bear teeth, and once the co-op in Nauyaat (Repulse Bay) imported sperm whale teeth and elephant tusks, before a worldwide ban occurred, that is what he would carve.

Regardless of what material he was using, his productions were always about life in the Arctic.

My parents were nomadic people before I was sent to residential school. They lived off the land and sea. That’s where their subsistence resources came from for all their needs.

One of the carvings I do remember was a wind up musical young Inuk girl wearing an amauti tippy-toeing like a ballerina when we lived in Piqsimaniq.

A priest named Father Didier had just returned to Nauyaat after his holiday in Paris and he dog teamed to Piqsimaniq to visit us.

Once he had settled having made his iglu, he had some surprises for me. Of course there were some candy and there was butter, what I really like on my bannock. Then he proceeded to take something out of a box. It was a toy mouse, one that ran around once it was wound up. I was totally amused with it. Then the last thing Father Didier took out was a musical ballerina. When wound the ballerina would twirl while some fine sounding music played.

After a couple of days the priests` visit was over and he was on his way back home to Nauyaat where the Catholic Church was. Like all good hunters he left very early in the morning. It was not long after that I watched my dad take my ballerina apart.

I did not know how to feel, this was my new toy, I wasn’t sure what he was up to, but he kept assuring me that everything was going to be alright.

He took every piece apart. He looked at how it worked, he looked at the prongs that made the musical notes, and how the prongs were made. He looked at the drum that had spikes and how they were spaced. Then as promised I had my ballerina all in tact once more and in good working order, just like before.

It was not too long that I saw him busy sawing away at one of his fox traps. I had never seen him do that before. Then he also took some ivory and made a young girl figure. I did not watch the whole process of his work.

The next day I not only had my musical ballerina, I also had one of a young girl that was able to twirl to music not quite the same sound as the original one, but just the same there was music and there was a twirling figurine at the top. I was impressed.

I recall when my dad and my step brother Leo Kadluk had gone to Nauyaat to shop. We were in Piqsimaniq and that meant mom, my step sisters Angugasak and Genevieve and my little brother Qulittalik were going to be left behind.

I recall my dad showing my mom how to use a rifle; she looked awfully scared as her eyes often went very big whenever she was feeling nervous or scared of something. After all when the guys were gone someone had to protect the family from predators like wolves and polar bears.

Off to Nauyaat went the two men, with all of their trapped foxes, some wolf and sealskin pelts and of-course my dad’s carvings. They were going to travel close to 300 miles by dog team to go shopping to the nearest store to the Hudson Bay Company in Nauyaat.

Once they were back it was a joyous time. We now had food like flour, tea the basics and more. I remember taking some safety pins and I mistook them for hair Barrett’s.

Once my dad knew I wanted hair barrettes he proceeded to make me about three different pairs. They were made out of ivory and he decorated them by inserting different colored plastics from combs. The pairs were exactly mactched.

They were so beautiful and so different, and no one else had anything like them. That was not the first time my dad made things especially for me. He had also made me an ivory ulu, a fork, a butter knife, a teaspoon and a table spoon. Items he had seen at the Roman Catholic residence.

The ones I cannot remember that were told to me was by a guy who used be our neighbour in Piqsimaniq. Kakiarniut said I was very lucky to have my dad make all my play toys such as a primus stove, a kettle and a cooking pot all made of ivory.

He said he remembers admiring them at the size they were and how I played with them as if they were just ordinary toys, instead of me being careful with them because they were made out of ivory, and for them being one of a kind.

One thing I remember very well is when my mom was telling me that my dad had made a partial dentures for a priest made out of polar bear tooth.

My nomadic parents were completely self-reliant, as long as they were living in accordance to the old ways of the Inuit and animals were in abundance.

Marc Tungilik occasionally would make shamanistic figures. He carved mostly about the life styles of the Inuit before there was much change in their old customs.

In that context there were many of his carvings that resembled camping, hunting and fishing scenes, like the one you see on the screen. Where he used a caribou antler or soapstone as a base then he would put multiple carved figures to make the scene of an activity.

One of my elder friend and mentor in Rankin Inlet who used to live in Nauyaat, Aupilardjuk in his earlier days was telling me how he himself was inspired by my dad to start carving.

I went to interview Aupilardjuk on some topic and that is when he mentioned that it was my dad who had inspired him to start carving and making more income other than just trapping.

He stated when they lived in Nauyaat and my dad and Kadluk would come in to do their shopping, they would arrive with not much load on their qamuti. But once they sold their furs and carvings they would be heading home with three or four times more load of their purchased goods.

Aupilardjuk once said that my dad was one he admired for his skills at carving. He said he was totally intrigued by one of Marc Tungilik’s carving where he had had made a scene of a hunter running along side of the qamuti of his moving dog team and he had a whip in his hand and he was in the process of cracking the whip in the air.

Aupilardjuk said that it was the man’s whip in his hand that he was so amazed with. He said the whip was made from ivory and it was very thin and up in the air curled in some parts, just like a real whip would.

Aupilardjuk had wondered how my dad never broke the ivory whip when making it so thin then traveled some three hundred miles without breaking it.

My husband Jim  and I have visited the Eskimo Museum in Churchill, Manitoba a few times now. Each time we look for my dad’s work and they are carvings made back in the 1940s. We have found about 45 different pieces of his work in that museum.

Marc Tungilik also made things like a chess board. The board’s boarder was made on green soapstone; the squares were green soapstone and ivory. The chess pieces were made out of ivory while the opposition pieces were made from black soapstone.

He also had made cribbage boards made out of walrus tusks with pegs. The cribbage boards he made can be seen at the same museum. The boards are quite fancy as he did carvings along the sides.

They are carvings he did when his first wife was still alive, when they lived in Kugaaruk, formally known as Pelly Bay, Nunavut.

I am sure he started carving much earlier than that as he once told me that his father Saumik told him he could not marry until he knew a way to support a family besides hunting and trapping. Of course in the olden days they married quite young, mostly in their teens. And marriages were arranged at birth by the parents, mostly for the sake of survival. A man needed a woman and a woman needed a man to take care of each other. Many times the love came later.

Of-course some of the first things he would have learned to make are things like a fishing spear, a harpoon and its accessories and other hunting equipments.

He had to know how to make an ulu and animal hide softening tools both for marine and land mammals skins for his bride.

For best results in animal hide care, a woman needed to have the proper tools. Just like a man needed proper hunting and fishing tools and other essential tools to get the job done well.

When my dad did single item carving the most he made was a musk ox. He made many
different types of animals from our environment, but he seem to favor the mosk ox, perhaps because he grew up seeing them. Some of the more unique ones would be of a weasel, an arctic hare, a ptarmigan or a snake.

One time an outsider was visiting in Nauyaat. He came to our house looking to buy carvings straight from my dad. Once he had purchased some of his carvings he then proceeded to ask my dad through me as an intepreter, if he indeed would be able to carve an image of the Canadian beaver.

For a while my dad was stumped, then looked at me and asked ‘what is that?’ So the man showed him a nickel that has an image of a beaver on one side. I had to explain to him that the tail is flat. It was the first time for all of us to see a carving of a beaver made out of soapstone with ivory teeth.

The other types of carvings that separated him from other carvers were his carvings that were a resemblance of religious figures such as angels with trumpets or a cross in hand and the bust of Christ. These are mostly made from ivory usually with soapstone stands.

Marc Tungilik had eye-sight problems for a number of years. Some of the elderly people of Nauyaat at the time believed that it was a cursed carried into the next generation.

After all when his mother Arnaluaq was concieved a shaman prodicted that she would be born with eye sight, then later in her life closer to the end of her life that she would go blind, and before she was to die not long from that, that she would get her sight back again. And that is exactly what happened to her.

This affected his hunting and carving abilities to a degree. I do recall around the 60s when he went out hunting his eye sight was so bad that he had to double his eye glasses to be able to see the game he was to shoot. Still he came home with meat and more often than not. He often hunted alone, as his hunting buddies were no longer around and as the younger hunters found it too hard to keep up with him.

It was in later 70s that Marc Tungilik got his eye cataracts operated. This operation changed everything for him. He sure was glad to be able to see well again to a point he started carving very small pieces. This was really the birth of his miniature carvings, though he had previously made some small carvings before.

This is when he resorted to making tiny carvings made from his left over of other ivory carvings. I tell you they were tiny. One example of his tiny carvings is of a Sacred Heart of Jesus. This heart was made out of soapstone. It was about ¾ of an inch or 2 centimeters in height. The lid of this Sacred Heart of Jesus had a handle of a cross. In the hollow part were 20 little men that were stored inside this Heart.

Other very minute carvings of 10 little men were able to fit into a .22 bullet casing. This is owned by Lorne Kusugak of Rankin Inlet.

Marc Tungilik has given many people some of his smallest carvings. They spread out to his friends, people who have shown kindness to him or to his family members, family and extended family members, and people who have touched his life and the list goes on.

One of the ivory carving of the Bust of Christ was given as a gift from the Arctic by Bishop Marc LaCroux to Pope Pius the XII, of the Vatican.

Marc Tungilik was not only gifted in making art and hunting but he also took to helping people who needed medical attention when there were no nurses or doctors around to do the deed.

He has helped deliver at birth myself and my sister Marie. He has pulled teeth with ordinary pliers and at one point I recall when his niece had a child and then his niece developed a big lump on her breast, making it very painful for her to feed her child from the swollen breast.

After some time when my cousin’s breast was so swollen that she could barely move, my dad decided to do something about it. After all, the new born girl was named after his mother Arnaluaq.

He sharpened his harpoon head real well, and then he took it to my cousin Christine Aalu Sivanerktok’s tent.

The story goes that he cut opened her breast with the harpoon head where the lump was then squeezed the lump out then from there he took an ordinary sewing needle and a strand of her hair as a surgical thread.

After my dad had taken care of the cancer, Aalu had lived a good life from there on. She had more children, but she later died of that same breast cancer 30 years later when she now had access to modern medical treatment and technology.

Indeed my dad Marc Tungilik was super to me.

Quyannamiik, thank you.

Theresie Tungilik
Rankin Inlet, Nunavut