Visual theses: Inuit art: eco-centric imagery or imaginary Inuit?

Depictions of the hunt in Inuit art reflect an eco-centrism, a respect for animals that is an integral part of Inuit cosmology. The seal, a favoured subject in Inuit mythology as well as in prints, drawings and sculptures, has a deep cultural meaning for the Inuit.
"The ringed seal nattiq has a population estimated at close to 5,000,000 and is the most abundant sea mammal in the Canadian Arctic. Seal meat is the main part of the traditional diet in almost every Inuit community. Hunting seal is part of a healthy and traditional way of life. Seal meat and organs provide Inuit with an excellent source of protein, iron and some B Vitamins. Seal liver and blubber are an excellent source of Vitamin A and contain some Vitamin C. Inuit elders say that seal is a "special food". Seal meat and organs keep Inuit healthy and warm. Seal is also used as a medicine to heal the body and soul from sickness. Ringed seal liver and beluga whale maktaaq (skin and blubber) are major sources of selenium in the Inuit diet. The skins of ringed seal are extremely valuable for clothing. They weigh less than caribou skins, and are full of oil increasing their water repellency yet they are porous, which allows body humidity to escape. These characteristics make seal an ideal material for kamiks (boots), and for clothing worn out hunting at the ice edge or at seal breathing holes. Seal skin parkas and trousers are worn in spring and summer by many Inuit. In the past the skins were also made into boats and kayaks, and some were made into tents. Traditionally, the intestines of the seal were turned into waterproof parkas. When camping on the land, Inuit still use seal fat for fuel oil and lighting. While seals provide important nutritional and economic benefits, sealing also continues to play an important role in the social aspects of Inuit culture. This is reflected in the rich vocabulary in the Inuktitut language for different species, varieties and characteristics of seals. Sealing provides the context in which modern knowledge, as well as Inuit traditions about hunting and ecology are most fully expressed and transmitted through the generations." (Inuit Tapiriiksat Inuit Tapirisat of Canada; Centre for Indigenous Peoples Nutrition and Environment (CINE); GNWT Inuit Traditional Foods Nutrition Fact Sheet Series; )

The legend of Sedna (Taleeleo, Nuliajuk), with its hundreds of versions across the Eastern Arctic, provides a powerful metaphor for the relationship between the Inuit land dwellers and the ocean upon which they depend. Sedna was punished for refusing to marry. Her cruel punishment transformed her into a formidable underwater presence whose fingers transformed into the marine mammals: seals, walrus and whales, over which she had absolute control. In order to appease her, the land dwellers had to provide her with the agile hands, the fingers she lacked to arrange her hair in braids tudlik. The angakoq, the "knower", was this intermediary between Sedna and the Inuit hunters who would symbolically disentangle the sea creatures from Sedna. While this may be disregarded as legend, it does provide a useful way of seeing the complex relationship between the Inuit hunter and the ocean provider. The latter had to be respected as it contained forces beyond their control. But if the relationship was respected, the ocean could provide everything the Inuit needed to survive.

Metaphorically in western science nature has also been visualized as female while science is male. The relationship between science and nature has been one of control and domination.

Francis Bacon proclaimed that science should "lead[...] to you Nature with all her children to bind her to your service and make her your slave..." " conquer and subdue her, to shake her to her foundations."

Evelyn Fox Keller claimed that the need to dominate is a cultural construct of masculinity. (Keller 1982, 19??:35) She asserts that through our conscious selves we have choices to control or not, to dominate or not. We can have selfhood without the need to dominate. She feels that knowledge construction, particularly scientific knowledge construction has been used as a means towards domination. Knowledge as power becomes an expression of aggressivity that fuels a need for control. She uses a sexual metaphor in which union (with nature) can provide eros/ectasy while domination of nature provides aggressive ectasy. (Keller 1982, 19??:36)

The powerful imagery of Kanaginak Pootoogook, Parr, Simon Hiqiniq and Janet Kigusiuq provided persuasive visual arguments of the cultural importance of the hunt.

Janet Kigusiuq

Baker Lake


The aesthetic of the hunt.

The aesthetic of the hunt includes the unexpected: the caribou carcass laid out on the colourful lichens of the tundra is covered in flies which form a busy, decorative motif.

Janet Kigusiuq is known for her richly textured drawings in vibrant colours. Here she portrays the division of meat, a theme common to Inuit art. The division of country food, or food acquired during hunt is a fundamental aspect of Inuit communities. It is a way extended families establish relationships. It also teaches the youth about sharing. Wenzel.

"Sharing is an important part of the Inuit ethic, and in some parts of the Arctic seals are the chief product which is shared among families and even sent from one community to another, to reinforce the bonds of solidarity among relatives." (Hencke 1985:204) "He spoke of the breakdown of social order in northern communities, the higher incidence of suicides, violent deaths, alcohol and drug abuse, child neglect, and other indicators of social pathology which affect those areas where natural resources are suddenly denied the people."

Images of the hunt include detailed descriptions of hunting tools, methods, the various stages of the hunt: waiting, the kill itself, carrying the catch to the others, the skinning of the animal, division of the meat, the preparation of skins, making of clothing, making of hunting tools: the kayak, the umiak. nualang , the iparung; . Rifles, whaling ships and skidoos are also present in works of art created by well-known Inuit artists.

In 1985 the Royal Commission on Sealing was opened. John Amagoalik described how sealhunting had social importance to the Inuit as well. Through the sealhunt young people in Inuit communities learned skills and social knowledge such as sharing, patience and cooperation.

Paul Okaluk, who was then a researcher for the Makivik Corporation, presented the native perspective. It was a moving description of the use and meaning of the seal as mainstay of Inuit communities even today, of sealskin clothing, the difficulties the Inuit face because of the bans, the respect the Inuit have for their environment, the hope they have for the future.(Hencke 1985:196)

Parr was a succesful hunter of seal, walrus and whale until his accident in 1961 when he froze a foot in a hunting accident. At that time he started to draw, encouraged by Terry Ryan, who became the manager of the print making workshop at Cape Dorset . Parr's first drawings were of the winter sealhunt. Numerous images showed seal, dogsleds and hunters with both harpoon and rifles. By that time in Canada's north the use of the rifle was introduced to most communities by 1910. Like many first generation hunter-artists Parr drew upon his vivid memories to create his images. Like other first generation artists he depicts his figures on a white background devoid of a horizon. Besides the reference to a visual reality, the absence of a visible distinction between land and sky, the lack of horizon or reference to a background has been linked to the absence of individual land ownership and boundaries. Home was 500 square miles which nomadic peoples walked each year going from fishing camp to hunting camp. This is in sharp contrast to the southern view of ownership of the land and its resources. Kananginak uses the western perspectival device of the horizon line in his The First Tourist. The hunter in Parr's image is shown hawling a small seal, the ringed seal. The ringed seal was the most abundant circumpolar pinniped and one of the most abundant worldwide. (Wenzel 1985: 81) It is a fixed ice seal as opposed to the migrating pack ice seals, the larger hood and harp seals. Because the ringed seal remains in Arctic waters even during the winter months, it provides a year round source of rich food for Inuit In Eastern Arctic communities.
Kananginak The First Tourist

The camera becomes the object through which the tourist distances himself from the 'other'. The image created becomes a hybrid of education and entertainment, truth and fiction. This 1992 print by Kananginak depicts the first tourist in Kingait in the 1920's. (note the style of camera). The tourist dressed in southern clothing ill-adapted for -40 degree weather contrasts with the Inuit woman warm and comfortable n her sealskin amautik and kamiit. He holds up his hand in a gesture that says "Freeze. Don't move! Stay the way you are." He counts down to the moment of the snap shot.

Inuit who have managed to survive in one of the world's harshest environments have been the subject of constant objectification and "othering" throughout the centuries. In ethnographic exhibitions at the 19th century World Fairs white American visitors were distanced from the exotic 'other' by a fence, chain or barrier and by attire. Men carried canes or umbrellas, women carried parasols as Inuit snapped whips and paddled about North Pond in kayaks. Here the tourist carries his camera. (Hinsley 1990)

Long before Franz Boas' journey to the north to gather ethnographic material for the Smithsonian's World's Columbian Exposition in 1893 or Robert Flaherty's historical 1922 film Nanook of the North , hailed as the world's first documentary, European explorers had brought Inuit to Europe as living human ethnographic exhibitions.

Boas had intended public science in creating exhibitions for the World's Columbian Exposition where visitors to the Midway could learn about other cultures. Inuit were there with 12' long whips made of sealskin, wearing sealskin clothing and showing how adept they were in sealskin kayaks.

"The World's Columbian Exposition provided the first of a series of shocks to Franz Boas' faith in public anthropology. The visitors were not there to be educated. By 1916, Boas had come to recognize with a certain resignation that "the number of people in our country who are willing and able to enter into the modes of thought of other nations is altogether too small....The American who is cognizant only of his own standpoint sets himself up as arbiter of the world." (Boas 1974:332) By 1900 he had begun to retreat from American museum anthropology as a tool of education or reform. (Hinsley 1992: 361)

Walter Benjamin saw a similar phenomenon in the 1889 Paris Exposition's Midway: "Rather it was the modernism of Baudelaire as described by Benjamin: here the flâneur "goes botanizing on the asphalt." (Benjamin 1983: 54) The eyes of the Midway are those of the flâneur, the stroller through the street arcade of human differences, whose experience is not the holistic, integrated ideal of the anthropologist but the segmented, seriatim fleetingness of the modern tourist "just passing through."


Kanginginak Pootoogook is a prolific artist whose keen sense of observation is appreciated by both the Inuit and Kabloona.

The seal hunter waits silently and patiently over the seal hole. Various indicators were used to alert the sealer to the presence of the nasiq (seal). In the winter months Inuit hunt ringed seal. The hunters make day trips in groups of two or three. The domed tops of the seals' breathing holes agluliit can sometimes be found surrounded by footprints of fox and polar bear. (Underwater activity continues in the winter. Ringed seal eat cod.) Once each hunter has found his aglu he waits for the movement of water or the sound of the seal taking its first breath. Today he uses either a rifle and then a gaff to pull the seal out of the hole or the harpoon. Only one if five waits will result in the hunter catching a seal. Hunters usually remain for eight to ten hours before heading back to the hamlet. (Wenzel 1990:16) In the dead of Arctic winter only ravens have energy. Ravens are not native to the Arctic. They followed the whalers north.

The hunters depicted in the two prints are using the traditional harpoon instead of the rifle. While this print was done in 1978 and Niviaksiak's in 1959 they probably depict hunts from earlier times prior to the Inuit hunter's widespread use of the rifle.

Seal meat provides substantial body heat. The waterproof sealskin has many uses. Here the hunter is shown wearing boots made of ringed sealskin. Even the bones of the seal were used for childrens' toys and games. The seal oil was heating with the seal oil lamp, the kudlik. Only the gall bladder had no use.

The hunter is wearing skin clothing, the only clothing well-suited to northern temperatures. Body heat is not lost. It increases. His parka is made from caribou skin. He is wearing waterproof, ringed seal kamiit on his feet.

There is no horizon line, no distinction between solid ice, water and sky. While this reflects a visual reality it also reflects an ideology. There was no need for boundaries. No one individual owned the land. In the National Gallery of Canada's exhibition Images of the Land this was an important theme. Through Inuit imagery the movement from all-white backgrounds with no horizon or boundaries shifted to the defined linear perspective with a clearly marked boundary.

The artist Kananginak Pootoogook comes from the family of a renowned hunter in the Eastern Arctic. The earlist endeavours to encourage art production in the late 1950's were closely linked to these hunter-artists. Successful hunters were respected members of communities who were able to influence others to participate in the fledgling cooperatives. Cooperatives were formed in the 1950s to provide alternative incomes for Inuit communities. The trade in fox furs had been replaced by the trade in sealskins. Income was minimal but it provided enough to equip the hunter with tools necessary. It was through these cooperatives that art production began to provide another source of income. In spite of this, hunter-artists preferred the hunt to carving and drawing. The status of the artist was questionable in Inuit communities.

The umiak.

Bonner recognises that prior to the arrival of modern civilisation, Eskimos owed their survival to their skill at hunting. Coastal Eskimos made use of all the game they could catch, but their staple was the ringed seal. The importance of this animal in their culture is shown by the many carvings of seals (long before these ivory miniatures became articles of trade) and the appearance of the seal spirits, like the Anguit of the Greenlanders, in their religious beliefs. Hunting was based on the harpoon which consisted of a shaft made of driftwood fitted with walrus ivory points, or from narwhal tusks. The nualang the harpoon head was made of ivory. The harpoon line or iparung was made of sealskin. (Bonner 1989: 110) The harpoon didn't kill the seal but allowed the hunter to haul it in. Hunters continued to use the harpoon into the 1960s. Dogs would be used to sniff out the seal holes in winter. In the summer seal would be hunted from kayaks or umiaks . Using the avataq (sealskin floats) hunters could even hunt whales and walrus.

Canadian 12 cent stamp issued in November 1997 paid hommage to Inuit artists and to the Inuit seal hunt and fishing. The carving entitled Seal Hunter is by an unknown artist.


© Maureen Flynn-Burhoe 2000. Last updated web design (not content) February 2002.
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