An introduction about this very influential Nunavik community in relation to Inuit art, written by Darlene Wight, curator of Inuit art at the Winnipeg Art Gallery, for Early Masters, published by the Winnipeg Art Gallery in Winnipeg in 2006.
James Houston first visited the Inukjuak area to sketch and experience the Arctic in 1948. He returned in 1949, from June 24 to the end of August, to conduct a test purchase of carvings for the Canadian Guild of Crafts in Montreal. The items he purchased were shipped to the south for an historic sales exhibition at the Guild in November. (1) Houston visited the camps trading into Inukjuak for a second and final time from March 6 to July 8, 1950. After that, carvings were purchased for the Guild by the Hudson's Bay Company (HBC). It is fortunate that the manager of the Port Harrison post, Norman Ross, had an interest in the new enterprise of carving, and he carried on after Houston's two pioneering trips. In a letter of thanks to J.W. Anderson on July 18, Houston praised the co-operation he received from the post managers, particularly Norman Ross, about whom he wrote: "Without the sound guidance of Norman Ross, I doubt that we would be operating in the north at all this year. He has taken a good deal of time and trouble in making a business-like arrangement between the Company and Guild that will set a course for future operations in other places as well as Harrison." (2)
This observation by Houston was certainly prophetic. After Houston's departure in early July 1950, buying continued in Inukjuak, Puvirnituq, and Cape Smith. By the end of 1950, $5,230 had been spent to purchase handicrafts during that year in Inukjuak and Povungnituk, with all but about $500 spent by Norman Ross in Port Harrison. Ross continued to purchase until his departure in the fall of 1951. Ross's successor was R.H. Ploughman, and he continued to encourage the Inuit to carve and to purchase carvings. By August 1953, he had packed 19 cases of items ready for shipment to Montreal. (3) In a letter to the Guild he wrote: "The natives seem to be improving daily in their workmanship, and are turning out some beautiful carvings. The improvement in their art during the period of the past year is almost incomparable." (4) Ploughman also explained that, in October, Houston had given him authority to purchase "five tons of good quality soapstone for people to carve in the winter months." (5)
In 1953, the Guild was no longer able to maintain an ever-increasing level of purchases and sales, and it entered into an agreement with the Hudson's Bay Company which allowed the HBC to be the direct purchaser of carvings. As the company had a well-established northern stores division (NSD) it was well-positioned to take on a new level of involvement. (6) It began to retail Inuit arts and crafts in its largest southern stores and sales continued to increase.
Formerly named Port Harrison, the town of Inukjuak is situated on the north bank of the Innuksuak River, which empties into Hopewell Sound on east Hudson Bay. Inukjuak means "many people," as Inuit have lived there for hundreds of years. Ruins of stone houses from pre-historic Dorset times are evidence of this long history of habitation. (7)
In 1909 Révillon Frères opened a trading post, and was joined by the Hudson's Bay Company in 1920. In 1936 Révillon Frères was bought out by the Hudson's Bay Company, but another competitor, the Baffin Trading Company, built and operated a post at Inukjuak from 1939 to 1949.
When William E. Willmott visited the Inukjuak area in 1958, there were still only 75 Inuit living in the community. There were 263 in seven camps along 160 kilometers of coastline. He noted that "they have from three to ten households in each in the summer." (8) Carvers from five camps and the settlement are included in this exhibition.
Willmott makes some interesting observations about the nature and development of the camps along the east coast of Hudson Bay:
There are three strong camp leaders around Port Harrison: Apjaqa E9-J706 [Abraham Nastapoka]; Sajuli E9-1745 [Sarollie Weetaluktuk]; and Jani E9-904 [Johnny Inukpuk].
Traditionally, leaders did not play a large part in the Inuit community, since there were few decisions to be made. With the advent of the fur trader, however, leaders arose because the trading companies found it convenient to deal with one spokesman for a group. In the period of competition between Révillon Frères and the Hudson's Bay Company each company would give gifts to ensure trappers' loyalty. Several large boats, including Peterheads, were given to leading men in different camps to ensure the whole camp's trading at one store, as well as to improve the efficiency of the trapping. It is certain that the ownership of a Peterhead enhanced the position of authority of the leader and continues to do so to this day. (9)
A result of this organization of the east coast Inuit into camps was that individuals became identified by their membership in a particular camp. When carving was introduced as a new possibility for economic gain in 1949 to 1950, some of the first carvers were the camp leaders, such as Akeeaktashuk, Sarollie Weetaluktuk, and Amidlak. Others in the camps quickly followed suit.
It was discovered in the course of this research that carving materials and stylistic similarities could sometimes be explained by camp membership and location. Because the Weetaluktuk brothers owned a Peterhead fishing boat they were able to travel to good walrus hunting areas in the fall. This enabled them to use the tusks for carving in the winter. In the early 1950s, the procurement of stone was largely a matter of gathering it from the ground, especially beaches. The main use of stone had traditionally been to make qullit (pl. for qulliq), the crescent-shaped stone lamps used in dwellings for heat and light. When James Houston introduced the idea of making stone carvings, the first stone that people obtained was the same they would use for a qulliq. This was a hard, black, rather coarse type of steatite. By 1950, more attractive stone is in evidence in the carving.
The discovery of a deposit of good stone was something a whole camp would have shared. Identifying the types of stones used in the different camps sometimes makes it possible to determine the originating camps for unidentified carvings, as it later became a way of determining a community source. Information about types of stone used in the camps was known by several informants during research conducted in May 2004. This is included in the biographies and captions that follow.
By 1958, Willmott describes how stone was obtained at that time:
Each camp has one or two soapstone mines which they visit every time their stock runs low. The [Johnny] Inukpuk mine, for example, is located a day's journey north of the camp. Here the men dig pieces of soapstone from under the gravel as well as gathering a few good pieces scattered on the beach. Each piece is tested with a hatchet to assure smoothness and softness, then it is marked with the owner's name before being loaded into the canoe. Back at the camp, some pieces are stored under water to assure continued softness if they are not to be carved for a long time. (10)
A defining characteristic of Inukjuak sculpture in the early 1950s is the use of contrasting materials such as ivory, bone, light-coloured brown and white stone, even soap and plastic from melted gramophone records, used to define eyes, faces, and clothing details. Several people mentioned the use of melted black plastic from records, and it is likely that they had belonged to Robert Flaherty. Antler from caribou is rarely seen, as caribou were scarce in the early 1950s. In fact, in 1956 a ban was placed on caribou hunting by the RCMP to protect them.
A marble-like, olive-green stone, sometimes with gold streaks, was being used in 1954 by Johnny Inukpuk. This stone continued to be used by Inukjuak carvers in later years.
By the time Willmott visited the area in 1958, he made the following observations about the importance of carving:
The phenomenal rise of the soapstone industry over the past decade has provided an income to all Inuit in Port Harrison. Today there are only five heads of families that do not carve - all working full time in the settlement.
During the summer, when it is impossible to trap, soapstone carving is the primary source of income and takes up most of the working time of the camp men. Although the women do some basket-weaving and sewing for trade, carving is by far the most important handicraft. (11)
He makes some interesting comments about the change of lifestyle brought about by carving:
The men carve several hours a day, usually spending most of their time on one large piece, then working on smaller pieces until the camp leader decides it is time to go into Port Harrison to trade. At the end of a week, the better carvers have three or four pieces completed which they take to the store. The good carvers earn $5 or $10 per trip this way.
Carving is obviously affected by the policy of the Hudson's Bay Company manager at each post. At Port Harrison, the manager has started the policy accepting carvings only from trappers…. This decreases the number of pieces traded and keeps the quality higher, for a man may still trade a piece by his son but will only do so if it is good enough to avoid embarrassment in trading it as his own. Some women and children do carve, but their pieces are traded by their husbands or fathers and do not bear their own names. (12)
This latter observation was revealed on several occasions during this research when visits were paid to female relatives of carvers, such as Sarah Meeko Nastapoka (p. 75) and Leah Qumaluk. While no early carvings by Qumaluk were discovered, she recognized a major "standing woman" of hers dating to 1956 that is in the collection of the Canadian Museum of Civilization (CMC). (13) Given the degree of accomplishment of this work, there are certainly other as-yet-unidentified earlier works by her.
After the ever-increasing creative activity in the Inukjuak area in the early 1950s, carving continued to develop. In 1967, the Port Harrison Co-operative was established, and the Inukjuak Co-operative Association remains an important support to carvers to the present day.
1. For a detailed examination of the objects purchased by Houston and shipped to Montreal, see Wight, 1990, 56-61.
2. Letter from Houston, Grand'Mère, Quebec, July 18, 1950 (HBC Archives, Public Archives of Manitoba)
3. See Wight, 1990, 74.
4. "Extracts from Mr. Johnston's Report on Inspection Trip East Coast of Hudson and James Bays-March 1952." (HBC Archives, Public Archives of Manitoba) Mr. Johnston was probably a federal government administrator.
6. Paci, 1996, 49.
7. Willmut. 1961, 1. In the years from 800 to 500 B.C. a new culture evolved in the Canadian Arctic which was first described from artifacts discovered near the present-day site of Cape Dorset. For this reason, it was later called Dorset Culture, which dominated Arctic Canada for nearly 2,000 years.
8. Ibid., 4.
9. Ibid., 49.
10. Ibid., 37.
11. Ibid., 35-36.
12. Ibid., 37.
13. The accession number of this work is IV-B-1219.
Winnipeg Art Gallery