Inukjuak Art History
Inuit Art Foundation
1977 "In the Wake of the Giant" by Marybelle Myers (Mitchell) (history, carving, printmaking)
1"In the Wake of the Giant"
IN THE WAKE OF THE GIANT
An article written by Marybelle Myers and included in Port Harrison/Inoucdjouac, by Jean Blodgett, curator of Eskimo art at the Winnipeg Art Gallery. The book was published by the WAG in 1977, a year after an exhibition, of the same name, was held at the gallery.
The English name for this community of five hundred people nestled in an eastern angle of the great Hudson's Bay is "Port Harrison". The Eskimo name, which means "Giant" is in common usage in Quebec, however, and derives from a captivating bit of folklore:
Legend has it that a Fearsome Giant once terrorized the Inuit of the area. Eventually, however, he was slain by a hunter whom he had taken captive. Throwing the small Inuk over his shoulder, the villain strode homewards. As they travelled thus, the clever hunter managed to weary the Giant by catching hold of shrubs along the wayside. This slowed the big creature's pace, and so weary was he upon reaching home, that he made the fatal decision to rest before feasting on his Inuk. While he slept, our hero lopped off his head and escaped.
The story does not end here, however, for there was a Mrs. Giant who, fierce at any time, was particularly enraged by her husband's untimely death. She ran after the escaping hunter, scooping up a rock to throw at him. The hunter, as nimble of foot as he was of wit, darted behind a handy boulder and the rock, missing him, split the boulder. Water poured forth from the cleft. So much water came that it formed a river. Thwarted and thirsty - and perhaps in awe of her handiwork - the Giant's wife stopped to drink from the water. She burst but the river still flows. It is called the "Inoucdjouac", named after that Giant. And the people who live there are called the "Inoucdjouamiut", named after that river.
All this took place, of course, long before the Kablunaks from the south "discovered" Inoucdjouac and called it "Port Harrison". And long before the white man came there to live. It was not until the early 1900's that the place attracted any outside attention at all. Réveillon Frères, a Paris-based fur trading company, was the first to come, establishing a post in 1909 in order to trade for the valuable and periodically abundant white fox. They enjoyed a virtual monopoly until 1920, when the Hudson's Bay Company, abandoning their post at Great Whale River, re-opened in Port Harrison. For many years, the two trading companies engaged in side by side competition for the furs of the "Inoucdjouamiut" who continued to live in their outlying camps and come only out of necessity to the post. In the late 1930's, however, Réveillon Frères, in financial difficulty all over James Bay, sold out to the Hudson's Bay Company. Since Réveillon Frères had been there first, they, of course, had laid claim to the choicest building site. This was taken over by the Hudson's Bay Company whose own vacated buildings were soon occupied by the Department of Transport, in Inoucdjouac since 1937.
After the traders, the fledgling settlement was further swelled by the Anglican missionaries whose mission was founded in 1927. Arctic Quebec is an Anglican stronghold and Inoucdjouac, in particular, has a strong anti-French, anti-Roman Catholic attitude. No Catholic mission has ever gained ground in the settlement although they have made inroads elsewhere in Arctic Quebe - Sugluk and Wakeham Bay, for instance.
Inoucdjouac, it seemed, was destined to become an administrative centre for the Hudson's Bay Coast. The RCMP established a detachment there at about the same time as the Department of Transport and, in 1947, the federal government erected a Nursing Station to serve the camp people.
In those days, the settlement proper belonged very definitely to the Kablunaks. It was a place where the Inuit went to trade, to receive medical help, to pray and to socialize with fellow Inuit from other camps - but never with a thought to staying on. In the late 1940's, however, two events worked together to alter destiny:
In 1948, James Houston, an artist visiting the community, "exported" the first Eskimo sculpture to the south where its success has been well chronicled. What is perhaps not so well documented is the momentous implications this had for the Inuit camps around Inoucdjouac - and elsewhere. For centuries such camps had been based solely on a hunting economy but now, in addition to trading furs, the Inuk could trade his skill at working stone - a skill which he no longer needed to make tools and implements as he had in the past. Imagine the impact on this group who were suddenly provided with an alternative means of survival through the many lean years when the foxes no longer come. For the first time in a long time in a long, long history, their survival was not totally dependent upon a successful hunt. It was, indeed, a turning point.
The year 1950 brought yet another turning point, this time in the person of Miss Marjorie Hinds, the schoolteacher to be sent into this area. (1) Inuit children were brought in from the camps to attend Miss Hinds' school where they learned the language and ways of the Kablunak. Of course, they could not commute from the settlement to their parents' campsites and so they lived in hostels where the lessons learned at school were reinforced with practical experience in living the white man's way.
Not as dependent upon hunting as formerly and not content to be separated from their children, the inevitable move away from the camps and into the settlement began. This, of course, is a familiar story across the Arctic. As the Inuit grew to need the centralized services provided by the white man trading, medicine, education, religion - they were left with little recourse but to move into the village proper. Early in 1960, a federal government administrator was sent in to the community, bringing with him a system of welfare which acted as yet another inducement to those who had long been dependent upon their own limited, albeit ingenious, resources.
Never easy, it seems to have been a particularly strenuous adjustment for the "Inoucdjouamiut" to develop a taste for group living. The old camp groups had patterns of accommodation worked out over several lifetimes and it was difficult for them to adjust, not only to an amalgum of Inuit lifestyles but, also, the vagaries of town living in a centre dominated by foreign institutions. For several years they had been enjoying the fringe benefits of technology - rifles, tobacco, tea and cloth - but here they were, face to face with it, the eerie domes and towers of DOT being, perhaps, one of its more unsettling aspects.
Peter Murdoch, a former employee of the HBC and now General Manager of La Fédération des Coopératives du Nouveau-Québec, (2) has been familiar with the Inoucdjouac people since 1950. It is his conviction that the "Inoucdjouamiut" went through a long period of insecurity in their relations with the Kablunak - more so than the average Inuit experience. They didn't really feel at home in the village but exhibited guarded, slightly defensive, behaviour. It was as if they were merely visiting in this strange land and their real place was somewhere else - back in the ruins of what had once been a camp.
In recent years, however, the balance of power, if we may call it that, has shifted somewhat with the Inuit gradually becoming more at home. Today, there is no doubt that they are in charge in a way which is not true of places such as Great Whale River and Fort Chimo where community affairs are in hands other than Inuit. It is worthy of note, however, that the leaders among the "Inoucdjouamiut" have always been those who were able to get along best with the Kablunaks. The Palisars, for instance, are a greatly respected family in Inoucdjouac, their reputation being based, mainly, on the grandfather's position as a translater - hence, liaison - between Eskimo and White in the early days of camp living.
Undoubtedly, the founding, in 1967, of a cooperative has had much to do with the growing independence of the "Inoucdjouamiut". Prouder than most, they could not long ignore the model being set by their northerly neighbour, Povungnituk, where a co-op had been flourishing since 1960. Then, as now, the Inoucdjouac people could not tolerate being outdone. Their initial opposition to the Pov venture - "You people are going to hell" (3) had, one assumes, much to do with the involvement of Pov's Roman Catholic missionary in the establishment of their co-op. The anti-Catholic "Inoucdjouamiut" seemed to view the co-op movement as a "Catholic Conspiracy" and it was not until the incorporation of a Federation of Arctic Quebec co-ops (managed, incidentally, by an English Protestant) and, most important, an abrupt cessation of carving purchases by the HBC, that Inoucdjouac decided to apply for incorporation as a cooperative.
The buying practices of the Hudson's Bay Company were always somewhat erratic. In good fox years, the trader would refuse to buy sculpture in the hope, no doubt, that this would force people out on the land to hunt. The main impetus in Inoucdjouac to establish a cooperative was to provide a steady outlet for carving, and activity which by now had assumed great importance in the lives of the inhabitants.
It has only been in the last three years, however, that the "Inoucdjouamiut" have abandoned their initial suspicion of the cooperative movement. Sensitive and proud, it hurt them to see progress being made in Povungnituk and denied them because of a lack of wholehearted commitment to the enterprise. Exceptionally capable people, all it took was a decision on their part to bring their co-op into line with the most successful of Arctic Cooperatives. It is often said that the people of Inoucdjouac can do anything they really want to.
Of late, the community has been forging ties with the people of Belcher Islands which is easily reached by a daily Austin Airways flight and which, one may speculate, provides the prideful "Inoucdjouamiut" with the opportunity to engage in some harmless showing off. Povungnituk and Inoucdjouac, being neighbours on the same coast, have, of course, strong cultural ties and there has been movement of families from one settlement to the other. At one time a Pov man marrying an Inoucdjouac woman would settle there with his wife's family. Similarly, when a man from Inoucdjouac married in Povungnituk. Relations between the two villages might best be characterized as a case of friendly oneupmanship which works to the advantage of both.
Early in 1976, after a few years of decline in the quality of sculpture being produced - a decline reflected in sales and a source of consternation in both villages - Pov succeeded in encouraging local artists to better work. Word of the sudden flow of excellent sculpture from Pov reached the Inoucdjouac people where it touched off an immediate reaction. They had been relaxing, getting sloppy, not putting enough thought and effort into their work. Once the greatest of Inuit artists, their reputation was slipping. It was hard to believe, actually, that such talented people could do such bad work. This was the message from the south last spring. And it wounded. Some of the artists went into a sulk and declared that if that was what the world thought of their work, they would do no more. Meetings were held night after night and, in between, people talked about the problem. It took several months of talk for them to work through their hurt pride to a destination to once again show their stuff.
During the turmoil, someone put a finger in the right place. Apart from a deteriorating attitude (or, maybe, the cause of it), their work was suffering because the last vein of the beautiful green stone they loved to work had been used up.
It should teach us something, I suppose, that sometimes the problem - and the remedy - can be quite prosaic. As Paulosie Kasadluak writes, they have to find the stone in order to make carvings. He feels that people in the south do not understand that the first - and, often, the hardest- part of making a carving is finding the right kind of stone and prying it out of the frozen ground.
There was one old carver, who shall remain nameless and who, as everyone knew, had located a new vein of the old Inoucdjouac stone - that gold and green marbled stone which is, itself, a work of art. He was mining it for his own purpose and, uncharacteristically, refusing to share the great find with his townsmen. In our competitive society, it would have been no great challenge to coerce, bribe or stalk this individual - anything to get at what we wanted, no, needed. Eskimos, however, tend to mind their own business. If that was what the old man wanted, that was the way it would be.
In face, however, of the great need of the people, the old man finally gave up his secret. It was a joyful day. Miraculously, the new stone was brought to life in wonderful shapes. A man was proud to work this stone. He took his time and made the thing as beautiful as he could, lovingly finishing it and delighting in the perfect proportions and graceful lines of his work. The stone.
A great new surge of inspiration burst upon the people and was sustained by the glowing reception of their work in the south. The people had won again. The fortuitous provision of a new place to sell carvings also helped sustain the mood although, again, it is difficult to say which was cause and which effect. Formerly, the artists took their carvings to sell in a dingy back room of the old co-op store. When the new store was being built this summer, however, a movement led by Paulosie Weetaltuk, the Purchaser of Carvings, insisted that a disproportionate (according to the planner) amount of space be allocated for the Purchase of Carvings. Insisting that it be in the front, large and beautiful, Weetaltuk pronounced: "Until you get a good place for people to bring their soapstone, you will not get good sculpture".
In the few months which have passed since Weetaltuk got his way, the carvers of Inoucdjouac have proven him right. Instead of being a somewhat furtive activity, the exchange of sculpture for money has taken on a public, almost ritualistic aspect. Only important business is conducted in this room where one goes with pride - and one's best work. Weetaltuk chooses really splendid carvings to be displayed here for a time and it is another point of pride to have your carving chosen for the shelf. Like most Inuit, the people of Inoucdjouac have a lot of respect for a good carver - although not as much as for a good hunter.
As in other Quebec Eskimo co-ops, carvings may be brought in to the Inuit Purchase Manager at any time and he, alone, sets the price. This is a practice which often puts a great deal of pressure on a man who lives on close terms with the people whose carvings he must price. After purchasing, Peter Nalutuk, who used to work for DOT (his name means "radio worker") laboriously packs them for shipping south. In the old days, Inoucdjouac had daily flights while Pov had one only every two months. Things changed, however, when Pov got its co-op and, until very recently, Inoucdjouac, sandwiched between the two bustling centres of Great Whale River and Pov, was often passed over - no room in the plane. Time after time, the co-op people and anyone else who was handy and heard the plane would rush to the shed to start hauling, by foot, the boxes of carvings down to the sea ice. It was hard work but not as hard as hauling them back uphill over the slippery packed snow when it became obvious that, once again, the plane would pass without stopping. In summer, it often meant a futile trip out by canoe to where the plane didn't land after all.
A recent development in Inoucdjouac is helping somewhat to relieve the Purchase Manager of the strain of having to criticize the work of friends and relatives. As a result of meetings in the north and south on the subject of Eskimo sculpture, a Carving Committee has been established there. Sponsored by Indian and Northern Affairs and elected by the villagers, the Committee examines all carvings after they are bought and comments on the quality of the work and the price paid. They categorize the work as A, B, or C and denote the classifications with a gold, blue or red sticker which is removed before the carving is wholesaled in the south. What is left over after that classification - in effect, "D" carvings - are considered unworthy of the men who made them and are either packed away or sent to the Federation in Montreal.
Purists may throw up their hands in horror but we should not forget that carving is important to the Eskimo as an alternative livelihood. This is not to downplay the expressive and documentary aspects of the art for it is, fortuitously, one of the few meaningful - i.e. culturally rooted activities - left to him. As Paulosie Kasadluak writes in this catalogue, there is no mystery about Eskimo carving. It is something which Inuit do to earn their living and to show the world what kind of people they are. Carving, for an Eskimo, is the way he has of showing what is true. For all these reasons, he does not want to lose it.
Although we may not think of it in such blatantly simplistic terms, southern artists are also categorized. Galleries determine these classifications when they buy or do not buy the work of a particular artist. When they buy, they are, in effect, affixing a seal of approval, its "colour" being determined by the status of the gallery. Lacking a one-to-one relation with their market, however, the Inuit must exercise great resourcefulness to achieve the same effect. The exchange merely takes another, more tangible, form.
The Committee has, really, an educational function, providing the stimulus to do one's best work and the input to improve. In the land of the Giant, things may be difficult but nothing, they tell us, is impossible.
The uneasy co-existence of white and Inuit in Inoucdjouac has, it seems, had its effect on the kind of art produced there. Whereas the people of Povungnituk, where the white presence was always weaker, have a real love of things Eskimo and idealize these in their sculpture, the people of Inoucdjouac, measuring themselves against a highly visible alien presence, tend to hold back. Where the Povungnituk people delight in producing super-realistic images of a life they have no doubt is the ideal, the Inoucdjouac people hide - a little - in more abstract, disguised conceptions of their reality. They are not quite so confident of its reception. (4)
Even today, the "Inoucdjouamiut" are timid to speak of the old ways. Their Anglicization has been quite thorough. Old Inukpuk (father of the famous carvers, Johnny and Charlie) was a fearsome catechist who put the fear of hell into the populace for once and for all. Although old ideas may have gone underground, however, they continue to exert their influence. Many of the Inoucdjouac carvings and prints contain intimations of a different kind of reality. Charlie Inukpuk's figures with smallish, sometimes elongated heads, outsize hands and feet and general disproportion. Abraham and Sara Nastapoka's aloof heads contemplating the unspeakable. Johnny Inukpuk's nascent features and shapes, animal and human.
A print workshop was opened here in 1972 after Thomassie Echaluk and his young nephew, Noah, had been to the first Povungnituk Print Workshop. An abandoned portable classroom, being used by the co-op as a warehouse, was turned over to the printmakers. It took days to clear out the merchandise - mostly hundred pound sacks of flour - and weeks more to locate big enough, flat enough pieces of stone and to set up the working area. (5)
The Print Workshop became a kind of community resource. In 1974, Johnny Inukpuk had the kind of adventure which is the stuff of legend. He survived being trapped, weaponless except for a stick, in a small igloo by three polar bears. The story was told and re-told in the village, providing vicarious satisfaction to every hunting man who heard it. Writing is not a felicitous medium for most Inuit but the people felt that this story was worthy of being recorded. "Make a carving", someone suggested. "No. A print!"
With an air of ceremony, a few men of the village accompanied Johnny to the schoolhouse-cum-print shop. Thomassie, the leader of the printers, organized a space and materials for him. A Kablunak artist, there for a few weeks and quite unaware of the import of the occasion, attempted to show Johnny how to do it. He was quietly restrained by the co-op manager who politely advised him not to interfere. What was going on here had little to do with printing technique and everything to do with the drive to record a piece of history, the sincere creation of an image which will forever convey one man's experience. (6)
The title of the print is: A true story of Johnny being attacked by three bears while in his igloo. (7) Several Inuit, seeing it, have commented that this is a "true story", something that really happened. It is as if there were some special merit in the very truthfulness of this picture. What a wonderful tool it is, after all - maybe not the only or most exalted reason for making prints but impressive enough to those of us who have not forgotten primitive man's first use of pictures etched in stone to communicate something of himself.
Paper and ink is a considerably freer medium than stone and provides the Inuit artist with the means to externalize intricacies of thought which might otherwise remain uncommunicated. A Face Out of Nature, a multi-level print by Thomassie Echaluk and catalogued in Arctic Quebec 1975, is a case in point. On one level, there are leaves and vines laid out to resemble human features. A face out of nature. Looking closer, one discerns miniature hunting scenes etched unobtrusively into the leaves. This is a level of meaning which is less accessible and could not, I believe, be so eloquently rendered in words. It belongs in the stone which is, itself, an integral part of the message. The stone, the leaves, the picture, the artist, all are interdependent parts of the whole. More than that, man and nature are identified. A face in nature. The stone/ink/paper/leaves become environmental symbols, containing and constraining the life of man.
What was happening in the little print shop with the splendid view across the river was a community thing. Thomassie and Noah made their knowledge available to others in the community. Everyone was entitled to a chance to try and many did. Inevitably, many prints were technically awkward and visually unappealing to our refined Kablunak eye. Not everyone can make good prints after all - even if they want to. Not like carvings. The stone is always there for a man to seek out and to do with as he will. But the materials for printmaking have to be imported - the paper all the way from Japan - and it must be carried out in a heated and lighted building which is not too spacious anyhow. If the prints do not sell, then a man cannot afford to play. (8) He could draw the pictures he has in his mind - as someone recently suggested but, like writing, he cannot relate so well to that medium. He knows the stone. He knows how to work it, to bend it to his will and purpose. The hand that wields the chisel with such grace is clumsy with the pen. It is the stone. Always the stone. And from it has gushed forth a river of creation in no imminent danger of drying up.
1. Miss Hinds wrote a book about her experience called School-House in the Arctic.
2. FCNQ is the Inuit-owned sales and development agency for Arctic Quebec cooperatives which was begun in 1967 and is based in Montreal.
3. Comment reported in a conversation with Ali Tulugak from Povungnituk, October 1976.
4. I am grateful to P. E. Murdoch for this and several other ideas. His long experience living with the Arctic people has provided him with insights which are not readily available to newcomers.
5. Late in 1975, the Workshop was moved to a new location in the old co-op store.
6. Incident reported to me by Murray Lightman, artist on a two week contract with La Federation des Cooperatives du Nouveau-Quebec to work with the Inoucdjouac printmakers.
7. See Arctic Quebec 1974.
8. Ironically, the print shop has temporarily reverted to use as a warehouse, while the Federation searches for a southern printmaker to play an ongoing role as resource person to Arctic Quebec print workshops as has been done in the highly successful N.W.T. printmaking centres.
Winnipeg Art Gallery
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