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Thursday, 10 January 2019

Inuit stone carving - a detective story

inuit carving by pauloosie weetaluktuk

When I was much, much younger, long before I discovered carving, my father came into the room one day and gave me a stone sculpture of a person holding a sack. My great-aunt Mary had died and the small statue was passed on from her to me.

The Inuit figure had been brought back from Canada by my grandmother in about 1965. That was really all that was known about it. As I learnt more about carving generally, the sculpture interested and intrigued me more and more.


paulousie weetaluktuk sculpture carving

The weight and shape of the dark serpentine, veined with greenish tints and flecked with red, make it so pleasing to hold in one hand. It was clear that someone had worked the design around the shape of the original stone: the dents and depressions of that rock were still visible, albeit smoothed out. 


pauloosie weetaluktuk sculpture

On the base was carved the number 1760. I knew that it wouldn't be a date mark but was it a catalogue number?



Who had carved this mysterious sculpture and where? For years I didn't know. Even a trip to the Canadian Museum of History in Ottawa failed to turn up anything, with the resident expert being out on that day and subsequent email enquiries to him going unanswered. 

Reading books on the subject showed that the sculpture probably came from around the east coast of Hudson Bay but that was about it.


Paulosie Weetaluktuk


Then I learnt about disc numbers.

Disc numbers were used from 1941 to 1972 (or 1978 in Quebec) and were introduced to help various organisations (such as government agencies) to identify Inuit individuals. Before then people would have one name, given to them by elders. When missionaries arrived, many Inuit took Christian names but often altered them to make them sound more local: so Thomas might become Tumasi. 

After the Mounted Police census in the 1940s, identification numbers were assigned to each person and were often used as signatures by Inuit carvers in the 1950s and '60s. The numbers (preceded by an E for east or W for west) were also stamped onto discs which would be worn around the neck or sewn into a parka. This practice was phased out after surnames became officially adopted by Inuit in 1969. 


Image from: https://www.vice.com/en_ca/article/xd7ka4/the-little-known-history-of-how-the-canadian-government-made-inuit-wear-eskimo-tags

Using a site that traces Inuit artists by their disc numbers, I discovered that my carving had been made by Pauloosie (or Paulosie) Weetaluktuk. He was born in 1938, died in 2012 and lived at Inukjuak, a town on the east coast of Hudson Bay which was formerly known as Port Harrison. 

I haven't been able to find any photos of Pauloosie Weetaluktuk that show his face, but have found a presentation that he gave as a member of the 'local grocers' association' to the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples in June 1992. It gives interesting glimpses of his life as a carver in a place very different to that in which I live.

He talked through a translator as he didn't read or understand English. The main topic was the high cost of living in such a remote place (he said that it was three or four times higher than in more southerly parts of Canada) and how that makes it difficult to survive there. The increases in taxes and high living costs mean that carvings 'do not make much money' any more and it is tough selling skins and handicrafts as there is 'hardly any value in them'.

Pauloosie Weetaluktuk said that: 'Our operating budget has to be very high these days. There are people who have never been employed in their lives, who have depended on carving and they were able hunters, but now that the price of carving has gone down, you just see them as men but they don't operate as men any more. They don't have anything to base their lives on or their manhood on.' 

Sometimes it can be easy to forget the hardships that the people who created a carving might have faced in making a living. This presentation cuts through any of that to show how tough supporting oneself was at that time and in that place. I wonder if things are any better there now? 

I wish that I could have met Pauloosie Weetaluktuk, creator of this beautiful sculpture that has meant a lot to me for a long time, and told him what I've just told you