By Julie Dobbin
Seals are a central part of life and an essential source of locally-harvested food for Inuit peoples. Many traditions, customs, beliefs and oral histories revolve around the seal. Inuit peoples were and still are in an important and direct relationship with this animal. Inuit hunters have great respect for the spirit of the seal, an animal that is so heavily relied upon. Every single part of the seal is used, as the harvesting must be sustainable, humane and respectful. Most importantly, cold and harsh arctic climates demand that people have the right shelter and clothing to keep warm and dry, and seals help meet this need through their skins, fur and oil.
Inuit women developed highly skilled techniques in order to treat and use seal in various ways throughout the seasons. They scraped the skins clean of blubber with an ulu (a traditional, women’s knife with a crescent-shaped blade) then stretched and dried them, as seen in this photograph of Taktu.
The photographer who took this photo of Nepachee stretching seal skin, Rosemary Gilliat, stated in her inscription that Nepachee was one of the finest needlewomen in Kinngait. The photograph depicts not only Nepachee’s relationship to seal, but that of all Inuit women who have worked with, and are still working with, this animal that is so vital to Inuit peoples.
Although Inuit women have had a greater role in the treatment of skins, Inuit men also performed these tasks when needed—just as women filled in for men with respect to hunting for seals. Everything in the treatment of the skins was done by hand, and they were softened by chewing, as seen in this photograph of Josie and two Inuit girls:
The entire process of treating seal fur and skins could take days. Skins used for tents required less tedious treatment than those used for clothing, which had to be much softer and therefore required more chewing and scraping.
Seals represent much more than nourishment or protection from the elements to Inuit peoples; they are a central part of Inuit culture, cosmologies and life itself. According elder Ulayok Kaviok from Arviat, Nunavut:
“…during the skin boot production process, elders pass on oral traditions to young seamstresses who are interested in traditional rituals and sharing systems. The first pair of skin boots sewn by a young sibling is a symbol of her bond with the traditional lifestyle and the importance of sharing Inuit and Inuvialuit culture.” (Virtual Museum of Canada, 2005).
The use of the seal is more than practical; it is a way to build relationships and transmit culture and represents an entire belief system and way of life. Despite the introduction, in recent decades, of new materials to Inuit clothing production, such as wool and cotton textiles, and the shift to settlement life, Inuit women have adapted and kept the traditional skills and knowledge associated with seal furs and skins. Today they continue to pass these skills on to younger generations.
Julie Dobbin is doing her MA in Indigenous and Canadian Studies at Carleton University. She wrote this article during a practicum in the Exhibition and Online Content Division at Library and Archives Canada.