Chief Poundmaker: Revisiting the legacy of a peacemaker

On the left of the graphic, Tatânga Mânî [Chief Walking Buffalo] [George McLean] in traditional regalia on horse. In the middle, Iggi and girl engaging in a “kunik”, a traditional greeting in Inuit culture. On the right, Maxime Marion, a Métis guide stands holding a rifle. In the background, there is a map of Upper and Lower Canada, and text from the Red River Settlement collection.

By Anna Heffernan

Pîhtokahanapiwiyin was a Plains Cree chief who was known as Chief Poundmaker in English. In 1885, he was tried and convicted of treason-felony because of his alleged involvement in the North-West Rebellion/North-West Resistance. On May 23, 2019, 134 years later, the Canadian government posthumously exonerated him and officially apologized to the Poundmaker Cree Nation of Saskatchewan, which is home to many of his descendants. His people, and other Plains First Nations who passed down accounts of his life, remember Poundmaker as a leader who remained committed to peace even when faced with dire circumstances. After decades of advocacy by his First Nation community, Poundmaker’s story is also coming to the attention of the broader Canadian public thanks to his exoneration. At Library and Archives Canada, we have many photographs and documents that help to tell this story.

Poundmaker was born around 1842 to a Stoney Nakoda father and a Métis mother of French Canadian and Cree descent, near Battleford in what is now Saskatchewan. In the early 1870s, an influential Blackfoot chief, Isapo-Muxika (Crowfoot), adopted Poundmaker and gave him the name Makoyi-koh-kin (Wolf Thin Legs), after a son whom Crowfoot had lost in battle. Poundmaker returned to the Cree after living for a time with the Blackfoot, but he maintained a friendship with his adopted father.

A black-and-white photograph of Poundmaker standing in front of a tipi wearing a fur hat, a shirt and vest, a blanket around his waist, and moccasins. Standing next to him is his wife, wearing a blanket around her shoulders over a dress.

Pîhtokahanapiwiyin (Poundmaker), right, with his wife, circa 1884 (a066596-v8)

A black-and-white photograph of Isapo-Muxika (Crowfoot), seated holding an eagle feather fan and wearing a hide shirt adorned with fur and beads or quills.

Isapo-Muxika (Crowfoot) in 1886 (c001871)

By August 1876, Poundmaker had become a headman and spoke at the Treaty Six negotiations. He was successful in having a famine clause added to the treaty, which promised that the Canadian government would provide rations to the signatory nations during times of food scarcity. Poundmaker recognized that the majority of his band favoured making a treaty, and he signed it on August 23, 1876. In 1879, Poundmaker and his band settled on a reserve about 40 miles (65 kilometres) west of Battleford.

Faced with the ever-increasing settlement of the West, which reduced the land and game that First Nations relied on to survive, Poundmaker urged his people to remain peaceful. He advised that war was no longer a feasible option, and in his words, “our only resource is our work, our industry, our farms.” In 1883, the Canadian government reduced the rations they had been providing to First Nations, and many were dissatisfied with the government’s failure to fulfill treaty promises.

In June 1884, several bands came to Poundmaker’s reserve to discuss the situation, including Mistahimaskwa (Big Bear) and his followers. With over 2,000 Cree gathered, they held a Thirst Dance (also known as a Sun Dance), a sacred ceremony in many Plains First Nations traditions. The North West Mounted Police attempted to disperse the Cree and prevent the Thirst Dance from taking place. Poundmaker and Big Bear were able to keep the peace for the time being, but it was clear that tensions between First Nations and the police were high, and it was becoming more difficult to restrain the young warriors in their bands.

In 1885, representatives of the Métis in the District of Saskatchewan, North-West Territories, wrote to Louis Riel, who was living in Montana territory at the time. They were also experiencing difficulty because of increasing white settlement and lack of government recognition of their rights, and they asked Riel to return to the region to help. Leaders of the Cree and other First Nations continued to meet with each other and discuss their worsening predicament. With buffalo herds in decline, hunting was no longer a reliable source of food. The transition to agriculture was difficult, and both First Nations and settler farms in the region were failing to yield sufficient crops. Many Cree were starving, and their leaders were desperate to find a solution.

In the eyes of the settler-Canadian press, the Métis movement and the First Nations movement were the same. In fact, although they had many of the same grievances, the Métis and First Nations leaders were far from being united. Poundmaker sought to pressure the Canadian government into honouring its treaty promises through peaceful means. But as the Métis resistance grew, some of Poundmaker’s band members joined in fighting alongside them. In papers seized from Louis Riel at Batoche, there are French and English translations of a letter from Poundmaker to Riel, in which Poundmaker responds to a letter from Riel. Poundmaker’s reply was likely translated from Cree to French for Riel.

Handwritten letter, written in English

Translations of Poundmaker’s letter to Riel, found among Riel’s papers seized at Batoche. (e011303062)

The letter is undated. Based on its contents, it was likely written after the Battle of Duck Lake, the initial engagement of the North-West Rebellion/North-West Resistance between the North West Mounted Police and commander Gabriel Dumont’s Métis forces. In this letter, Poundmaker expresses respect for Riel but also makes it clear that he is not interested in joining the fight and is ready to negotiate with the military. As the translation reads, “We have all laid down our arms and we wish that the war was finished between us and when the General arrives I am ready to treat with him (hear him literally) with the most sincere intentions of the most complete submission.”

Poundmaker saw the Métis victory at Duck Lake as an opportunity. He wanted to take advantage of the uncertain state that the Canadian government found itself in to negotiate for supplies and rations. His people desperately needed these, and the government was obliged by treaty to provide them. Poundmaker’s band and a Stoney Nakoda band that was camping with them went to Battleford to open negotiations with the Indian Agent. The white settlers had deserted the town and holed up in the fort with the Indian Agent. After waiting for a day, the starving band members looted the empty Battleford homes for food, despite Poundmaker’s attempts to prevent this action. Although greatly exaggerated by the press at the time, the “looting of Battleford” was an act of desperation, not an attempt to start a conflict.

When the Indian Agent would not agree to meet with Poundmaker, the band left the town and set up camp at Cut Knife Creek. Some of the warriors erected a warriors’ lodge at the camp, signifying that the warrior society had taken control. Meanwhile, Lieutenant-Colonel William Otter and his column of soldiers travelled to Battleford. On April 31, 1885, he set out with over 300 men to attack Poundmaker’s band in retaliation for the perceived attack on Battleford. They arrived at Cut Knife Creek on May 2. Poundmaker did not take part in the battle, which lasted for seven hours before Otter withdrew. Poundmaker convinced the warriors not to pursue the retreating army, which prevented many losses. Following this attack, many of the warriors in Poundmaker’s camp departed to join the Métis forces in Batoche. On May 12, Riel’s forces were defeated. Upon learning this, Poundmaker sent a message to Battleford offering to negotiate a peace. Major-General Frederick Middleton replied that he would not negotiate and demanded Poundmaker’s unconditional surrender. On May 26, Poundmaker obliged and came to Battleford, where he was arrested

Oil painting of a large group of First Nations people sitting and standing in a semi-circle with tipis in the background. Chief Poundmaker is seated on the ground in the centre with a ceremonial pipe in front of him. General Middleton is on the right seated in a chair, with several army men standing behind him.

The Surrender of Poundmaker to Major-General Middleton at Battleford, Saskatchewan, on May 26, 1885. Oil painting by R.W. Rutherford, 1887 (e011165548_s1)

On August 17, 1885, Poundmaker’s trial began in Regina. He was charged with treason-felony. The trial lasted for two days. In our collection, we have a written account of the testimony that Poundmaker gave at his trial. This account was found in a box of miscellaneous files in the Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development fonds. Unfortunately, there is no indication of the author of this account.

A handwritten page in English.

A written account of Poundmaker’s testimony from his 1885 trial (e011303044)

Poundmaker spoke to the court in Cree, while an interpreter translated his words into English. According to the account, the Chief’s words were translated as, “Everything I could do was done to prevent bloodshed. Had I wanted war, I would not be here now, I would be on the prairie. You did not catch me, I gave myself up. You have got me because I wanted peace.” The jury deliberated for half an hour before returning a verdict of guilty. The judge sentenced him to three years in a penitentiary. The impact of this decision on Poundmaker was immediately apparent. According to the author of this account, upon hearing his sentence, Poundmaker said, “Hang me now. I would rather die than be locked up.”

For a man who had spent his life on the land, hunting and leading, the effects of incarceration were profoundly detrimental. After only one year in the Stony Mountain Penitentiary, Poundmaker’s health had declined so much that he was released. Four months after his release, he died of a lung hemorrhage while visiting his adopted father Crowfoot on the Siksika Blackfoot reserve.

Nothing can truly right the injustice of Poundmaker’s imprisonment, or reverse the damage that the loss of his leadership had on his band and the Plains Cree. However, recognizing this injustice is a step toward greater understanding between Canadians and Indigenous peoples.

This blog is part of a series related to the Indigenous Documentary Heritage Initiatives. Learn how Library and Archives Canada (LAC) increases access to First Nations, Inuit and Métis Nation collections and supports communities in the preservation of Indigenous language recordings.


Anna Heffernan is an archivist/researcher for We Are Here: Sharing Stories, an initiative to digitize Indigenous content at Library and Archives Canada.

From Assimilation to Negotiation: The 1970s Indian Claims Commission, digitized

On the left of the graphic, Tatânga Mânî [Chief Walking Buffalo] [George McLean] in traditional regalia on horse. In the middle, Iggi and girl engaging in a “kunik”, a traditional greeting in Inuit culture. On the right, Maxime Marion, a Métis guide stands holding a rifle. In the background, there is a map of Upper and Lower Canada, and text from the Red River Settlement collection.By Marko Davidovic

The Indian Claims Commission of the 1970s came into existence with a bang, as a footnote to Pierre Elliott Trudeau’s government’s proposed 1969 White Paper (formally known as the Statement of the Government of Canada on Indian Policy). The White Paper was truly explosive, an assimilative document laying out the government’s intention to abolish Indian status, the Indian Act, and the reserve system. It set off a storm of resistance and activist mobilization from coast to coast to coast. Suddenly, First Nations communities across the country faced an open threat that did not discern or discriminate, but that simply said: we will assimilate everyone at once into the Canadian body politic, there will be no more special treatment, no more Indian department, and no more “Indian problem.”

The swell of pan-Indigenous organization in response became a tidal wave that swept the White Paper aside—it was abashedly retracted in 1970—and kept on moving, as Inuit and the Métis Nation joined their voices with those of First Nations. We are still feeling the effects today: these were the years that saw the Calder case’s landmark recognition of ongoing Indigenous title and the founding of provincial and national Indigenous organizations, including the precursors to today’s Assembly of First Nations (AFN), Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami (ITK), and Métis National Council (MNC). These years were marked by resistance and, sometimes, open antagonism, the crescendo of simmering pushback against government policy and conduct.

A typewritten memo, dated March 12, 1973, from President Andrew Rickard of Grand Council Treaty #9, on behalf of his people, about his intentions and expectations of working with all levels of government.

A memo from Andrew Rickard, President of Grand Council Treaty #9 (today’s Nishnawbe Aski Nation), March 12, 1973. Library and Archives Canada, page 3. (e011267219)

Yet the Indian Claims Commission, essentially a procedural footnote intended to tie up loose ends and bring to an end the era of Indigenous claims, might be called the most enduring legacy of the original 1969 Statement. The newly digitized primary materials of the Commission tell the story of the tumultuous 1970s, but also that of the Commission’s surprising success. Adapting to a shifting political context, it took on the role of mediator between the Crown and Indigenous communities and ultimately did much to lay the groundwork for contemporary claims processes in Canada.

The Collection

The Commission was, for the most part, a one-man office.

A page of typewritten text with a picture centred at the top of Dr. Lloyd I. Barber, a middle-aged man with a brush cut, dressed in a suit and a tie, and talking on the telephone

Biography and picture of Dr. Lloyd I. Barber, from a keynote presentation at a conference. Library and Archives Canada, page 77 (e011267331)

By the time the Regina-born, Saskatoon-based academic Dr. Lloyd I. Barber began his duties as Indian Claims Commissioner, his terms of reference had changed. Rather than adjudicating and closing off claims, he was researching histories, assessing grievances, and building contacts and relationships. He corresponded constantly with Ottawa, as well as with a veritable who’s who of Indigenous leaders. In many of these letters, it is clear that he saw damage control as a large part of his job. His relative independence from Ottawa allowed him leeway to echo Indigenous communities’ calls for justice and equity, a role he played without hesitation.

A typed letter, dated November 22, 1974, from Indian Claims Commissioner Lloyd I. Barber to Deputy Minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development Judd Buchanan, calling for the federal government’s affirmation and support of Indigenous treaty rights in view of provincial violations.

Letter from Commissioner Lloyd I. Barber to Judd Buchanan, Deputy Minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development, concerning hunting, fishing, and trapping rights of prairie First Nations. Library and Archives Canada, page 35 (e011267232)

A veteran professor of commerce, Barber established a consistent tone across his letters—patient, calm, reassuring, and often quite apologetic. He embodies a sensitive and sympathetic figure, defining his plain language carefully against that of bureaucrats and civil servants. This persona is stamped on the materials of the fonds and cannot be easily separated from the successes of the Commission as a whole.

A newspaper clipping from Native Press, November 18, 1974, on Commissioner Lloyd Barber’s speech in Yellowknife, which characterizes the government’s assimilative approach to Indigenous status as insufficient and dangerous to pursue.

Newspaper clipping from Native Press, November 18, 1974, pertaining to a speech given by Lloyd Barber in Yellowknife. Library and Archives Canada, page 59 (e011267332)

The true litmus test for the Commission’s successes consisted in the dialogues Barber established, and here the research and reference materials assembled by the Commission are revealing. The Commission collected a wide swath of material, organized by province, band, and claim—from historical records from the early nineteenth century onward, to transcripts of parliamentary debates, to endless clippings from newspapers, many of them from local First Nations papers. These clippings offer snapshots and summaries of issues on the ground between Indigenous and non-Indigenous society in the heated 1970s. They also reflect the Commission’s function in assessing not just the policy and logistics of land claims, but the public perception of these issues, particularly in First Nations communities. These media sources provide a rich backdrop in understanding both the Commission’s general recommendations and its concrete interventions in specific grievance processes.

A newspaper clipping, providing an example of Commissioner Barber’s process of collecting information from local media sources.

Newspaper clipping pertaining to the 1975 Dene Declaration. Library and Archives Canada, page 21 (e011267159)

In 1977, the Indian Claims Commission turned in a compelling report summarizing its findings and recommendations. It was superseded by the Canadian Indian Rights Commission, which continued the work and built on the relationships Barber had initiated. Born in struggle and contradiction, Barber’s Commission had managed to not only walk the wobbly tightrope between government and Indigenous communities, but had actually succeeded in rerouting much of the swell of activism of the 1970s back into channels of dialogue and negotiation. It remains a decisive factor in a decisive period in Crown-Indigenous relations.

This blog is part of a series related to the Indigenous Documentary Heritage Initiatives. Learn how Library and Archives Canada (LAC) increases access to First Nations, Inuit and Métis Nation collections and supports communities in the preservation of Indigenous language recordings.


Marko Davidovic is an archival assistant on We are Here: Sharing Stories, the Indigenous digitization initiative, in the Public Services Branch at Library and Archives Canada.

First Nations’ blanket traditions through time

On the left of the graphic, Tatânga Mânî [Chief Walking Buffalo] [George McLean] in traditional regalia on horse. In the middle, Iggi and girl engaging in a “kunik”, a traditional greeting in Inuit culture. On the right, Maxime Marion, a Métis guide stands holding a rifle. In the background, there is a map of Upper and Lower Canada, and text from the Red River Settlement collection.

By Elizabeth Kawenaa Montour

For First Nations people, a blanket holds deep meaning and traditions linked to culture, birth, life and death. It can represent survival and beliefs that transcend time and place. Blankets also have a dark history as they were sometimes used to decimate First Nations populations. In 1763, for example, Sir Jeffrey Amherst, leader of the British army, suggested introducing smallpox by giving infected blankets to the First Nations people they were fighting.

Before the arrival of woven and industrial materials, First Nations made blankets with what nature supplied. Animal skins were used as blankets, especially those from larger animals like deer, elk, bear, caribou, seal, moose and buffalo. It took several days and hard work to hunt, prepare and tan a pelt. The animal’s fur or hair may be removed depending on how its skin was to be used. The tanned skin might also be decorated if materials were available.

A watercolour over pencil of two First Nations men in regalia standing in front of landed canoe and river.

Two [Anishinaabek (Odawa)] Chiefs Who with Others Lately Came Down from Michillimackinac Lake Huron to Have a Talk with Their Great Father The King or His Representative, ca. 1813–1820 (c114384k)

Pine pitch or spruce gum was sometimes applied to the outer layer of the skin to make it more waterproof. This made it ideal to cover dwellings such as a lean-to or tepee.

Watercolor grey wash over pencil of First Nations man sitting on log by a tepee with blanket near top opening, fire pit with kettle, and canoe landed on shore by river.

Sugar Island, North of Georgian Bay. Date unknown. (e000996344)

First Nations had their own weaving techniques, using tree bark or parts of fibrous plants, such as cattails. The Northwest Coast Chilkat, an important ceremonial and dance blanket of goat hair mixed with cedar bark, would have taken a year or longer to make.

Black-and-white photograph of a woman’s face draped by a bark blanket.

Nuu-chah-nult (Nootka) woman wearing cedar-bark blanket, 1916 (a039478)

When European settlers arrived, First Nations peoples were quick to adapt new trade goods to their lives. Artists who travelled on western and northern expeditions recorded the many ways blankets were used in their drawings. Some First Nations people used blankets as a coat or shawl. Hooded capote coats were made from trade blankets by joining block-shaped pieces with sinew.

Black-and-white photograph of man in Hudson Bay coat.

Cree Chief Pi-a-pot, ca. 1884. (c003863)

The most recognized trade blankets were the Hudson Bay Company blankets. These were first supplied and traded in 1779. Early photographs of First Nations gatherings on the Northwest Coast show trade blankets piled high to symbolize prosperity.

A coloured lithograph of First Nations man in capote/blanket coat, three women and a dog in winter scene.

First Nations man, women and baby in Lower Canada, 1848. (c041043k)

Button blankets were made of high-quality woollen trade blankets from British mills. These blankets were usually dark and were decorated with red crests that had symbolic meaning. Lines of mother-of-pearl or abalone shell buttons would frame the designs. Families and communities would use button blankets in both ceremony and dance.

A black-and-white photograph of First Nations man wrapped in button blanket and headpiece.

Haida button blanket worn by Tom Price, ca. 1910 (a060009)

Black-and-white photograph of First Nations woman on horse in front of tepee.

First Nations Plains woman on horseback, ca. 1920–1930 (a041367)

First Nations peoples still use blankets to practice their traditions and hold the blankets in high regard. Star quilts are designed by the Dakota/Lakota/Nakota peoples. It is believed that when you are wrapped in a star quilt, your ancestors are amongst you and with you. Blankets are given at weddings and upon the birth of a child. They are also given to recognize elders and those involved in a worthy endeavour.

Some blankets used at pow-wows are changed into shawls by adding satin appliqués and ribbons. First Nations peoples’ use of blankets is multidimensional, shaped by their experiences, and can be passed to future generations.

Explore more images of blankets by searching Library and Archives Canada’s photograph and art collection.

This blog is part of a series related to the Indigenous Documentary Heritage Initiatives. Learn how Library and Archives Canada (LAC) increases access to First Nations, Inuit and Métis Nation collections and supports communities in the preservation of Indigenous language recordings.


Elizabeth Kawenaa Montour is a project archivist in the Exhibitions and Online Content Division at Library and Archives Canada.

 

Louis Riel’s ill-fated Ottawa journey

On the left of the graphic, Tatânga Mânî [Chief Walking Buffalo] [George McLean] in traditional regalia on horse. In the middle, Iggi and girl engaging in a “kunik”, a traditional greeting in Inuit culture. On the right, Maxime Marion, a Métis guide stands holding a rifle. In the background, there is a map of Upper and Lower Canada, and text from the Red River Settlement collection.By Anna Heffernan

During his lifetime, Louis David Riel was a controversial figure—a leader of two uprisings, regarded as either a hero or a traitor—but today he is recognized for his contributions to the development of the Métis Nation, the province of Manitoba, and Canada. In 1992, he was named a founder of Manitoba, and in 2016, he was recognized as the province’s first leader. Since 2008, the third Monday in February has been celebrated as Louis Riel Day in Manitoba.

Library and Archives Canada (LAC) has a rich selection of materials relating to Louis Riel and the movements he led. The We Are Here: Sharing Stories project digitizes Indigenous-related materials in LAC’s collections. One of our priorities is to digitize the documentary legacy of Riel to make it more accessible to Métis Nation communities and researchers. While Riel is one of Canada’s most famous historical figures, some aspects of his life story are less known.

Most Canadians will recall that Louis Riel led the Red River Resistance in 1869–1870. At this time, the Hudson’s Bay Company sold their rights to Rupert’s Land, granted to them by the British Crown, to the Dominion of Canada. Métis Nation and First Nations peoples who traditionally inhabited the area did not recognize the Hudson’s Bay Company’s claim to the land, and therefore saw this as an illegitimate sale. In response to the sale of their homelands, Louis Riel and his colleagues formed a provisional government, pictured below, at Fort Garry.

A black-and-white photograph of 14 men, arranged in three rows (the front two rows sitting and the back row standing), with Louis Riel seated in the centre.

Louis Riel (centre) with the councillors of the provisional government in 1870 (a012854)

However, not everyone supported Riel’s provisional government. A group of Ontario settlers were captured by the provisional government’s forces while preparing to attack Fort Garry. One of the group, Thomas Scott, was executed for insubordination on March 4, 1870. Despite this incident, negotiations with Canada continued, and Riel successfully negotiated the terms of Manitoba’s entry into Confederation. When the negotiations were complete, a military expedition was sent from Ontario to enforce Canadian control over Manitoba. Many in Ontario viewed Riel as a traitor and murderer for the execution of Thomas Scott. Fearing for his life, Riel fled to St. Paul, Minnesota.

One of the less-well-known stories of Louis Riel’s life is his ill-fated journey to Ottawa. In 1873, Riel was elected as the Member of Parliament for Provencher, Manitoba, and he was re-elected twice in 1874. Riel travelled to Ottawa to take his seat, but his foray into federal politics was to be short-lived. His attempt to sit in the House of Commons is documented in our collection by some interesting material. The first item is the test roll bearing his signature, pictured below, which every Member of Parliament signed upon taking the oath.

Page with six columns of signatures. Louis Riel’s signature is seen at bottom right.

Caption: Page from the House of Commons test roll signed by Louis Riel (e010771238)

Going to Ontario at this time was an enormous risk for Riel. After the execution of Thomas Scott, Ontarians reacted with anger—particularly Protestants, because Scott had been a member of the Orange Order, a Protestant fraternal organization. In response, the premier of Ontario offered a $5,000 reward for Riel’s capture, and a warrant was put out for his arrest. In Parliament, a motion to expel Riel was brought by Mackenzie Bowell, an Orangeman from Ontario. The motion passed, and Riel would not return to the House of Commons, despite being re-elected a third time. The second piece of material relating to Riel’s journey to the capital is the photograph below. Before leaving hastily, Riel had his photograph taken in Ottawa, inscribed with the caption “Louis Riel, MP.”

Sepia-tone vignette photograph of Louis Riel facing the camera, with handwritten inscription underneath reading “Louis Riel, MP.”

Caption: Studio portrait taken in Ottawa after Riel was elected as the Member of Parliament for Provencher, Manitoba (e003895129)

In 1875, Riel went into exile in the United States. From 1879, he lived in Montana Territory, where he married Marguerite Monet, dite Bellehumeur, in 1881. They had three children. He followed the buffalo hunt and worked as an agent, trader, woodcutter and later teacher. Riel returned to Canada, to Batoche in what is now Saskatchewan, in July 1884.

The test roll and the photograph of Riel in Ottawa are examples of how even some of the small items in our collection can illuminate moments in Canadian history. By researching and digitizing more of the Indigenous documentary heritage in our collections, we aim to share the stories not only of famous figures like Riel but also of many other Indigenous people in Canada.

This blog is part of a series related to the Indigenous Documentary Heritage Initiatives. Learn how Library and Archives Canada (LAC) increases access to First Nations, Inuit and Métis Nation content and supports communities in the preservation of Indigenous language recordings.


Anna Heffernan is an archivist/researcher for We Are Here: Sharing Stories, an initiative to digitize Indigenous content at Library and Archives Canada.

Inuit women and seals: a relationship like no other

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.

Black-and-white photograph of an Inuit woman inside an igloo wearing a floral print parka and tending a seal oil lamp, with a young Inuit child wearing a fur parka.

Woman tending a seal-oil lamp inside an igloo, Western Arctic, probably Nunavut, 1949 (MIKAN 3202745)

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.

A colour photograph of an Inuit woman wearing a red cloth jacket, crouching on a rocky coastline and scraping fat from a seal skin with an ulu (a woman’s knife).

Taktu cleaning fat from a seal skin, Kinngait (Cape Dorset), Nunavut, summer 1960 (MIKAN 4324316)

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