Tunniit/Tattoos: The Complicated History of Photographing Inuit Tattoos

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 Heather Campbell

Last year my colleague Beth Greenhorn and I were chatting about a photograph she had come across of two Inuit women and a child. They were wearing elaborate atigii (inner parkas) with a cloth background behind them. One of the women was wearing odd mittens—one black and one with a distinctive knitted diamond pattern. I was sure I had seen this woman before. I have been researching Inuit tattoos for over ten years, as part of my own art practice. At first, I just collected images and did not take note of the source of the material, something I have been kicking myself for ever since! A few years ago, I started creating a more detailed collection, saving the original image identification numbers. When I began working at Library and Archives Canada (LAC), in 2018, I started searching through our collection for more images and created a list for future reference. In that list, I found “Hattie.”

Black-and-white photograph of two women and a child wearing parkas, sitting in front of a fabric background.
[Two Inuuk women and a child]. The woman on the left is Ooktook (Niviaqsarjuk, also called Uuttuq), who is Qairnirmiut. Her name means “lying on the ice.” She was called “Hattie” by photographers Geraldine and Douglas Moodie. The boy is Harry Unainuk Gibbons. The woman on the right is Taptaqut, Harry’s mom. Photo credit: George Comer, 1905. (e011310102) These names were provided by Hassan Bosta via Project Naming on Facebook.

At least four different people have photographed “Hattie”: George Comer, Geraldine Moodie, Albert Peter Low, and J.E. Bernier. In some photos, I think she has been misidentified. In others, a different woman is also called “Hattie,” “Ooktook,” and “Niviaqsarjuk.” This is perhaps because the women had similar-sounding names, or they were thought to look alike, or the photographer simply got confused after returning to the south and having the photographs processed.

Another institution instrumental to my work that informed my findings is the Glenbow Museum. This museum houses the Geraldine Moodie collection, which also includes photographs of women from the same region and time period. In the Glenbow descriptions, and in a comment on our Project Naming Facebook page, this woman was identified as Ooktook. Through Project Naming, people are identified by community members. For this reason, I consider it to be the most reliable source.

A black-and-white photograph of six women with facial tattoos wearing parkas, before a cloth backdrop.
[Photograph of six women with facial tattoos wearing parkas, before a cloth backdrop. Niviaqsarjuk is seated in the centre in the first row] [Left to right—back row: [unknown], Atunuck, Uckonuck; front row: Aka “Pikey” Niviaqsajuk/Shoofly?, Taptaqut], March 8, 1905. Credit: J.E. Bernier         (C-001499)

In the image above, one can see the woman seated at front and centre is the same person Ooktook/Niviaqsarjuk/Hattie. She is wearing the exact same outfit as in the photo by Comer right down to the patterned mitten on her left hand, except that, in this photo, she has facial tattoos. In the original photo Beth shared with me, her face is bare! What does this mean? Is it the same woman? Are the tattoos draw on? Were they tracing pre-existing tattoos, or were they completely fabricating these designs?

Recently, I came across an interesting article about the photographic work of Michael Bradley and his project Puaki, which featured photographs of Maori people of New Zealand, well-known for their facial tattoos called Tā moko. The process Bradley uses is wet plate collodion, popular in the 1800s. When Maori people with tattoos were photographed by means of this process, their Tā moko disappeared! The collodion process could not properly capture colours in the blue/green spectrum. Is this what happened with the tattoos of Inuit women from the early 1900s?

With the guidance of Joanne Rycaj Guillemette, the Indigenous Portfolio archivist for Private Archives here at LAC, we did some digging to see exactly which photographic process was used in this photograph of Niviaqsarjuk. Mikan (LAC’s internal archival catalogue) did not have the answer; neither did the former paper-based filing system. The Comer collection of photos are actually copies, and it turned out the originals are held at the Mystic Seaport Museum, in Connecticut. Going through my personal collection of photos, I found an image that looked familiar, and then searched the Mystic Seaport Museum for the ID number. I found the woman referred to by Comer as “Jumbo.” In the description, I found what I was looking for. It states:

Glass negative by Capt. George Comer, taken at Cape Fullerton, Hudson Bay, on February 16, 1904. Comer identified this image as a young girl known as Jumbo, showing the tattooing of the Southampton Natives. This is one of a group of photos taken by Comer to record facial tattooing of various Inuit groups of Hudson Bay. He had Aivilik women paint their faces to simulate the tattooing styles of various other groups. Information from original envelope identifies this as Photo 55, # 33. The number 30 is etched into emulsion on plate. Lantern slide 1966.339.15 was made from this negative. Identical to 1963.1767.112. 1963.339.58 shows the same young woman in a similar pose.

This was the confirmation I needed that the designs were in fact painted on and that the designs were from other regions! I do not know how often this happened, but finding similar images from other collections has me concerned about the authenticity of tattoo designs in photographs from this period and into the 1950s. I searched the Comer collection further and found more than one woman photographed with and without tattoos, including the woman called “Shoofly,” Comer’s “companion,” whose real name was Nivisanaaq.

A black-and-white photograph of five Inuit women with facial tattoos standing in front of a white cloth backdrop
Aivilliq Women, 1903–1904. Credit: Albert Peter Low (a038271). Nivisanaaq (nicknamed “Shoofly) at centre in a beaded atigii with painted tattoos. Note the woman to her right, whom we also see in the image below.
A black-and-white photo of 15 women and two babies, posed in three rows.
Aivillik women and children on the “Era” Credit: Albert Peter Low 1888–1909, location unknown. (a053565) Nivisanaaq is present again, to the right of centre, second row, in this photograph, wearing her beaded atigii with boot motifs. Note that the woman at her left in the image above is now in front of her at centre; both are without tattoos in this photo.

In the Donald Benjamin Marsh fonds, also held at LAC, we see another example of painted tattoos. The unidentified women from Arviat in these two photographs by Donald Benjamin Marsh are most likely the same person, as one can tell from comparing their facial features, especially the broken or missing tooth on the left side of her mouth. On the right side of her face, she has no tattoos; on the left side, however, the tattoos are quite prominent. The lines are very dark and wide. When one compares these images to photographs of women with authentic tattoos, one can see the difference. Here, the lines are quite fine and faint, but still visible.

  • Left: A colour photo of an Inuk woman with facial tattoos wearing a white parka with red straps looking at the camera.
  • A black-and-white photo of an Inuk woman wearing a decorated parka standing in snow.
 
  • A black-and-white photograph of an Inuk woman with tattoos on her face and arms smiling while braiding her hair.
  • A black-and-white photograph of an Inuk woman in a fur parka.
 

This discovery reminds me of the actions of well-known photographer Edward S. Curtis, who travelled through North America photographing Native American peoples. (Note: We use the term “First Nations” in Canada, but “Native American” is used in the United States of America). Curtis often manipulated scenes by dressing sitters in clothing from an earlier era, removed contemporary elements, and added props that created a romanticized and inauthentic representation of them. Not only is this type of manipulation dehumanizing, it leaves behind a legacy of misinformation.

As a reaction to colonialization and assimilation policies, Indigenous Peoples are going through a period of cultural resurgence. When those of us who are looking to reclaim elements of our culture, such as tattooing, come across these images and assume the designs originate in the region the people are living in. Someone in Arviat, seeing a photo of her great-grandmother, for example, might want to reclaim the markings of her relative and mistakenly get the same markings, not knowing the design is from a completely different family and region. One can only imagine how distressing this would be.

A main goal of We Are Here Sharing Stories is to update descriptions to make them culturally sensitive and accurate. To this end, we are updating descriptions for the above-mentioned collections, to add the women’s correct names if known and a note explaining the significance of the tattoos. This note also addresses the practices of some photographers of the time that may result in tattoo designs that are not authentic to the women or their region. Although we cannot change the past, it is my hope that these actions will help inform researchers and community members alike from this point on. Nakurmiik (thank you).

A black-and-white photograph of a smiling Inuk woman with facial tattoos.
Kila, a tattooed Inuit woman, from the Dolphin and Union Strait area, Coronation Gulf, N.W.T. [Nunavut], 1916. (a165665)

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.



Heather Campbell, Nunatsiavummiuk, is an archivist for We Are Here: Sharing Stories, an initiative to digitize Indigenous content at Library and Archives Canada.

The Canadian Eskimo Arts Council — Defining Inuit art

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 Heather Campbell

The Canadian Eskimo Arts Council (CEAC) was created through funding from the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs in 1961 as a solution to the perceived problem of declining quality in Inuit art and a need for a system to approve images for the new Inuit printmaking practice. The CEAC assumed responsibility for creating a jury to select prints for annual Inuit print collections, primarily in Cape Dorset and Baker Lake, Northwest Territories (now Nunavut). It also launched the internationally celebrated Masterworks exhibition, which toured internationally between November 1971 and June 1973. The CEAC brought Inuit art to the world stage and assisted in the expansion of the Inuit art market. It helped shape what we know as Inuit art today.

A black-and-white photograph of seven men in suits standing around a table and looking at art.
Members of the Canadian Eskimo Arts Council, 1962 (e011177569-v8)

The Canadian Eskimo Arts Collection was transferred to Library and Archives Canada in 1991. The collection consists of various operational documents, reports, copyright requests, correspondence, audio recordings of meetings, interview transcripts and documents related to the Masterworks exhibition (also known as Sculpture/Inuit). The collection provides insight into how the Inuit art market was developed from the 1960s to the late 1980s. The CEAC was in charge of approving annual print collections for the Cape Dorset Eskimo Arts Council, and other collections from communities such as Ulukhaktok (formerly Holman) in the Northwest Territories, Pangnirtung in present-day Nunavut, and Povungnituk and Inukjuak in Nunavik (northern Quebec). The CEAC also created the Igloo Tag program, which authenticated Inuit sculptures through a tag or sticker affixed to artwork that included information about the artist (see last image in blog).

A black-and-white photograph of four adults and a child smiling at the camera.
Group shot at installation at the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa, with Ruby Arngn’naaq (right) and Osuitok Ipeelee (centre), 1973 (e011312911)

In addition to the textual documents in the collection, there is also an extensive collection of Inuit art print and sculpture catalogues, organized by community, as well as audio recordings of conferences and workshops related to sculpture and prints. In these recordings in particular, we hear the concerns of Inuit artists first hand and can better understand the dynamics between the artists and the CEAC. For example, when reading through reports regarding site visits, we learn that they met with artists who wanted their artwork promoted in the south and whose work was deemed marketable. We can read the general criteria for the acceptance or rejection of certain prints. When combing through the minutes or correspondence, we get an idea of the artistic tastes of the CEAC and see why certain artworks were not deemed suitable for promotion.

A document with three typed paragraphs under the title “Rejected” Prints.
The Canadian Eskimo Arts Council’s mandate for jurying print collections, 1980, p. 5 (e011270883)

When seen in its entirety, we recognize the CEAC as a symbol of its time and the prevailing societal attitudes toward Indigenous peoples and their artwork. When we read through the interviews with artists in particular, we start to notice a distinct difference between what the CEAC members considered “good” Inuit art and what the artists themselves thought was “good” art. Generally speaking, Inuit also valued art that was representational and well finished. They did not share the same appreciation that many collectors and CEAC members had at the time for sculptures that were not well finished and were perceived by southerners as “primitive.”

The CEAC influence over Inuit art helped to create a certain “primitive” aesthetic that was, one could argue, not fully representative of the traditional aesthetic of Inuit culture. For example, reading through interviews with artists from Nunavik, we can see that they were baffled as to why the works of some artists were so popular with people in the south. Why were so many Inuit artists forced into this repressive and inauthentic paradigm? In many cases, an Inuit artist was just that—not an individual with his or her own sense of what was aesthetically pleasing or worth expressing on paper, in stone or through whatever material the person deemed fit. As illustrated in the image below from a Government of the Northwest Territories pricing brochure, only “traditional” materials were bought by the wholesalers. Today, we would not dream of imposing these types of restrictions on a non-Indigenous artist living in downtown Toronto, for example, but during that time, this imposition on Indigenous artists was prevalent. Thankfully, there were CEAC members who opposed this approach, but it has taken decades for the expectations of the Inuit art world to change, to set aside this anthropological lens and to be receptive toward artistic expressions by Inuit artists as individuals, rather than as representatives of some collective Inuit consciousness.

A page with lists and other typed text under the title Avoid Using.
“Survey of Price Guide,” K.C. Crassweller, 1971, p. 30 (e011270066)

On this subject, Natan Obed, President of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, stated in his keynote speech at the 2019 Inuit Studies Conference:

The right to be diverse in society is something that we are fighting for. . . . We don’t have to always have these straw polls about whether or not an Inuk can create something and if that creation is in line with the expectations that the society has. Or a person can be of any faith. A person can reject or take on Inuit traditions, Inuit history. You can be a computer programmer just as much as you can be a hunter. That’s not to say that we’re not encouraging Inuit to live healthy lives within Inuit Nunangat and do traditional things; it’s to say that when Inuit do not feel that that is their path, that we somehow are able to not have those conversations that demean them, that put them down, and that “other” them when it is their right in a society as a peoples to do whatever it is that they feel that they want to do with their lives.

A large contributing factor to the creation of this definition of Inuit art was the fact that formal governance of our own art did not exist in the early years of the art movement. There was minimal communication between the artists themselves and those marketing and selling their art. And without meaningful conversations about the nature of art making, how can true understanding be achieved? How could the practical needs of artists be met if they were not being asked what they truly needed? The CEAC did not have an Inuk member until 1973, with the appointments of Joanasie Salomonie (1938–1977) and Armand Tagoona (1926–1991), who both resigned before ever attending a meeting. Other appointments followed over the last few years of the CEAC.

It was not until the formation of the Inuit Art Foundation (IAF) in 1988 that a governing board was created that consisted of a majority of Inuit artists, beginning in 1994. A concerted effort was made by the IAF to train Inuit artists in art marketing, promotion and copyright. In 1995, the IAF created the Cultural Industries Training Program, which taught students Inuit art history and gave an introduction to exhibition design. Thanks in part to the IAF and its programming, Inuit slowly began to enter the arts administration sector. In 1997, July Papatsie, one of the first Inuk curators, co-curated the internationally touring exhibition Transitions at the Indian and Inuit Art Centres (now the Indigenous Art Centre) of the former Indian and Northern Affairs Canada (currently Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada). In 2015, Heather Igloliorte became the first Inuk to edit an issue of the IAF’s Inuit Art Quarterly.

A drawing of a tag with a string. The tag has an igloo on it, with the words “Canada” and “Eskimo art” above and below.
Image of an Igloo Tag from an Igloo Tag brochure written in Inuktitut syllabics, from the file “Igloo Tag Information,” 1972, p. 81 (e011270680)

In 2017, the IAF took over the administration of the Igloo Tag Inuit art authentication. For the very first time in 2018, licensee status was given to an Inuit-owned gallery: Carvings Nunavut Inc., belonging to Lori Idlout of Iqaluit. Inuit are finally in the position of saying when a piece of art is genuine Inuit art! Also in that year, four Inuit guest curators—Kablusiak, Krista Ulujuk Zawadski, Asinnajaq and Heather Igloliorte—were selected to curate the first exhibition at the Winnipeg Art Gallery for the former Inuit Art Centre, recently renamed Qaumajuq, which is set to open in February 2021. Inuit are opening, expanding and leading discourse about our own artistic expressions, and I look forward to seeing what the next 50 years hold for the Inuit art world.

These related collections are also found at Library and Archives 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 collections and supports communities in the preservation of Indigenous language recordings.


Heather Campbell is an Inuk artist originally from Nunatsiavut, Newfoundland and Labrador. She was a researcher on the We Are Here: Sharing Stories team at Library and Archives Canada.

Inuit soldiers of the First World War: Lance Corporal John Shiwak

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 Heather Campbell

A black and white photograph of a young Inuk man in a military uniform staring towards the camera.

Lance Corporal John Shiwak, First Royal Newfoundland Regiment, c. 1915. Courtesy of Veteran’s Affairs Canada

As we remember the sacrifices of the soldiers who fought in the First and Second World Wars, many of us are aware of the First Nations and Métis soldiers who fought for our country. But only a few of us may know about the Inuit soldiers who also fought alongside Indigenous and non-Indigenous alike. My great-great-uncle, Lance Corporal John Shiwak, was one of those men. Due to his skills as a hunter, he became a sniper—“one of the best in the British Army,” according to a fellow officer.

My uncle hailed from Nunatsiavut, the Inuit region in northern and central Labrador, which was part of the British Dominion of Newfoundland in 1914. When the call came for Newfoundland men to enlist, it also made its way up the north coast of Labrador to the Inuit men of these settlements. Inuit culture was, and still is, largely a non-confrontational culture. Many of these young Inuit men were encouraged to enlist by people in positions of authority, such as Dr. Harry Paddon, a physician for the International Grenfell Association. Regardless of their motivations, approximately fifteen Inuit men enlisted and set sail for England in the summer of 1915.

A black and white photograph of two Inuit women and an Inuit child standing beside a wooden house.

Hopedale, Newfoundland and Labrador, 1913. Credit: Edith S. Watson (e010791418)

What a culture shock it must have been for these men who, like my uncle, were all from tiny, isolated communities of a few hundred people at most. In addition to the size, hustle and bustle of European towns and cities, the worldview was very different. Although Inuit hunt for survival, we respect each life we take and are taught from a young age to not cause an animal pain or distress. When we take a shot, we want to be certain it is precise and effective. Especially during the early 20th century, when the cost and scarcity of ammunition meant that every bullet had to count. Sometimes that meant going home empty handed.

I imagine those Inuit soldiers felt exactly the same way when they discharged their firearms in war. It must have been a huge adjustment for them to fire in haste, knowing they may have wounded someone. However, they knew that the men on the other side of the trenches had to be stopped for others to live, just as animals in Labrador had to die for their families to live. I imagine it was the only way to reconcile themselves with the horrors of war.

A black and white photograph of trees and white houses with black roofs. In the background, there is a boat on the water.

Hudson’s Bay Company Buildings, Rigolet, Labrador, September 1926. Photo Credit: L.T. Burwash (a099501)

The story of my great-great-uncle Lance Corporal John Shiwak is unique because in addition to his traditional activities as a hunter, trapper and fisherman, he was also a writer, poet and artist. He wrote many letters from the front lines to his friend Lacey Amy, a journalist and author from Ontario. Mr. Amy wrote the article “An Eskimo Patriot” in the July 1918 issue of The Canadian Magazine, telling of their friendship and some of Uncle John’s feelings during the war.

The duration of the war was wearing on him. He had no close friends, none to keep warm the link with his distant home. In September he lamented: “I have no letters from home since July. There will be no more now till the ice breaks”. And in his last he longed again for the old hunting days. Labrador, that had never satisfied his ambitions, looked warm and friendly to him now… That was in mid-November. A month later an official envelope came to me. Inside was my last letter. On its face was the soulless stamp. “Deceased”.

Every year on Remembrance Day, our family would talk about Uncle John with a quiet reverence, remembering the deep grief experienced when he did not return home. I have yet to meet a Labradorian living elsewhere who does not long to return to Labrador. The connection that we have to the land is difficult to express. We see firsthand how the land provides us with everything that we need to survive. Many generations of history are embedded in not only the community, but also each fishing spot, trapline, woodcutting path, hunting ground and berry-picking spot. This creates a special bond between people and the land. To be away from Labrador is to be disconnected from a piece of ourselves.

When I first visited the Canadian War Museum, I was drawn to the recreation of a First World War trench. Visitors can walk through it and put themselves in the shoes of soldiers on the front lines. As I slowly made my way through the trench, it affected me deeply. Tears streamed down my face as I imagined Uncle John huddled in the mud, writing in his journal or sketching images of the land and animals, longing for the peace and solitude of his ancestral home. A home that he would never see again.

A black and white photograph of a cemetery behind a fence and small leafless trees near Cambrai, France. There is a house and a farm in the background.

Raillencourt British Cemetery near Cambrai. Shiwak was not buried in this cemetery, but was equally far from home. (a004409-v8)

During the battle of Cambrai on November 20, 1917, an exploding shell killed Uncle John and six other soldiers. Eighty-eight years later, in 2005, my cousin, Jason Sikoak (formerly written as Shiwak), took part in the Aboriginal Spiritual Journey. In this journey, a group of Indigenous people travelled to Europe to honour Indigenous soldiers. Jason told me that during this journey, Uncle John’s spirit visited him in a dream. We hope that he followed Jason back to the shores of Rigolet and that he is at peace.

A black and white photograph of ships in body of water. There are trees in the foreground of the photo.

A point of land seen from a distance with Hudson’s Bay Company buildings along the shoreline and boats anchored in the cove. Rigolet, c.1930. Photo credit: Fred. C. Sears (e010771588)

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.


Heather Campbell is an archivist in  the Public Services Branch at Library and Archives Canada.

Mighty Indigenous Warriors: From Egypt to the First World War

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 and Sara Chatfield

When First Nations, Inuit and Métis Nation were recruited in 1914 to fight in the First World War, enlistees were not aware of the new reality of 20th-century warfare. As a prelude to the First World War, in 1884, approximately 56 Kanienkenha:ka (Mohawk), 30 Ojibway and 19 Métis men were recruited for Britain’s six-month Nile expedition in Egypt totalling 400 men. The men were chosen for their strength, endurance, and skill in handling boats and rafts—qualities that were needed to navigate up the numerous cataracts and rapids of the Nile River. They did not see active battle, as they arrived two days after the city of Khartoum, Sudan had fallen, and British Major Charles G. Gordon had been killed. The expedition returned with the loss of 16 men and stories of what they had seen. Along their journey on the Nile, they saw monolithic temples and statues carved out of hillsides at Abu Simbel, the Sphinx of Giza, the pyramids, exotic markets and Egyptian life in Cairo.

A black-and-white photograph of a large group of men standing in front of the Parliament buildings.

Canadian voyageurs in front of the Parliament Buildings, a detail from the “Canadian Nile Contingent,” 1884. (c002877)

Three decades later, their next involvement in an overseas military expedition was with the Canadian Expeditionary Forces (CEF) in the First World War. It was an opportunity for First Nations, Inuit and Métis Nation soldiers to see the world, and to prove their courage and combat skills. Soldiers were facing a major change in combat style and warfare. The new reality of war involved the use of chemical warfare, machine guns, fighter aircraft, armoured vehicles, and trench warfare.

Our latest Co-lab challenge, Correspondence regarding First Nations veterans returning after the First World War, illustrates some Indigenous peoples’ experiences during the war, touches upon how their communities coped during their absence, and gives information about their lives after they returned home. These documents provide us with information that the Personnel Records of the First World War may not. They offer information such as what the solider planned to do after the war, if he owned land or farm animals, or if he was suited to farming. There is also information about whether the soldier suffered any lingering disabilities, who they lived with, and if they had any dependants.

Created by the former Department of Indian Affairs, these records are unique in that an overseeing federal “Indian Agent” included personal information and comments on the returning First Nations soldiers. In contrast, this was not the case for non-Indigenous soldiers, as no similar sets of records exist for the rest of the CEF.

A page from the “Indian Agent’s Office,” Chippewa Hill, Saugeen Agency, February 14, 1919.

Document from RG10 Vol 6771 file 452-30 sent to Duncan Campbell Scott from T.A. Stout on February 14, 1919, providing information about John Besito. (Image found on Canadiana)

This personal information became part of the federal government files in Ottawa. The records are also unique in that the “Indian Agents” delved into the soldier’s post-service life. The information that was collected included gratuitous private information and personal judgements about the veterans and the civilian lives they returned to. For example, the “Indian Agent’s Office” notes dated February 1919 for Private John Besito from Saugeen Agency, Ontario, state, “He has a location of fifty acres in the Reserve. He has a house and some improvements on his location.”

As well as administrative information, such as CEF regimental numbers and membership in First Nation agencies and bands, these records also give us genealogical information. For example, the names of three deceased soldiers are listed in a letter to the Department of Indian Affairs dated February 12, 1919, written by the “Indian Agent” of the Griswold Agency in Manitoba. The letter states that the deceased soldiers are from Oak River and Oak Lake Reserves. The letter also includes the CEF regimental number of one of the deceased, Private John Taylor, and that the Department of Indian Affairs paid a pension to his wife and two children. Other correspondence informs us that Private Gilbert Moore, who was killed in action on March 24, 1918, left behind parents in poor circumstances and that they applied for a pension; and that Private Thomas Kasto left a mother who received a pension.

A black-and-white studio portrait of a First World War soldier in uniform and holding a rifle.

Photograph of Canadian Expeditionary Forces soldier Michael Ackabee. (e005176082)

As well as providing information about the soldiers who fought with the CEF, these files make reference to women in First Nation communities who provided funds to help with the war effort to organizations such as the Red Cross, the Girls Overseas Comfort Club, and the Canadian Patriotic Fund. Women in the communities knitted socks and made shirts to add to the “comfort boxes” that were mailed to the men overseas. They also fundraised by making beadwork, woven baskets, and quilts to sell at box socials and fairs.

Indigenous soldiers who survived the war often returned home changed, both positively and negatively. Sapper Peter Taylor, a Kahnawake soldier, suffered the rest of his life with complications from mustard gas poisoning until he passed away in 1955. Private Tom Longboat, the Olympic long distance runner from Six Nations of the Grand River reserve, returned home from his duty overseas in France to find his wife had remarried after receiving word that he had been killed.

A black-and-white photograph of two men in First World War military uniforms smiling and buying a newspaper from a young boy. The man on the right is accepting a newspaper from the boy and giving him money in exchange.

Private Tom Longboat, the Onondaga long distance runner, buying a newspaper from a French boy, June 1917. (a001479)

Many who returned home were affected mentally and physically. We give our gratitude for their sacrifices and service, and they will be forever acknowledged, honoured, and respected.

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 and Sara Chatfield is a project manager in the Exhibitions and Online Content Division of the Public Service Branch at Library and Archives Canada.

Judith-Pauline White, Nunatsiavut photographer

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 Heather Campbell

A black-and-white photograph of an Inuk girl facing the camera. The young girl is wearing a white amauti (a girl’s or woman’s coat with a large hood) and stands in front of a building as a woman peeks out from a window behind her.

An Inuk girl stands as a woman peeks out from a building behind her, circa 1900–1950 (e011307844)

Judith-Pauline White (née Hunter) was an Inuk woman born in 1905 in Hebron, Newfoundland (now Newfoundland and Labrador), about 200 kilometres north of Nain in Labrador. She married a well-known trading post owner, Richard White, in 1922 and became stepmother to his daughter; the couple would have five children together. The Richard (Dick) White Trading Post (now a heritage building) is located in Kauk, approximately 4 kilometres south of Nain and 34 kilometres north of Voisey’s Bay. Ms. White, an amateur photographer, took photos in the area starting in the 1920s. In the 1950s, she met anthropologist Alika Podolinsky Webber, who travelled to Labrador to conduct research for her thesis about the art of the Mushuau Innu (of the Innu Nation). Podolinsky Webber went to Kauk because she was aware that the trading post was a hub for Innu and Inuit along the north coast of Labrador. Ms. White sent a shipment of material to Podolinsky Webber after Mr. White died in 1960. The material included photographs and negatives for over 200 images of daily life in and around the trading post. White’s photographs (see lower levels) feature both Innu and Inuit, and are a visual documentary of life in Labrador from the 1920s to the 1950s. This wealth of knowledge, which was tucked away for decades before being donated to Library and Archives Canada in 2007, is now accessible to everyone.

A black-and-white photograph of an Innu man staring at the camera, wearing traditional clothing and sitting on a pile of supplies. In the background, many other people are standing in front of a dark-coloured house with two small windows.

Innu on the move, circa 1925–1940 (e011305800)

As an Inuk woman from Nunatsiavut, an artist and a former curator, I am interested in the life and work of this early photographer. I cannot help but think of the well-known Inuk photographer Peter Pitseolak from Cape Dorset. His snapshots of Inuit life in the 1940s and 1950s are some of the earliest examples of Inuit individuals turning the camera on their own communities, rather than being the topic of ethnographic study by others. Unbeknownst to Pitseolak and those who followed his work, an Inuk woman in Nunatsiavut was also taking photos of everyday life. Why have we not heard of her? As Inuk scholar Dr. Heather Igloliorte writes in the Fall/Winter 2015 issue of the Inuit Art Quarterly, the Indian Act excluded Inuit in Nunatsiavut when Newfoundland joined Confederation in 1949:

Labrador Inuit artists were unfortunately omitted from virtually all of the developments that emerged from the concerted efforts of [James Houston (who “discovered” modern Inuit art)], the government, the Canadian Guild of Crafts, the Hudson’s Bay Company, and others, because the federal government did not officially recognize that there were Inuit in Labrador until decades later. We did not establish studios, form co-operatives, build relationships with the southern Canadian art world, and develop national or international markets for our work. We were not even permitted to use the ubiquitous “Igloo Tag” for authentification until 1991.

A black-and-white photograph of a woman standing in a window of a wooden building, wearing a dress with a white collar and a necklace with a large cross. In the left-hand corner of the window frame, a child is peeking out, looking toward the camera.

Woman standing in a window, circa 1900–1950 (e011307849)

When Newfoundland joined Confederation, White was still taking photographs, but galleries and exhibitions at the time did not feature Nunatsiavut Inuit artists. Instead, these artists sold their works door to door, at local craft shops or to the occasional visitor. We can only imagine how the Inuit art world would have reacted to White’s work had the contemporary provincial or federal governments given support and recognition to Nunatsiavut Inuit artists. We are thankful to the Alika Podolinsky Webber estate for its valuable gift. It is a visual reminder of Judith-Pauline White’s passion for photography and her recording of Labrador Innu and Inuit culture, which is now available online for all to enjoy.

A black-and-white photograph of an Innu man and three members of his family. The men and young boy are dressed in fur jackets and mittens. A tent and trees are in the background.

Innu man Pasna and his family, circa 1920–1940 (e008299593)

Visit Flickr to see more of Judith-Pauline White’s photographs.

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.


Heather Campbell is an archivist in the Public Services Branch at Library and Archives Canada.

Charles Gimpel and the Canadian Arctic: 1958–1968

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 Miranda Virginillo

Charles Gimpel was an English photographer and art collector who travelled in the Canadian Arctic many times between 1958 and 1968, capturing moments of Inuit life. In 1958, the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) funded Gimpel’s trip from Winnipeg to Churchill, Manitoba, and to various ports around the Foxe Basin and northern Hudson Bay. In return, the HBC received photographs of their stores and the products in use in Kangiqliniq (Rankin Inlet), Igluligaarjuk (Chesterfield Inlet), Pangnirtung and other locations. The Department of Northern Affairs and Natural Resources Canada funded subsequent trips to the Arctic, in varying degrees. Gimpel’s patrons largely determined his activities in what was then part of the Northwest Territories (present-day Nunavut). Gimpel’s correspondence, articles, journals, notebooks and large number of slides in the Charles Gimpel fonds chronicle the beginning of an era of artistic production in the Canadian Arctic. The notebooks from his first trip in 1958 are particularly specific about his activities and demonstrate who and what would influence the rest of his career. Gimpel’s notebooks and photographs detail the places he travelled, the people he encountered and the conversations he had with them.

Colour photograph of an Inuk man, Kove, and Charles Gimpel dressed in brown-and-white fur parkas. The photo is very hazy because of a snowstorm.

Charles Gimpel (right), whose Inuit nickname was Ukjuk, with friend and guide Kove in a snowstorm near Inuksugalait (Inuksuk Point, Enukso Point), possibly Kinngait (Cape Dorset), May 1968 (e011212607)

My job as a Carleton University practicum student was to record the details of the places where Gimpel went and the people he met during his travels, to decipher his notebooks written in a personal shorthand, and to determine the location of a hand-drawn map. The first task was no small feat. The trip between Winnipeg and Churchill took five days by train, and Gimpel was interested in the stories of everyone he encountered on the journey. During his first trip alone, Gimpel recorded varying levels of information for approximately 40 named people, and for many more who were unidentified.

In deciphering Gimpel’s notebooks, the code followed the same pattern throughout: date, location, film conditions, subjects and, noted later, the four-digit identifier for the film roll in his collection. For example, “6241” indicated roll 41, taken in 1962.

The map refers to an arrangement of inuksuit (plural for inuksuk) at Inuksugalait (Inuksuk Point, Enukso Point). Inuksuit are cairns to mark a place for others or oneself. They serve many purposes, from being navigational aids to communicating good fishing spots or food caches. Gimpel recorded the height of each inuksuk and the distances between them, measured in feet. He also laid “claim” to the inuksuit by naming them after his friends and companions. The shorter inuksuit were named after children he had met on his trip: Nuvuolia (Nuvuoliak, Nuvoalia) and his adopted brother Irhalook, and Kove’s son Iali. The larger inuksuit were named after his interpreters, Pingwartok and Johanessie, and the sculptor Tunu. Gimpel even went so far as to give one inuksuk his own Inuit nickname, Ukjuk, which means bearded seal.

Hand-drawn map on white paper in a spiral notebook. The map consists of red circles with black lines between them, names of the inuksuit, numbers in brackets and a compass indicating East, South, West and North.

Map of inuksuit at Inuksuk Point, page 10 of document, 1964 (e011307430)

At the end of his 1958 journal, Gimpel recorded his meeting with James (Jim) Houston. This introduction solidified Gimpel’s interest in the Canadian Arctic for the rest of his life. Over the next decade, both men coordinated their efforts with Terry Ryan of the West Baffin Island Eskimo Cooperative (WBIEC) and the heads of other co-operatives in the Arctic to help develop this source of income for Inuit. Gimpel provided international venues, including the Gimpel Fils art gallery in London, the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., and the Bezalel National Museum in Jerusalem, with art from Kinngait (Cape Dorset), Iqaluit (formerly Frobisher Bay) and nearby camps. Photographs from his 1964 and 1968 trips capture stone carvers at work in Iqaluit and at the WBIEC.

A colour photograph of an Inuk man wearing a dark jacket and cap as he carves white statues.

Henry Evaluardjuk carving, Iqaluit, April 1964 (e011212063)

A colour photograph of an Inuk man sitting behind a stone sculpture with his tools in front of it.

Unidentified sculptor, Iqaluit, April 1964 (e011212065)

Gimpel’s trips were taken at a time when many people from southern Canada and abroad were discovering the unique Inuit art and culture. His journals and the photographs he took during his trips to the Arctic are now available online. The Rosemary Gilliat Eaton fonds, the James Houston fonds and the Canadian Eskimo Arts Council series in the Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development fonds also reflect this pivotal time in history.

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.


Miranda Virginillo, from the School of Art and Culture at Carleton University, is an undergraduate practicum student in the Public Services Branch 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.

The Inuit Ulu – Diverse, Strong, Spiritual

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 Ellen Bond

A colour photo of an Inuk woman using an ulu to cut meat

Rynee Flaherty cleaning an animal skin with an “ulu” (a short knife with a crescent-shaped blade used by Inuit women) on a stony landscape, Ausuittuq, Nunavut ( e002394465)

The ulu is a knife with a semi-circular shaped blade which translates as “women’s knife” in the Inuit language of Inuttut. Ulus date back 4,519 years ago (2500 BCE). Ulus from 1880 discovered on Baffin Island were found with the blade adhered to the handle by an adhesive made from clay, dog hair and seal blood. In the 1890s, some ulus created by Western Inuit had holes through the handle and the blade. The two pieces were joined together using rawhide, whalebone and pine root. The Copper Inuit of Victoria Island (the eighth largest island in the world and part of Nunavut and the Northwest Territories) used copper they mined to make ulu blades. When slate and copper were scarce, some Inuit turned to whale baleen or ivory for the blades. The crescent-shaped blade was originally made of slate, but today it is made of steel. Steel was available after 1719, through the Hudson’s Bay Company. Blades could be semi-circular or triangular and were attached to the handle with a single post or with the post having a piece in the centre taken out. The handle of the ulu might include ornate drawings and engravings specific to the woman who owned the knife. Handles are usually made of wood but can also be made of bone, antler or ivory.

A black-and-white photo of an Inuk woman using an ulu.

Taktu cleaning fat from sealskin with an ulu, Kinngait, Nunavut (e010836269)

The size of an ulu depends on the personal preference of its owner or the region where it was made. A husband or other male relative sometimes presents an ulu to a woman or they are passed down from one generation to the next.

A black-and-white photo of an Inuk woman using her ulu

Sheouak Petaulassie using an ulu, Kinngait, Nunavut (e010868997)

The cutting and slicing power of the ulu blade comes from the handle, allowing the force of the blade to be directed over the object to be cut. This allows the woman to cut through strong, dense objects, such as bone. The design of the ulu makes it easy to use with one hand. Ulus are multi-faceted tools that vary in design to suit diverse needs. Larger ulus cut game or fish and a smaller ulu removes blubber and shaves skin. Even smaller ulus cut skins or trim small pieces. Tiny ulus help sew or cut ornate pieces used as inlays in sealskin clothing.

A black-and-white photo of an Inuk woman using her ulu to cut meat

Noanighok, mother of William Kakolak, Kugluktuk, Nunavut (a143915)

Looking at most tools designed by humans, the ulu holds a special place. It is one of the only tools that is female-centric and has become an important cultural symbol. Its likeness serves as an award medal in events such as the Arctic Winter Games and is a prominent design element in contemporary Inuit art, crafts, and fashion design. They are often displayed prominently in the home as works of art in and of themselves.  Used for thousands of years across the northern regions of North America, the ulu continues to be functional, powerful, and diverse.


Ellen Bond is a Project Assistant with the Online Content Team at Library and Archives Canada.

A.P. Low and the Many Words of Love in Inuit Culture

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 Heather Campbell

Albert Peter Low was a geologist and explorer, whose expeditions to Quebec and Labrador from 1893 to 1895 assisted in the creation of their borders. Low mapped the interior of Labrador and discovered large iron deposits, which later lead to the development of the iron mine at what is now Labrador City. His mapping of Labrador influenced expeditions after him including that of Mina Hubbard in 1905.

Black-and-white portrait of a man standing in a photo studio.

Portrait of Albert Peter Low by William Topley, 1897. (a214276)

In 1903 and 1904, Low commanded two expeditions on the steamer Neptune up the west coast of Hudson Bay where he formally claimed possession of Southampton, Ellesmere, and adjacent islands for Canada. Low detailed his travels in Cruise of the Neptune (Report on the Dominion Government Expedition to Hudson Bay and the Arctic Islands on Board the D.G.S. Neptune 1903-1904). Much of his research was invaluable in the recording of Inuit culture in Quebec, Nunavut, and Newfoundland and Labrador.

The Albert Peter Low fonds includes photographs, proclamations, and journals, two from a prospecting trip along the east coast of Hudson Bay, now known as the Inuit region of Nunavik, Quebec and one notebook written between 1901 and 1907. The notebook records 40 pages of the many tenses and corresponding suffixes of the verb “to love” in Inuktitut. In the photo below, we see a notebook page starting with the basic form “him, her or it loves.” He moves on to record, in lesser detail, the variations of the verb “to teach.” At the end he lists other transitive verbs, passive verbs, and adverbs, many related to Christianity.

A handwritten page of a notebook, recording Inuktitut vocabulary for the word “love.”

A page from the notebook kept by Low during his expeditions along the coast of Hudson Bay. (e011304604)

In 1886, Low married Isabella Cunningham and they had three children. Sadly, their first son died as an infant in 1898, and their second son died at age 19 during the Spanish Flu epidemic. Only their daughter Estelle, born in 1901, survived to adulthood and looked after her ailing father until his death in 1942. In 1943, she donated his collection to the Public Archives of Canada, which included Inuit art, mainly hunting scenes rendered in ivory. The collection was transferred to the Museum of Man (Canadian Museum of History) in 1962. Most of the works are miniature ivories created by Harry Teseuke, leader of the Aivilingmiut and Captain Comer’s mate. Comer’s ship, Era, wintered in Fullerton Harbour (near Chesterfield Inlet, Nunavut) in 1903–1904. Low likely consulted with Teseuke who may have enlisted others to assist with Low’s research.

Although this journal is an extensive study of the sentence structure and grammar of Inuktitut, it also sheds light on Inuit culture. You’ll notice that verbs have no masculine or feminine forms or gender pronouns. This relates to the practice of naming children, as traditional Inuit names are unisex. And this is tied to the somewhat intricate practice of creating sauniq (namesake) relationships. For example, if a boy was named after a deceased woman with children, those children would address the boy as “my mother” or “my little mother” to acknowledge that special relationship. Bonds are often formed between people who are not related. It’s a lovely way of creating a strong sense of belonging and strengthening interconnectedness within a community. Inuit believe some of the unique characteristics of someone who has passed can live on in their namesake. Of course, love is the tie that binds these concepts.

Black-and-white photo of a ship surrounded by snow and ice, with people next to it building a snow shelter.

The expedition ship Neptune in its winter quarters at Cape Fullerton, Hudson Bay, Northwest Territories. (a053569)

I can’t help but wonder what Low’s fascination was with this particular word. With varied interests including geology, botany, photography, and hockey, he leaves the impression of an educated man with a curious mind. Was it curiosity alone that fed his hunger to know the nature of Inuit love? Despite the study of Inuktitut words related to Christianity, he was familiar with the Inuit traditional practice of polygamy. In Cruise of the Neptune, Low defends the custom, calling it a mistake for missionaries to attempt to abolish the practice. All of this paints a picture of a liberal-minded man and an early ally of Inuit. No personal writing or correspondence by Low has survived. Therefore, we will never truly know what inspired his fascination with Inuit culture and its many expressions of love.

Black-and-white photo of a woman sewing skin boots, while a child plays with her braids.

Rosie Iggi, also called Niakrok (left), and Kablu (right). Kablu is sewing kamiks (boots), and Niakrok is playing with Kablu’s braids. Photograph by Richard Harrington, 1950. (a147246)

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.


Heather Campbell is a researcher for the We Are Here: Sharing Stories project at Library and Archives Canada.

Qimmiit (sled dogs)

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 Laura Johnston

Traditionally, qimmiit (sled dogs) were an important part of Inuit culture. They represented a way of life and a connection to the land. Qimmiit were especially useful in transportation, safety and hunting. Today, however, the relationship between Inuit and qimmiit has changed, in part because of permanent settlement and a massive decline in the qimmiit population. Qimmiit have become more of a symbol or a connection to the cultural past.

Black-and-white photo of a team of sled dogs pulling a sled across an expanse of snow.

Qimuksiqtut (dog team with more than one person), Kugluktuk, Nunavut (formerly Coppermine, Northwest Territories), 1949 (a129937)

A black-and-white photo of a sled dog jumping across an opening of water, while a man holds its reins.

Phillip Napacherkadiak and his Qimuksiqtuq (dog team with one driver), Taloyoak, Nunavut (formerly Spence Bay, Northwest Territories), 1949–1950 (a129590)

Before the snowmobile was introduced to the North in the 1960s, going by qimuksiqtuq (dog team) was the primary means of transportation to travel across the frozen land and sea. Even after the introduction of the snowmobile, some preferred qimmiit as a way to travel. In contrast to the noise of snowmobiles, travelling by qimuksiqtuq was more pleasant and peaceful.

A black-and-white photo of a sled dog resting on the snow.

Qimmiq (sled dog) resting during a trip from Moose Factory Island, Ontario, to Kuujjuarapik, (formerly Great Whale), Quebec, 1946 (e010692583)

Travelling by qimuksiqtuq offered other benefits, including safety and protection. On account of their acute senses, qimmiit were useful for their ability to find their way home, or even a temporary camp, if a traveller were caught in a blizzard or a whiteout. Qimmiit were also useful to Inuit for travelling safely over ice. They were better able to sense whether the ice was too thin, and were usually able to avoid such areas. Qimmiit could also spread out and disperse their weight when travelling over thinner ice, making it less likely for a sled to fall through. However, even if a qimmiq (a single dog) fell through the ice, not every dog—or the traveler—would necessarily be endangered.

A black-and-white photo of a man holding a sled dog. The sled dog is wearing booties.

Possibly Ulaajuk and his qimmiq, Taloyoak, Nunavut (formerly Spence Bay, Northwest Territories) (a114721)

Qimmiit offered safety to Inuit in another way: from the threat of polar bears. Polar bears can be aggressive toward humans; they can pose a real danger to Inuit communities, especially travellers. Qimmiit were ideal protection, as they could warn people about bears entering a camp. Even without training, qimmiit would instinctively fight off polar bears. Consequently, Inuit travellers were able to sleep in peace and without fear when out on the land.

A black-and-white photo of some people pulling a seal, which they have just hunted, out of a hole in the ice. A sled dog team is in the background.

From left to right, Aqaatsiaq, Ipeelie Inuksuk, Felix Alaralak and Uqaliq, and their qimuksiqtut (dog team), Iglulik, Nunavut (formerly Igloolik, Northwest Territories) (a146059)

In additional to protection and safety, qimmiit played an important role in assisting Inuit in seal hunting. Hunting has traditionally been a defining element of Inuit life and culture. While the dogs were not necessarily trained to hunt, Inuit relied on the keen sense of smell of qimmiit to sniff out the locations of breathing holes and seals.

A black-and-white photo of a man with a dog.

Unidentified Inuk with his qimmiq, Kugluktuk, Nunavut (formerly Coppermine, Northwest Territories) (a146586)

Transportation, safety and assistance in hunting were all ways that qimmiit traditionally aided life in the Arctic. However, the enforced settlement of Inuit into permanent communities, and the dog slaughter during the 1950s and 1960s, resulted in a massive decline in the dog population. For more information on the slaughter, visit the Qikiqtani Truth Commission. In August 2011, the Quebec government offered an official apology for the negative effects on Inuit society of the mass slaughter of sled dogs in Nunavik (northern Quebec). This decline across the North created a profound shift in the relationship of Inuit with qimmiit. Today, qimmiit are mainly used for racing, which is a demanding and challenging sport. Dog racing has since become a celebrated new tradition in many Inuit communities.

A colour photo of two men with a team of sled dogs pulling a sled up a hill.

Qimuksiqtut at “Innukshuk” historical site, located either on the Foxe Peninsula, Baffin Island or Inukshuk Point (also spelled Enukso Point), Nunavut, 1958–1966. Photo by Charles Gimpel (e011211980)

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.


Laura Johnston, from the School of Art and Culture at Carleton University, is an undergraduate practicum student in the Public Services Branch at Library and Archives Canada.