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 The crescent-shaped blade was originally made of slate, but today it is made of steel.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.

Images for the Northwest Territories now on Flickr

The Northwest Territories is one of three territories in northern Canada, bordered by Yukon to the west, Nunavut to the east, and Alberta, Saskatchewan and a portion of British Columbia to the south. The northern section of the territory makes up part of the Arctic Archipelago, which is usually covered in ice. Many Inuit and First Nations people lived in the area when explorers and European settlers arrived beginning in the late 16th century. European trade developed in the 18th century, dominated by the Hudson’s Bay Company and the North West Company.

A black-and-white photo of six men. Three men are mounted on horses, and three are unmounted standing next to two horses.

Buffalo patrol near cabin south of Fort Smith, Northwest Territories (MIKAN 3362561)

The Northwest Territories entered into confederation in 1870 after Canada purchased the land from the Hudson’s Bay Company. However, Britain did not transfer the Arctic Archipelago to Canada until 1880. The boundaries of the Northwest Territories fluctuated over the next century as different provinces and territories were created or grew in size; it finally settled to its current boundaries in 1999, when Nunavut was formed from the Northwest Territories.

Did you know?

  • The name “Northwest Territories” originates from the colonial period, when the British used the term to describe all the land to the northwest of Rupert’s Land.
  • The Northwest Territories has eleven official languages, including English, French, Cree, Chipewyan, Gwich’in, Inuinnaqtun, Inuktitut, Inuvialuktun, North Slavey, South Slavey, and Tłįchǫ.

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