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 The crescent-shaped blade was originally made of slate, but today it is made of steel.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

Images of Nunavut now on Flickr

Nunavut is the easternmost and newest of Canada’s three territories, sharing a border with the Northwest Territories to the west and Manitoba to the south. It is the largest of all the provinces and territories of Canada and includes most of the Arctic Archipelago. The region has been home to a continuous population of First Peoples for roughly 4,000 years. The Inuit are the dominant group in Nunavut, forming the majority of the population in all communities. Europeans first began exploring the area in the late 16th century while searching for the Northwest Passage.

Black and white photograph of three men sitting outside in a row wearing parkas and smiling.

Three Inuit men (L to R: Lucas, Bobbie and Johnnie) posing for a photograph outside, Port Burwell, Nunavut (MIKAN 3223586)

Throughout the Cold War, the Canadian government forced many Inuit from northern Quebec to relocate to the northern reaches of what was then the Northwest Territories, in an effort to assert its sovereignty over the Arctic Archipelago. The Canadian government compensated their descendants for the hardship several decades later in response to the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples. In the late 1970s, inhabitants of what is now Nunavut began discussions with the federal government about the creation of a separate territory. This came to fruition in 1999 when Nunavut became the third Canadian territory, giving the Inuit greater autonomy.

Did you know?

  • The name Nunavut is from the Inuktitut dialect of Eastern Arctic Inuit and translates into “Our Land.”
  • Nunavut recognizes four official languages: English, French, Inuktitut and Inuinnaqtun.

Visit the Flickr album now!

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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