Cambridge Bay, a Canadian Arctic community of about 1,800 people perched on the shores of Victoria Island along the Northwest Passage, is in many respects a world away from the nation’s capital of Ottawa, which lies just over 3,000km (nearly 2,000 miles) south. But when a group of Cambridge Bay residents recently visited the Canadian Museum of Nature in Ottawa they had at times the sense that they were back home.
That’s because the museum is hosting, as part of its new Canada Goose Arctic Gallery, an exhibit that showcases the Canadian Central Arctic region’s distinctive Inuinnait, or Copper Inuit, culture, as well as contemporary efforts to preserve local traditions and language.
You won’t find soapstone carvings or printmaking – the best-recognized and most commercially successful examples of Inuit art. Nor does the exhibit dwell exclusively on the long-ago past. Instead, said exhibit’s curator Brendan Griebel, “What we really tried to show are what ordinary people are doing or making while thinking about the past, and how they’re building culture into their lives in these subtle ways, through these little tools and these artifacts they’re still making or using.”
Case in point: Alongside a traditional caribou-skin parka, with its distinctive boxy shoulders, is a graduation gown from Nunavut Arctic College with a similar regional design. Visitors also hear elders describe the exhibit in their native language of Inuinnaqtun, thanks to recordings played on headsets, while a video screen shows elders demonstrating different techniques of skinning animals, preparing hides and sewing.
“We want to pass down our culture through our language for generations to come, so we’re still thriving as who we are as a people,” said Pamela Gross, the executive director of the Kitikmeot Heritage Society.
“We tried to show that we still use our culture, but sometimes have a modern twist on the objects we use today by using materials like dyed seal skin, or manufactured tanned seal skins or furs that ultimately last longer, or modern materials such as calico that we can buy at the store,” she added.
Inuinnait had little contact with people of European heritage before the arrival of the Canadian Arctic Expedition, which explored the region between 1913 and 1916. All of the historic artifacts displayed at the exhibit were collected during that expedition by Diamond Jenness, who went on to become a renowned anthropologist who wrote extensively about Inuit traditions.
“It was a really interesting part of Inuinnait history, because it was the last Inuit group to be contacted by the outside world,” said Griebel. “So when this Canadian Arctic Expedition showed up around 1914, they were literally meeting with this group, many of whom had never met the outside world, and they were reliant on the land. There’s a little bit of metal filtering in by trade at this point. So this collection represents this last glimpse of the culture purely unmediated by Western materials or lifestyles. It’s such an important touchstone.”
The artifacts, on loan from Canada’s Museum of History, have in recent years inspired community elders to try to revive nearly forgotten traditions. Griebel has worked with the Kitikmeot Heritage Society for the past decade on these efforts.
One of the more eye-catching items on display is a hat made from ermine fur, with the head of a loon poking out of the top with its bill standing upright. As an interpretive sign at the exhibit explains, the hat “worn by dancers provided them with the animals’ respective traits of a loud, clear singing voice and fleet-footedness.”
“It’s this almost extinct style of freeform dance done by Innunait,” said Griebel. “It’s also called loon dancing, and it’s very well documented by Jenness. We started getting really interested in the style and some of the songs related to it.
“None of the elders had any firsthand memories of this any more in Cambridge Bay, so we started going back into the records and the collections and we found one of the dance suits that was used during this dance,” he added. “The elders spent quite a large amount of time reconstructing this thing.” The exhibit includes images of the process, along with a picture of them wearing the original from 100 years ago.
Elders also took interest in working with fish skin – a material rarely used by Inuinnait. “It was used in little bits of clothing, you see them in bags a lot – they basically turn a char inside out and use it as a tool bag,” said Griebel.
“For some reason fish skin just really resonated with them,” he said. They had no memory of working with the stuff, but they were really interested. We spent a summer creating fish-skin projects … For them, I think it was really interesting to explore new materials and techniques from other parts of the Arctic, and figure it out and apply what they know from their own material culture. I know projects like that are special for the elders, because they do get tired from doing the same things over and over, and they’re put in positions as teachers where they have to do that.”
The Kitikmeot Heritage Society originally brought Griebel on board to work on a smaller exhibit for their community’s cultural center. The society later heard that the Museum of Nature was seeking exhibits that highlights Indigenous voices for its new Arctic gallery and successfully bid on the space. “We hope we can teach people about who we are, so there’s more understanding about our culture,” said Gross.
While a cultural exhibit is beyond the Canadian Museum of Nature’s usual focus on science, an Arctic gallery would be remiss if it didn’t include the voices of Indigenous people, said Laurel McIvor, a senior content developer with the museum. The museum plans to showcase a new exhibit in the space about every two years.
“We acknowledge there’s a huge cultural story, and that’s not part of our natural science mandate,” said McIvor. “The other part is that we wanted to have it fresh; we wanted to have content that’s renewable. And we thought that way we could have different communities tell their stories.”