Historical Traditions

Reviving Amulet Use in the Central Arctic

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Elders from across the Kitikmeot share their memories of amulets.

The concept of inuat — an Inuktitut word roughly translatable as ‘inhabitants,’ or ‘dwellers’ — once provided the foundation for Inuit belief and lifestyle. Every object was seen as being imbued with a particular spirit or force — its ‘inua’ — that defined both the object’s inner spirit and its relationship to other objects and people. To perceive the world as being filled with inuat, is to observe one’s surrounding landscape as a complex and sometimes frightening domain of animated forces, each of which demand interaction, negotiation, and, in some cases, avoidance.

Kanmut sewing while wearing a parka adorned with caribou teeth amulets. CMC/Wilkins, 51570 A Copper Inuit amulet collected by Harold Noice c. 1920. © Brendan Griebel
Kanmut sewing while wearing a parka adorned with caribou teeth amulets. CMC/Wilkins, 51570
A Copper Inuit amulet collected by Harold Noice c. 1920. © Brendan Griebel

There were many traditional practices for Inuit to guide their daily interaction with these spirits. These included shamanism, song and spoken ritual, and the use of taboos. One form of negotiating spirits particularly popular among Inuit of the Central Arctic (Inuinnait and Netsilingmiut) was the use of amulets.

An amulet is an object that is worn because it gives its owner certain new abilities or improves an ability that the individual already has. While many forms of amulets are used, their power is usually derived from the spirits associated with the materials from which they are constructed.

A bond is created between an amulet’s resident spirits and its wearer, channelling certain characteristics and material qualities between them. Amulets can embody the spirits of many different materials, including ancestors, animals or other items from the natural world. A man seeking to better his hunting, for example, might don an amulet made from animals known for their predatory skills. A woman wishing specific qualities upon her unborn child might wear an amulet belt of materials representing desirable physical characteristics (for example, a rabbit’s head for a flat and handsome nose, or an ermine skin for fleet-footedness).

As amulets had very specific functions and were only useful in particular situations, most Inuit owned more than one of them. These multiple amulets were sewn into clothing or worn on a belt or sash so their wearer could remain under their influence and protection at all times.

With the introduction of Christianity, the practice of using amulets began to disappear. Amulets became symbols of Inuit interaction with non-Christian spirits, and were layered with social stigma. While detailed knowledge regarding traditions of amulet use has been lost in the Central Arctic, the practice continues on a smaller scale, sheltered from public knowledge.

In 2014, the Kitikmeot Heritage Society (KHS) started a project to revive discussions of amulet use and to bring the practice back out of the shadows. By combining knowledge from historic ethnographies and interviews with contemporary elders, the project tried to determine the role and importance of amulets to Inuit lifestyle. Elders from across the Kitikmeot region shared their stories of amulets, many recollecting a time when amulets still had the power to shape an individual’s life. It was recognized
that human regard for the natural world and spiritual forces is key to activating the power of amulets, with Kugaruuk elder Bartholome Nirlungayuk commenting that, “when amulets are treated with respect, they can be of use.”

On this advice from elders, the KHS has been actively developing a program to introduce amulets back into the lives of Nunavummiut. This entails not only teaching about the historical traditions of amulet use, but also developing appreciation for a cultural practice that allowed Inuit to utilize the natural world and use its qualities to build themselves into more capable people.

During the spring of 2015, the KHS hosted the first in a series of Cambridge Bay workshops for participants to learn the language and material connections surrounding amulet use. Armed with this knowledge, participants worked with elders to construct their own amulets to target and strengthen their physical, social or emotional lives. This workshop provided an exercise in both re-connecting with the natural world and re-thinking personality as a series of traits that can be augmented, helped and healed through concentrated intervention and invention. In future, the KHS hopes to use workshops similar to these as tools to address issues of mental wellness, and develop stronger connections between the natural world and Inuit from across the territory.

Brendan Griebel

The Kitikmeot Heritage Society is a non-profit organization dedicated to the preservation and promotion of Inuinnait culture, heritage and language. They operate from the May Hakongak Cultural Centre located in Cambridge Bay, Nunavut.