Carving has long featured in the culture of northern indigenous peoples in their production of weapons and utensils in a variety of materials. The finding of hundreds of human figures, amulets, masks and ritual objects leads to speculation about the importance of art, particularly in the Dorset culture and religion, and its use in attracting spirits, helping the sick and predicting the future.
This skill took a different twist after the arrival of Europeans who occasionally bought some of these items as souvenirs or to sell when they returned home.
The production of Inuit carvings as ‘art,’ first introduced to the southern market on a regular commercial basis by James Houston in the late 1940s, (as well as other cultural art forms such as print making) has expanded and continues to provide a partial or total income for many Inuit today. Few have formal training but with high unemployment in many communities, their familiarity with their subject matter and their wish to continue to share their culture and stories has led to their artwork contributing to the Nunavut economy as well as attracting world-wide interest.
Nick Newbery taught in several communities in Nunavut from 1976-2005. He would like to acknowledge the assistance he received for this article from Bert Rose, northern educator and long-time resident of Nunavut. The photos in this article are from Nick’s Arctic photo collection that can be found at www.newberyphotoarchives.ca and should be viewed from a historical perspective.