The Women’s Qulliq Making Program
In this modern age, our ancestors’ traditional way of life can seem like a distant place. Many young Inuit such as myself struggle to imagine what life would have been like with no running water or electricity in our homes. We were born into this modern lifestyle, and it is hard to remove ourselves from its everyday norms. On cold crisp nights however, as I stay toasty by the heat of an oil-fuelled furnace, I still think of my granny growing up in her igloo near Kingauk (Bathurst Inlet) and how different it must have been: an entire family warming their hands, hearts and minds by the gentle light of the qulliq lamp.
The qulliq, or soapstone lamp, was the central focus of domestic life in traditional Inuit culture. It played many vital roles: a source of heat against the frigid temperatures, a source of fire to prepare harvested food, and a source of light to cast away the darkness of the long Arctic winter. Lamps also served to define the identity of women, as they were the ones responsible for keeping the qulliq alight.
The lives of women and lamps intertwined throughout the day: Women rendered seal fat for lamp fuel and gathered Arctic cotton and moss to form the lamp wicks. They found flint rocks, which they knocked together to spark a fire. These sparks were nurtured carefully in a moss-filled bag, transferred to the qulliq, and eventually became the flame which spread across the qulliq to generate enough heat to cook and keep the igloo warm. Just as a woman tended to her children, she fed and shaped the lamp flame throughout the day and night.
While the art of tending the qulliq lives on in today’s society, it is typically only seen in ceremonial settings such as the opening of meetings or special events. The Kitikmeot Heritage Society sought to change this practice earlier this year. As an organization dedicated to the documentation and revitalization of Inuinnait culture, we attempt to find a modern place for both traditional practices and the identities they carry with them.
In February 2015, we organized a gathering of 22 females from the community of Cambridge Bay to celebrate their womanhood through the creation and use of traditional qulliq lamps. Ranging in age from 10 to 90, participants had the opportunity to compare their vastly different life experiences while carving out tangible reminders of the strength and importance their gender brings to the North. By the time the completed soapstone lamps were lit, each woman’s flame burned bright with a strong sense of respect for both her own talents and those of past Inuit women who have kept the fires of their people and culture burning.
As both the organizer and a participant of this workshop, I enjoyed the qulliq project from beginning to end. It’s amazing how tactile work allows us to connect with ancestors whose hands went through the same motions a hundred years ago. The project strengthened modern ties, bringing participants and Elder instructors together with bonds that will be there for as long as we continue to feed that flickering flame.
Pamela Gross is Programs Manager at the May Hakongak Community Library & Cultural Centre.