L to R, Back: Eileen Okhina, Karla Egotik, Annie Kamingoak, Michelle Komak, Tasha Tologanak, Zuleika Maniyogina, Ann Wingnek, and Tammy Omilgoitok. Front: Helen Blewett and Amber Avalak.

Supporting Inuinnaqtun language, literacy skills and self-esteem

In 2021, when COVID-19 restrictions allowed, the Elders-in-Residence of Pitquhirnikkut Ilihautiniq/ Kitikmeot Heritage Society (PI/KHS), came together through several workshops to teach community members to make their own atikaluit (dress covers and parka covers). Participants learned how to make two unique styles of this clothing — the drum dance atikaluk, and the Mother Hubbard atikaluk — in addition to learning the history and traditions of parka making, related Inuinnaqtun terminology, and how to make the Delta Braid trim used to decorate the Mother Hubbards.

Interest in these workshops have grown, in part, due to interest in Patterns of Change (www.patternsofchange.ca), one of the cultural centre’s more popular exhibits. 

Annie Atighioyak prepares a 1930 era outfit with a hand crank sewing machine. © PI/KHS (2)

PI/KHS began the Patterns of Change project to both document and teach about Inuinnait culture. The program was developed to build more knowledge about local lnuinnait by bringing together cultural practices, Elder and youth interaction, and community involvement. As part of the program, PI/KHS developed a new museum exhibit that uses Inuinnait parkas to reflect on various social and cultural changes that have impacted Inuinnait over the last 150 years. PI/KHS worked with Elders and seamstresses in Cambridge Bay, Nunavut, to recreate five Inuinnait parkas and accompanying outfits representing 30-year increments in Inuinnait history. The creation of these parkas was heavily researched, and sewn using materials, processes, and styles from the historical era they represent. This collection of five parkas was installed as a new exhibit at the May Hakongak Cultural Centre in Cambridge Bay in January 2019. The Patterns of Change exhibit also offers community members a sewing pattern library that encourages the public to trace, borrow and exchange historical sewing patterns. 

The impact of these sewing programs has extended well beyond the transfer of traditional skills. The programs also support the development of Inuinnaqtun language, literacy skills, and self-esteem amongst participants. 

While learning traditional skills is in itself an incredibly important outcome of these projects, the unintentional outcomes are equally as important. Enhanced self-expression and learning through multiple modes of communication, including non-verbal, oral, and written, Inuinnaqtun language and literacy development, increased confidence and motivation, development of life skills and work habits, and re-engagement in formal education and the wage economy following program participation are all outcomes that have been documented. 

Program participant Tracy Jesso shares her journey with sewing: 

“This is a milestone for me. As a little girl, I loved to sew with my Mom just like any girl would. But once we started sewing in school, I had one teacher tell me that I didn’t know how to sew and that boys had better stitching than me and that broke me because it was one thing that made me feel closer to my mom. So I believed her. From then on, I made myself believe that I didn’t know how to sew. My sister would buy me cross stitching packages, I would start and never finish them because those words were drilled in my head. I got older, got into high school, we had opportunities to take sewing classes but I didn’t think I would be a good enough fit for it so I took a different class. It wasn’t until years later, that I let this woman defeat me in my own head and culture. So I said it’s my turn to take back what is mine, my confidence in sewing. I finally picked up the needle and have made some beautiful creations along the way for some family and friends. This is just a start. I’m not finished here. I have a long road to catch up on.” 

Peter Evetalek and Annie Atighioyak installing the exhibit. © PI/KHS (3)

While positive feedback from Elder instructors is immensely important, so too is the positive feedback participants receive from each other. One could see the sense of pride and, in many cases, the change in demeanour of participants who began to feel accomplished and skillful. Participants also developed strong relationships. This is particularly important in communities where youth and other community members are often marginalized and isolated. 

PI/KHS has also enhanced all of its programs through its Elders-in-Residence. On any given day you will find the Elders-in-Residence delivering workshops or sewing with individual community members. We also collaborate with other Elders and members of the community who have specific skills they can teach such as tool making, or hunting. Community members and past program participants are encouraged to drop into the cultural centre to get advice from the Elders or to sit and sew or visit with them. 

But the most important aspect of PI/KHS work at the May Hakongak Community Library and Cultural Centre is to provide a safe space where people are always welcome, where the use of Inuinnaqtun is predominant, where one can mingle with people from various backgrounds: a space abuzz with warmth, conversation, and laughter. 

To find out more about programs at the Pitquhirnikkut Ilihautiniq/Kitikmeot Heritage Society, check out www.kitikmeotheritage.ca

Core values of all PI/KHS projects and programs

Ilitpallianginnarniq/Ilippallianginnarniq (continuing learning) 

pijuminaqhivallialiqtut/piunnautitaaqpaalliqsimaliqtut (confidence that comes from learning skills) 

ilippallianginnarniq (engagement with lifelong learning) 

inuuqatigiitsiarniq/nuatqatigiittiarniq (interconnectedness) 

inunnguiniq/innguiniq (healing and life skills) 

havaqatigingniq/piliriqatigiinniq (working together) 

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