Since mid-July I have been working with the Arctic Kingdom and Tour Iqaluit companies as a tour guide, usually leading boat and city tours in Iqaluit. However, on September 24 I was asked to participate in something a little different: a cultural program for the Institute on Governance (IOG) that explored Inuit traditions, specifically the use of seal by Inuit families.
Prepped with my sealskin paraphernalia, I joined the rest of the Arctic Kingdom crew at the Sylvia Grinnell pavilion to facilitate the “Seal Extravaganza” program.
The attendees were IOG members from southern Canada, in Iqaluit for a team-building retreat. The program itself was designed and delivered by a team of wonderful human beings: Elisapi Aningmiuq (Program Coordinator at Tukisigiarvik, the centre where I learned to sew parkas), her husband Etulu, and Elder Seepa Ishulutak.
The purpose of the day’s course was to explain how and why seals and seal products were such an integral part of the Inuit way of life, and why they remain an important part of modern Inuit traditions.
Elisapi Aningmiuq addressing the crowd from IOG. Image by Anubha Momin.
The event began with an introduction from Elisapi, who acted as the program’s host. Elisapi then introduced Seepa, a unilingual Inuit Elder who spoke enthusiastically about her life, carrying the audience from her early childhood on the land to her experience transitioning into a settled community, speaking only in Inuktitut, which was translated by Elisapi.
Following the introductions, the IOG members took part in a full program of northern activities. On the agenda was:
How to clean sealskin — demonstration by Seepa
Lighting of the qulliq — demonstration and explanation by Elisapi
Introduction to sealskin clothing and other products
Lunch catered by I Like Cake (including seal meat soup)
Sealskin clothing photo shoot
Building of Inuksuit — demonstration and explanation by Etulu
Hike through Sylvia Grinnell Park (led by yours truly!)
ATV trip back to town
Seepa cleaning sealskin with an ulu, a traditional Inuit knife. Image by Anubha Momin.
The genius of the program was in the way it flowed, following the natural progression of seal procurement, from the hunt to cleaning to processing for use. For example, after Seepa demonstrated how to scrape oil from an uncleaned seal hide, Elisapi used that very oil to provide fuel for a qulliq, a traditional oil lamp that gives off both heat and light.
Elisapi tending the qulliq. On the table are various sealskin products and applications. Image by Anubha Momin.
Following the lighting ceremony, Elisapi talked to the group about various uses for sealskin, including coats, boots, and mitts, as well as applications for other parts of the animal. The bones, for example, can be used to create tools or games.
Finally, our guests from the IOG were invited to enjoy a hearty lunch that featured piping hot seal stew and handmade bannock, a quick bread that can be fried or baked. This final activity highlighted seal as an important source of food, which, along with other country food, provided Inuit with the nutrient-rich diet they needed to flourish in the harsh climate of the Canadian Arctic.
Sprinkling the conversation with songs and stories from their own experiences, Elisapi, Seepa, and Etulu gracefully bridged the gap between North and South, traditional and modern, in a way that was relatable and interesting. The down-to-earth presentation of a controversial topic was not lost on the participants, many of whom left the program with a newfound appreciation for northern realities and resources. It was a pleasure to facilitate such an interactive and immersive cultural program, which in its depth and delivery was at once extravagant and quotidian — much like the use of sealskin itself in modern Nunavut.
IOG participants pose in a variety of caribou and sealskin clothing items. Image by Anubha Momin.
What are your thoughts on the traditional use of seal and its continued presence in modern Inuit culture? Let me know in a tweet or comment!