Collections Highlight E427952: Kayak Model and Figure
The Art and Science of Celestial Navigation Across the Smithsonian Universe

Collections Highlight E29973: Woman’s knife

By Emily Cain and Haley Bryant with Krista Zawadski, with support from the Government of Nunavut and the Dept. of Anthropology, Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History

This ulu (semilunar knife) was collected by Lt. William A. Mintzer near Kangiqtualuk (the Cumberland Gulf) during his expedition to find graphite veins for mining on Baffin Island. In 1876, the museum records state that “7 boxes, [and] 1 keg, containing stuffed seal, bows and arrows, etc. bird eggs, stone lamps” (and this ulu) had arrived from Mintzer by means of a schooner, the Era.  While early uluit were most often made of polished slate and bone, repurposed metals such as iron became preferred for their hardness and ability to hold a sharp edge. This ulu, for example, is made of several pieces of metal riveted together. In the catalog notes, Lt. Mintzer speculates that the handle is made from oak recovered from a whaling ship.

Fishing has always been an important part of life for those who live near the Cumberland Gulf. Traditional preparation of the daily catch is done with an ulu, a practice which continues amongst skilled practitioners today. In Pangnirtung, the only major community on the Cumberland Gulf, fishing continues to be an important industry, with a newly-modernized fishery and processing plant exporting arctic char and Baffin turbot internationally.

Uluit are at the same time intimate and practical, and are very much an aspect of everyday Inuit life. They have been utilized for purposes as diverse as cutting a child's hair, preparing food for one’s family, and trimming blocks of snow and ice to make a shelter. In many households, an ulu is passed down through generations, accumulating the knowledge and skill of its many users over time.

Many Inuit have a favourite ulu, and most ulu-makers take a lot of pride in their craftsmanship. Ulu-makers, who are often men, create a reputation of their craftsmanship, and women will eye particular uluit made by particular makers. For example, Krista Zawadski, curator of Inuit art with the Government of Nunavut, recalls that her grandfather was known to be a skilled craftsman, and that “it was a privilege to get one of his tools”.

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