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”.

Explore more objects and images on our online database!

Collections Highlight E427952: Kayak Model and Figure


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

In 1974, this hunter and his kayak (qajaq) were carved from grey soapstone by Dick Kilikavioyak (1902-1982). Collected the same year they were made by Dr. G. Edgar Folk, Jr. and his wife Mary Arp Folk, the pair joined the collection at the National Museum of Natural History in 1995, along with 129 other objects, as a part of the “Mary Arp Folk Collection of Eskimo Art and Artifacts”. Dick Kilikavioyak was an Inuk (Innuinait) artist based in Kugluktuk, Nunavut (formerly known as Coppermine). This little stone hunter is equipped with a wooden paddle and two spears (made with wooden hafts and metal points, then secured to the kayak with sinew). There are two stone fish in the kayak with him, indicating a successful day on the water. Today, as throughout all its history, traditional hunting and fishing play an enormous role in the lives of the people along the Coppermine River. These activities feed and clothe families and provide a connection to ancestral lands and practices. More recently, kayaking (as well as hiking, fishing, hunting, and other outdoor activities) has also played a role in the burgeoning tourism industry in Kugluktuk, and Nunavut more broadly.

This object is evocative of life in Kugluktuk in more than one way, however. While the content matter of this sculpture provides insight into the traditional and contemporary economies of the region, the form and matter of the sculpture also convey a great deal. Examining carved objects and artworks such as this allow us a window onto the traditional carving practices in this region, as well as how they were shaped and encouraged by the mid-century growth of external demand for Inuit art.

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Arctic Connections

The Circumpolar Ethnology Imaging Project (CEIP), now in its third year, has successfully digitized nearly 50% of the vast Arctic and Subarctic ethnological collections in the Department of Anthropology at the National Museum of Natural History. Starting this month, we are photographing objects from Nunavut, the largest and northernmost Territory of Canada. Throughout this process, we have the privilege of collaborating with the Government of Nunavut to publicize and promote this portion of our work, and make these collections more accessible to the people of Nunavut and beyond. Each week while we are working through these collections, we will highlight an object from Nunavut. To kick off this collaboration, Krista Ulujuk Zawadski, Curator of Inuit Art for the Government of Nunavut, discusses why collections digitization efforts, such as the CEIP, are so important for the Inuit community in Nunavut and across the Arctic. Posts will be made available in Inuktitut, Innuinaqtun, English, and French both directly on this blog and through the Government of Nunavut’s social media platforms.

– Haley Bryant (Digitization Technician) & Emily Cain (Digitization Specialist)

 Connecting people across the vast Arctic has always been a challenge. Despite a vast geographical expanse, Inuit have stayed connected through oral traditions, language, and cultural customs and more contemporarily through media and technology. Taking advantage of technology and media today we are able to bond people across the Arctic and throughout the globe, but by a much faster means and a more comprehensive manner than previously. Where, in the past, Inuit shared news and stories through oral traditions such as those shared in a qaggiq (a large iglu where drum dances and stories occurred), today we continue to share the same type of news and oral histories through different mediums. Where, in the past, Inuit traveled across the land on foot, with dog teams, and boats and qajait (singular: qajaq) to connect with other families and peoples, today we travel through air and through the internet, fostering a language of images and symbols in the context of the digital.

Digitization is a significant step in connecting people, complementing the already existent connections that have been maintained through generations of oral traditions and histories, but now also reaching people beyond the Arctic. Where there are significant challenges in accessing museums and museum collections from the Arctic, especially in Nunavut where there is no large museum, digitization bridges a gap, allowing Inuit – and others around the world – to have access digitally to our own Inuit cultural heritage, often connecting us with belongings that may still remain in our living memory through our oral traditions. Re-connecting with belongings that may have been made by one’s own great-grandparent is a thrilling and emotionally intense moment when accessing collections and is an integral hope in the links digitization seeks to strengthen.

The role of the Government of Nunavut’s Department of Culture and Heritage in the process of digitization is to promote the work of the Smithsonian Institution’s significant movement in fostering connections between people and the belongings in its collections. Our department believes it is important to inform Nunavummiut (people of Nunavut) that belongings from Nunavut are now available to view online, which will benefit all Nunavummiut by enriching the traditional knowledge we already hold as Inuit. As the Curator of Inuit Art, I have personally experienced the power of accessing museum collections and felt the emotion of being near my ancestors through belongings and am excited to see Inuit belongings become available to many through digitization.

 – Krista Ulujuk Zawadski, Curator of Inuit Art, Government of Nunavut

Begin exploring the Arctic and Subarctic materials at the Smithsonian by clicking here.

Collections Highlight E395465: Bone Flesher

By Tiffany Priest

This object was donated by Dr. John Cooper at the Catholic University of America and acquired by the museum in 1956. The bone flesher was a gift of Mrs. Geo. Rbt Norn in 1931 and was collected from Ft. Resolution near the shore of Great Slave Lake in the Northwest Territories of Canada.  This bone flesher is affiliated with the Chipewyan, an Athapaskan-speaking Canada Native group. It is made from a section of moose leg bone, with the distal end cut into a finely serrated chisel edge and is approximately 12.5” long and 1” wide. This bone flesher would have been used to process animal hide to remove a thin layer of fat and flesh prior to the tanning process. The proximal condyle is wrapped in hide with a loop handle to provide a better grip for using the tool and the beveled end would have removed the residual flesh and fat. This step in processing is crucial in preparing a hide. If the hide was not prepared properly the uncured leather or fur could become rancid.

See more incredible Circumpolar objects by exploring the Anthropology Collections Search online!

Collections Highlight E48384: Weight

By Tiffany Priest

This weight, made from plumbago, also known as graphite, and carved in the image of a bowhead whale, was donated by Edward Nelson in 1882. It was collected from Sledge Island in Alaska. The catalog record notation says, “Used on line to be passed over the flukes or body of a dead whale and made fast to it”. The purpose was to help secure a line so the whale could be towed to shore. This object was featured in the “Crossroads of Continents: Cultures of Siberia and Alaska” exhibit which focused on the cultures of Alaska and Siberia from the end of the Ice Age to modern times and was on display from 1988 to 1989. 


Collections Highlight E427980: Bottle Opener

Whale tooth bottle opener with a dog team image.
By Tiffany Priest
This object was collected by Dr. C.E. Folk Jr. and acquired by the museum in 1995. This bottle opener is affiliated with the Inupiat (Eskimo), an Alaska Native group. The bottle opener was designed by “Nuguruk”, which is indicated by the artist’s signature in the lower right corner of the handle. The handle is made from a whale tooth, which is also a type of ivory! One end of the handle was naturally hollowed, the socket of the tooth, and the other was fitted with the metal opener. In the close-up images of the handle you’ll also notice some pitting and staining near the edge of the socket. The handle has a scrimshaw scene depicting a figure driving a dog team pulling a sled much like the one discussed in one of our earlier posts.
If you want to see a close-up of the scrimshaw designs on the bottle opener check out the other images taken by our photographer!


Collections Highlight E64289: Bird Skin Gloves

By Tiffany Priest

These gloves were collected by Edward Nelson, an explorer who was stationed on the Bering Sea coast of Alaska from 1877 to 1881. These gloves are made from bird skin and are affiliated with the Inupiat (Eskimo) Alaska Native group. The gloves were collected from the Diomede Islands, which are home to approximately 4.7 million seabirds according to Audubon Alaska.  We are unsure what kind of bird was used to make these gloves. The birds would usually be caught using nets or bolas like this. We also are unsure what the lining is made from, but the cuffs appear to be made from polar bear fur!

See more incredible Circumpolar objects by exploring the Anthropology Collections Search online!

Collections Highlight E332296: Cribbage-Board

By Tiffany Priest

This object was collected by Dr. Aleš Hrdlička, the founder of the American Journal of Physical Anthropology, near King Island, Alaska, and was accessioned into the museum in 1926. This object is affiliated with the Inupiat (Eskimo) Alaska Native group. It is 53 cm long and 4.5 cm wide. It is made from walrus tusk with scrimshaw depictions of a kayak, seals, and a bear’s head relief at the end. There are four rows of small round holes on the surface that would have held ivory pegs which would be used to keep score during the card game, cribbage. There is also a small ivory peg that keeps the tusk upright during play.

If you want to see more of scrimshaw designs on the cribbage board check out the other images taken by our photographer!

 See more incredible Circumpolar objects by exploring the Anthropology Collections Search online!

Collections Highlight E43311: Gut Skin

By Haley Bryant

Gut skin is a common material found in circumpolar collections and was used commonly for clothing items. Most gut skin items, like this kapitaq or parka, are made from seal intestine that has been processed and stitched together with sinew thread to form a water-tight seal. Gut skin parkas do a very good job of repelling moisture, making excellent raincoats. This particular sample of gut skin may have been rolled and stored to be turned into a parka in the future, or packed in a backpack to be used as a tarp. Gut skin is very light and thin, so while a gut skin item was still being used its owner had to take care to maintain it and never let it dry out and tear.

Explore more objects and images on our online database!