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The One With The Mittens

The One With The Mittens

Iqaluit’s new museum curator spotlights the value of a permanent collection that’s always been at home in Nunavut.
By Beth Brown
Jul 24
From the July/August 2019 Issue

Before Iqaluit had a museum, the local liquor store warehouse was a frequent venue for exhibits by the Nunatta Sunakkutaangit Museum Society. That was in the mid ’70s to mid ’80s. Even before that, when Queen Elizabeth visited Iqaluit in 1970 a year after the society formed, the non-profit set up its new but growing collection of Inuit works at the library in her honour.

When you walk into the Nunatta Sunakkutaangit Museum today—housed now in a restored Hudson Bay warehouse moved in 1984 to Iqaluit from the satellite community of Apex and opened the following year—you’ll see a photo of the carving “Woman Giving Birth Assisted By Another Person,” just as it looked in the liquor warehouse in 1974.

The carving, by Kimmirut artist Elijah Michael, remains on display as part of the museum’s permanent collection. From the late ‘60s, the piece bears no exact date, but it does have Michael’s “E number” (identification tags assigned to Inuit by the federal government in the ’40s and used into the early ’70s) etched into the bottom. On the mother’s head rests a crown of eider feathers—a material that’s less common in a collection filled with works in soapstone and ivory.

Kimmirut carver Elijah Michael's piece of a mother giving birth has been a part of the Nunatta Sunakkutaangit Museum collection since it opened.

In a filing cabinet, a paper note connected to the heavy carving (it’s over a foot tall) shares a discourse about the naming of the child being born. In handwritten English translated from syllabics, the yellowed card reads: “My daughter-in-law is giving birth to a baby. His name is Ooshoolingmi the one with a penis (or one with fat) what are you going to call it?” It’s not clear from the card if the correspondence is fictional, or if the woman giving birth is the daughter-in-law of the carver or of the midwife—but the response from the mother is that the child’s name will be “the one with the mittens.”

It’s stories like these—scribbled down on spare paper—that the new Nunatta Sunakkutaangit curator Jessica Kotierk is looking to preserve. With an educational background in collections management and conservation, the young Inuk woman has plans to care for Nunavut’s stories by digitizing the museum’s paper archives and sharing its pieces through social media.

“A lot of this is handwritten notes that people have been adding to, or interviews. It’s all there, but it’s not easily or quickly searchable,” she says over a steaming cup of Red Rose tea in the museum’s cozy upstairs exhibit space.

“My hope is that people come in and use what we have, use it to get knowledge and ask questions and
realize things about the past and compare it to things happening now.” —Jessica Kotierk

“Woman Giving Birth Assisted By Another Person” is at the museum on permanent loan from the Government of the Northwest Territories (the piece predates separation). When the museum received the carving, Iqaluit was still called Frobisher Bay, and museum records say the stone is from Lake Harbour—now Kimmirut.

With much of Nunavut’s archival works housed now at the Winnipeg Art Gallery and the Canadian Museum of Nature, and formerly at the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre in NWT, what space that the territory does have in the little red-and-white waterfront museum becomes all the more important.

“My hope is that people come in and use what we have, use it to get knowledge and ask questions and realize things about the past and compare it to things happening now,” Kotierk says. “By nature it’s good when you can do that in your own community. You want to think and talk about Iqaluit? Let’s do that here in Iqaluit.”