Taqialuk Nuna made his first carving when he was just eight years old. It was a walrus skull that his father, Sharky Nuna, later sold for a couple of ammo boxes. He first learned to carve by watching his late father, who was killed in a boating accident while walrus hunting in 1979.
Now, Nuna’s grandchildren watch him work. They pitch in to help finish the filing and polishing of his carvings, or just take in all the action from the sidelines of his outdoor studio, overlooking the bay in Kinngait (formerly Cape Dorset).
To warm up his hands on a cold day, Nuna takes breaks in his small shed, listening to the local radio broadcast from Iqaluit. He sat by that very same radio 34 years ago as the World Cup in Mexico was broadcast to his remote northern community.
A world away on the soccer pitch, it was Maradona’s tournament. The Argentinian hero led his side to a victory over West Germany in the final in front of a crowd of over 114,000.
Back in Cape Dorset, Nuna’s wife was pregnant.
“The baby in the stomach was kicking and kicking,” he says, chuckling. “So I end up naming the baby Maradona.”
Kinngait is renowned as the epicentre of Inuit art. At just 1,400 residents, the community has more artists per capita than any other place in Canada. And, like many a northern town, they love their soccer here. So when the newly established Canadian Premier League needed awards for the end of its first season, it turned to Kinngait’s carvers.
Last year, the CPL commissioned five unique pieces of art, drawing inspiration from Inuit symbolism and local craftsmanship to honour its top athletes. The stone trophies, which were handed out for the first time last fall at a ceremony in Toronto, will be carved anew each season. Every winner will receive a one-of-a-kind artistic creation.
The awards connect Canada's southern soccer league to the North—to Nuna’s home, where this isolated community has carved out a love for the beautiful game.
Padlaya Qiatsuk, creator of the CPL’s Coach of the Year award and the former mayor of Cape Dorset, knows much of that history. He recalls when a Canadian army group came through the community in the late ’80s and challenged him and his friends to a game of soccer.
“They were tall but we were fast,” he says. “They were surprised how good we were, and asked, ‘Where did you learn how to play like that?’”
Qiatsuk’s award was carved in the shape of an owl, representing a winning coach’s wisdom and guidance. He says he enjoys carving into stone the stories of transformation and shamanism from his childhood.
“Kinngait, it gets its name from the mountains and hills around it,” he says. “As long as I can remember, people have been carving.”
Kicking around a hand-sewn ball was one of the oldest games that used to be played here, recalls elder Achiak Alaswa. “That’s how they used to make it and some elders still have them,” he says, through translator and community recreation coordinator Olipika Samayualie. “Young and old would play together in the old days, but they don’t do that today anymore.”
Kellypadlik Etidloie finds time to carve during the late hours of the night, underneath the northern lights and with his dogs watching on. As he does, he shares the Inuit story of how when people pass away, their spirits kick a walrus skull across the sky, playing with each other, and creating the trail of luminescent colour that we see overhead.
Etidloie carved the Golden Glove award for the CPL’s Best Goalkeeper in the form of a qimmiq. The Inuit dog has been in the Arctic for at least 4,000 years, acting as a protector of the community and helping families survive for generations.
Like many other artists here, he gets his stone from the Kangiqsukutaaq quarry, located approximately 160 kilometres east of town. It's been providing stone to Inuit carvers within the south Baffin region for over 50 years. Locals mine the stone and sell it to the West Baffin Eskimo Co-operative, and artists sort through the shipments to see if they can find the right stone for their next project. There’s white and black marble, serpentinite and soapstone. Each with its own hardness; each requiring careful practice to master.
In his outdoor studio, Nuna takes the time to ensure he’s giving each carving the right attention to detail.
“I spend a lot of time visualizing the stone, thinking what I’m going to do,” he says.
Today, he’s sharing his progress on a particular piece with young artist David Pudlat. The design, a polar bear kicking a soccer ball, will become the Canadian Premier League’s award for Best Player Under 21. Polar bears have transformation powers, explains Nuna.
“Inuit believe it imitates humans and how we move,” he says. “So the bear can be kicking a ball, carved of white marble. A delicate stone to work with.”
Watching intently is Pudlat. The 15-year-old has already sold some of his own pieces to the Co-op. He loves creating, he says, whether that’s drawing or carving. He is also, of course, a big soccer fan.
In Nunavut, and really across the North, the sport is a winner with youth. Spend a summer day in Kinngait and you’ll see kids running up and down the streets with a ball between their feet, dodging the quads as they zip by.
The territorial championship, organized by the Nunavut Soccer Association in Iqaluit, is a highlight for any young athletes who are able to attend. In Kinngait, the community comes together every year to raise funds and overcome travel barriers in order to send their boys’ and girls’ teams on a chartered plane to the annual tournament.
One of them, some day, could become the first Inuk player to sign a professional soccer contract. They might even win one of the prestigious awards crafted by artists and elders from their own community. Until then, Kinngait will continue carving out its mark.