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A Cut Above

A Cut Above

Yellowknife’s Kenneth Ingniqjuk Mackay crafts saw blades into strong, sharp, and stylish uluit.
By Jacob Boon
Dec 09
2019

How long have you been making uluit?
It was one of those things where I had wanted to for quite a long time before actually learning. Funny enough, when I began dating my wife, Inuksuk Mackay, back in 2001, I told her that I one day wanted to be a knife-maker, but it seemed like just a dream back then. The family and I spent nine months in Sudbury last year and my wife was sad that she had not brought her ulu. Her family had sent her a box of country food, including our favourite, mataaq. It was out of necessity that I made my first ulu, as a gift to her so our family could eat traditional foods together. When friends of ours saw what I had made they began requesting I make ones for them as well and it sort of took off from there. I opened up Urban Inuk in January 2019 and am floored by how well it has been received. It turns out even non-Inuit are interested in using uluit as they are great for so many things. People are using them these days to cut pizza and lasagna and pies and brownies and herbs and things like that. Sometimes it makes me laugh and I think it's really cool.

Where did you learn the craft?
My father-in-law, Joe Karetak from Arviat, Nunavut has been very kindly mentoring me. He and a few of my brothers-in-law are very skilled uluit makers. My mother, Domina Uvilluk Mackay from Igloolik, has also shared a lot of knowledge with me around traditional uluit use. The ulu design is ancient and countless generations of women like my grandmother have cared for their families using uluit. This thought always leaves me in awe and I am so grateful for Inuit ingenuity.

Do you always use saw blades?
Mostly, yes. They are the best scrap I have found so far and most common as they are continually replaced by construction workers as they dull. Once the metal is all cleaned up it looks almost like new.
 

Courtesy Kayley Inuksuk Mackay

What’s the most difficult part in crafting a well-made ulu?
I would say it’s securing the shaft properly. You want to be sure it doesn't become loose on either the blade or the handle. The cuts and drilling have to be very precise. Another difficult part that I wasn't expecting is getting censored on social media. Both Facebook and Twitter have banned my posts off and on. Even though the ulu has been given Canadian legislation that exempts it from being treated as a weapon, I have had to do a lot of educating and campaigning to get my posts out there. My followers have really helped to share and get the word out and I think because of all of their help I was taken seriously.

Is there any difference in caring for the blade or its use, compared to say a standard kitchen knife?
The blades need to be dried right away after washing. I always recommend folks give them a good once over with steel-wool every so often to keep the blades looking fresh. They can be sharpened with a sharpening stone, axe-file, or an ordinary kitchen knife sharpener.

You recently got a new workshop. Are you hoping to expand your production?
My new workshop is great. I'm so grateful to have the space to work. I have some ideas for new types of handles that I am going to start experimenting with. Many of my clients with arthritis have been mentioning how the type of handle on an ulu and the way you use it to cut down on items is more effective and manageable for them. This makes me really happy and I have some ideas on how to make the handle even more manageable for them. I am also very happy to announce that I have been selected as a vendor for the 2020 Indigenous Fashion Week in Toronto. I'm very excited. I am also teaching my eldest son about wood and metalwork. It's important to me to pass on any skills I have been lucky enough to learn to my two children. It won't be long before they are able to make their own uluit.

Courtesy Kayley Inuksuk Mackay