Day 3 & 4 in Cambridge Bay

My work routine has me rising at 4-5 AM to stretch and have tea and get started by 5:30.  Somehow, it is the least distracted time to work, those early hours, here brightly lit.  My projects so far have been the assembly of two medium sized display cases whose parts I had shipped up here… as well as the construction of a kids’ playhouse for trying on Inuit clothing.  There is a serious tradition of sewing here: there remain elders who sew all of the Inuit clothing: wolverine gloves, mittens of caribou, wolf, musk ox, seal, etc., boots, double layered clothing for deep winter.  There are several of these beautiful parkas here on display, called amauti: the big parka with the large hood, into which a child can fit if necessary.  The design of this technology is the most streamlined function oriented design I have ever witnessed.  The large iconic Esquimaux and Inuit hoods normally have two layers of fur, the first to insulate the skin of the face, the second to create a wind foil at the same time as an antenna for ice: when wind hits the outer layer, the fur fibers leaning forward create a slight air vacuum around the face which eliminates the wind in the center of the hood: a foil.  Your breath then remains in the small vacuum and becomes warmer and heats your face.  This is extremely important in minus 100 degrees fahrenheit.  Brendan told me a story two days ago of having to run outside to check something on the heating oil line coming into the house, in December last year; his errand outside lasted about 45 seconds and when he returned inside his hands were completely numb and several fingers frostburned.  Painful warming up.

The connection to the land here is immediate, palpable.  I cannot surmise another people so intimately connected to the land through such harsh beauty and brutality.  “Nuna” is the word for land, “vut” is ‘our.’  Nunavut is ‘our land.’  This land is lifeline and arbiter of life.  (It’s ten PM now: and the big air raid sirens just sounded.)  The only sense of wealth among this people is survival.  The very condition of beating hearts, pressurized lungs, a meal, the laughter of a child, a skin over your head… is as rich as you can be.  There is ZERO distinction here between the station of one person and another.  They look at me and simply infer that I am from ‘far away.’  I don’t detect any sense of longing or curiosity about leaving.  This is igaluktuktiaq, place of many fish: and it is good.  (I will do another article on the technology and the tools…)  Today, I am most struck with the sense of ‘the land,’ the land making the person… rather than what we’re used to: making something of the land.  I’ll get there slowly.

This far north workshop is bizarre because in its inception it was set up to be an incredible workshop:


… this photo was taken after I spent most of an evening thoroughly cleaning it.  About half of the machines are broken or only in partial working order; there was a sense of complete abandonment in this shop: like it was designed to be something good and then in reality had no real liklihood as tool for instruction.  The thing I see over and over in the shop, and everywhere else, is a shape like this:


…it’s a fishing spear; you simply strike down through the water, hit an Arctic char, the outside two members (here made of caribou antlers) separate (with flex) and the center spike impales the fish; if it wriggles, in only worsens for the fish up above.  This is called a kokiwog.  It seems students took apart machines, re-purposed various kinds of hardware, and in general wrought havoc on this shop in order to make this shape.  I would say rightly so.  In their genetic inheritance lies this shape, and many other ingenious designs… not chairs and tables.  So I have partially re-built the table saw, the oscillating drum sander, the air compressor and organized much of what seemed in disarray.  I should say that it probably only seems to me (and perhaps other southwestern craftsmen) in ‘disarray.’  I’m sure the Inuit brought a kind of sublime order to the space.  That’s because there is one thing in their soul: the land.  Nuna.  The land is life; and they want life, not chairs.

I have spent three days so far building this little play house that is going to tuck under the steel staircase in the museum.  I’m probably making it a little nicer than it needs to be… but I believe there will be time to make a really good kids’ dress up house, and get the qalgiq done, if I spend my 12 working hours per day preciously.  I spent a few hours in the library part of the museum making measurements for this playhouse and made some friends who were pretty excited about helping me measure and extremely curious about this ‘house’ tucking under the staircase.  I had met this one boy earlier, Nicholas; he had poked his head into the open shop door and asked, “what you doing?”  I said I was working.  He said, “you got moneeeey?”  I actually did not and I replied no.  He said, “I help?”  He then came in and spent about two hours with me, sweeping, helping hold boards, standing behind me while I operated the table saw.  He came back today and helped more.



I have spent about five or six hours now with Nicholas and I can vouch for him.  Today Brendan came into the shop and was looking at the little bench in the corner of the playhouse and thought it would be a good idea to upholster it with caribou.  I really liked that idea too, so we did it with a gorgeous piece of caribou:


Nicholas and his friend Thomas came into the shop to help.


It’s hard to see the caribou there (I’ll take better pictures installed) but that’s not really the point.  These kids want to share time and space.  I haven’t experienced children this open before.  In a way they are already fully formed.  There is just the land here.  On the land there is trouble, and I’m sure to some extent their parents monitor how they roam around, but from the looks of it, kids have a free run of this place.  They are up at four in the morning, playing on their bikes in the icy morning sun.  They are out right now, striking hockey pucks against this building I’m sitting in, laughing riotously and fiercely competing for hardest slap shot against the building.  (These shots leave big dents in the building.)  They are the property of the land, of this village.  They will often go home and be with another family.  Today I was having tea with a woman, Monique, who leads one of the traditional sewing classes and her little girl April came and went several times.  I asked about her, and Monique told me that April mostly lives with her parents.  There was an expression there whose depths I did not plumb.  I didn’t know why she divulged that information, perhaps it was economic, perhaps she didn’t like this particular child all the way?  Later I talked to Brendan about the kids and he said that about 40% of the children are living elsewhere than with their genetic parents.  It is called ingutak, the act of raising someone else’s kid.  There are some dark stories there.  There are a couple of brothers that have been at the Heritage Center every day this week (I’m told they basically live here), they are several years apart, one is Anthony, the other Ashley.  They are both strangely blind, like their eyes are seared shut.  They have magnificent expressions.  They navigate around town, through the dusty windy roads with ATVs roaring by and trucks spewing up gravel (I can’t imagine the process in the winter!) without any problem.  The younger brother Ashley has a pattern of clapping his hands together very lightly and looking up, skywards with a blissful expression.  I asked Brendan about it and he told me that both brothers can echo-locate.  They are known for this.  They clap their hands lightly, anywhere in town, and they know exactly where they are.  They both likewise have a kind of touched sense: like anywhere else they would be ‘placed’ somewhere.  Here, despite whatever dark history lies there, they are a loved part of the public commons.  The people who work at the Heritage Center, and many others in town, have adopted Anthony and Ashley in ingutak.  This seems to me like a way the land is working on the people, almost a direct translation of its effect on people.  Brutal and real and beautiful.

In other places, it often seems hard to read people, to read one’s feelings about a place, about others’ feelings… about you, about the place.  Here, there is no question.  No hesitation.  It’s just open.  In a place that is so harsh, that delivers a kind of weather that, for long periods of time, carries a death-within-seconds seriousness… a weather that penetrates the ground and the sky… there is a heart torn wide open.  Though there are deep troubles, there is an open willing heart.

Yesterday after work, we went out to fish for char and ended up getting a ride on the road out there; this is the light at about 10 pm last night:


We fished an area right on the clear water river.  There was a problem with Brendan’s fishing pole, however.  Every time we cast, the last loop went flying off with the sinker.  Brendan went over and chatted with two women who seemed to be having good luck catching char.  (This char is incredible.  It is served everywhere, raw, on the skin; it melts in your mouth and feels like the cleanest firmest most amazing fish on the planet.  It travels from the arctic rivers just a little ways out into the sea up here and then back; it does not encounter the bigger poisons of the sea… like the water, you can put it straight into your body without preparation.)  She just gave Brendan a fish!  She told us to tell people we caught it.  Since we would have no (other) luck fishing, we walked back towards town.  This is the scene, just a few hundred meters behind Cambridge Bay, just beyond the burning debris:


Because the ground is in permafrost the graves are basically gravel added over the surface.  There are some unfortunate stories in this graveyard and it is being added to as we speak.  But it is also just part of the rugged honesty of this land.  Nunavut.


The starkness of the land here, looking out over it, traveling it, contemplating for how long it extends, and how many other robust creatures are out there, bears, wolverines, walrus, beluga, must rat, and ox, makes me realize how close death is.  It is right here.  It is very nearby and it takes these people a kind of wild chaotic activity to resist those forces; and they have developed a way to do so with a special elegance.  Walking a line, drawing life out of every moment, in a way that seems to require little effort, with a strong constitution for the reality of dying.  Many other things die for these ones to live.  The land has brought that shape of the kokiwog into their minds and now it is everywhere, and the shapes that don’t serve this kind of life (like chairs) are useless.

Day 1 and 2 in Cambridge Bay

The flight from Calgary to Yellowknife was striking: at dusk we took off over Calgary, about 9:00 P.M.  As we flew North the dusk became subtly brighter; after nearly three hours flying straight North, we landed in a bright dusk evening about quarter to midnight:


I went out to a little hole in the wall pub across the street from my hotel called Le Frolics.  There was a band playing some incredibly bad good cover music.  Their hearts were so invested in the music that it was an excellent welcome to the intense attitude of these Northern places.  A very small dram of Macallan single malt scotch cost $19!  The following morning I arrived–still without my big bag–at the Yellowknife airport, connecting to Cambridge Bay.  Now the faces in the airport were primarily Inuit; I was looking at this amazing map installation on the floor of a crossroads corridor in the airport which shows the whole Arctic portion of the world.  An Inuit guy with a Skidoo shirt came up to me smiling and asked, “Do you like my map?” He was from Kigluktuk, which is about a hundred miles or so West and a bit East.  I asked him if Kigluktuk was nice; he said, “Oh, it’s beauuuutiful.”  He told me he’d grown up there and lived there his whole life.  I told him I was coming up to Cambridge Bay and asked him what it is like.  He said, “It’s beauuuuutiful.  It’s not like Kigluktuk though: Kigluktuk has mountains and large rivers; Cambridge Bay is mostly flat.”  Three hours later I was flying into Cambridge Bay: iqualuk tuk tiaq.  iqualuk is fish, tuk is lots, and tiaq as a suffix is the essence, or place… of lots of fish…





The airline that flies up here is called First Air.  The round trip ticket from Yellowknife to Cambridge Bay, which is a two hour flight, is $2,400.  The plane lands on a gravel runway (I spose most of the year it is on snow-ice).  Each flight is half passengers (or less) and cargo.  A huge forklift is immediately unloading cargo upon arrival.  The sky feels big.  The air feels thin.  The water is right there–the bay–it is as clear as anything; you can see right through it.  The first impressive landmark is a series of spherical dome buildings that look like observatories.  They are part of a U.S. government program started in the early fifties called DEWS: Distant Early Warning System.  They are set up every 200 miles across the Arctic in order to surveil the former U.S.S.R. for any potential incoming nuclear missiles.  According to Brendan (whom I am working with here), if they were to intercept a missile, it would blow up and land in Saskatchewan.  We have such delightful strategies.

Driving into the town I am immediately seized by the impressive difference of this place.  It is still sinking in.  Natives are flying around on ATVs, all the houses are built up off the ground–which is in permafrost–on various kinds of jacks.  Huskies are tied by chains between houses and gnaw on a piece of musk ox leg, a very light fine dust blows through the air, through the dirt and gravel streets and immediately dries your skin.  Trucks and vans trundle by on an errand to the hardware store.  I sense an immediate kinship to Burning Man, not because people are flying by on art cars, drinking and cruising, but because you can sense that every last thing you see was imported from very very far away.  Most of the houses are sided with T1-11, that classical shed product, you see Ford trucks and vans everywhere, covered snowmobiles, ATVs, everything brought by cargo freighter or a Hercules jumbo jet.  Things are expensive here.  A tub of Bryers ice cream (how fit for the North pole) is $20.  A large size cooler is $200.  A normal filled medical prescription is $2000.  A small aluminum boat for fishing is $20,000.  All the electricity is made by huge diesel generators down by the bay.  All the water for houses is delivered by trucks and pumped to an overhead valve running into the house.  Huge oil drums stand outside every house for heating oil.  In the winter, if the heater fails, the pipes will burst within about three hours.  (Brendan’s professor in archaeology told me this evening that he was here once in December and in a walk of about 300 yards he got minor frostbite on his nose: it turned white.)  Women walk around with this pillowy hood feature in their garments that holds a baby.  Many many buildings are dented all around the perimeter from kids rough housing; concrete bollards are broken, windows, rocks thrown on roofs, shoes thrown over wires, debris all over the place.  There is no real dump or recycling facility–way too expensive–everything is taken by tractor about 400 yards behind town and burnt: everything.  And the common wind direction is northeasterly, from right off the pole, and it blows the black smoke right though town, which I am told smells really bad.

We spent about 45 minutes checking things out upon arrival and then Max (archaeology professor) and Brendan and two students invited me up on this drive to Mt. Pelly, North of town about 45 minutes.  We drove over this river called Clear Water River (for a very good reason) several times.  The water is so clean you can drink it basically anywhere (above the sewer drop point, close to town).  We stopped and looked at one of the main sites these guys have worked on, called The Pembroke Site… these sites would have been occupied by some very robust Inuiit up until about 800 years ago:



It consists of fiver summer tent rings, five winter tent rings and a qalgiq (the thing I am here to build).  The summer residences are up higher on the hill, less excavated.  They would have been built out of wood and a skin membrane, rather than snow.  The ones lower down were more excavated into the hill side, had more intensive masonry measures, and would have had thicker frames, with skin membranes and then covered in sod and then snow and ice.  On the top of the hill is the qalgiq, the largest structure by far (shown second), probably only used in the spring and summer, and probably taken down in the winter as it wouldn’t necessarily have withstood the huge wind loads (increased by ice) of the season.  This building was used as a meeting house, for going through and maintaining, repairing, building and discussing hunting and hunting equipment.

(Today it began to dawn on me, after having already seen hundreds of artifacts about killing animals, spears for lancing fish, harpoons, knives, incredibly designed arrow heads for shooting caribou, amazing long multi-pronged devices for harpooning a seal… that in the qalgiq, a huge amount of magic happened: it is where you built the things that kept you alive, that tested your ideas about hunting, and that brought you prosperity: a dad might look at a son, building a copper harpoon, and caution about the design, or offer advice, or scold; another man might have an innovative idea, carve a new shape in a soapstone spear and find later that it works well, or doesn’t.  They would have built traps for Arctic foxes, and squirrels.  This gathering house is where they would vet the ideas of others, commune with their only craft, and meet the spirit of the animal they sought through shaman guided vision quests for the next place to slaughter caribou, doing so from within a structure sheathed with the very flesh of that animal.)

We continued on to the butte called Mt. Pelly which really is a gorgeous buttress of shale covered with lichen and amazing little ground covers that have the strangest fruit I have ever seen, like little date seeds with brown bellies, hanging over the main leafy part of the mosses, and things like thyme.  The wind is blowing incredibly… but when it stops, there is an immediate and abundant swarm of mosquitos, almost unbearable.  Mt. Pelly is also know as Uvayok, thought of as the fist death.  He was a giant traveling with baby Pelly, and lady Pelly.  They lay down in this area and died.  You can see the beach striations on the side of the buttress are the ribs of Uvayok.  From the top of this buttress, the rest of the land rolls out flatly.  You can very clearly discern the curvature of the earth, from about 400 feet above sea level.

The dirt street where Brendan lives is called tuktu, or caribou.  We were talking last night and he explained that in his house here (which is very clean and nice… two bedrooms, a good mud room/meat storage, and a nice living room), for others in the community would probably house two families, and maybe a cousin, or two sets of partners, about ten kids, and a cousin.  They still live and hold the things of their past life.  In an old caribou skin or snow house there might have been a family of a man, two wives, and six kids in a 10′ diameter room, which could only sustain one maybe two persons standing up completely, in the middle.  In the winter, it would have been lit with a very soft dim light of seal oil.  And that would have been the only light you see for 9 weeks… the whole time living on stored seal meat, caribou, frozen Arctic char, and a fox or two.  Now a days, in a spacious luxuriously heated building like this, they have real estate to move freely.  And every few days a couple of men will drag a few dead seals in, throw them on a piece of cardboard in the pergo floor and butcher them, saving most every part of the animal and having an immediate seal sushi snack.

Today was a meeting of elders, for Max and Brendan to present their recent findings on what’s called a caribou drive, that they mapped out in a place called Igloluk, about 50 kilometers Northwest of here.  These people hold a huge energy.  They were the only and last people to live “on the land.”  (The ‘land’ is referred to often here, i.e., ‘when you go out on the land.’)  They speak primarily Inuinaktun, and cannot completely understand their children, because their kids were taken from them at young ages by the government and sent to ‘residential schools.’  These schools would have been far away and they were forced to speak only English and sometimes beaten if they spoke Inuktitut or Inuinaktun.  The elders now would have been born on the land, but moved off it pretty early and given government tags, housing, etc.  The oldest one in our meeting today may have been on the land for as many as 15 years.  Their bodies are strange, beautiful and clean.  Their faces and hands much more weathered and tan than the rest of them.


The Arctic

I have been engaged to travel up to the Canadian Arctic to work in an Inuit Heritage Museum.  I will be building a traditional style, communal building called a “qalgiq,” pronounced QUAL GHEK.  I have been studying the Inuit vernacular architecture and reading about the uses, means and methods of these fascinating buildings.  They were traditionally used for hunting ceremonies, preparation for hunting, and shaman guided voyages.  The qalgiq would have been the largest building in the networks of other dwellings, and for a long period of time were predominantly used only by men.   A couple ethnographic photos:

Picture 2

photo: from Birket-Smith, fig. 117

I cannot stop admiring what a stalwart people… that would build like this and prosper in one of the most inhospitable climates on earth.  Many Inuit tribes were whaling and often these qalgiit would have been built of whale bones… the jaw bones.  Here’s a computer rendering of what this may have felt like:

Picture 5

photo: R. Levy/P. Dawson

The perimeters of the buildings would have been stone, and the membranes often caribou.  The caribou hide would protect nicely against weather and tuck under the stones at the perimeter.  It would then have been covered with sod and then ice, for insulation.  The stone would act as good thermal mass if there were a heat source present within the building.  This photo from 1896 shows the awesome blending of the architecture with the environment:

Picture 3

photo: Birket-Smith, fig. 118

Where I am traveling, in Cambridge Bay, Nunavut, the natives would not have built with whale bone because they were not hunting whale in that area.  We will be using a system of lodge poles.  The Thule (Cambridge Bay, Pembroke natives) here would have traded fur and meat for this wood, brought up from below the tree line.  We will match to some degree the ridge pole shown in the photo above.

This installation will have a theater system, showing some old footage of Inuit ways of life, a life scene of a man and his son sharpening knives, some text displays, and an earthen floor.

This is the first article of several on my experience traveling to the ceiling of the world to help these amazing people build a qalgiq.  Unlike these robust people, I will be getting there by plane: arriving Sunday.

Umiaq_Panel A

A walnut table

Just made this with my friend Ben Pederson in his shop.  It is solid oregon black walnut, book matched and engineered with a drawer in the skirt and easily packs flat.  One meter by two meters; made for two German engineers.







job search

i check from time to time the “creative” jobs page on craigslist and recently found this interesting posting:

“I am looking for an artist that will help my company create our logo.  We are a small business services company looking to build our brand.  Only serious people relpy [sic] please.  I do some money but was hoping for more barter or exchange or better yet help you build your brand as a graphic designer.”

Seems like a pretty bulletproof plan to me.