We’re coming up on ten P.M. in Iqaluqtutiaq, the old curfew, denoted with the air raid siren… my last evening bell for a while here, in the north. I spent the day doing odds and ends, cleaning the exhibits, installing the final artifacts with Brendan, making sure everything looks right….
Last night we put together the mannequins who now reside in the qalgiq, a man and a boy, the man somberly looking over a piece of driftwood that he’s whittling:
I’m not sure if you know it, but it’s a slightly eerie feeling, working with mannequins. We bolted them together and began pulling their heavy caribou clothing on, leveraging against a bench or the floor to heave a set of pants on, then a boot. They have a peculiar kind of weight; in the end it feels like you’re manhandling someone who is unconscious, putting them where you want them to be. And finally, there they are, a man whittling an old piece of driftwood, perhaps into a fishing lure, his young boy watching, his kumiq (boot) on his dad’s knee. What kind of incantation is this, to invent these humans from 1,000 years ago, doing something people might have done? All in silicone. They are Inuit, practicing a craft in a place that has long since passed. Some modern Inuit looking on at them…
Besides a replica, what are they looking at? They are looking on at an activity that we are engaged in, the activity of studying them, explaining what might have happened, based on careful archaeology and research… they are watching us study them. I think in a way this feels like an honor, and in another way feels estranged. If someone was making models of my ancestors, I would want to say, “I’m right here!”
Last night I was trying to divine what purpose a model like this serves. Silicone waxy people behind bullet proof glass, wearing brand new incredible fur clothing, whittling. I realized that if some kid, or some mother, or some lawyer looks at this… and ten years later realizes what it is, that it’s a moment, a real thing from a legacy, a story about the land, about the bitter weather of the pole, and the ability to sit down, talk to your son, make a tool, in a seal skin tent that you made, and teach him how to get to where you are… and then do it again, and again… their only traces bone and copper artifacts, stone tent rings, a few amulets and keepsakes, and nothing else besides the vanishing smoky quality of the story, turning into a myth. Then it’s good.
Tonight we had a little opening party for the exhibit. Here’s what it looks like with a wide angle lens:
There’s another qajaq frame hanging over it, to show the form before the membrane… we finished building that last week, steaming oak and sewing it together traditionally, with sinew and needle.
The Kitikmeot Heritage Society has an extensive archive room that is completely climate controlled, with beautiful artifacts from 3,000 years ago from all over the north. Since some of this stuff is very valuable, it can only be displayed in certain instances. For the artifacts in this display, Brendan took the originals and made plaster casts. It is very convincing… Here is old sinew, a hide scraper, a bone thimble… other tools for the building of a qajaq membrane.
For me it has been a deep pleasure working with these beautiful elder people. They have grace and presence that is uncommon. That they came through this exhibit, looked for a long time and talked about their grandparents hunting caribou in a river, in a boat very similar to this, looked through the artifacts and–for the women–talked about the sewing (and these particular women were the ones who did actually sew this boat), the challenges, the tools they used, well, that’s exhilarating. It makes this very worthwhile.
This is Mary Kamoyuq… I believe the eldest elder. She has the most incredible posture, kind of walks along hunchbacked but if she’s says hello to you she stands straight up. I think she understands almost all English, but I can’t understand much of what she says. She looks old, but she can move so fast, it’s alarming… she would kick your ass if she had to. This woman has been around, seen the polar bear hunts, the walrus hunts, gone through more than 80 long bitter freezing winters, raised a lot of children, both her own and adopted. She sewed that coat (like they all do); that’s a wolverine around the hood. You are looking at the last of a great thing… perhaps the last of one of the most stalwart people that have ever been.