The Caribou had two choices — life on the dole or death by starvation— until they began to “release from stone” the figures shown hen
These magnificent carvings may keep these Eskimos in the stone age -where they like it
The Caribou Eskimos of Baker Lake live in one of the cruelest places on earth. Not long ago they were close to extinction. Now, they are saving themselves with the area’s richest natural resource — their own remarkable skill in carving stone
IN A FARAWAY REGION of the Northwest Territories, in an area unique even in the C anadian Arctic for its lack of resources to sustain life, some remarkable stone sculpture is being created by carvers who belong to one id the strangest groups of people on earth. They are the Caribou Eskimos and they live in and around a place called Baker Lake, the only inland settlement in the great, bare district of the Keewatin. Keewatin is 228,000 square miles of land which lies north of Manitoba, bordered on the west by the Mackenzie District and stretching in the east along the coast and out to the islands of Hudson Bay.
The history of the Caribou Eskimos is an interlacing of tragedy and taboos: of death and indomitability. The responsibility for their welfare lies with the federal government's Department of Northern Affairs and National Resources, and that agency's Industrial
Kingalik’s bird sculptures are already well-known outside the Arctic. Vincent Massey gave one of them to Princess Alexandra last year as a wedding present.
Division is engaged in a desperate battle to bring these impoverished people, decimated by disease and starvation. back to a full life. Only in their astonishing sculpture, which is just beginning to trickle south, has there been any indication from these weary people of some mysterious inner flame — a talent that may prove to be richer than any other known natural resource in the wasteland surrounding Baker Eake.
“Keewatin " is an Indian word meaning "the north wind." Survival in the primitive camps of the Keewatin requires a strength that borders on madness: or so it would seem to a nonEskimo. Two hundred miles inland from Hudson Bay is the heart of the Barren Grounds, a rolling, treeless, deserted plain. It is covered for almost ten months of the year by a light snow that drifts in the crazy, wild, winter winds above a jagged debris of glacial rocks and grey tundra. An unfriendly place, with an unfriendly climate: thirty below zero is the midwinter temperature average, anti it can drop as far as seventy below. Yet roughly five hundred persons live in the Baker Eake area, even though one of the Industrial Division’s own area economic surveys has pronounced it fit to support only a possible titty. Efforts to entice a substantial part of the Baker Eake population to more comfortable country on the coast of Hudson Bay or further east have failed. Forced resettlement is not tolerated in a democracy, so the relief bills at Baker
The level of talent among Baker Lake carvers, like Neooktuk, is incredibly high. Of 210 in the government crafts program, 205 are “very, very skilled.”
“Survival in Keewatin takes a strength bordering on madness”
Lake have soared while Northern Affairs men looked for some way to keep the people from becoming forever dependent on handouts.
The inland Caribou Eskimos lived in small family groups of ten or twenty along the rivers; principally the Kazan, the Back, the Thelon, the Prince: and beside the lakes, chiefly the Ennadai. the Yathkyed. the Maguse. and the larger Ciarry and Baker lakes, each over nine hundred square miles in size. Their normal history, even into this century, was one of feasting in the fall, when the great migrations of caribou swept across their land, and hunger in the late winter and early spring, when their caches of meat were exhausted and no plentiful new supply had yet appeared. But in the 1950s almost total disaster struck, and it was three-pronged; first, in 1956. there was sickness, in the form of a measles epidemic, followed by respiratory ailments to which Eskimos are peculiarly susceptible: and then, in 1957 and 1958, there w'as poor fox hunting and a drastic reduction in the caribou herds.
The caribou, traditionally a primary source of the Caribou Eskimos' food, clothing and even shelter, has a spiritual significance for them. Without caribou, they seem to feel that all life stops. Although fish and game were reported to be abundant in 1958, the Caribou Eskimos scarcely attempted to hunt or fish. They waited instead for the source of all life to reappear, the ttikruk. the caribou. Almost no
caribou came. At Garry Lake, a building with emergency food supplies burned down, killing the occupants, and other Eskimos in the area then starved to death. The total death toll was seventeen.
Fear among the white officials, as well as the Eskimos, set an insidious routine in motion. Worried government men, severely criticized because people had starved, knew that the Eskimo, more often than not. waits too long before seeking help. He stays in his snow house until, desperate for food, he makes a feeble attempt to fish and then, too late, he strikes out for
help. So the local administrators encouraged the people in camps to move into Baker Lake in the two following winters, wTcre officials could be sure that in the bitter cold months the Eskimos would at least stay alive. In their turn, the Eskimos, haunted by terrible memories of starvation became thoroughly frightened when reminded of how they might starve again in their camps. They settled dowm, too hopeless even to hunt, to a passive pattern of receiving welfare. This year, encouraged by the present capable administrator, Barry Gunn, and assured that there will be regular
inspection tours, some of the Eskimos are moving out to their camps again but their background of suffering has left many scars. A missionary at Baker Lake said recently, “The people here are half dead.”
If the people are half dead, their sculpture is not. It indicates a tremendous latent energy and will to create, and what makes its flowering so dramatic is the last-ditch nature of the government crafts program from which the carvings have sprung.
The beginning for Baker Lake art occurred in I960 when Mrs. Edith Dodds, wife of a Northern Service officer at the lake, started handicrafts there among the women. Later that same year at an Arctic air field, she happened to meet James Houston, administrator at Cape Dorset on Baffin Island, who was then promoting the growth of the subsequently famous Dorset graphics industry. Houston is an artist himself and in 1948, w'hen he was traveling on the east coast of Hudson Bay, he saw some stone carvings the Eskimos had made, bought them, brought them south, and sparked the development of Eskimo art as a means of livelihood. Now. he asked Mrs. Dodds if she had seen anything at Baker Lake that might be included in Dorset's second graphic art collection which he was rounding up. following the international success of the first series in 1959. The result of this query was two prints. Tattooed Faces and the startling surrealist Inland Eskimo Woman, both by a widow, Una,
from the Kazan River. She w'as, and still is. the only Eskimo outside Dorset to have her work included in the Dorset collection.
The follow ing year, 1961, the Dodds were stationed in Ungava Bay in the eastern Arctic, where Bill Larmour, crafts development officer from Ottawa, was working with the Eskimos at Port Burwell. Mrs. Dodds urged Larmour to add Baker Lake to his visiting list, and in 1962 he went there for the winter. The first thing he saw, on the desk of the area administrator, was what he later called, “a quite extraordinary small carving of a caribou of red sandstone, about four inches long, two high, and one eighth of an inch thick, in a curious angular style.” It was the work of an elderly Eskimo, Angosaglo. head of one of the camps on the Back River. “It was pretty exciting," Larmour recalls, “for there was the evidence that the potential for the arts must surely exist among these people."
Larmour moved into a small, central house and raised a sign that read in English and Eskimo, “Baker Lake Eskimo Craft Centre.” He wanted the Eskimos to feel welcome at all hours. “That was a bit rash on my part, but it paid off," he says. “Small boys would come in the middle of the night. 'Wake up! Wake up!' they would cry. ‘Come and see what Kingalik has made now!' and so 1 would stagger out to find one of his birds sitting on the table surrounded by admiring Eskimo children who'd been unable to wait till
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morning to find out what my reaction would he.”
The children came first to the crafts centre, in pairs. Gradually they began to bring in things made by their parents, to see what Larmour would say. Then came the very old ladies to get crafts materials, but still no men. Many Eskimo communities have an Eskimo council, made up of Eskimo men, and Larmour addressed the one at Baker Lake. Here he had good luck. A respected member of the council was an Eskimo named Moses, who had been at Port Burwell with his family in 1961 when Larmour was there, and had seen how well Larmour was received by the Burwell Eskimos. At the council meeting, Larmour says, “Moses spoke longer than I did about my work.”
“Those people had no confidence whatsoever when 1 went in there," he says. “To a man, they said they could not carve and never had. My stock answer was, ‘Well, you won't ever know if you don't try,’ to which they would always reply, 'Ima — ‘Perhaps* — and march off with a piece of rock under their arm.”
Larmour had a second piece of luck with the return to Baker Lake after seven years in hospital of a nineteenyear-old Eskimo youth named Willie. Willie was a member of Angosaglo's family, and was so badly crippled by polio that he was scarcely able to walk. His family couldn't care for him. He came to live with Larmour. “He was a very popular Eskimo," Larmour explains, “and I attribute a great deal of the success of the project to the gratitude of the Eskimos for keeping Willie in their midst as long as possible. Their desire to please by making good carvings existed anyway but it was reinforced by Willie's presence in my house.” One morning old Angosaglo, who represented a large clan, had a long talk with Larmour and decided “that it would be desirable to teach the young people the old ways of making things so that they should be remembered," thus paving the way for the reproduction of Eskimo artifacts, an art in which Angosaglo himself excels.
Bill Larmour clearly remembers the moment when the first really important carving was brought to him at Baker Lake. “1 paid thirty-five dollars for it,” he says, "and the result was sensation in capital letters. Certain hunters, who had looked disdainfully on carving as an unsuitable occupation for a man, began to have second thoughts. Pricing was a hectic business at first and the Eskimos used to crowd the little room, breathless and silent. But there was almost always approval, and even hugging among themselves.”
Larmour left after six months but the following year, in April, he returned to install a regular crafts officer. Gabriel Gély. An artist trained as a lithographer, who has spent eleven years in the Arctic, Gély is a lean Frenchman with a bushy red beard and an eager, kindly manner. He lives with his attractive wife and two small children in a house close to the tworoom crafts centre. 1 visited Baker Lake on a sunny, snowy day this spring, while the temperature was still thirty below zero, and accompanied by Gély 1 climbed the wooden steps of the cottage and entered a warm room with an oil stove and a large work table. Encircling the table were four or five Eskimos in drab parkas, who kept their heads bent at their work as they covertly glanced at me. Besides encouraging the Eskimos to carve, Gély is developing handicrafts, especially the production of jewelry from walrus teeth and from caribou hooves that have been boiled, flattened and polished until they have a translucent, soft brown sheen.
One Eskimo was filing a piece of walrus ivory and polishing it to make a needle case; another was cutting a bird in flight from flattened caribou hoof; and the others were chiseling at small pieces of stone for an elaborate decorative carving of dogs pulling a komatik, or sled. The stone sculpture is regarded by its Eskimo creators as much too personal to be worked on in public, and is always done at home. Its production is totally their own.
Gély explained that two hundred and ten men and women are involved in the crafts program, with seventy coming to the cottage each month by rotation and earning anywhere from thirty to seventy dollars a month from the government. Eventually, when the products have steady markets in the south, the program will be financed by the Eskimos themselves and the profits will go directly to them. At
first, the Eskimos from different parts of the region refused to work under the same roof, hut they are now collaborating quite happily on the special project.
“Perhaps two hundred and five of the two hundred and ten Eskimos in the crafts program are very very skilled,*’ Gély said to me, with great enthusiasm. “This community is unique, yes, incredible! To have such a large number of artists living in the same area! Many of our best carvers used to be the nightmare of the administration. They were the nonconformists, thought by both Eskimos and whites to be the unemployables. They didn't like steady jobs. Now a good carver earns from one hundred to one hundred and fifty dollars a month, and we've established a new class that sets its own pace. The Kazan River people, for example, are great carvers, purist and resourceful, yet they were called The Bone-eaters before, because they were so poor they ate nothing but bones.”
He nodded toward a wild-looking man with a mop of black hair hanging over his forehead. The man was wearing an old, half - buttoned checkered shirt and he was sitting alone against the wall, polishing a stone, his eyes downcast. He looked up, revealing an aged, heavily seamed face. “That man is Magpa, one of our finest carvers,” Gély said. “He does not mix with the others, he’s — what do you call it? — a loner. He refuses to do any other work, only carving. The other day he came in and pulled seventy-six dollars from a fishing tackle box under his parka. He really surprised me. He had saved that money, and he asked me if he could start buying a house.”
I asked Gély how he worked with the Eskimos. “They listen to my hands and they understand,” he said. “1 paint, or carve, or sketch. They do not copy what I do, but if 1 do it they think
they can. too, without being a subject of scorn or public laughter. Their profession is now as dignified as hunting and our best carvers are among the best hunters. I only guide them. At first, 1 explained that they were using too many foreign materials, that string should be replaced by caribou sinew, wood by bone, and that shoe polish, with which they used to shine up their carvings, should be eliminated. Also «lue. If the legs of an animal broke, they would glue them back on, and nobody wants a flaw' in contemporare art. Magpa once brought in a lifesized carving of a seal's head with whiskers suggested by two long pieces of Fiberglas insulation that had been glued to the head. You have to be careful. ‘Terrific,' I said, ‘but it would be even better if you got some bone for the whiskers,' which he did within an hour. He was very pleased with the results.”
Their difference is in their sadness
Gély said something softly in Eskimo to the men around the table. They looked up curiously at me and stopped their work. They did not have the ruddy glow of most Eskimos; their faces were dark and full of sadness. They had fine features, with long cheekbones that heightened their grim expressions. One of them, John Narkjanik, who had spent six years with TB in outside hospitals, acted as interpreter. I spoke first with Kingalik, a good-looking man of twenty-five, whose birds, several of which were on an overhead shelf, have a lovely, lyric quality. Kingalik said. “I make a bird now, an owl, at home, in the day and evening. Before I was carving, I was carrying the garbage and water.” He paused and stared down at his hands. “I like much better carving,” he added. “In winter is too cold for outside working. But in summer I like hunting in canoe and fishing. Only the old men carve in summer.”
A very small man, scarcely five feet tall, who appeared to be in his middle thirties, spoke up. He was Tungwack, renowmed equally for his carving and hunting. “Bill Larmour started me. but I don't know' whether I like carving yet,” he said in a reedy voice. “After working here, I can try everything myself, making animals or men. Sometimes I break a stone, and that makes me change my mind. I like to carve what is in my mind, what I remember. Before, I was always fishing and hunting fox, also caribou.” He smiled suddenly. “In three days I'll go for the caribou. With dogs.” Then he added, with obvious pride, “I have three dogs now.”
Magpa, sitting with his chair tipped back and his head down while he polished and polished his stone, abruptly exclaimed, “When I go hunting. I use no dogs, no canoe. I use a komalik." He sprang to his feet and dramatically acted out the part of a man pulling a sled, making the motions of putting the reins over his forehead and shoulders, and pulling against a great imaginary weight with his whole body. “Do you like to carve?" I asked. His dark face lit up. “Yes! I like!" he said, and nodded vigorously.
Gély took me into the next room, which serves as a shop. The impact of the stone sculpture reposing on the
shelves and tables was stunning. Group and individual figures, parka hoods only suggested, arms foreshortened so that the hands were taken for granted, yet with a form complete and satisfying; birds with small angular indents barely suggesting their features and intriguing, even humorous expressions; a walrus, a bear, a caribou, carved with direct, sure lines, lines that could only be cut by people w ho know these creatures intimately. The room had once been a kitchen and still retained the cupboards and counters, along with a large cookstove, on which a pot of caribou hooves was stewing. The counters held various handicrafts: embroidered, bright red, duffle mitts; functional objects such as needle cases, snow' goggles and ulus (the Eskimo knife), children's parkas, miniature kamiks (boots); and dolls costumed in caribou clothing with long sinewfringes of a style unknown elsewhere. Gély had also persuaded the Eskimos to draw' pictures and many of the faces in the drawings bore the tattooed lines that were customary in the past and may be seen occasionally even now on some of the older Caribou Eskimo women. There were hunting and fishing scenes and drawings of igloo interiors that frequently showed whole families on their knees in prayer. With these as a beginning, Gély hopes to start a graphics industry.
The program has an immediate purpose — to bring in more of the people in the community who need part-time work. But beyond that is a bigger goal — to have the Eskimos form their own co-operative, as has been done successfully in seventeen other settlements in the Canadian Arctic. Working for themselves, with the initial income from carvings, handicrafts, graphics, trapping and a tourist industry, they might eventually invest in a bakery, or a barber shop, or a retail store, or other enterprises that would make Baker Lake a more healthy and diversified community.
A year ago, former governor-general Vincent Massey presented a ptarmigan by Kingalik as a wedding present to Princess Alexandra, daughter of the Duchess of Kent. Last October, at the National Gallery Association auction in Ottawa, two of Magpa's sculptures. a kneeling young man and a mother and child, sold for ninety-four dollars and three hundred dollars, respectively. It was the first time an Eskimo's carvings had been sold at an auction on equal terms with other Canadian sculpture. Dr. Ferdinand Eckhardt. Director of the Winnipeg Art Gallery, has scheduled an exhibition of the stone sculpture of Baker Lake for September at the Winnipeg airport. It will be the first time a major exhibition of Baker Lake carvings will have been shown in southern Canada. The exhibition will include about seventy-five pieces from a score of the best sculptors.
Although it is too soon to predict with certainty, the Caribou Eskimos seem, even now, to be carving a more secure world for themselves; a life on the land, camping beside the lakes and rivers in their own wild country, supplied by their own creative efforts with the material things of the world outside, without which even they can no longer survive in the north. ★