A Calgary show tells the story of the Arctic through photos, prints, artifacts and videos
LIFE AT THE TOP OF THE WORLD
A Calgary show tells the story of the Arctic through photos, prints, artifacts and videos
BEFORE Mike Robinson became president and chief executive officer of Calgary’s Glenbow Museum three years ago, he spent more than two decades exploring the circumpolar North. Working on behalf of oil companies, universities and Aboriginal organizations, Robinson logged over 100,000 km of air travel a year. He’s hunted caribou with the Gwich’in of the northern Yukon, lived in an Inuvialuit whaling camp near the Beaufort Sea, and shown Sami reindeer herders in Russia how to document and map the various ways they use the land. Little wonder, then, that Robinson regards the Glenbow’s latest exhibition, Inusivut: Our Way of Life, as a labour of love. Opening this week and running until Sept. 21, Inusivut tells the story of the Arctic through art, using everything from early 20th-century photography to contemporary video. “The North is the wonderful narrative spine holding this country together,” says Robinson. “It’s something we all share, but relatively few can actually see and experience.” Including artifacts from the Glenbow’s own extensive collections, works from other Canadian galleries, live performances and interactive exhibits, Inusivut is an ambitious attempt to bring northern culture home to a southern audience. It also aims to shatter stereotypes and popular misconceptions. For example, an entire wing in the 12,000sq.-foot exhibition is dedicated to the distinct seasons of the North, with particular emphasis on what Robinson calls “the glorious celebration of light, heat and growth” that is an Arctic summer. By focusing on a time when flowers bloom on the tundra, he hopes viewers will realize there is more to the region than snow houses, -40° C temperatures and round-the-clock darkness.
Similarly, urban-based animal rights activists, who have wreaked so much havoc in the lives of the Inuit (not to mention Newfoundland sealers), might want to linger over the artifacts, photographs and videos that bear witness to a people who, for thousands of years, harvested their food and clothing from the animals in their midst— and, to a surprising degree, continue to do so. “To many in the south, it’s about the death of animals and blood and gore,” says Robinson. “What we show here is the normalcy and joy of a sustainable harvest.” The exhibition also reveals how profoundly life has changed for northern Natives over the past century. A treasure trove in this re-
gard is the work of the Lomen brothers—Carl, Harry, Alfred and Ralph—who moved from their native Minnesota to Nome, Alaska, in 1903. The Lomens became experts at taking photographs in extreme Arctic conditions, carefully transporting their glass-plate negatives on dogsleds and setting up cameras on ice floes. A studio fire in 1934 destroyed 25,000 of their pictures. Happily, heavy boxes hauled out of the burning building contained about 5,000 negatives that eventually found a home in the Glenbow archives.
Some 40 Lomen images are featured in Inusivut. Shot in glorious black and white, they attest to an arguably happier era for the Inuit. The pictures show smiling children,
exultant hunters and communities immersed in drum dances and other celebrations. The shots have the whiff of instant nostalgia; there’s little to suggest the inherent hardship of constantly moving from camp to camp in search of game and fish. Still, it’s a remarkable record of how the Inuit once lived, and died, very much on their own terms.
As early as the 1920s, Ottawa began to encourage the Inuit to settle in permanent communities. The motivation was twofold: assert Canadian sovereignty in the North and at the same time “civilize” the Inuit by bringing them into closer contact with churches, schools and nursing stations. Problem was, there were no jobs for people who had lived
so long as nomadic hunters. One solution? Encourage the Inuit to render their stories and relationship with the land and its animals into works of art that could then be marketed in the south. One place the practice flourished was in Holman, on Victoria Island, about 900 km north of Yellowknife. For more than 40 years, the Holman Eskimo Co-operative, as it is still known, has produced distinctive prints and drawings that attract collectors from around the world.
Inusivut includes about 90 pieces of Holman graphic art, all drawn from the extensive Inuit collections at the Winnipeg Art Gallery. Traditional stonecut prints stand alongside more recently adopted stencils
and lithographs. However modem the methods, the art follows ancient themes. Playful depictions of Inuit games, spiritual figures and the region’s oral history abound.
The old and the new also converge in five documentary videos that are part of Inusivut, all of them produced by a women’s workshop based in Igloolik, an Eastern Arctic community of about 1,200. Igloolik’s elders, determined to preserve Inuit language and culture, banned television from the community until the late 1970s. But in an interesting twist, the community has become a hotbed of video filmmaking. One of the films in the exhibit, Anaana (Mother), is the true story of Vivi Kunuk who, as a girl, was abandoned by her father, a white RCMP officer, then adopted by her mother’s Inuit family and raised on the land. Vivi had 11 children of her own, including Mary Kunuk, producer of Anaana, and Zacharias Kunuk, director of Atanarjuat (The Fast Runner), a 172-minute epic shot on digital video which created an international stir when it won the best first feature award at the 2001 Cannes Film Festival.
But perhaps the most intriguing tale in Inusivut belongs to Floyd Binder, a third-generation reindeer herder from the Mackenzie Delta region of the Northwest Territories. Binder’s family is the focus of an exhibit and an accompanying book that relates how the Canadian government responded to a humanitarian crisis in the Far North 70 years ago by trying to turn Inuit hunters into herders. It didn’t always work out as planned.
LLOYD BINDER is speaking on a remarkably clear cellphone connection from the tundra, about 35 km north of Inuvik. His reindeer herd, numbering more than 4,000 animals, is already on Richards Island, a further 80 km to the northwest, where they are calving and will spend the summer. Binder is cleaning up the herd’s winter camp and enjoying the sunny spring day and moderate, 0° C temperatures. “It’s nice,” he says, “to have the opportunity to be out here earning far less than everyone else.”
Binder, 52, is only half-joking. Since buying the reindeer herd two years ago, he’s grappled with how to make a living from it. His plan is to grow the herd to about 12,000 animals, at which point he’ll be able to slaughter a significant number annually and profit from meat exports. Until then, it’s mainly about harvesting velvet antler,
which is used in various medicines in Asia.
Binder doesn’t have to be doing this. He’s got an economics degree from the University of Calgary and for several years was director of economic development and tourism for the Inuvik region of the Northwest Territories. But reindeer herding is in his blood. His maternal grandparents, Mikkel and Anna Pulk, Sami reindeer herders from Norway, were recruited by the Canadian government in the early 1930s to teach their ancient livelihood to the Inuit. The Pulks remained as herders for over 30 years. Their daughter, Ellen, married Lloyd’s father, Otto, an Inuvialuit (the Inuit of the Western Arctic) from Coppermine, N.W.T., now known as Kugluktuk. Otto also owned a herd for several years in the 1940s before becoming a game warden and then a special constable with the RCMP.
Reindeer are not native to the Canadian North and how they got there is quite the tale. In the late 1920s, Inuit living in Aklavik and Tuktoyaktuk suffered terribly after the wide-ranging caribou herd, on which their people had always depended, shifted its mi-
gration patterns away from those communities. Some hunters began to pursue the caribou. To provide a stable source of meat, and encourage the Inuit to stay in semi-permanent settlements, Ottawa decided to follow the example of Alaska. In the late 19th century, Alaska had imported reindeer from Siberia and Scandinavia and hired Sami from Scandinavia to teach the Inuit how to herd. Canada purchased 3,000 animals from a herd owned by the Lomen brothers (yes, those Lomen brothers) and recruited the Pulks and three other Sami families.
The enterprise, known as the Canadian Reindeer Project, struggled from the get-go. Bureaucratic overseers assigned herders ranges that did not accord with the reindeer’s calving and forage requirements. Then there was the matter of culture clash. The Inuit were used to living by the rhythm of the seasons, moving over vast tracts of land and water in pursuit of caribou, seals and whales. They did not take easily to being tied down for most of the year tending a bunch of reindeer.
The herd passed through several hands be-
fore Binder was approached about buying the animals. Given his family background, Lloyd would seem uniquely qualified for the job. But it remains a considerable challenge. The Inuit still don’t like being saddled with the herd when the fish are biting in the spring or the whales beckoning in the summer (Binder tries to deal with this by hiring mainly part-time workers). Then there’s the fact that practically every other job in the wage economy pays better. Significantly, none of Binder’s three children, aged 21 to 26, are interested in taking on the family business.
Binder, who first met Robinson during his university days in Calgary, says he agreed to act as a consultant on the Glenbow exhibition as a way of documenting the unique history of the Canadian Reindeer Project. But he has another motive. “I’ve long felt there’s a potential tourism spin-off with the reindeer,” says Binder. “I’d hope after this that I’d be getting calls from people who want the chance to experience the outdoors and observe nature.” He may get his wish. As Inusivut amply demonstrates, the narrative of the North is constantly evolving. lil
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