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If you want to learn about how the Inuit used to live in the Canadian Arctic in the past, just ask Mary Okatsiak and Peter Mikeeuniak.

Mary Okatsiak from Arviat, Nunavut
Mary Okatsiak from Arviat, Nunavut
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

The Inuk couple live in Arviat, Nunavut, which is located 236 miles (380 kilometers) north of Churchill, Manitoba, on the west coast of Hudson Bay. "Our Arviat to Churchill flight on Calm Air was only 30 minutes long," said Mary.

We met Peter and Mary during one of their presentations about Inuit culture to groups on Churchill polar bear trips. On a very cold November evening, we huddled together inside a caribou skin tent that Mary had made from more than two dozen caribou skins.

Inuit homes

"A family-sized tent is almost half the size of this tent," explained Mary, noting that Inuit people don't live in tupiq (caribou skin tents) anymore.

"We stopped living this way in the 1940s and 1950s. I was born in an igloo, but I don't remember living in one. By the time I was old enough to remember, the Canadian government had built houses for the Inuit to live in, so we all started living the modern way."

Drum dance

Peter walked into the tent with a large hand drum and a drum-beater. "The drum surface used to be caribou skin, which I had to wet every five minutes, especially during dry, warm weather," he explained. "I don't have to wet this material, but when the weather is cold, I have to tune it a lot."

Peter Mikeeuniak performs drum dance
Peter Mikeeuniak performs drum dance
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Mary explained that the Arviat style of drum dancing is different from the High Arctic's, where they do the drum dance with two or more people. "Inuit drumming accompanies songs that tell stories about things they've done in their lives and things they want to remember."

Inuit song

Mary sang part of her grandmother's song as Peter accompanied her with his drum. "Her song has many memories and it's easy to translate from Inuktitut (the Inuit language) to English."

Mary Okatsiak holds sealskin strips for making rope
Mary Okatsiak holds sealskin strips for making rope
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

After Peter finished his drum dance, Mary translated the aya-yait song. It highlighted her grandmother's memories about freezing-cold igloos, sewing caribou clothing and shooting a bull caribou in her camp, while the men were away hunting.

Caribou skin clothing

Mary described her caribou skin clothing and explained that if it were a baby-carrying outfit, the hair would be on the inside. Pockets, on each end of the shoulders, allow room for mothers to feed their babies inside the garment when it is cold in the igloo or tupiq.

She explained that only a few elders still wear caribou clothes. "Nowadays, Inuit people prefer down-filled clothing. We use caribou skins for mattresses."

According to Mary Okatsiak, in the old days the Inuit tanned caribou skins by taking off the meat very carefully, partially drying the pelts in the sun on a flat surface, and then stretching them onto frames. "We used scraper blades to remove membranes from the skins to soften them."

She passed around a pair of handmade caribou skin mitts. "Men's mitts are made from the front and back of the caribou skin, while the women's sizes are made from only the front. Nowadays, women like to put linings inside their mittens," she explained.

"For thread, the Inuit people used sinew (dried caribou tendon). I use new and improved wax thread," said Mary, eliciting laughs from everyone.

She showed us her sealskin boots, made from ringed seal pelts. "They are waterproof. My cousin made them and gave them to me.

"The soles are made from bearded seal pelts. Bearded seals are bigger, tougher and heavier than ringed seals."

Caribou antler knife
Caribou antler knife
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Inuit tools

"Men cut long strips from the middle of bearded seal skins, dried them, and then braided them into sealskin rope for sleds and dog harnesses."

Mary then passed around a small knife made from caribou antlers. "Men use these knives to cut the snow to make an igloo."

We admired the fine workmanship, noting that the blade was attached to the handle with sinew that was threaded through holes and tied.

Soapstone lamp

What did Inuit people use for heat and light in the past? Mary showed us a soapstone lamp (qulliq).

"Back then, we mixed peat moss with seal oil and placed it along the rim for the flame. This is a wick trimmer, which the ladies kept at their sides to trim the wicks to get better flames."

Mary explained that the Inuit didn't have fires in the middle of their tents like other cultures. "The big cooking area was outside, close to the skin tent."

Although this soapstone lamp was made from tin, she explained that we could see a real qulliq in Churchill's Eskimo Museum. "Although there's a hole on the top of the caribou tent, Inuit women were good at controlling the qulliq flames so they didn't create too much smoke."

Looking through Inuit snow goggles
Looking through Inuit snow goggles
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Snow goggles

Mary circulated some snow goggles, handmade from caribou antler. Little slits kept the bright light out of the wearer's eyes. A strap of caribou skin, with the hair removed, wrapped around the head to hold the goggles in place.

A teenager in our group tried them on. "Young Inuit people today prefer UV-protecting sunglasses," noted Mary.

Someone asked if the snow goggles came in different colors. "No, just basic beige," quipped another person.

Inuit games

The laughter continued as Mary showed us how to play an Inuit game for kids. We had to pierce a hole in a hollow caribou antler by flipping a bone attached with a string.

The game looked easier than it was. We all tried it and missed. "You can always blame the poor light," she said, eliciting more laughs.

Necklace made with grizzly bear claw and caribou teeth
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Even though we only spent a short time with Mary and Peter, we had a much better understanding of the Inuit lifestyle in times past and today.

Inuit food

One thing that hasn't changed over the years is that caribou is still the mainstay of the Inuit diet. "Peter hunts every chance he gets, because the animals are migratory."

Traditionally, families ate the caribou meat, used the antlers for tools and games and the pelts for clothing, shelter and mats. But what did they do with the teeth?

Perhaps they did the same thing as Mary did when, years ago, her grandson gave her some caribou teeth. She made them into a necklace with braided sinew and a grizzly bear claw.

More information about the Canadian Inuit:

Northwest Territories - Muktuk, Moose Hair and The Mighty Mackenzie

Arctic Cruise - Adventure Canada Expedition to Nunavut and Greenland

What to See in Qaummaarviit Park - Iqaluit, Nunavut