Heather Igloliorte

IInuit artists have maintained cultural resilience through their artwork since the beginning of the contemporary Inuit art period, despite the many changes that threatened Inuit knowledge, languages, and lifeways. I have discovered that despite the small number of artworks that specifically address the Inuit residential school experience, there is a sizeable and growing body of Inuit art that deals with and critiques the entangled impacts of nearly a century of colonialism and Christianity in the Arctic, which includes residential schools. This flourishing sub-genre of contemporary Inuit art can provide us with valuable insights concerning the impact of the onslaught of European culture in the Arctic during the mid-twentieth century. These works also show us how Inuit artists have challenged that colonial legacy with tremendous grace, humour, and resilience.

Inuit have overcome many obstacles on the path to healing and reconciliation, and some examples will show how Inuit have utilized the visual arts to resist the forces of the European colonial legacy. Despite the numerous affronts deployed to protect Inuit society from the early to mid-twentieth century to the present, artmaking, as a consistent and positive presence in many Arctic Inuit communities over the past sixty years, has been an important factor in supporting Inuit cultural resilience.1

Processes of Colonization and Christianity in the North

While Western discourse often separates, classifies, or compartmentalizes its objects of study, it would be imprudent to engage in a discussion of the impact of residential schooling on Inuit culture in isolation from the other nearly simultaneous and traumatic events experienced by Inuit communities during the mid-twentieth century. Following centuries of a relatively uninterrupted and fundamentally semi-nomadic lifestyle, even the prolonged contact with European whalers and explorers throughout the nineteenth century could not have prepared the Inuit for the rapid onslaught of European colonization in the Arctic over the span of the first half of the twentieth century. Residential schooling was only one facet of the numerous threats to Inuit sovereignty from the hegemonic colonial society that imposed a multitude of changes in the North. In many ways, Inuit culture is still reeling from the combined impacts of a number of detrimental changes. As such, it is not surprising that many Inuit artists have not often dealt directly or solely with residential schooling as artistic subject matter, but instead addressed the issues and impacts that have emerged from the elaborate convolution of these outside forces. For example, intergenerational trauma is one of the legacies of residential schools. Its effects occur when victims of trauma develop unhealthy ways of coping, such as self-medicating with drugs or alcohol and then unwittingly pass these dysfunctional behaviours on to their children.

Alcoholism is one impact that arose out of residential schools and is represented through Inuit art. More famous for his drawings of birds and Arctic animals, Kananginak Pootoogook has created a significant series of narrative drawings that provide cogent examples of the ills of alcoholism in his community, despite only hinting at the origin of the problem. One of these drawings, which appeared in the Spring 2007 edition of Inuit Art Quarterly, is captioned by the artist: “This is the Inuk man’s first drink ever. Even though it’s only wine he is very intoxicated. This is the beginning of Alcoholism.”2 In the image, a white man attired like a trapper looks on with detached amusement while a clearly intoxicated Inuk sloshes a glass of red wine around.

Sculptor Ovilu Tunnillie and graphic artist Annie Pootoogook, two women artists of the Inuit avant-garde, have also provided variations on the theme of impacts of alcohol. They too intertwine a variety of complex issues in their art by examining the relationship of alcohol with spousal abuse, negative self-image, and community impacts—all legacies of the colonial incursion in the North and, in some circumstances, the direct result of residential schools.

Dramatic Changes to Inuit Lifestyle

In the few short decades preceding the introduction of the residential school system to the North, the traditional way of life in the Arctic was already under threat of erosion due to the impact of Euro-Canadian culture throughout the North. Unlike the South, where the changes to Aboriginal communities were spread out over a century of increased Western European colonization and evangelization, Inuit culture had remained relatively intact and unscathed until the 1950s, largely because the Inuit had been ignored by the Canadian government and was isolated from prolonged contact with southerners. Beginning in the late nineteenth century (and much earlier in Labrador), Christian missionaries were dispatched to the Arctic and Subarctic, but it was not until the 1910s and 1920s that massive numbers of Inuit were rapidly and almost wholly converted primarily to the Catholic and Anglican faiths. The churches banned the Inuit converts from practicing numerous spiritual customs and cultural traditions, believing that the Inuit way of life to be fundamentally heathen and savage. At the same time, Hudson’s Bay Company trading posts had been established throughout the North, encouraging Inuit to abandon their semi-nomadic lifestyle and to settle in the communities established around the posts.3 This often led to the over-hunting of wildlife in the areas of settlement and further dependency on canned goods and packaged foods from the South. Diseases such as smallpox and tuberculosis spread quickly throughout these new settlements as well.4

Seemingly overnight, Inuit populations had been converted to Christianity, were concentrated in settlements and threatened by disease, and had become dependant on trade goods. Sled dogs are alleged to have been slaughtered by RCMP officers throughout the eastern Arctic and elsewhere, further grounding the already partially immobilized Inuit.5 In northern Quebec and Labrador, Inuit communities were wholly relocated under the pretence of benefiting the community, but in reality serving government interests only.6 This had devastating consequences on the relocatees as well as on the settlements they overcrowded. Amidst this cultural turmoil, residential schools were introduced across the North under the pretext that the residential school system would be “the most effective way of giving children from primitive environments, experience in education along the lines of civilization leading to vocational training to fit them for occupations in the white man’s economy.”7 Inuit children were taken from their homes in large numbers and forced to learn the Qallunaat (Inuktitut for Europeans and Euro-Canadians) way of life at the expense of their own. Prior to 1955, less than 15 per cent of school-aged Inuit children were enrolled in residential schools; within a decade, this number would climb to over 75 per cent.8

The Survivors, while grateful for the education they received, had suffered greatly as children, and many grew up to be traumatized adults. Inuit children were forbidden to speak their own language or practice any aspect of their culture in the schools, dormitories, hostels, and other residences. The crux of assimilation lies in the adoption of the English language, so the prohibition on traditional languages was often strictly enforced with harsh punishments. Many students were physically, mentally, and sexually abused by those responsible for their care. Furthermore, Inuit children were made to feel ashamed of their traditional way of life, and many had developed disdain toward their parents, their culture, their centuries-old practices and beliefs, and even for the country foods their parents provided. The deleterious effects that the residential school system had on the health and well-being of these Survivors and their families were evident everywhere in their communities and were compounded by the other converging impacts of colonialism and evangelization.

The Contemporary Inuit Arts Industry in the Arctic

The aforementioned changes ushered in a new era of impoverishment to Inuit culture that took hold in the span of mere decades, and this had continued unabated throughout the 1950s and on into the next four decades. In the beginning of this era, the newly settled Inuit were presented with few opportunities for wage employment, and the fur trade was in sharp decline. Following the conclusion of World War II and the beginning of the Cold War, Inuit were becoming increasingly dependent on the support of the federal government, and the federal government was becoming increasingly concerned with maintaining Arctic sovereignty, which dealt with it by way of taking responsibility for its Arctic citizens.9 During this period of increased and reluctant paternalism, the arts industry was one of the first experimental developments introduced to replace the fur trade. As an industry that required little machinery or overhead, it seemed to be work well-suited to remote northern areas, and the government sentiment seemed to be that the development of Inuit handicrafts was an avenue “for which nature has fitted them.”10 Most significantly, it was also one of the first opportunities for subjugated Inuit to regain a necessary measure of self-reliance.

Instrumental in the success of this fledgling venture was teacher and artist James Houston, who travelled throughout the North during the 1950s and 1960s instructing Inuit on what things would sell in the South and liaised with the Hudson’s Bay Company, the Canadian Handicrafts Guild, and the federal government to purchase works, hold exhibitions, and market Inuit art to southerners. Under Houston’s guidance, the industry quickly grew into a viable economic substitute for the rapidly declining fur trade.

Because Inuit had always carved and produced beautiful handmade clothing and personal adornments, they were already skilled for this arts industry. Furthermore, Inuit were quite accustomed to the process of manufacturing carvings for trade and sale; there are reports from as early as 1821 of Inuit bartering ivory figurines and models with seamen from whalers and other ships that visited Arctic waters.11 Moreover, there were many positive effects from the early carvings and handicrafts trade. Welfare administrator and teacher Margery Hinds reported on the improvement in morale in the encampments around Port Harrison;12 and RCMP officers reported similar accounts for other locales where welfare payments had decreased.13 Government administrators, and even many teachers, encouraged the production of handicrafts in the manner that Houston had laid out, and sales of arts and crafts went up in the communities where Houston was involved. Port Harrison, for example, experienced an increase in purchases from $76 in 1948 to $11,700 in 1952. In Povungnituk, the increase was from $90 to $1,900 for the same time span.14

Perhaps it was more significant that Inuit were being asked to depict their traditional and, in many cases, forbidden cultural practices in stone and, later, on paper and in textiles. Artists could illustrate the stories they had told for millennia as well as the Indigenous knowledge bestowed on them by their ancestors, the animals they had studied since childhood, and the traditional lifestyle they had so recently lived. While all around them their culture was being debased, devalued, and actively oppressed by the dual forces of colonialism and Christianity, these same values were revered, celebrated, and voraciously collected in their arts.

For artists, there is no doubt that there was an economic motivation behind the creation of artworks that featured traditional themes, as their main audience in the beginning were the primitive art enthusiasts of the international art market; those who had romanticized notions about the daily lives of Inuit.15 The traditional subject matter of the artwork held a different meaning for this audience than it did for the makers. Inuit art buyers were able to imagine the Inuit as an untouched society, of which representations of this traditional lifestyle sold well, and Inuit were no doubt aware of this fact. It is undeniable that Inuit artists have been highly successful in creating traditional art that suits Western tastes, as the global market for Inuit art attests.16 However, as long as Inuit knowledge, stories, or practices portrayed in the artwork are not distorted or falsified to make them more saleable, the artwork can both appeal to a Western audience as well as act as an expression of cultural knowledge and cultural resilience. In fact, these motivate many Inuit artists today to continue making art about what life was like before colonization.

Despite being his primary source of income, stone sculptor Uriash Puqiqnak stated, “When I carve, I try to convey what it was like for Inuit in the early 1940s.”17 Graphic artist Mayureak Ashoona has said of her artwork that “These are all about history – what has been going on. They are memories; the whole truth about all of life for those who forget about their history; to make sure that the young people know what really happened; to work both sides, from the past to the future; to communicate with people in the South because I can’t speak English. I am proud of that lifestyle – my Inuit life.”18

Impacts of Colonization and Christianity and Utilizing Art in the Healing Process

In recent years, some artists have daringly stepped outside this framework to provide us with a number of divergent perspectives on the transformation of the North. These new artworks, uncommon and introspective, are a significant departure from the traditional imagery usually found in past decades, but I would argue that they serve similar ends: to strengthen from within a culture threatened by dominant outside forces and to examine the way of life as Inuit know it. As the second and third generation of Inuit artists emerge, the possibility of remembering a traditional and unmediated lifestyle becomes less likely, and the artwork is shifting to reflect this reality. The movement towards depicting the intercultural encounter between Inuit and Western worlds most prominently began with Pudlo Pudlat, the artist who first combined traditional Inuit transformation iconography with modern transportation technologies, such as depicting planes, ships, and helicopters in his art from the 1960s onward.19 This new approach to Inuit art seems to be accelerating of late and includes more social commentary and critique.

This emergent socially conscious art is indicative of the increased ability of Inuit to reflect upon and respond to the multiple stressors of contemporary life. There has been a noticeable shift over the last two decades to a focus on daring, new intercultural or transcultural subject matter (as demonstrated in the work of Napatchie Pootoogook, Mike Massie, Toonoo Sharky, Floyd Kuptana, and many others) and what is hopefully a growing body of work that directly calls into question
the legacy of trauma and colonization of the Arctic (as in the work of, Manasie Akpaliapik, Annie Pootoogook, and Oviloo Tunnilee).

The aforementioned graphic artist, Annie Pootoogook, for example, presents an impressive self-reflexive and autobiographical account of her personal challenges. In one work, entitled Memory of My Life: Breaking Bottles (2001-02), Pootoogook expresses her frustration with family alcoholism by depicting the time she gathered all the liquor bottles up and smashed them.20 Such bold statements are novel to Inuit art, but indicate a willingness of Inuit artists to begin the difficult process of self-examination and a desire to rebound from adversity to become fortified and more resourceful—the essence of resilience.

Yet to date, nowhere has this resilience and self-reflexivity been more evident than in the work of brothers Abraham Anghik Ruben21 and David Ruben Piqtoukun. Piqtoukun and Ruben are pioneers in the field who have drawn directly from their experiences as students of the residential school system to inspire their artwork. For the majority of students who attended residential school, the wounds inflicted by the system have left deep scars that continue to affect many aspects of their daily lives; so, from these two artists who have poured their memories and emotions into their artwork, we may be able to learn much about the power of self-expression to heal and fortify.

For Ruben, becoming an artist was the catalyst for self-healing. In a 1991 interview, Ruben recounted the eleven years he spent suffering from the legacy of residential schooling until he met Alaskan Inupiaq artist Ron Senungetuk, a professor at the Native Arts Centre at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks, and began professional art training: “For the first time in years, I felt at home.”22 Since then, Abraham has gone on to create several bold works of social critique that bring awareness to the issues he holds dear: Kittigazuit (1999–2000), for example, narrates in the abstract a community decimated by foreign disease; and The Last Goodbye (2001) depicts with vivid clarity the pain he remembers his mother had experienced as she sent her two older children to residential school.

For Piqtoukun, the solo exhibition Between Two Worlds: Sculpture by David Ruben Piqtoukun was a revelation for artist and audiences alike. The artist created 62 works with such titles as Bearing Wounds (1995), Angst (1995), and Tradition Lost (1996). Taken together, these works expose the complexities and difficulties of cross-cultural translation and provide the viewer unmitigated access into Piqtoukun’s traumatic past and his continuing effort to strike a balance between two worlds. One of his most powerful messages of Inuit cultural resilience is present in The Ever-Present Nuns (1995), of which Piqtoukun wrote, “The four faces pointing in four directions represent the all-seeing nuns. They attempted to watch over and control the Inuit children in their school, even to control their inner lives. But the nuns could not see everything. They were blind to the owl spirit hovering directly above them.”23

From the tremendous efforts of these two siblings we have been given a remarkable insight into the potential of artmaking as a tool for both resisting colonization and strengthening Inuit voice. In fact, all of the artists featured in this essay have shown us that art can be creatively utilized as a vehicle to preserve and fortify our cultural heritage and as an instrument of both personal and collective healing. However, as we enter this period of unprecedented nationwide awareness around residential schools, the artwork of Inuit, First Nations, and Métis people can play another important role. The power of visual art to speak across linguistic, cultural, and generational divides presents an opportunity for artists to tell these stories to a broad audience and to support the continued strengthening and revitalization of the national reconciliation process.


Heather Igloliorte is an Inuk artist, writer, and curator from Labrador. After graduating from the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design University with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in painting and a minor in art history, she moved to Ottawa to pursue her Master’s in Canadian Art History, specializing in Inuit art. While in the master’s program, Heather completed a year-long internship as a curatorial assistant at the Canadian Museum of Civilization, became involved with the Aboriginal Curatorial Collective (ACC), and was hired by the Carleton University Art Gallery to be the Curator of Inuit Art for the 2005–2006 academic year. Her artwork has been shown and sold all over the east coast and can be found in several public and private collections.

Heather is now pursuing a doctorate in Inuit and other global Indigenous art histories at Carleton University with the Institute for Comparative Studies in Language, Arts, and Culture. Her dissertation research centres on the historic and contemporary visual arts of the Labradorimiut.

She is also currently working on several upcoming exhibitions, including the nationally touring exhibit We Were So Far Away – The Inuit Experience of Residential Schools, which features the stories of eight Inuit former students of residential schools.

  1. The Aboriginal Healing Foundation explains that resilience “is most often defined as the capacity to spring back from adversity and have a good life outcome despite emotional, mental or physical distress.… the adoption of “mature defenses” (i.e., humour and altruism) can help individuals overcome a lifetime of adversity; whereas anti-social or self-injurious coping strategies can aggravate existing risk factors and conditions. Breaking with the past and disrupting negative chain reactions are, therefore, critical steps in desisting from such negative strategies.… Culture and resilience intersect and help shape traditions, beliefs and human relationships. Traditional Aboriginal societies have placed great emphasis on fostering resilience for children and youth, but an oppressive colonial experience has often cut off Aboriginal parents from such cultural moorings. Notwithstanding, the resurgence of Aboriginal beliefs and practices, accompanied by traditional resilience promotion strategies, has given rise to promising interventions.” Stout, Madeleine Dion and Gregory Kipling (2003:iii – iv). Aboriginal People, Resilience and the Residential School Legacy. Ottawa, ON: Aboriginal Healing Foundation. It is my contention that artmaking is one of these promising interventions that may strengthen the resilience of Inuit culture against past and continued oppressions.
  2. Cited in Kardosh, Robert (2007:14). The Other Kananginak Pootoogook. Inuit Art Quarterly 22(1):10–18.
  3. Unfortunately, these government-created communities “were usually constructed at the site of the trading posts, inspite of the fact that these locations had been chosen to satisfy the demands of the fur trade (access to ports, for instance) and were not necessarily suited to supporting large colonies of people.” Mitchell, Marybelle (1993:336). Social, Economic, and Political Transformation among Canadian Inuit from 1950 to 1988. In In the Shadow of the Sun: Perspectives on Contemporary Native Art. Gatineau, QC: Canadian Museum of Civilization: 333–356.
  4. Norget, Kristen (2008:222). The Hunt for Inuit Souls: Religion, Colonization, and the Politics of Memory. In Gillian Robinson (ed.), The Journals of Knud Rasmussen: A Sense of Memory and High-Definition Storytelling. Montreal, QC: Isuma Productions: 217–236.
  5. These allegations are currently under investigation by the Qikiqtani Inuit Association.
  6. In 1959, the Hebronimiut of Labrador, for example, had their community forcibly relocated to more southern Labrador communities because the non-Inuit administrators in Hebron felt that it was too expensive to continue to fly supplies to the coast; Inuit were promised new homes and jobs, yet those promises were never fulfilled. Brice-Bennett, Carol (2000). Reconciling with Memories: A Record of the Reunion at Hebron 40 Years after Relocation. Nain, NL: Labrador Inuit Association.
  7. NAC RG85 volume 1507, file # 600-1-1, part 7. Report on Education in Canada’s Northland, 12 December 1954.
  8. King, David (2006). A Brief Report of the Federal Government of Canada’s Residential School System for Inuit. Ottawa, ON: Aboriginal Healing Foundation.
  9. Diubaldo, Richard (1985). The Government of Canada and the Inuit: 1900-1967. Ottawa, ON: Research Branch, Corporate Policy, Indian and Northern Affairs Canada.
  10. Canada. Department of the Interior (1928:10). Annual Report of the Department of the Interior for the Fiscal Year Ended March 31, 1928. Ottawa, ON: Department of the Interior.
  11. In order to obtain early trade goods from European whalers and other Arctic travellers, Inuit began producing quantities of figurines and miniatures specifically for the purpose of bartering. As early as 1821, William Parry recounted that Inuit who met his ships along the shores of Baffin Island were eager to trade their ivory models for “any trifle we chose to give them.” In Parry, William E. (1824:24). Journal of the Second Voyage for the Discovery of a North-West Passage from the Atlantic to the Pacific. New York, NY: Greenwood Press. Certain types of carvings and models of traditional tools, toys, and amulets were in high demand. In response, Inuit carvers produced these carvings in quantity for trade with Europeans. As George Swinton has pointed out in Sculpture of the Inuit, it was in this period that Inuit commercial art production truly first began. In Swinton, George (1999). Sculpture of the Inuit, 3rd revised edition. Toronto, ON: McClelland and Stewart.
  12. Goetz, Helga (1985). The Role of the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs in the Development of Inuit Art. Ottawa, ON: Inuit Art Section, Indian and Northern Affairs, Research and Documentation Centre (unpublished manuscript).
  13. Graburn, Nelson H.H (2004). Authentic Inuit Art: Creation and Exclusion in the Canadian North. Journal of Material Culture 9(2):141–159.
  14. These figures were estimates by Goetz, and include prices paid by the Guild, the HBC, the Catholic and Anglican missions, and military personnel.
  15. It should be noted that several scholars have examined the motivations behind the avid collection of early contemporary Inuit art and, particularly, its acceptance into the international art market intrinsically linked as it was to the perception of Inuit as “primitive” peoples. This monetary motivation has been critiqued repeatedly by non-Inuit art historians over the short history of contemporary Inuit art, particularly because the promoters of Inuit art seem to have actively tried to conceal or minimize the importance of economic incentives to Inuit artists. This idea was capitalized upon by Inuit art’s most passionate promoter, James Houston, who keenly understood the mid-century modernist fascination with primitive peoples and used it to market Inuit art as the products of an untouched, exotic, and primitive society. This is in sharp contrast to the realities of Inuit life previously mentioned in this essay. For more information see, for example, Igloliorte, Heather (2007). Sanajatsarq: Reactions, Productions, and the Transformation of Promotional Practice. Inuit Art Quarterly 22(4):14–25.
  16. Furthermore, Inuit artists have been often criticized for focusing on traditional themes and for representing themselves in a way that is different from the realities of daily life. These critics, while acknowledging that, as Robert Kardosh has said, “the expression of traditional subjects serves an important purpose by helping to preserve and sustain Inuit identity in an era of globalization,” still denounce this traditional art form as primarily motivated by the international art market’s nostalgic desire for the products of an authentic and primitive society. Kardosh, Robert (2007:16). The Other Kananginak Pootoogook. Inuit Art Quarterly 22(1):10–18.
  17. Cited in Mitchell, Marybelle (1991:12). Seven Artists in Ottawa. Inuit Art Quarterly 6(3):6–17.
  18. Cited in Feheley, Patricia (2001:14). Focus on Mayureak Ashoona. Inuit Art Quarterly 17(1):14–19 (italics removed).
  19. Hessel, Ingo (1998). Inuit Art: An Introduction. New York, NY. Harry N. Abrams, Inc.
  20. See page 13 for this image printed in Feheley, Patricia (2004). Modern Language: The Art of Annie Pootoogook. Inuit Art Quarterly 19(2):10–15.
  21. Ruben’s 2001 Brazilian soapstone carving, Wrestling With My Demons, was featured on the cover of the 2008 AHF publication, From Truth to Reconciliation: Transforming the Legacy of Residential Schools.
  22. Cited in Gunderson, Sonia (2005:20). Abraham Apakark Anghik Ruben: A View from the Top of the World. Inuit Art Quarterly 20(4):18–25.
  23. Cited in Gillmor, Alison (1996:32). Between Two Worlds: Sculpture by David Ruben Piqtoukun. Inuit Art Quarterly 11(4):30–34.