Dolls were the 'little friends' that helped this artist through residential school

For seven-year-old Helen Iguptak, making her dolls was a meaningful way to reclaim her proud Inuk identity while adrift in a powerful sea of whitewashing.

Helen Iguptak began making her dolls when she was seven years old — and now she's teaching the next generation

Helen Iguptak began making her dolls when she was seven years old. Decades later, she still shows her fascination with them. 4:06

Helen Iguptak is an artist living in Rankin Inlet, Nunavut. Her specialty is making Kivalliq dolls — and there's a deeply personal history behind that.

Iguptak's practice of creating dolls began at Chesterfield Inlet Residential School (also known as Turquetil Hall) when she was seven years old. Her close friend taught her the basics of Kivalliq Inuit dollmaking, a centuries-old practice for Inuit people from the Kivalliq region. Creating dolls allowed children to learn important skills like sewing clothing for family members — but for seven-year-old Iguptak, making her dolls was also a meaningful way to reclaim her proud Inuk identity while she was adrift in a powerful sea of whitewashing at her residential school.

Iguptak and her friend were part of the last generation of children to use Inuit play-dolls — until now.

(CBC Arts)

In 1992, Iguptak used her well-worked and aging hands to revisit her youth, creating a doll for the first time since residential school. And her fingers had a better memory than she thought. Now in her 70s, Iguptak is still making dolls with materials like muskox hair, sheepskin parkas and caribou pants with polyester stuffing. And her dollmaking has an important role in her community as she uses her gift to teach the next generation Inuit stories and legends through craft.

In this video, you'll meet Iguptak as she shows you some of the elements of her dolls, which now travel the world (and were even featured at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver).

Watch CBC Arts: Exhibitionists online or on Friday nights at 12:30am (1am NT) and Sundays at 3:30pm (4pm NT) on CBC Television.

About the Author

Corinne Dunphy is a Nova Scotian documentary filmmaker and graduate of NSCAD University (BFA) and Ryerson University (MFA in documentary media). Her film “Well Fished” has been screened at over 30 festivals on an international spectrum. She is currently living in Iqaluit, Nunavut. She uses stories to engage, educate and help foster social change. As a visual storyteller, Dunphy gravitates towards everyday characters and trusts that character-driven documentaries can speak volumes on larger social issues. She is influenced and inspired by her travels, Betty Crocker cookbooks and Edward Gorey.