Meet the North West River woman passing on ulu-making skills to the next generation

Rodney Wolfrey of Rigolet has been learning to make uluit — a traditional Inuit knife — from Mina Campbell in North West River.

Mina Campbell is teaching Rodney Wolfrey, 17, how to make uluit — and he plans to teach his kids someday

Rodney Wolfrey uses a rotary tool to cut out the blade of an ulu. (Regan Burden/CBC)

The ulu — an Inuit knife, traditionally used by women for things such as food preparation and cleaning animal skins — has been in Mina Campbell's life for as long as she can remember. But using an ulu and making them herself is something she has recently discovered.

"My grandmother, who raised me from birth, cleaned sealskins for people in spring. The hunters would bring the seals — it was a commercial hunt back then — so there were lots of seals being harvested for pelts and the food. So there were always sealskins in our house in the spring, which meant there were always ulus," the North West River woman told CBC.

Despite growing up surrounded by uluit (three or more ulu), it wasn't until Campbell was a young adult that she became interested in using and making them; she says the constant smell of seal grease in her home may have deterred her at that time.

Campbell has her own collection of uluit now, some ornamental and some for practical use, and her collection includes some uluit that have a very special place in her heart.

"[I have one] that belonged to my late uncle Homan Campbell, who was also a seal hunter and sealskin cleaner … and recently my brother who lives in New Jersey and is a deer hunter sent me a couple of antlers and so I made a stand for my late uncle's [ulu] … and [I have] another part of my antler my brother sent me with my grandmother's ulu on it that I use," said Campbell.

Wolfrey and Mina Campbell hold two of the uluit that Wolfrey made with Campbell's help. (Regan Burden/CBC)

About 20 years ago Campbell took her first class in making uluit, from Louie Montague, but didn't continue making them. But last year, during the pandemic, she tried to remember what she had learned all those years ago, and when she found she couldn't quite recall everything, she turned to John Goudie of North West River and made an ulu with him.

"I made around 16 or so last year and intended again because I bought a bunch of equipment and said, 'I'll continue next year' — and it's now so that's what I started to do," said Campbell.

Passing on the skill

Now Campbell — a Nunatsiavut beneficiary — isn't just making uluit herself but passing on the skills involved in making one. Her niece's 17-year-old boyfriend, Rodney Wolfrey of Rigolet — also a Nunatsiavut beneficiary — was visiting her in North West River and when Wolfrey heard Campbell would be spending some of that time making uluit, he decided to learn from her, because of his own grandmother's connection to the ulu.

"My grandma used to use them. She used it to clean sealskins and to cut up the seal meat," said Wolfrey. His family has gone so far as to buy his uluit before he's finished making them.
This is part of Campell's uluit collection. The one on the left once belonged to her grandmother and the one on the right once belonged to her uncle. (Regan Burden/CBC)

"They were pretty excited because [it will] keep the tradition going," he said. "When I was making one, Mina posted a picture on Facebook and then someone messaged her, my Aunt Gertie, and said that she wanted to buy it. [It felt] good that someone wanted to buy it and they're in my family." 
Wolfrey shows off two of the uluit he made with Campbell during his time in North West River. (Regan Burden/CBC)

Campbell said using the uluit that once belonged to her relatives — and making them herself — makes her think about her ancestors. The process makes her feel good.

"It's something that you need to want to learn how to do but I think that it's important because it's something that might fade away, because the ulu is not being used a lot anymore, certainly not in this area. People use them for ornaments or keepsakes and things now, which is still important because they can talk about them and talk about the families that use them and pass the stories on even if the tradition of it is not passed on," said Campbell.

Wolfrey said he plans to keep the tradition going by teaching the skills to his own future children.

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