Exhibit reunites Inuit with 100-year-old artifacts in Cambridge Bay

The Kitikmeot Heritage Society has unveiled nine new artifacts at its museum in Cambridge Bay. Nunavut, giving more insight as to how Inuit in the region lived more than 100 years ago.

'They just were so creative and ingenious ... it's so beautiful,' says Kitikmeot Heritage Society director

Elders from Cambridge Bay, Nunavut, worked with staff from the Canadian Museum of History to select new objects for the hamlet's Diamond Jenness exhibit based on their interests. (Submitted: Pitquhirnikkut Ilihautiniq / Kitikmeot Heritage Society)

Inuit in Canada's central Arctic are getting new insight into how their ancestors lived by seeing 100-year-old artifacts on display in Cambridge Bay, Nunavut.

The Kitikmeot Heritage Society (Pitquhirnikkut Ilihautiniq), which has a long-term loan agreement with the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau, Que., unveiled nine new artifacts at its Cambridge Bay museum last month.

The objects are among the roughly 3,000 collected by anthropologist Diamond Jenness who took part in the Canadian Arctic Expedition between 1913-1918.  It was the first major scientific expedition supported by the Canadian government.

"They're historical objects from our culture and we're bringing them back into our community and giving them the exposure to people again," said Pam Gross, the society's executive director. 

"They just were so creative and ingenious ... it's so beautiful."

Diamond Jenness (centre left) with Copper Inuit at Bernard Harbour, Northwest Territories (Nunavut) (Canadian Museum of History, 42232)

Objects collected by Jenness have been in rotation at the Kitikmeot Heritage Society's tiny museum inside the May Hakongak Cultural Centre since it opened in 2002.

Jenness, a pioneer of Canadian anthropology, traded and bought objects from Inuit living in the Coronation Gulf region, giving a unique look into Inuinnait life before widespread contact with Europeans. 

Elders from the Kitikmeot worked with museum staff in Gatineau over eight months to select the new pieces based on their interests.

The artifacts range from caribou skin parkas, drum dancing hats that incorporate seal skin and the head of a yellow billed loon, and amulets.

They're historical objects from our culture and we're bringing them back into our community and giving them the exposure to people again.- Pam Gross,  Pitquhirnikkut Ilihautiniq/Kitikmeot Heritage Society

"Our culture and our shamanistic rituals...were suppressed through Christianity," said Gross, adding the elders picked amulets to explore using and recreating them again.

"Talking about these kind of things is a great avenue to sharing our culture and practices." 

Inuit in the region are also keen on getting a close-up look at crimped kamiks (traditional footwear).

The toe of the shoes are made of bleached seal skin, intricately folded and pinched with tiny stitches — a skill and pattern that is now being revived.

This pair of crimped kamiks made of bleached seal skin are more than 100 years old and among the artifacts added to the Diamond Jenness collection in Cambridge Bay, Nunavut. (Submitted: Pitquhirnikkut Ilihautiniq / Kitikmeot Heritage Society)

Already, elders in Cambridge Bay are sharing traditional knowledge on how many of the items were used. The Kitikmeot Heritage Society is developing workshops to teach people how to make them again.

"This is just fantastic information for us," said Ryan. 

Getting the artifacts to Cambridge Bay, a hamlet located on Nunavut's Dease Strait, and exchanging out the older pieces was no easy feat.

Caribou skin parkas stored in the Gatineau museum's refrigerator were slowly brought to room temperature over 24 hours and then assessed to see if they could handle the trip north.

Pam Gross of the Kitikmeot Heritage Society examines a caribou skin parka at the Canadian Museum of History. (Submitted: Pitquhirnikkut Ilihautiniq / Kitikmeot Heritage Society)

"They're so delicate, these hairs that you know are there are 100 years old," said Karen Ryan, curator of Northern Canada at the Canadian Museum of History.  

This kind of exchange takes "a lot of trust" on both ends, Ryan said, and the museum has developed a "fantastic relationship" with the Kitikmeot society. With no territorial museum in Nunavut, there are few opportunities to bring the pieces back to the region, she added. 

The museum in Cambridge Bay is equipped with display cases that create a "micro environment" for the objects, which keep in just the right amount of moisture and keep UV rays out. 

Elders in Cambridge bay, Nunavut sharing traditional knowledge about 100 year old artifacts collected by Diamond Jenness during the Canadian Arctic Expedition between 1913-1918.

Someday, Pam Gross said she would like to see the items repatriated back to the region. But first, the Kitikmeot Heritage Society will need a much larger space.

The focus for now is learning as much as they can about the new objects and even "activating" artifacts from the society's personal collection, Gross said. 

This summer, under the advice of elders, the society lit a more than 300-year-old qulliq, or stone lamp, at the grand opening of the Canadian High Arctic Research Station.

"We're working from decolonization and ensuring that our cultural practices are passed on ... people are learning how to use them, to celebrate that and be proud of that," Gross said. 

Elders in Cambridge Bay take a closer look at artifacts made by their ancestors, the Copper Inuit, more than 100 years ago. (Submitted: Pitquhirnikkut Ilihautiniq/Kitikmeot Heritage Society)

About the Author

Kate Kyle is a reporter for CBC North based in Yellowknife. Find her on Twitter @_kate_kyle