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Inuit parkas change with the times

Walking down a Nunavut street in winter can be like walking down a Paris runway. Everyone wants to show off their parka, but fashions have changed, writes the CBC's Jane Sponagle.
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      Walking down a Nunavut street in winter can be like walking down a Paris runway. Everyone wants to show off their parka.

      These are not store-bought Canada Goose parkas, but homemade and based on traditional Inuit design.

      These days, you can tell someone's favourite hockey team or TV show by looking at her parka, but not long ago, Inuit were also able to tell which community someone came from based on the design.

      Bernadette Dean grew up in Coral Harbour. The community was known for its pointy parka hood and a single stripe along the bottom and around the cuffs.

      "But it's a specific pointy, it's probably not what you're picturing," says Dean.

      Dean jokes that she's disappointed her ancestors, Aivilingmiut, only wore one stripe, while Amittumiut, or someone from Igloolik, had two.

      "I know our ancestors could tell what community or what area you were from just seeing the clothing you were wearing. Whether it had one stripe or two stripes or if it had a slit down the middle, they could tell which region you were from."

      Parka design from community to community was much more distinct 60 to 80 years ago, says Dean, before Inuit were settled into communities. She points to the photographs by Pitseolak Peter, who captured life in Cape Dorset at the beginning of settlement. Traditional seal skin parkas were mixed with ones made from fabric from the Hudson's Bay Company store.

      Dean says she admires the Cape Dorset style. "They're just very bold," she says. "And men and women at that time, their skill of clothing and the care that was taken back then to harvest animals at a certain time and to cut up the animal so it could become clothing."

      But now, parka patterns are shared from place to place. Different parka styles are learned from other people, says Dean. And it's a style preference over the traditional design.

      Many Inuit live in a community that is not their hometown. Plus, there's the influence of social media. The Facebook groups Iqaluit Sell/Swap and Iqaluit Auction Bids showcase beautiful parkas to the rest of Nunavut.

      Designs have changed not only because of new influences, but also due to time and function. Dean says the tail or "akuq" on a woman's amauti has changed over the years.

      "Long tail or hoods had a purpose because our ancestors travelled by dog team," said Dean, "and that tail provided extra warmth and comfort for the mother while she was sitting."

      "And now I see younger mothers have way shorter tails and that's because they have Ford Escorts or Toyota trucks they can jump into and it's more comfortable with a shorter tail."

      Copper Inuit parka 'no longer exists'

      In the western Arctic, the Mother Hubbard-style parka is popular, but the Copper Inuit originally had a different style altogether.

      "It no longer exists," says Julia Ogina, who grew up in Ulukhaktok, N.W.T., and now lives in Cambridge Bay, Nunavut. "I don't know anybody today that makes it to wear as a parka."

      According to Ogina, traditional styles are dying out, but people are working to bring them back.

      "It's something we're just starting to dig further and looking at pictures and looking at what's in the museum and bringing back the pattern using fabrics."

      Ogina says a light, outer shell is made for special occasions. The shoulders point out for women, while the men's shoulders are rounded.

      The Kitikmeot Heritage Society has an outfit from the Copper Inuit, Ogina says. But she's also travelled to the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau, Que., to see more Copper Inuit parkas on display.

      "It goes to show how much has changed and how rapidly," Ogina says of the visit. "It seems like a long time ago but really it isn't."

      Ogina said different parka styles need to be preserved.

      "For the uniqueness for where we come from. Our identity and a part of our history. And if we're going to, for a lack of a better word, to describe fluency, not only audio but also visually the level of accuracy to our culture, we need to bring that back."

      She said she is starting to see people make parka styles from their home community.

      For Ogina, the parka characteristics that stick out for her are the shape of the hood, the style of the waist and the style on the elbows and arms. She says some communities have a longer parka, while others have shorter.

      'Fashion changes'

      In Iqaluit, Mary Wilman is trying to bridge two worlds. The designer and seamstress tries to make the design more modern when working with seal skins. But with fabric, she will stick with a traditional shape.

      For south Baffin Island, that means a pullover parka with a pointed hood and a fitted shape.

      Now, Wilman says she can tell communities apart by the colours and trim used. In Igloolik, more rick rack ribbon is used rather than straight bias tape.

      "Initially it's their design. It was passed down from that generation to us. And of course we pass it on. We influence our children."

      Wilman said, as a girl, she remembers waking up to her mother sewing.

      "If my mom were to see my clothing, I think she would smile," says Wilman. "She would, at first, not say anything, but eventually, I think she would tell me to fix this and fix that."

      "The hood should be a little more pointed and not round. If it's amautik, she would tell me to make it very feminine. That's her taste. And I would nod and just say OK. I respect that very much."

      But as much as Wilman respects traditional design, she finds modernizing it is what helps it sell.

      "Fashion changes and design changes. As the movement goes, everything changes. But I think while that's going on, I think there's still a strong desire to stay within traditional design."

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