7 minute read

Sewing Culture

WORDS BY CHARLES ARNOLD

IN THE 1950S, THE GOVERNMENT OF CANADA woke up to the fact that there was an urgent need to assist with community and economic development in the Arctic. Many Inuit who relied on fur trapping for their livelihood were moving into communities where schools, nursing stations, stores and other services were available, but where there were few employment opportunities.

The construction of the Distant Early Warning (DEW) Line in the mid-to-late 1950s created some jobs, but most of them disappeared once the DEW Line went into operation. One of the programs that the government came up with to promote economic development was the Tuktoyaktuk Fur Garment Project.

The first government-sponsored Fur Garment Project in what is now the Inuvialuit Settlement Region started in Aklavik in 1959. For several decades, Aklavik had been the commercial centre for the Western Arctic, but with the construction of Inuvik in the late 1950s, much of that activity shifted to the new location.

The Aklavik Fur Garment Project began as a training course specifically for women offered by the Vocational Training Program of the Nor thern Administration Branch of the federal government. Most women in the community made clothing and other items for their family by hand sewing, drawing on skills and knowledge of how to make garments that had been passed down through the generations. The goal of the Aklavik Fur Garment Project was to build on existing skills to design and produce unique garments that could be marketed both locally and in other parts of Canada. Instruction was provided in pattern making, using industrial sewing machines and working with commercially tanned furs.

Sarah Gruben (McKay) stands in front of a sign for the Tuktoyaktuk Fur Garment Project, circa 1965. NWT Archives/Gladys Vear photographs/N-2013-023:0014.

Sarah Gruben (McKay) stands in front of a sign for the Tuktoyaktuk Fur Garment Project, circa 1965. NWT Archives/Gladys Vear photographs/N-2013-023:0014.

Ernest LaTour, a professional furrier, was hired as the instructor for the six-month course. When it was decided to continue the program as a commercial operation, he stayed on to manage that transition. In 1962, he was hired to set up a similar training program in Tuktoyaktuk. A workshop was set up in a part of the school building, but it quickly outgrew that space and in 1965 moved into another building.

By that time, the Tuktoyaktuk Fur Garment Project, like the Aklavik project had done several years earlier, made a change from vocational training to commercial production. Ongoing training was still required, and Ernest LaTour stayed on as instructor and general problem solver until the early 1970s. A manager trainee position also was created.

Soapstone carvings, ulu knives and a few other craft items made by men were sold in the Tuktoyaktuk Fur Garment Shop, but most items were made by local women, including parkas, mitts, slippers, mukluks, hats, wall hangings, placemats and dolls. A few items also came from other communities.

For most of the time it was in operation, the Tuktoyaktuk Fur Garment Shop was judged to be a huge success. Over the years, it provided training and employment for dozens of people, mainly women who had few other employment prospects in the community. It also turned a profit most years.

Fur Garment Shop, Tuktoyaktuk, circa 1960s. Seated, left to right: Hester Adam, Alice Gruben, Ivy Anikina, Bessie Amos, Laura Raymond. Standing, middle row, left to right: Sam Jacobson, Billy Panaktaloak, Ernest LaTour (Instructor), Sarah Gruben, Agnes Klengenberg, Pearl Pingo, Christina Klengenberg, Suzanne Ettagiak, Mary Kotokak. Standing back row, left to right: Cora Kimiksana, Bessie Wolki, Hester Cockney.

Fur Garment Shop, Tuktoyaktuk, circa 1960s. Seated, left to right: Hester Adam, Alice Gruben, Ivy Anikina, Bessie Amos, Laura Raymond. Standing, middle row, left to right: Sam Jacobson, Billy Panaktaloak, Ernest LaTour (Instructor), Sarah Gruben, Agnes Klengenberg, Pearl Pingo, Christina Klengenberg, Suzanne Ettagiak, Mary Kotokak. Standing back row, left to right: Cora Kimiksana, Bessie Wolki, Hester Cockney.

However, there were some problems. In the early years, all supplies had to be purchased through the government, an overly bureaucratic process that resulted in delays obtaining tanned furs and other materials, so that employees sometimes had to be laid off and orders went unfilled. The government also took on responsibilities for marketing, with some unforeseen consequences (see the ‘Sikusi’ story following this article). This situation was improved in 1968 when the fur garment shop was incorporated as a community-owned and operated cooperative, the Nanuk Cooperative Association, which took over responsibilities for the day-to-day operations.

For business reasons, the Tuktoyaktuk Fur Garment Shop ceased operations in the early 1980s. In the following years, several women who had worked there set up their own sewing and craft shops, but the legacy of the Tuktoyaktuk Fur Garment Shop extends to many others in the community who gained workplace experience and an income from the project.

Retail area of the Tuktoyaktuk Fur Garment Shop, circa late 1960s. Items for sale include parkas, mitts, slippers, mukluks, hats, wall hangings, placemats and Ookpik and Sikusi dolls. A sign hanging from the ceiling says ‘I am Sikusi. I was invented here’. (Inuvialuit Social Development Program)

Retail area of the Tuktoyaktuk Fur Garment Shop, circa late 1960s. Items for sale include parkas, mitts, slippers, mukluks, hats, wall hangings, placemats and Ookpik and Sikusi dolls. A sign hanging from the ceiling says ‘I am Sikusi. I was invented here’. (Inuvialuit Social Development Program)

SIKUSI

THE ICE WORM DOLL

In 1963, a snowy owl doll named ‘Ookpik’ went viral. It had been created by Jeannie Snowball and others at the cooperative in Fort Chimo (now named Kuujjuaq) and was chosen by the federal government as a Canadian symbol and mascot during the international Philadelphia Trade Fair.

The first Ookpik dolls were handmade in Fort Chimo, but the demand for them was so great that the design was trademarked and they were mass produced in other locations under licensing arrangements. The hugely popular Ookpik dolls inspired books, clothing, comics, songs and even a television program. Hoping to build on that success story, the government agency in charge of marketing handicrafts devised a plan to market companion dolls. One doll that was chosen to be an ‘Ookpik Friend’ was an ice worm doll named Sikusi that was made at the Tuktoyaktuk Fur Garment Shop.

The origins of the Sikusi doll are unclear, but in the lead up to declaring it to be an Ookpik Friend, a trademark was registered, naming Mary Kotokak, Pearl Pingo, Emma Gruben, Ivy Raddi, Hester Adam, Annie Loreen, Cora Kimiksana and Christine Klengenberg, all of Tuktoyaktuk, as the creators. One hundred and fifty of the dolls were made for the unveiling, which took place in Ottawa on March 3, 1965, at an event called an ‘Ookpiknik’ that was covered nationally by newspaper and television reporters. Some of the dolls were distributed to guests, along with a printed copy of the so-called legend of the ice-worm:

Once upon a time in the village of Tuktoyaktuk, there lived a kind and gentle man who loved all living things. One day while walking in the frozen north, he was buried in a snow slide by an evil spirit who turned the snow slide into a wall of ice. The people of Tuktoyaktuk were troubled and sad, but started at once to free their friend. They chipped and chopped, but the ice wall was too thick.

Now near the village in a valley of small and happy creatures lived Sikusi, a wooly and mischievous ice worm. He heard the noise, and defying the evil spirit, left the valley of happy things, and headed to the ice wall. The people of Tuktoyaktuk saw him coming but

turned away. This was no time for mischief making. They must free the kind and gentle man. Sikusi went straight to the ice wall and melted a path to the man in the ice. The man was free, and the people of Tuktoyaktuk were happy again.

The evil spirit saw what had happened and he was afraid. He left the village of Tuktoyaktuk and never returned. Sikusi the Mischief Maker was the hero of the day. He still melts holes through igloo walls. He makes mischief wherever he goes. But the people of the north look upon his mischief as a sign of good fortune.

A Sikusi made by Violet Mamayuak Kikoak in 1965. (Photo credit: Ernest Pokiak)

A Sikusi made by Violet Mamayuak Kikoak in 1965. (Photo credit: Ernest Pokiak)

A problem with this legend is that it is not authentic. A letter in government files that describes the unveiling admits, “We would, had time permitted, have asked the assistance of the people of Tuktoyaktuk in preparing the legend … but we were pushed to act at once (and invented the story).” According to Inuvialuit artist Bill Nasogaluak, who has created several sculptures of ice worms, the true legend may simply have been a story told to children to keep them away from dangerous openings in the sea ice, where “the evil ice worm would swallow them.”

The legend made up in Ottawa wasn’t the only issue with the government promoting Sikusi dolls. The government expected the dolls to be so popular that they put in an initial order for 2,000 and indicated that as many as 5,000 more might be needed for southern retail outlets. This was far more than the people who worked at the Tuktoyaktuk Fur Garment Shop could produce, so the work was farmed out to others in the community. But there wasn’t enough of the fur used for the original dolls, so people used whatever was at hand. However, southern retailers wanted the dolls to be the same as the original 150, and were not happy with the lack of consistency and quality.

In the end, many of 2,000 dolls were sent back. Ironically, because they were now trademarked, the Tuktoyaktuk Fur Garment Shop had to get government approval to continue to make and sell Sikusi dolls in the place where they were originally created.