Arctic Animals




The Arctic is home to several seal species such as grey seals (Phoca vitulina), ribbon seals (Phoca fasciata), bearded seals (Erignathus barbatus), harp seals (Phocini Pagophilus), spotted seals (Phoca larga), ringed seals (Pusa hispida), hooded seals (Phoca cystophora).


Seals have always been important for Inuit as these animals provide meat thus, feeding themselves as their dogs, fat for qulliq (traditional oil lamp used in the past and nowadays into camps out of the tundra and during ceremonies), as well as furs and skins for making warm and water-resistant clothes. For these reasons, seal hunting by Inuit is still relevant today. According to Inuit, seals have been essential for their survey in the Arctic so the artists represent them into carvings, prints and drawings



Caribous (rangifer tarandus)


Formerly, caribous were essential for Inuit as source of food and raw materials for the clothing making, the construction of summer tents in skins, the sled dogs manufacturing and tools in bone and antlers, as well as realization of carvings and amulets. The Inuit writer Taamusi Qumaq explains us: “The caribou is a walker and a game. He was used formerly enormously by our ancestors and their descendants: the skin was considered as garment, its meat as food, its nerves was threads, and its skin was considered as tents by our ancestors.” (Qumaq 1991: 224). Nowadays, Inuit still hunt caribous which all the parts of which are used: people eat their meat, raw, frozen, dried or boiled; their skins are still used for clothes as mittens and their bones and antlers are carved.


Within Inuit art making, caribous remain mostly represented by the male artists. Indeed, men know perfectly well caribous to have carefully observed them for a long time while they hunt game. Artists may reproduce so realistically their movements, their attitudes or their expressions into carving or graphics. Caribous are Tim Pitseolak's favourite theme in Cape Dorset and Andrew Qappik’s one in Pangniqtuuq, for examples. The animal may be depicted lonely or in herd as main topic of the artwork or as game within a hunting scene. Caribous are also often associated with traditional myths.



Polar Bears (Ursus maritimus)


Polar bears - nanuit in inuktitut (singular: nanuq) - are omnipresent in the Inuit culture and the daily life, formerly as today. It is not thus surprising that the bear is a subject of preference for artists in all domains such as carving as graphic arts. Who saw contemporary Inuit carvings immediately represents himself a polar bear… "Nanunnguaq" say Inuit people to speak about artistic representations of bears: it can be translated by "miniature copy or replica of a polar bear" referencing to the reality. The artists who carve or draw bears make it from their own experience, because they are also hunters. They know bears very well as they have observed them with attention for a long time; that is why they succeed in representing their body and their movements with so much realism and exactness.

The polar bear is not a harmless artistic subject. Considered by Inuit as an object of greed and a prestigious source ; the bear is the animal who looks like most the Inuit people, taking place at the top of the animal hierarchy. As an Inuk, the polar bear is a predator, what implies relations of rivalry and competition: they hunt both the same game and represent a mutual threat. A marine and ground mammal at the same time, the bear is cunning, powerful and comfortable in the water as on ground. We say that humans imitate the polar bear’s way of hunting. It is not rare to find bears near villages while they look for food and their strength inspires fear and respect. "When they are starved, polar bears are not afraid. When they are not hungry, they are afraid of the people" wrote Taamusi Qumaq (Sivulitta piusituqangit, 1988). Consequently, it is not surprising that the polar bear is so present in the cosmology. He appears as one in the main sources of shaman power by taking place between the invisible powers and the Inuit society (Randa 1986). So, shamans often used of bone or ivory amulets representing polar bears. Today, polar bears are one of the most represented subjects by Inuit artists, thus coming within the tradition.



Muskox (Ovibos moschatus)


Some graphic artists like Pudlo Pudlat or Helen Kalvak, and carvers as well as Lucassie Ikkiluak, Ooloopie Killiktee, or Elijah Pitisulak, pay attention to muskox as topic of drawing, print, carving or tapestry.  Muskox (Ovibos moschatus) has inhabited the Canadian Arctic for thousands of years. A survivor of the last ice age, these magnificent animals are perfectly adapted to survive the winter conditions of Canada’s North; Inuit referring to them as the umingmak, meaning bearded one.


They have been an integral part of the Inuit lifestyle for centuries as one animal can provide a great amount of meat, a warm versatile hide and soft insulating fur. The muskox has endured great fluctuation in their numbers over the last few hundred years, mainly due to predators, harsh winters and over harvesting by early explorers. However, today their population numbers are plentiful and thriving, allowing local residents to once again rely on these valuable creatures.



Arctic Birds


Many kind of birds come up North during the spring time, then they leave on fall to down South. According to Inuit hunters and scientists, the Nunavut territory has over hundred species of birds nearly all of which are migratory such as ducks, geese, swans, loons, falcons, cranes, plovers, gulls, terns, etc. Few birds spend the winter in the Arctic, with only great raven (tulugaq or tulugajjuaq), snowy owl (ukpik or ukpijjuaq) or rock ptarmigan (aqiggiq).

Women and children hunt birds for food (mostly ducks, geese, white and rock ptarmigans) while they also provide them in materials clothes. Beside a food source Inuit people had several other ways of using birds: skins from larger birds were used as towels, wings have been used to dust, sweep or refresh (like a fan), skins were used as make containers, slippers and if caribou were scarce parkas. Nowadays, using birds is still relevant not only for food, but also as wings are used like a personal fan, and feathers are useful for making warmer clothes and pillows, for examples.

On a symbolic point of view, birds are significant as mean symbol of the spring time linked to the return of the sun, the melting ice and the warming days. Among Inuit cosmology, birds take an active part into myths through the oral tradition and shamanism practices. Many artists from the Canadian Arctic have birds as favorite topics: Kenojuak Ashevak, Ohutaq Mikkigaq and Ningeokuluk Teevee are one of those.

Snowy Owl (Scandiacus)


The snowy owl is a large diurnal white owl with a rounded head, yellow eyes and black bill. Inuit call the snowy owl ukpik or ukpikjuaq, “the great snowy owl”. This bird is typically found in the Northern circumpolar region, where it makes its summer home north of latitude 60 degrees north. These owls are highly diurnal, although they may hunt at night as well. Prey are captured on the ground, in the air, or snatched off the surface of water bodies. This species of owl nests on the ground, building a scrape on top of a mound or boulder. A site with good visibility such as the top of mound with ready access to hunting areas, and a lack of snow is chosen.


Snowy owl is part of Inuit oral stories with different myths including several versions according to areas. This bird is consequently very popular among Inuit artists with carvers such as Padlaya Qiatsuk, Lee and Joanasie Manning, Johnnysa and Adamie Mathewsie, Alasuaq Sharky, Pitseolak Qimirpik, Adam Alorut; and with graphic artists as well as like Kenojuak Ashevak, Kananginak Pootoogook, Ohutaq Mikkigak, Ningeokuluk Teevee, or Malaiya Pootoogook.





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NASTAPOKA, Abraham, 1995, «How the tuulliik cured the blind man » in Tumivut, atuagait inuit nunavimmiut iluqqusinginnuangajut/ Tumivut, the cultural magazine of the Nunavik Inuit/ Tumivut, la revue culturelle des Inuit du Nunavik, n◦6, p 21-22.


RANDA, Vladimir, 1986, L’ours polaire et les Inuit, Paris  : Sélaf.


RASMUSSEN, Knud, 1931, The Netsilik Eskimos: Social Life and Spiritual Culture. Report of the Fifth Thule Expedition 1921-24. Volume VIII (1-2). Copenhague  : Gyldendalske Boghandel.


TUKKIAPIK, Sakkariasi, 1995, «  A man that was married to a goose  », Tumivut, no 6, p. 17-18.



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