Inuit Words

About Inuktitut and art


I refer to Minnie Aodla Freeman, an Inuit woman accomplished writer and translator, to talk about Inuktitut (Inuit language) and art.


We Inuit have adapted and adopted many different words to accommodate our understanding of our changing world. Very often, we make up a word that may not exist in our language in order to express something from another culture. The word “art”, for example, did not exist in Inuktitut. That is not to say that Inuit art did not exist, but it was a serious matter in the old days. Traditionally, Inuit made amulets, decorations for the body or hunting equipment, and replicas of everyday objects to attach to their clothing. A lot of traditional art was made for burial purposes. Those objects were taken seriously.

To Qallunaat [non Inuit], some Inuit use to of charms may not some sound very serious. A lot of traditional art was used to “shoo away” bad spirits, to bring good luck when an event took place, to encourage a young person to bravery, and also to escort the dead to the good spirits rather than have their spirits floating around nowhere. Very often a charm would be made to a newborn child. Some charms were made to bond closer a very special relationship. Some of these uses are still common today, especially for the bonding of special relationships. It was only when Qallunaat saw this traditional art that it became “art”.

Today, the word titirtugait is very fascinating to Inuit like me. It is the word being used for “printmaking”. Inuit from Cape Dorset feel that it could be either a traditional or a modern word. They feel it was made up during the 1950’s when printmaking was introduced and somebody tried to translate the word “stencil”. They also believe that it was a word that did and that revived. They say it was once used to describe the picture-message writing on skins and tusks. However, the significant thing is that all Inuit know what it means today.

To me, it is a word that will be debatable for years to come. It is like the word Qallunaat. Qallunaat does not mean “white people”; it could mean either “people with beautiful eyebrows” or “people with beautiful manufactured material”.



Minnie Aodla Freeman, “Introduction” in Odette Leroux (ed.), 1995, Inuit Women Artists, Voices from Cape Dorset, Hull: Canadian Museum of Civilizations, pp. 15-16.



Inuit Women Artists


Let us share the extract of a text written by Minnie Aodla Freeman, an Inuit woman, accomplished writer and translator.


Although I am neither an artist nor famous, I was involved with these artists [in Kinngait] as an Inuit writer. […] The woman artists were all born here or in the outlying camps. All these artists were brought up with traditional values, but their adaptation to modern society makes them remarkable. Why do I say makes them remarkable? Because over the years that I have lived in southern Canada, I have not met any other culture that I have adapted so suddenly to another, surviving all its shortcomings, its bad influences, and the misplaced good intentions off well-meaning people. Despite the sudden introduction of news ways, the Inuit women have remained the kind of people their traditional culture trained them to be: patient, polite, giving and always pleasant to see, with smile on their faces. The smile is one of the important gestures in Inuit culture; it can tell you everything about a person.

It is not very easy to adapt from one culture to another unless one has a very deep interest in one’s new environment. Over the years, I have seen Inuit trying to keep their culture while people from other cultures disregard their culture, their own foundations. Some do this to be accepted by their pairs.

The artists have not been spoiled by their fame. They have had many changes to act spoiled. Yes, they are proud of what they have done. Some of them have travelled abroad for art shows and some have traveled all over Canada. Some of them have placed murals in big cities. But they do not pretend to be anything but themselves. They value their traditional culture. At the same time, they have a great deal of respect for the new culture that has been emerging in their community over the last fifty years.


Minnie Aodla Freeman has held a number of positions in the public media and government including serving as assistant editor of Inuit Today Magazine, as native cultural advisor and narrator for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, Toronto, and as executive secretary of the land claims secretary of the Inuit Tapirisat of Canada. She also founded and served as manager-producer of the Inuit Broadcasting Corporation, Ottawa, and has also held lectureships at the University of Alberta, the University of Western Ontario, Memorial University, and Arctic College in Iqaluit.


Minnie Aodla Freeman, “Introduction” in Odette Leroux (ed.), 1995, Inuit Women Artists, Voices from Cape Dorset, Hull, Canadian Museum of Civilizations, pp. 14-17.



Artists’ words


Kananginak Pootoogook:

“We like to keep our culture through carvings and prints. Those art pieces are very valuable: they tell of the past.” (1)

Pitaloosie Saila:

“You don’t just do drawings […] you express yourself. It is also a way of life, a part of life. Life is sometimes heavy […] you have to be able to express yourself. Some of it comes out through art […] I am just doing what I know how to do best.” (2)

Qaumak Mikkigaq:

“It feels very good when you are comfortable in feeling good about your carvings especially when other people like your carvings. There and then you know you can do a good carving each and every time you begin one.” (3)

Kenojuak Ashevak:

“I have a style of drawing that doesn’t belong to anybody but me. It is my own and I own it but people can try to copy it but they can’t. They try but they can’t. It would be hard to express how little I desire to imitate anybody else’s work. I have no desire on earth to do that. At the same time I don’t really want my style, what I feel belongs to me, to be imitated by anyone else. I feel that that’s fair. I’m not going to copy anyone else.” (4)

Kananginak Pootoogook:

“I can never start drawing unless I have something in my head. Only when I really clearly see the pictures in my head do I start drawing. I don’t really like the drawings that are too colourful. The thing I really like is when the colours are matching or when they’re almost the same – when the colours are like reality.” (5)

Taqialuk Nuna:

“I really enjoy carving when I am not hunting. I have been carving fro about ten years. I did my first carving when I was a young boy, around eight years old. I used to watch my father carve, but I didn’t do a lot because of school and work. […] I have learned to approach my work from the shapes that I see in the stone […] without thinking too much about how I though it should look. When I carve, I go along with the shape that is formed as I chip away at the stone.” (6)



(1) Jean Blodgett, 1991, In Cape Dorset we do it this way: three decades of Inuit printmaking, Kleinburg, McMichael Canadian art collection, p. 115.

(2) Odette Leroux (ed.), Inuit Women Artists, Voices from Cape Dorset, Hull, Canadian Museum of Civilizations, 1995, p. 27.

(3) Ibid., p. 25.

(4) Jean Blodgett, 1985, Kenojuak, Toronto, Firefly Books, p. 74-75

(5) Dorset Fine Arts (ed.), 2007, Cape Dorset Print: A retrospective. Fifty Years of Printmaking at the Kinngait Studios, Toronto, Pomegranate, p. 184-185.

(6) Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development (Canada)/Ministère des Affaires Indiennes du Nord Canadien, 1997, Transitions. Contemporary Canadian Indian and Inuit Art/L’art contemporain des Indiens et des Inuit du Canada, p.48.



What it means to be an Inuk, by Abraham Okpik


The text “What it means to be an Inuk” was written in August 1960 by Abraham Okpik who was the first Inuk appointed to the Northwest Territories Council in 1965. Inuit elders and people from the Nunavut government for example are very concerned by the assessment about strong cultural changes that occur among Inuit societies and they work to preserve Inuit language and Inuit knowledge. Abraham Okpik explains:


We the Inuit, where do we come from and how did we get there? This is a big question to us all even in the Qallunaat [non-Inuit]’s way of thinking or learning. We are still a mystery to them, but our ancestors are the ones who we give praise to for all that they have achieved – to live, to feel, to survive for centuries before the white people came. Some of the Qallunaat came with good intentions to teach us a better way of life; some came to destroy our livelihood and culture. But there is one thing we must not forget, and that is how our ancestors brought us this far, in spite of severe cold, and constantly searching for food. Or are we forgetting?

Let us think back fifty years ago and compare our people’s living conditions then with our present living environment. We are gained very little to add to what our forefathers have left us.

So let us realize today we are living in the present times without observing what we are losing, and that is our own Inuit culture, which our grandfathers have passed on to us from generation to generation. Are we keeping our old traditions, or are we going to forget them for good? I am sorry to say we are forgetting them fort now, and if we do not do something to preserve our culture it will just disappear. All will never, never be heard or seen again. […] All will be lost, so let us wake up and restore our old methods and old culture while there is still time, because if we lose it, it will be a tragedy , after all our ancestors have shown us. […]

Today if we can think like our ancestors and put to use what they have achieved for us and adopt the Qallunaat’s way of learning at the same time, and keep our own, we will be further ahead. We should learn as much as we can from this new culture, but we must not forget our own culture which is important to us.

So let us wake up to a new day, with new thoughts, new gifts, and new learning from the new culture. But we must remember our ancestors who had endure the cold, with the help of their knowledge and ingenuity. We could put our learning with this new modern way of living, and only then will we have a bright future, with the white people’s learning and our own culture. […] At the moment we Inuit seem to be off with two different minds. First, the older people know the old way of living; know the language because their forefathers taught them well; and second, the young people are not interested in keeping their own language. They are not being taught to keep their own language. It is important to have own language. At least it will be something we have inherited from our fathers if we keep it.

We should be happy to be who we are, living and working together, keeping our culture strong. After all, we are most comfortable with our own language.

When you learn to work and live the Qallunaat’s way you lose the Inuit way. This can’t be helped. We want progress and comfort and education and security. We can have these things and still keep our language. We need our language to keep us happy together. An Inuk who has lost his language is completely lost. He doesn’t belong anywhere. Keep our language alive and keep the Inuit alive. […] The Inuit language is powerful. It could be used to give many great thoughts to the world. If the Inuit themselves don’t use their language more, and very soon the Inuit too will be a forgotten people. […] It’s no good looking like an Inuk if you can’t speak like one.

There are only very few Inuit, but millions of Qallunaat, just like mosquitoes. It is something very special and wonderful to be an Inuk – they are like the snow geese. If an Inuk forgets his language and his Inuit way, he will be just another mosquito.




Okpik, A. (1989). “Qanuq inuuluni tukiqamangaat/What it means to be an Inuk/Ce que signifie être un Inuk”, Inuktitut Magazine, 70: 10-14.



Lypa Pitsiulak's view about the artistic creation in the Canadian Arctic


“I never learn how to speak English. Also, I was never taught how to be an artist, but I'm not a really good artist, but I have tried. [...] When I was a boy, I used to try to do carving. I only started drawing seriously when drawing was encouraged in Panniqtuuq by Gary Magee.

Before that I used to try drawing on the window of my tent when there was frost. The window was made out of the dried intestine of a square flipper. I used my fingers for drawing different kinds of pictures. I never really thought about using pencil and paper as it was hard to get hold of paper to draw on.

I usually try do draw something that make sense, and to me drawing usually makes sense if you have experienced what you are drawing yourself. It might not make sense to someone else, but I draw what I have done. It seems to be all right to draw something even if it looks like sad, as long as it has actually happened. I have heard that all my drawings should look happy. I draw what I have gone through in my life, not just happiness.

I also like to do drawings of shamanism because I have heard about shamanism from my father. My father was living during the days when there was shamanism and I learned about it from him when he used to tell me stories.

I also do drawings of the Inuit and how they used to live. That way, the true Inuit way of life can be seen more clearly through drawings or carvings. When you do these drawings, it really reminds you of that way of life. The picture might look like just a drawing, but in my mind it is following the old Inuit way of life and how they used to live.  

When I go boating in the summer, I often get ideas for my work. When you're travelling outdoors it reminds you of what kinds of things you should draw. That's how I usually get ideas for my drawings.”

(Excerpt translated by Jonah Kilabuk from Inuktitut into English in Panniqtuuq)


Lypa Pitsiulak who is a well-known artist, was born on April 21, 1943 and moved to Panniqtuuq (Baffin Island, Nunavut) in 1967 where he lives, carves and draws.




Pitsulak, Lypa, 1983, "My ideas come from up in the air", in Latocki, B. (éd.), Baffin Island. Winnipeg, The Winnipeg Art Gallery, pp. 11-19.



Inuit children and education


Elisapee Nutarakittuq, born around the year 1930, grew up near Qikiqtarjuaq and Naujaaqjuat on Baffin Island in Nunavut; she shares recollections of her childhood:


The first thing we would do when we woke up in the morning was put on our clothing and boots and go out for fresh air - even before eating breakfast. Everyone stepped outside to start off their day. It was part of our tradition - we believed that it prevented laziness. Girls were told by their mothers that if they did not go outside as soon as they woke up, they would have a long labour and difficult time delivering their babies. So women usually tried to stick to this traditional routine.

We believe that a child is influenced by whatever the mother does during pregnancy. If she goes outside and does things quickly, the child will be quick to come out into the world. If a young boy goes outside quickly after waking up, he will have much easier time hunting.

Our parents and elders did not have to lecture us very often - unlike today's young people - because we listened to their lectures and respected their advice.  [...] There was a lot more respect, because living in a small community made us all very close.

As we grew into young women, we were taught to soften skins and sew clothes. We felt very proud when we finished our first clothing - that was an important accomplishment for girls in those days. Our mother made thimbles out of thick for us as a reward for our first attempt at sewing.

Actually, sewing seemed to come naturally to girls. We watched older women sewing and imitated them and wanted to follow their example. We usually started off clumsily, trying to sew by ourselves. We were given instructions only when we made mistakes. A girl did not have to be a particular age to learn to sew.

It was also necessary to learn household chores like lighting the qulliq (oil lamp) properly; in those days, that was the only form of heating in our home. Though it did not being very much heat, we were rarely cold because eating rich country food kept us healthy.

In those days, people were stronger as well as more determinate and persistent. In acquiring the techniques necessary for survival, we did not give us easily. We had no choice. [...]

Young boys could hardly wait to accompany their fathers when they went out hunting. They tried to prove their strength and ability to withstand the cold. If a boy showed signs of weakness, the experience was postponed until he was older and stronger. He had to be able to stay out in the cold for long periods, looking for food with his father. Sometimes a boy would cry and complain that he wanted to go with his father, but if his parents thought he wasn't strong enough, he was not allowed to go.



Nutarakittuq, Elisapee, 1990, “Unikaat uqausirijaujullu / Recollections and Comments / Souvenirs et observations”, Inuktitut Magazine, 72: 26-45.

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