Nunatsiaq News
FEATURES: Nunavut March 24, 2018 - 10:45 am

Art curator digs into history of traditional Inuit needle cases

“If we’re not passing along our knowledge, it’s lost”

PATRICIA LIGHTFOOT
This Inuit needle case is made of bone, and is labelled as coming from the central Arctic. (PHOTO BY KRISTA ULUJUK ZAWADSKI/COLLECTION OF THE MANITOBA MUSEUM, WINNIPEG)
This Inuit needle case is made of bone, and is labelled as coming from the central Arctic. (PHOTO BY KRISTA ULUJUK ZAWADSKI/COLLECTION OF THE MANITOBA MUSEUM, WINNIPEG)

When Krista Ulujuk Zawadski came across a collection of Inuit containers for sewing needles, also called kakpiit, from the 1800s, she wondered why, when growing up in Rankin Inlet, she had never heard of these unassuming little objects that were once vital to Inuit survival.

Zawadski, who is now curator of Inuit art at Nunavut’s Department of Culture and Heritage, told Nunatsiaq News that her interest in anthropology began at Nunavut Sivuniksavut in Ottawa when she was a 17-year-old.

“What was really appealing to me was learning about other cultures, as well as learning about my own culture. I had a good grasp of my own culture … but it was like an awakening. There was so much more that I could be learning.”

In 2014, as a master’s student at the University of British Columbia, Zawadski took part in the Summer Institute in Museum Anthropology program, known as SIMA, at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. To participate in the program, she needed to propose a project based on objects held in the Smithsonian’s massive collection, which includes Inuit art and artifacts.

Zawadski had learned that harpoon heads often have decorative lines on them that look like tattoo lines, so she planned to investigate whether there was a correlation between art on objects, such as harpoons, and traditional tattoo designs.

But she ended up doing a different project, because Candace Greene, the founder of the SIMA program and a researcher in the anthropology department of the National Museum of Natural History, encouraged Zawadski to study the art on kakpiit.

The kakpiit that Zawadski studied in Washington were from Alaska, though similar objects have been found across the Arctic. Kakpiit are typically made of bone or ivory, sometimes with a strap of leather pulled through the hollow centre that the needles were stuck into, so they didn’t fall out.

Sometimes other items in the sewing kit were attached to them, such as thimbles. In areas with abundant wood, kakpiit were little wooden boxes with moss inside to hold the needles.

As she examined the kakpiit, Zawadski wondered how something that she knew had been important to her ancestors could have been forgotten. If fragile bone needles had not been protected from breakage, then “how would we have been able to sew adequately warm clothing to be able to survive and thrive in the extreme cold of Arctic winters?” Zawadski wrote in an article published earlier this month in Museum Anthropology.

Zawadski wondered what other Inuit would have to say about these objects. When she went home to Rankin Inlet, she asked her mother and other people she knew, “What is this thing? How come we don’t have them? How come there aren’t a billion needle cases lying around, like how everyone has ulus and harpoons?”

She took a kakpik—the singular form of kakpiit—with her to show people in Rankin Inlet and other communities in Nunavut. Having the tangible object “prompted some really interesting conversations with people and elders,” though few recognized what the kakpik was.

Bernadette Henrie, who was both a friend of Zawadksi and an elder in Rankin Inlet, initially did not recognize what the kakpik was, until Zawadski referred to it by that name. Once she did so, “the knowledge came flooding back.”

Henrie was able to tell Zawadski about how kakpiit were used during her childhood and the types her father used to make and carry with him when he went hunting. She also recalled how the traditional kakpiit were replaced by metal tins, which are still called kakpiit by some women, including Zawadski’s mother.

Zawadski said this conversation with Henrie, who has since died, underlined the importance of “the knowledge that is buried within our knowledge holders.”

She added, “If we’re not talking about these things and passing along our knowledge, it’s lost.”

Two Inuit needle cases made of ivory, identified as coming from the central Arctic, beside the bone needle case that appears in the other photograph. The three needles are made of ivory and are likely to have been collected by Dr. Noel and Mrs. Jean A. Rawson between August 1944 and August 1946, while they were living in Chesterfield Inlet because Dr. Rawson was working in the hospital there. (PHOTO BY KRISTA ULUJUK ZAWADSKI/COLLECTION OF THE MANITOBA MUSEUM, WINNIPEG, MB)
Two Inuit needle cases made of ivory, identified as coming from the central Arctic, beside the bone needle case that appears in the other photograph. The three needles are made of ivory and are likely to have been collected by Dr. Noel and Mrs. Jean A. Rawson between August 1944 and August 1946, while they were living in Chesterfield Inlet because Dr. Rawson was working in the hospital there. (PHOTO BY KRISTA ULUJUK ZAWADSKI/COLLECTION OF THE MANITOBA MUSEUM, WINNIPEG, MB)
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(7) Comments:

#1. Posted by Navel gazer on March 24, 2018

Isn’t this how it goes with technology all over the world, old tools and design types are replaced as new materials and designs are discovered?

What’s the take away from this meant to be?

#2. Posted by Kuglukturmiutaq on March 24, 2018

Kakpiit are found around the Coronation Gulf area. Find elders from Kugluktuk who would be happy to help you out. Wealth of information to be had there.

I have one that was made by the late Evaglok similar to the one on the left. Bone case, copper needle, sinew and bone thimble. More to some of the complete sets.

#3. Posted by R. P. DWYER, GJOA HAVEN. on March 25, 2018

I remember seeing a lot of needle cases in the early 1970’s
The needles, bone and metal, were wrapped up in a small, thin piece
of hide, so that the needles would not slip out.
I must taken about 40 cases with bone needles as gifts to Scotland.
People were fascinated by the uniqueness of them.

#4. Posted by MNRM up north on March 28, 2018

When I lived up in Tuktoyaktuk, I got a beautiful needle case made by the late Edgar Kotokak, who made them from swan leg bones.  There was a piece of moosehide, twice as long as the hollow bone, with a disk of caribou antler sewed onto each end of the moosehide, which ran through the hollow bone.  You would put your needles in one end of the leather, then pull them into the bone, to keep them safe.  Then pull them out when you needed them.  Ingenious.  And lovely.

#5. Posted by R. P. DWYER, GJOA HAVEN on March 28, 2018

In 1984, I saw my cousin using my aunt’s needle case as a ciggarette
holder. I said “are you enjoying that”, he said ” yeah it is wonderful”.
He asked for more for his buddies, who were calling it an “Eskimo
tokie stick”.
I gave him the address of Arts & Crafts in Yellowknife.

#6. Posted by Smoke Shop on March 28, 2018

#5,
Considering marijuana will soon be legal, using an Inuit needle case
to toke up with could become a status symbol, or gimmick.
I just might try and capitalize on it!
KOYENNAMEEK.

#7. Posted by Father Time on March 29, 2018

#1. Navel Gazer.
apparently you do not absorb what you read. technology brought us computors but it actually takes a brain to decipher what is trying to be relayed. Even I in my limited brain cells know that one’s own culture is very important, every aspect from the past is important to us, as things are to qablunaat from their past.

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