FEATURES: Iqaluit July 05, 2018 - 10:30 am

Turning rocks into knives at Iqaluit ulu-making workshop

The key to making an ulu is patience


Stone dust is sprinkled on Jutipa Nattaq’s hands as she files a triangle of slate into a crescent shape.

She looks up from the pencil marks on her piece of stone and tells the group, “You need to be more gentle.”

It is her first time crafting a slate ulu but, unlike the stone crumbling in other people’s hands, her advice is solid.

On Tuesday, June 19, Nunavut Parks and Inuit Heritage Trust held an ulu-making workshop at the Sylvia Grinnell Territorial Park pavilion, through their yearly summer Learn-To program.

The 30 or so guests, half of whom were Inuit, watched as Torsten Diesel, project manager at Inuit Heritage Trust, taught the room about the different tools required to make the traditional knife: slate in this case, antler or driftwood, leather string and two kinds of drill: one with a jade-like stone and another with a metal point.

He also showed the room a poster of the different shapes and styles of uluit and explained how to make sure they would get as sharp as possible.

“I was told by elders that they sharpened the ulus so long, grinded it over the sandstone until they could hold the blade over the sun, and once the rays of the sun were shining through the blade of the ulu through the stone, then they knew the blade was so sharp they could really cut the meat and the animal’s hides,” Diesel said.

When Diesel gave out the stone and tools, everyone got their hands dirty. Dust flew as people filed slate into smooth, thin crescent shapes. Faces were smudged, clothes became quickly discoloured and everyone became intently focused on creation.

The key to making an ulu is patience, Diesel explained.

This proved to be true, because the slate would crumble and break as soon as anyone started hammering on it, to literally cut corners to form the blade.

Not many people made it to the next stage: drilling the blade and the wood piece in order to connect them together with leather string.

Even the blades that did gradually take on an ulu shape were not made sharp enough to cut much of anything before the workshop was over.

Josh Komangapik, the program interpretation officer at Sylvia Grinnell Park, says this element of patience is an important part of the ulu-making workshop―as well as most of the other workshops they have scheduled this summer.

According to Diesel, teaching others how to make an ulu is both symbolic and practical, since it is a useful tool used on a daily basis in an Inuit household.

The workshop gives some understanding of what Inuit went through in the past to create a tool from scratch while out on the land, he said.

“When you look at your ulu stone and compare it to how it was in the beginning, you see that progress,” Diesel said.

“It is very fascinating and very satisfying to create.”