Multi-talented Kivalliq doll-maker Helen Iguptak never stops working

“I’m just thinking I want to get whatever I’m doing done”

By THOMAS ROHNER

Helen takes a break from her booth Sept. 27 to drum dance. (PHOTO BY THOMAS ROHNER)


Helen takes a break from her booth Sept. 27 to drum dance. (PHOTO BY THOMAS ROHNER)

Helen Iguptak's wares on display at the art market held Sept. 27 at Simon Alaittuq School in Rankin Inlet. Helen's writing out product cards for potential buyers. (PHOTO BY THOMAS ROHNER)


Helen Iguptak’s wares on display at the art market held Sept. 27 at Simon Alaittuq School in Rankin Inlet. Helen’s writing out product cards for potential buyers. (PHOTO BY THOMAS ROHNER)

Helen Iguptak with one of her dolls. (PHOTO BY THOMAS ROHNER)


Helen Iguptak with one of her dolls. (PHOTO BY THOMAS ROHNER)

RANKIN INLET—Helen Iguptak settled down on a bench inside the gymnasium of the Simon Alaittuq School in Rankin Inlet. 

She had just set up her handmade dolls, one to three feet tall, some wearing traditional caribou-skin clothing, kamiks and intricate beadwork. 

“I’ve got too many hobbies,” Iguptak said Sept. 27, as people slowly filtered in for the art market at the seventh annual Kivalliq Trade Show, which ran from Sept. 26 to Sept. 28. 

Behind her booth, Iguptak sat with her legs crossed, the elbow of one arm propped up on her knee, her back comfortably slouched against the wall. 

Iguptak, whose dolls have travelled the world and were featured at the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver, said she also paints, enjoys pottery, plays the accordion and wants to brush up on her keyboarding skills.  

“Now I need so much qiviut!” Iguptak said. 

Iguptak said she had decided to take part in qiviut-spinning workshop on the next day of the trade show so she could make some muskox wool to knit and crochet warm things for her family. 

By her count, Iguptak has over 15 grandchildren, seven great-grandchildren and “two or three more on the way,” she laughed. 

Iguptak’s laugh is infectious: she covers her eyes with her palm and her shoulders gently shake. 

In flawless English—Iguptak, schooled in Inuktitut syllabics, began working as a bilingual teacher and translator as a teenager—she told the story of how she came to make dolls. 

“I remember we were out camping when the boat came to take us to the residential school in Chesterfield Inlet,” Iguptak said. 

She was about seven years old at the time. 

Not long before that, Iguptak had only known life on the land: she said she grew up at Sanningajuq, or Garry Lake, between Cambridge Bay and Baker Lake. 

“Just before we left Garry Lake, I know a family of seven or nine that died of starvation. Back in the 50s and 60s people didn’t have enough to eat, so the government transferred us to Baker Lake, told us to leave everything behind.” 

Not long after arriving in Baker Lake, Iguptak and her brothers were taken to the Sir Joseph Bernier federal school, in Chesterfield Inlet, where many Inuit suffered physical and sexual abuse from the Oblate missionaries and nuns.

“I was still wearing caribou clothes and they brought us into this really big building. Nuns told us to take our clothes off. I was shocked. I never took my clothes off in front of a stranger before.” 

The nuns showered the kids and used an awful-smelling chemical to wash their hair, which Iguptak said she later heard caused cancer. 

“They gave us cloth clothing you could feel the wind go through… I think they threw out my caribou clothing.” 

Iguptak would spend the next year of her life at the school. 

“I remember the first time I walked into the school and saw a blackboard with numbers and letters. They all looked like scribbles, I had no idea what they were,” Iguptak laughed, covering her eyes with her palms again. 

Iguptak made friends with an older girl who became like a sister. 

“She would help me brush my teeth and my hair.” 

A nun would sometimes call Iguptak’s friend to her bed after the kids had all gone to bed. 

“I don’t know why she’d call my friend to her bed. But my friend would walk over to the nun’s bed with her head down.” 

Another friend Iguptak made at the school that year was a girl with special needs. 

It was this friend who showed Iguptak how to make dolls. 

“I remember I ran out of thread, and I saw this black string or something on the floor, so I picked that up and finished my doll with it. It was only later I realized it was human hair,” Iguptak said, laughing quietly again. 

As the school year wound down, kids heard they’d be returned to their parents. 

But after Iguptak boarded a plane with her brother at the end of the school year, she didn’t recognize the land seen through the window. 

“I leaned over to my brother and told him, I think they took us to the wrong place.” 

On land, they were led into a strange house where Iguptak found her mother and father. 

“I went crazy because I was so happy to see them. I jumped on the bed and on the floor and all over the place. I was the happiest, maybe, as I’ve ever been.” 

Officials had brought her to Rankin Inlet, where her parents had already been moved. 

In the early 1990s Iguptak, still in Rankin Inlet, picked up doll-making again. 

When asked what she thinks about while spending countless hours on the details of her dolls, Iguptak shrugged. 

“I’m just thinking I want to get whatever I’m doing done so that I can get on to the next thing. I have too many hobbies.” 

The next day, on Sept. 28, Iguptak decided not to go to the qiviut-spinning workshop. 

Instead she went to the jewelry-making workshop to learn a new hobby.  

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