The men behind the mace
It’s been forty years since nine Cape Dorset carvers were paid $70 each to capture the spirit of the North in bone, stone, gold and wood.
It was an honor long past due, many people said, as a cheering Cape Dorset crowd paid tribute to the artists who created the original mace of the Northwest Territories.
In a ceremony last weekend, four of those artists were paid tribute for their work in 1955. Five other artists involved in the project have since died, but family members attended on their behalf.
Nearly all of Cape Dorset crowded into a local gymnasium to watch and cheer as one by one Oshawetuk Ipeelie, Lutka Qiatsuk, Kovianaktuliak Parr and Ashevak Ezekiel walked to the front of the room for their award.
Peter Pitseolak, Nungoshuitok, Qavaroak Tunnillie, Moses Tauki and Kovianatuliak Ottokie received their honors posthumously.
“I’m very happy this event is happening,” Parr said shortly after the presentation. “I used to think that once we made the mace that was the end of it, but when I started seeing it on TV, I thought it was very important.”
Deputy Premier Goo Arlooktoo, who organized the ceremony, said the artists have a lot to be proud of.
“It was a long time in coming,” Arlooktoo said. “The most touching part was when we asked the carvers to come up. You could see the emotions on their faces. Everybody was so proud.”
Then-Governor General Vincent Massey, who commissioned the mace in 1955, wanted it to reflect the culture of the north. At that time, the Cape Dorset artists didn’t foresee how the mace would come to symbolize the power and authority of a government that would drastically change their lives.
Clutching the mounted photograph of the mace that was presented to him, Qiatsuk admitted that in 1955 he didn’t really understand what the mace represented. Government was an almost foreign idea to Inuit in the 1950s. Few came in contact with the council that oversaw the budding territorial government.
But the Qallunaat involved in the project, including well-known artist James Houston, held the mace in high esteem and the Inuit artists respected that.
“We were informed right away that it was going to be very important,” Ipeelie said. “The person who told us to make it said to us that it was going to be a very important piece of work.”
First dubbed Pingwartok, or “plaything,” the artists quickly renamed the mace Anaotalok, meaning, “the great club.”
Ezekiel was the youngest member of the team. He wasn’t a carver, but the 20-year-old was chosen by his father, foreman Peter Pitseolak, to sand and work as a general helper.
“We were informed right away about what we were supposed to be making,” Ezekiel said. “I can’t quite remember if someone told me it was going to be that important.”
Parr wasn’t a carver either, but Pitseolak was his uncle and he recognized the boy’s talent in working with metals. Parr was chosen to work on the copper crown at the head of the mace. Parr had the job of turning Oodlooreak Manning’s copper kettle into a piece of art after one arch of the crown broke off.
“It was an honor to be chosen,” he said, “but I was a bit reluctant.”
Reluctant because, at 23, Parr would have preferred to hunt and fish rather than spend 15 hours a day working on the mace. But he said he felt obliged to help because his uncle had asked him.
Houston collected copper from the shores of the Arctic Ocean, whalebone and narwhal tusk from Foxe Peninsula, muskox from Ellesmere Island, gold from the mines of the Mackenzie, even oak from an old explorer’s ship. The artists had little say in its design.
Looking at those amassed materials and the design of the mace, some thought the project was a monumental task.
“Before the work began the idea seemed impossible,” Ezekiel said.
The artists lacked the power tools so prevalent in carving projects these days. That made the work all the more difficult.
Qiatsuk shaped the whalebone to form a delicate circle of bowhead whales. Another ring shows a variety of animals and one depicts arctic fox pelts.
“Bone can be harder than ivory and when we didn’t have the power tools to make them that fast we had to work by hand,” Qiatsuk said. “It was long and hard work.”
Ipeelie was in his 20s when he was asked to help be part of the team of Cape Dorset carvers making the mace. He found the project intimidating.
“I was nervous because I didn’t have the proper tools so I had to resort to using my hands,” said Ipeelie.
The artists worked day and night to finish the project in just three weeks. They weren’t sure what the rush was, but they didn’t question their foreman.
For all their hard work and dedication, they were paid $70 each.
“It doesn’t matter that we hardly got paid for it,” Ezekiel said. “We understood the importance of it. Maybe now if there were to be another mace, probably those artists would request a lot of money. But at that time, because we weren’t aware of money too much and what it was supposed to be used for, we didn’t really care.”
And each of these four artists have their own ideas about what should happen to the original mace when the territories separate in 1999. It’s currently being stored at the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre in Yellowknife.
“There should be a mace for Nunavut and that (original) should be retired to the Nunavut side because it’s very important and it’s one of a kind,” Ipeelie said.
He’s the only one of the four living artists who’s seen the original since they completed it.
Ezekiel also wants it transferred to Nunavut. He said it’s more reflective of Nunavut than the western territory.
Parr said he’d like young people to be involved in making a new mace for Nunavut.
Arlooktoo said the mace will likely end up in a museum.
“Definitely the mace should spend some time in Cape Dorset, but I think in all fairness it belongs in a territorial museum or archives.”
The carvers quoted in this story spoke in Inuktitut. The English translations are thanks to an interpreter.