James Houston dies at 83

Author, artist, tireless promoter of Inuit art


James Houston, 83, also known to the Inuit of Cape Dorset as “Saumik,” or the “left-handed one,” died April 17 near his home in Stonington, Connecticut.

The Day, a newspaper published in the nearby city of New London, did not report the cause of Houston’s death.

The multi-talented Houston was renowned for his glass sculptures and for many years worked as a master designer at the Steuben Glass Co. in New York.

But in the Arctic, he is better known for his work promoting Inuit art, and for his many novels and non-fiction works for adults and youth.

As a young artist, he made his first trip to the Arctic in 1947, when he visited the Inukjuak area, saw Inuit carvings, and began to buy them almost immediately.

When, accompanied by this first wife, Alma, he returned to the Arctic soon after to work as an area administrator in the Cape Dorset area for the federal government, the couple worked tirelessly to develop Inuit art and printmaking.

They helped start the West Baffin Eskimo Co-operative in Cape Dorset, organized numerous sales and exhibitions of Inuit art in southern Canada and the U.S., and promoted Inuit art around the world, creating a climate of taste in which Inuit art could be appreciated and building a market for it that survives today.

In novels, such as The White Dawn and Spirit Wrestler, Houston explored the cultural divide between Inuit and Europeans, and also revealed a fascination with Inuit culture, especially shamanism.

The White Dawn, a story of three U.S. whalers who survive a shipwreck and are then adopted by a small Inuit community, was transformed into a feature film in 1973.

Directed by Philip Kaufman, and starring Timothy Bottoms, Warren Oates, Lou Gossett Jr., and numerous Inuit actors, including Ann Hanson and the late Joanasie Salamonie, The White Dawn was filmed almost entirely in Iqaluit.

Houston leaves his second wife, Alice; two sons, John Houston of Halifax, and Samuel Houston of Aspen, Colorado; and four grandchildren.

The Day reported that Houston will be cremated, and that, as he requested, half of his ashes will remain in Stonington, while the other half will be scattered over the hills of Cape Dorset.

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