Justice carved in stone and wood

Sculptures document decades of trials across the Arctic



In 1955, Allan Kaotak of the Cambridge Bay area was charged with murder in the death of his father, who had died by gunfire in the Queen Maud Gulf. A jury found him not guilty, but the experience lived on in his mind and he produced a carving depicting the trial.

The judge in the case, Justice Jack Sissons, also remembered the trial – his first case as the first resident territorial court judge of the Northwest Territories – and was delighted with the carving that Kaotak sent him.

The carving, originally of wood, shows two men standing – each wearing fur-lined parkas, but one man is large, holding a book behind a table with a gun on it, while the other, much smaller man, listens.

“Although the gun on the table was not there during the trial, it was present in his mind,” Sissons wrote in his 1968 memoir, Judge of the Far North.

The carving – a sort of documentary sculpture – impressed Sissons so much that he began to commission carvings from local artists after many of the trials he held across the NWT and what is now Nunavut.

Agnes Topiak of Kugluktuk, one of several commissioning artists, later made another carving showing the scene of the crime with which Kaotak had been charged. In it, young Kaotak looks away as his father prepares to pull a cord tied to a gun aimed at his head, and trigger his suicide.

Sissons’ successor, William Morrow, continued to commission carvings, and the result is a collection of 25 sculptures and one stuffed duck documenting cases from 1955 to 1976.

For over 35 years, the collection has been housed at the Yellowknife Courthouse, held in trust by the presiding court judge, according to Sissons’ will.

There the carvings have been shown several times, but were twice broken into while on display, with several carvings stolen or damaged. After the second break-in, Justice Edward Richard ordered the carvings put into storage. Since then, they have been displayed only once, in a secure site on the second-floor of the courthouse during the court’s 50th anniversary celebrations this past March.

Starting tomorrow, however, the carvings “many of which have been recreated or repaired ? will be on display at the Power Plant gallery on Toronto’s waterfront. The show, called Images of Justice, is the first time the collection has been shown outside of Yellowknife.

Curator Nancy Campbell says she’s trying to bring more Inuit art to the gallery, but that’s not the main reason for this show.

“Some of the carvings are quite crude,” she says. “They’re charming, they’re beautiful, but more of interest is what they represent as a document of cases.”

The Murder of Salamonee compacts a deadly struggle in a matchbox house in Apex in 1963 into just a few inches of stone. A man slices into a woman’s chest, while another victim lies on the ground. Red knitting wool streams like blood from the wounds.

The carving, likely by Bob Ekalopialok of Kugluktuk, documents the case of Mingeriak, who murdered young Salamonee Onalik, just four or six years old, and attempted to murder his mother after a night at the bar where he had drank $4 worth of beer. Mingeriak escaped the death penalty, but was given a life sentence.

Other carvings depict more routine transactions, still novel at the time.

Katie’s Adoption, attributed to Peter Aliknak of Holman Island, shows two Inuit couples, with one woman gingerly handing a warmly wrapped baby to the others’ open arms. This carving was not commissioned, but did depict a true story. Sissons somehow acquired the piece and named it to reflect the case of Kitty Noah of Iqaluit, the first baby whose traditional adoption he formally registered with the court.

Noah’s Estate, by an unknown artist from Kugluktuk, shows six Inuit figures performing a customary marriage. The carving commemorates the first Inuit marriage to be recognized by the courts. The ruling made it possible for a woman named Igah of Qikiqtarjuaq to legally inherit $25,000 in life insurance when her husband, Noah, died on Christmas Day in a DEW Line fire.

More famous cases are also documented.

A carving exists of the 1962 Sikyea case, when Michael Sikyea, was charged with shooting a duck contrary to the Migratory Birds Convention Act. The case went all the way to the Supreme Court and set a new legal precedent for aboriginal hunters with treaty rights.

The carving, credited to Sam Anavilok of Kugluktuk, got it wrong. It shows a hunter shooting at a duck with a bow and arrow while Sikyea used a gun – but the image of a traditional aboriginal hunter going after his dinner aptly captures the significance of the case.

The duck, which Sissons had stuffed, will be on display along with the rest of the collection until Sept. 5.

Photos of the collection can be viewed online at: www.nwtcourts.ca.

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