Nunavut’s heritage lies safely in Yellowknife

A home-away-from-home for thousands of Inuit artifacts.



YELLOWKNIFE — Housed in a large, dimly-lit storage room at the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Center in Yellowknife are thousands of Nunavut treasures: a drum used in the movie The White Dawn, a beaded amautik from Baker Lake, and qulliit from the 1950s.

The room’s grey shelves, which almost reach the ceiling, are lined with ulus, snow knives, sewing kits, kamiit, carvings, paintings and artifacts, all collected from Nunavut.

The storage room at the Yellowknife museum is a home-away-from-home for thousands of Inuit artifacts.

But ever since the Northwest Territories divided and Nunavut was created, Nunavummiut have been hoping to bring the artifacts home.

There’s just one stumbling block. Nunavut doesn’t have a facility equipped to handle the old, delicate objects.

The climate-controlled room at the Prince of Wales museum acts as an ideal storage area. Its temperature and humidity are kept at levels that best preserve and protect the precious artifacts.

The collection’s curator, Joanne Bird, wears gloves as she handles the pieces, many of which are kept in protective plastic bags.

Large print collection

The front section of the storage room is devoted to artifacts discovered throughout Nunavut.

There are pieces of bones and ivory from an archaeology dig outside of Igloolik. An excavation at the Tungatsivvik site near Iqaluit turned up harpoon heads, a bear-tooth pendant, and a minature ivory figurine, among others.

The museum holds a variety of traditional Inuit tools, such as ulus, snow-knives, and sewing kits. There are also several shelves lined with qulliit of different shapes and sizes.

Inuit clothing, including a beaded amauti made by Jean Simailak of Baker Lake, hangs in the storage room.

The most extensive collection is of hundreds of Inuit prints and drawings, many of them created by Cape Dorset and Baker Lake artists.

“The prints are wonderful. They’re one of the most widely recognized art forms from Nunavut,” explains Bird, who has worked at the museum for 10 years.

“As a historical record, and as a legacy, the prints are great.”

Bringing the artifacts home

To art buffs, cultural advisors and government officials, the artifacts are an integral part of Nunavut’s history.

In May 1999, shortly after the creation of Nunavut, Donald Havioyak, who was then the minister of culture, called on the government to retrieve the artifacts.

“The artifacts represent our history, the possessions of our ancestors. They represent the way our grandfathers and mothers lived. They represent Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit,” Havioyak said in the legislative assembly.

Several months afterwards, the GN, Nunavut Tunngavik and the Inuit Heritage Trust joined forces to work on retrieving the Inuit artifacts scattered in museums and universities across the country.

Curators at the Prince of Wales Center are also helping to make that happen.

Charles Arnold, the museum’s director, said they’ve put together a list of Nunavut artifacts for the Nunavut territorial government.

But moving the artifacts won’t be a quick or simple process.

Arnold said there’s lots of discussion yet to take place between the governments of the Northwest Territories and Nunavut.

“It’s too important to rush this,” Arnold said.

“There may be a collection that includes pieces from Nunavut and the Northwest Territories and that will require some major decisions.”

And there is still the question of where to house — and properly preserve — Nunavut’s artifacts.

The GN would probably have to put up a new building with climate-control equipment and other features. The government has talked about putting it in Igloolik or Iqaluit.

But it has yet to announce any concrete plans. So for now, the Prince of Wales Center will continue to house Nunavut’s artifacts.

“It is of utmost importance that the materials are well cared for,” Arnold said.

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