• Feature

Accessing Ancestral Ways Of Being, Knowing And Creating Through Art

Jan 05, 2022
by Melodie Sammurtok-Lavallée

This past year I decided to redecorate my bedroom, bringing in my personal aesthetic to brighten its bland walls. My house in Atlantic Canada was built in 1905 in a downtown neighbourhood considered “heritage” by the small city’s government.

Although the idea of living in a creaky house has always been on my checklist, actually living in the lopsided structure has its shortcomings. If it’s not the random wall I’m bumping into, or the bouncy floorboards I’m tiptoeing over, it’s the fact that the house was built during a time when confiscating and taking of Inuinniq (things that are of Inuit culture) was common for visitors to Inuit Nunangat. Sometimes an article of Inuinniq clothing or a tool was unintentionally left behind when an iglu was being vacated, or simply lost during the movements of Inuit families and hunters. Other times items were traded or gifted; however it wasn’t unusual for Inuinniq to be claimed without their makers’ awareness, let alone acknowledgement.

Later on items that were taken or traded would be sold to collectors, donated to museums or gifted to loved ones in the South upon reuniting after a short summer of employment in the Arctic. Some of these items can be found in basements, attics or in climate-controlled facilities, hidden away in darkness where they go unseen.


L: Unidentified artist Ivory Comb (c. 1915 or earlier) Ivory 2.9 X 7.2 X 0.1 cm
Courtesy Canadian Museum of History IV-C-1035, D2005-00016 R: Unidentified artist Whale Tail Comb (c. 800–1850) Walrus ivory 5.3 X 2.8 X 0.2 cm Courtesy Princeton University Art Museum 

But back to my latest little darling, the revamping of my dark bedroom. When I decided to redecorate, I took into consideration that the house has no dormers and the roof was built with a steep slope that makes the upstairs cramped. It’s hard to bring up furniture. When I’m going to create something, I often take a lot of time researching colour combinations and juxtapositions before I commit in my medium. I’ll work it out in my mind so that I capture not only a look but a feeling. Notorious for being particular with my home aesthetic, I’ve been known to hold off purchasing any furniture for certain corners or walls until I find the right piece, and it’s not unusual for me to end up building it myself. For my bedroom it was important to find wallpaper that made the room feel dreamy, beautiful and a little vintage. When I thought I found the right design I purchased it, but never ended up putting it up. My bedroom went another year undecorated.

At some point I was glowering at my bland walls while applying my makeup and started wondering what Inuit women from the past might have considered as beauty. In my mind, I pictured the intricate hairstyles and beaded tuilik I’ve seen in black-and-white photographs. I thought about the sticks and pieces of hide used to tie and wrap their hair. I’d gladly take a course from an Elder who knows how to expertly weave hair between their fingers, resulting in a glistening strand of elaborate, black rope. 

Marvelling at their braids helped me decide what I wanted to do with my room. The very place where I spend time smoothing my own hair seemed like the right place to admire the antiquated art of my ancestors’ hair tools. But I was going to have to hand-paint them, freehand, all 22 of them. First I needed to do some research.

My introduction to Inuk ivory combs was through paintings by Germaine Arnaktauyok and Okatsiak. I came across their paintings online one evening some years ago while doing research for an animation I was creating about Inuit motherhood. Intricately carved with tiny detailing etched into the ivory, the combs were sometimes shaped to match the holder’s hands and used to remove tangled knots that trouble hair. It must have been important for Inuit to keep their hair tied away from their face while they went about with their daily tasks. When I imagine Inuit life in the past I imagine a lot of family moments, healthy food and beautiful clothing, but there was also hardship, teaching for survival and risk of inclement weather. Was taking care of hair important enough to Inuit that they took the time to carve unique combs purely for an aesthetic purpose? 


Germaine Arnaktauyok
Ivory Combs (2007) Etching and aquatint 44.5 X 76.2 cm
Courtesy Inuit Gallery of Vancouver

I recently spoke with Okatsiak about her acrylic painting series of ivory combs, a highly contrasted shimmery gold painted over a matte black background. When I asked her about its history, she told me that she had started researching Inuinniq tools and objects while in art school, wanting to share some of her culture with her classmates. She admired the intricate combs she found online and added her own artistic details to make the paintings reflect her personal vision. 

Okatsiak told me that when she first saw the combs she thought, “Wow! Inuit have to carve those! I wanted to learn about Inuit tattoos, too, so I started playing around with designs and it became a main theme. Each painting was different, there were so many designs. . . . That was my way of trying to connect with my Inuit culture.”

I felt a small pang in my heart when Okatsiak told me that online research was her only experience with the combs. Like me, her exposure to Inuinniq has been limited to seeing images and photographs of objects that our ancestors—likely our direct bloodlines—made with their own hands. These are objects that could teach Inuit history that is relevant to us and our own families. 


A collection of acrylic paintings from Oktasiak’s series of ivory combs
Courtesy the artist

The Winnipeg Art Gallery-Qaumajuq, the Manitoba-based museum that houses more than 14,000 Inuit artworks, opened in late March of this year. I watched the live-stream opening performances and wondered about the carvings and installations in the background. I learned through my niece that a carving made by my paternal ataatatsiaq, Victor Sammurtok (1898–1981) [1], was there on display. I’ve only seen one of my grandfather’s carvings, which my father owned. It’s an intricate rendition of a hunting ship, complete with moving sails and all the extra knobs and bits to make it function like a real ship. Unfortunately, I believe this is the only carving my ataatatsiaq made that I’ll ever get to see in person. 

My limited experience with my ataatatsiaq’s work is not unique to me. Jessie Oonark, OC, RCA (1906–1985) is a world-renowned artist whose artwork is highly sought after. Her great-granddaughter, Kilikvak Kabloona, spoke on the phone with me about her realization as a young woman that her amauq was famous. 

“I went to the [Winnipeg Art Gallery] and her pictures were everywhere. Pictures hanging over the reception area, including wallhangings. As a kid I’d see something in progress and didn’t know what it was for,” Kilikvak says. “I also didn’t know my granny was famous for Kiviuq stories until I was in my twenties.” 

In 2014 Kilikvak visited the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre in Yellowknife, NT, while working for Nunavut’s Minister of Culture and Heritage. They had travelled to the Heritage Centre to view the territory’s archives, which are housed in Yellowknife. She describes caribou tuiliit, etchings, maps and carvings. She saw shelf after shelf of intricate kamiit stored in chain-pulley displays, strategically built to reduce handling. The kamiit are a historical collection from Inuit Nunangat in various regional styles. “I was able to find kamiks in my family’s style, it was so touching. I will one day make a pair like that,” says Kilikvak.


Melodie Sammurtok-Lavallée
’s paintings of her ivory combs on her bedroom walls (2021)
Courtesy the artist

Seeing her family’s historical kamik style fed Kilikvak’s soul in the same way seeing Okatsiak and Germaine Arnaktauyok’s paintings fed mine. This brings me to the point I want to share: if Inuit today had the ability to see our ancestors’ lives through the tools and clothing they made and needed to survive, would the narrative of who we are and what we are capable of creating change or strengthen? If we had the opportunity to visit a gallery on our own nuna, filled with our own stories, our own history, would the hunger pangs that younger Inuit experience finally be fed? A gallery like WAG-Qaumajuq was opened in the interest of showcasing Inuit art to a large number of visitors rotating in and out, benefiting southern audiences. But for Inuit who are feeling disconnected and experiencing culture loss, a gallery in our own land would teach our own people about our own history, which sadly fades with the loss of each Elder.

Mimicking our ancestors is something that Inuit tend to do. I’ve heard Inuit say that their life goal is to become an Elder—a statement that resonates with me. But how can I connect with my cultural way of life when so many of my ancestors’ belongings are being stored or displayed everywhere but in Inuit Nunangat? What I am exposed to is what I seek out, and so I’ve been careful to feed myself my own people’s history by actively researching, reading and supporting Inuinniq. But had I not come across Germaine Arnaktauyok and Okatsiak’s paintings of Inuit combs years ago, my definition of what beauty is may not be what it is today. 

Author Bio
Melodie Haana-Siksik Sammurtok-Lavallée was born and raised in Nunavut. Her early adult life was spent working in Natural Resources and Parks up until 2011 when she decided to hone her creative nature through fashion. In 2015 she launched a fashion line called Nuliajuk’s Closet, and in 2017, moved onto animation, graphic design and audio-videography. In 2018 she illustrated a book for Inhabit Media about colours in Inuktitut. She’s also been a small business owner who has made her own costumes and wardrobes for her short films. She and her family currently call New Brunswick home until her next adventure calls.

1 The Winnipeg Art Gallery’s record of my ataatatsiaq has his birth date listed as 1903. While there is no real record saying he was actually born in 1898, this is what is on his cross and what my family knows to be true. 

This Feature originally appeared in the Fall 2021 issue of the Inuit Art Quarterly.

This series was made possible with the generous support of the Ontario Arts Council.

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