• Feature

Glass Beads in Inuit Needlework From Past to Present

Jan 15, 2021
by Krista Ulujuk Zawadski

Though many cultures and communities make as well as use beads, sungaujait or glass seed beads have an integral place in Inuit and Venetian society. Unpacking these often-unseen links one stitch at a time after a trip to their point of origin on the island of Murano, an anthropologist and curator explores the values, knowledge and connections captured in these unique objects.

Sungaujait (singular: sungaujaq) are beads, often made of ivory, bone or wood. People all over the world make beads—made of shells, such as wampum, heishi or abalone, wood, metal and other materials. Each holds a story, one which speaks to the interconnections between people, artists and ideas, cultures and languages. Glass seed beads are a unique object that have intersected many cultures; crossing borders, lands and languages. 

Sungaujait made from ivory and bone are part of our long history and heritage. They have been present as amulets and decoration on our clothing for as long as we have existed. As the Inuit creation stories tell it, we first appeared out of the snow. Glass sungaujait were introduced into our culture by non-Inuit, but nevertheless are a part of our oral histories. This is exemplified in Inuit Piqutingit (What Belongs to Inuit) (2006) by Elder Madeline Ivalu, who shares her knowledge about sungaujait in the film. “[Inuit have] always had beads,” she explains. “I don’t know how they got beads. My mother used to tell us they grow hanging from weeds. They used to swat them with a qayaq paddle and catch them in a seal skin laid on the ground. They are found on an island near Iglulik. Probably lots dropped in the water! They grow threaded on the stalks of weeds.” The creation and source of glass sungaujait is seen as something that stems from our land, and one that is shared among Inuit.

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Glass seed beads made in Murano, Italy.
PHOTO RENELTTA ARLUK

Sungaujait have been excavated in the Arctic and are present in the archaeological record— archaeologists Therkel Mathiassen and Brenda L. Clark have both excavated ivory and bone sungaujait from Thule sites (c. 900–1200 CE). Similar sungaujait are still made and used today, and demonstrate the deep connection we have to our cultural heritage. Glass sungaujait were introduced into Inuit society around the time of the earliest contact with Europeans and by the early 1700s, were a common trade good. Inuit traveled long distances seeking out glass sungaujait as well as other trade goods, sometimes going as far as 777 km between Iglulik and Igluligaarjuk (Chesterfield Inlet), NU. Within only a century, “most people from the Melville Peninsula communities had been (to Nuvuk, an old principle Inuit settlement from the 18th century) at least once to meet people from Chesterfield Inlet and trade,” [1]. Similarly, Inuit-First Nation sungaujait trading began following the establishment of the first Hudson Bay Company post, created at Fort Churchill in 1685. In his 1903–05 journal, Captain George Comer wrote that his crew brought 25 pounds of sungaujait and 11,000 needles on the whaling ship Era, noting that Inuit “have a good passion for small glass beads of different colors,” [2]. There is no doubt glass sungaujait were highly valued among Inuit from their earliest introduction and were very quickly integrated into Inuit cultural material.

Glass sungaujait have had a significant role in the history of Inuit, as well as art history throughout the Arctic. Glass sungaujait were used in clothing, as exemplified by the spectacular beaded amautiit Inuit women wore to display their sewing prowess. Sungaujait were also used as hair adornment, on beaded bags and bag panels, as well as qaurutiit (brow bands). 

With the introduction of a new material, Inuit took the opportunity to creatively integrate it into our knowledge systems, adapting and attributing our own meanings and value to it. Their bright colours and small size allowed Inuit beaders to express symbolism in an innovative way. Women quickly began to bead their clothing, creating design and aesthetic choices heavily shaped by familial beliefs and community affiliation. What is less commonly known is that motifs and designs found on amautiit may have been a direct reference to tattoos; for example, the tiered pattern on the arms may correlate with the use of beaded fringe on clothing. Upon examination of beadwork on Inuit amautiit, the repeated horizontal lines, vertical columns and geometric motifs are reflective of similar patterns in traditional tattoos. Further, the styles developed by individual beaders not only gave agency and voice to Inuit women, but also was a way to pass on knowledge and skill. 

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Lizzie Ittinuar
Beaded Amauti (c. 1970) Cotton, beads, wool and lead 163.8 × 109.9 × 10.2 cm
COURTESY PEARY-MACMILLAN ARCTIC MUSEUM & ARCTIC STUDIES CENTRE, BOWDON COLLEGE

Contemporary Inuit use of glass sungaujait is just as creative and resourceful as the work of our beading ancestors. Sungaujait can be found on stone carvings, such as in works by Eva Talooki Aliktiluk (1927–1994), as well as on contemporary jewelry exemplified by the beautiful and bold beaded earrings made by Taqralik Partridge, Iñupiaq artist Joni Edwardsen (“Tundraberry”) and Nehiyow/Michif artist Lynette La Fontaine that many of us wear today. When I was planning my wedding in 2013, I kept in mind the value of sungaujait in Inuit culture. I felt it was important to incorporate sungaujait in my wedding dress, and I took inspiration from some of the older beadwork my mother owns. After some deliberation and consideration, I settled on a dress sash with a row of beaded nigjak (fringe). Using the colours we used throughout the wedding rituals, my sister—Charmaine Mercer—beaded the nigjak for my sash, which completed my wedding dress ensemble, honouring our ancestors in a subtle yet beautiful way.

Venice has fabricated glass sungaujait for over 1,500 years, and specifically in Murano since the thirteenth century. The commercial manufacture of Venetian glass seed beads ceased in the 1990s, marking the end of an era—one that Inuit have been intertwined with for centuries. “In the mid-fifteenth century, the exploration of Africa gave tremendous impetus to bead manufacturing in Venice,” Dorothy Eber notes, pointing out that glass sungaujait have played a role in many parts of the world. “On nearby Murano and other small islands, the early glass houses shrouded their bead-making operations with greater secrecy. Merchants and explorers took beads with them as object of trade and when, late in the century, the first Europeans entered the Gulf of the St. Lawrence, Venetian beads—the same as those traded in Africa—arrived in their vessels,” [3].

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A selection of glass beads purchased in Venice, Italy.
PHOTO HEATHER IGLOLIORTE

Sungaujait are produced by drawing out molten coloured glass into tubes, to be cut or chipped into the appropriate size or length. The cut pieces are then placed in a metal bowl with a mixture of sand, ash and wood and are continually agitated to ensure all the holes are filled. The bowl is placed onto another fire and continually stirred, which produces the rounded edges that characterize the sungaujait we know. Once complete, the sungaujait are separated and strung by the impiraressa (bead stringer). 

Recently, I had the opportunity to connect with this history as well as the source of Venetian glass seed beads. While in Venice I traveled to Murano with Sandra Dyck, Director of the Carleton University Art Gallery, who was also interested in visiting the islands. Once on Murano we were able to see a glass blowing demonstration. The glass blower had molten glass inside a furnace where he put in a pipe to gather something that looked like lava and began blowing air through the pipe. He blew the molten bubble, working in swift movements, as the glass was quickly losing heat, and gracefully shaped the molten bubble by using metal tongs while rolling the pipe on top of the table. Once he achieved the desired shape for the pitcher, he grabbed more molten glass from the furnace with the pipe and affixed a handle to the pitcher. Next, he grabbed another pipe and more molten glass out of the furnace, and in even quicker movements he shaped the molten glass into a horse standing on its hind legs. The speed of the glassblower’s skill was mesmerizing, and reminded me of the graceful and thoughtful way women beaded our clothing, adding beauty and meaning to an already beautiful japak or amauti.

Upon entering a glass store in Murano, I was immediately surrounded by beautiful glassworks. A small sign was posted “No Foto,” informing you that you cannot photograph the wonderful pieces of art, including the ridiculously ornate and very large blown glass chandeliers. I thought to myself “what a pity” because I wanted to capture everything in the store. In another store, a salesman recounted the story behind glass seed beads. In Italian-accented English, he enthusiastically told us that the word for seed beads, conterie was derived from the word conterà, to count. Women performed the task of counting and threading beads, called impiraressa, and at one point the currency in Venice was beads. This shed some light on the value placed upon the glass sungaujait for Europeans.

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Faculty of the Inuit Futures Summer Institute visit a bead shop in Murano.
PHOTO RENELTTA ARLUK

During my time on the island a group of us mostly Indigenous women also visited a bead factory where they once produced glass seed beads, and today still produce the larger iconic Venetian glass beads. We entered a gated space where a glass bead making shop was set up, with a seed bead sales area, and a jewelry store. Beside this area was a warehouse with shelves and wooden boxes of glass seed beads that were produced between the early 1900s to the 1990s. We each asked the owner for the sungaujait we wanted and one by one, he packed our sungaujait by the kilogram in plastic bags. 

I can’t imagine what he thought when a group of six mostly Indigenous women walked into his store, but I guarantee he will not forget the experience. We gathered sungaujait in different colours and sizes, each buying beads for different people or different projects. Although we bought different sungaujait, the underlying premise was the same: we wanted to share the special sungaujait with important people in our lives, and connect them to the place that was once the source of sungaujait for our ancestors. For me, this experience was the highlight of my time in Venice, where the nexus of Inuit and Venetians was right in front of my eyes.

Beading using sungaujait is a longstanding and valued tradition among Inuit. Although I am not a particularly skillful beader, I hope to become one. My niece, Kakak, and I have plans to spend our summer together honing our beading skills together, where she’ll teach me many new techniques and I’ll share with her some of the knowledge about beading in our history that has been passed on to me. Like much of what Inuit produce with thread and needle, beadwork highlights the value we place on skilled needlework. To me, sungaujait are the epitome of an integral Inuk value, knowledge sharing and one that connects family values one bead, one stitch at a time. 


NOTES

1 Renée Fossett, In Order to Live Untroubled: Inuit of the Central Arctic, 1550 to 1940 (Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 2001), 126-127.

2 Gillies W. Ross, ed., An Arctic Whaling Diary: The Journal of Captain George Comer in Hudson Bay, 1903-1905 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1984), 233-234.

3 Dorothy Harley Eber, “Eva Talooki: Her Tribute to Seed Beads, Long-Time Jewels of the Arctic,” Inuit Art Quarterly 19, no. 1 (2004): 13.


This Feature was originally published in the 2019 Special Venice Issue of the Inuit Art Quarterly.