• Feature

What the Igloo Tag Means for Inuit Artists

Jun 01, 2020
by Leslie Boyd

Indigenous artists throughout the world have developed trademarks to protect and promote the authenticity of their art [1]. Inuit artists in Canada were among the first, and their mark is known as the Igloo Tag. Its story dates back to the post-war development of Inuit art. 

The key players in the story were, in addition to the Inuit carvers and craftspeople, the federal government’s Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development (DIAND; now Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada [INAC]), the Quebec branch of the Canadian Handicrafts Guild (now The Guild), the Hudson’s Bay Company  and James and Alma Houston. The Guild had been involved in the support of Inuit craftspeople as early as 1911, but their efforts took  a firm hold when Houston went on his now legendary sketching trip to Inukjuak in 1948. The Guild’s inaugural exhibition in the fall of 1949 marked the beginning of the Inuit art phenomenon.

Inuit art’s instantaneous popularity soon attracted counterfeiters. As early as the mid-1950s, mass-produced replicas of “Inuit carvings” started reaching the Canadian marketplace from overseas. Initially, these were objects made of resin compound that mimicked Inuit themes and style, but over the years manufacturers expanded their product lines and went out of their way to present them as if they were genuinely traditional. Some adopted Inuit sounding names and included “artist” biographies and Inuit legends and stories in accompanying merchandising cards. Others referred to “truly talented  artists” who were fascinated with “Canada’s northern culture” and “express[ed] this culture in soapstone,” [2]. Most stopped just short of claiming that the “artists” were Inuit, but they all blurred the truth with linguistic trickery and marketing mumbo jumbo. Widely dubbed “fakelore”, the practice represents not just an economic challenge  to Inuit communities engaged in the production of original art, but blatant appropriation of Inuit cultural traditions and practices that inform their work.

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When these imposters first appeared, the federal government was quick to respond. DIAND developed the Canadian Eskimo Art and Design (CEAAD) mark, registering it in 1958 to protect both the  consumer and the Inuit carver from mass-produced imitations. The symbol chosen to represent the authenticity of Inuit-made products was a stylized igloo with the words “Eskimo Art”, or later “Eskimo Art Esqimau”, incorporated in the design of the mark. Thereafter the mark became universally known as the Igloo Tag. 

At the outset, the Igloo Tag program was administered through the federal government by way of nine additional authorized Inuit art distributors, who were formally licensed to use the tag. Five are still active and use the tag as a guarantee of authenticity. They  are The Guild, La Fédération des coopératives du Nouveau-Québec (FCNQ), Canadian Arctic Producers (CAP), the West Baffin  Eskimo Co-operative and the Government of Nunavut and its arms. Until the early 1980s, DIAND supported the tag and its distributors through a public education campaign and monitored its use by  the authorized licensees. In 1984, DIAND’s Northern Program was dissolved and subsequent departmental restructuring marked the  beginning of the end of the federal government’s active involvement with the Igloo Tag. 

Many studies have been commissioned over the years to resolve what came to be known as “the Igloo Tag dilemma,” [3]. DIAND no longer wanted to commit resources to the administration of the tag but they still owned the trademark, and the tag was still in widespread use. Every study also concluded that the tag had considerable value and potential in the global promotion of Inuit art. The dilemma was finally resolved in 2014 when the newly named Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada (formerly DIAND, now INAC) began the process of transferring the Igloo Tag program to the newly reconstituted Inuit Art Foundation (IAF), Canada’s Inuit-governed, national organization dedicated to supporting the work of Inuit artists. On March 9, 2017, the IAF took full ownership and control of the trademark. For the first time, the Igloo Tag Trademark is being overseen and managed by Inuit, for Inuit.

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Bryan Winters, Alysa Procida and Elizabeth Logue following the official transfer of the Igloo Tag in Iqaluit, NU, 2017

The past two years have provided an opportunity to reassess the significance of the tag within the changing landscape of contemporary Inuit art. Research undertaken by the IAF, as well as by INAC through their 2017 Impact of the Inuit Arts Economy study, has revealed that the tag is widely recognized in the southern marketplace but has fairly low recognition among Inuit artists themselves. This is not surprising since the artist has not traditionally been involved in the marketing and distribution of their work. That’s changing, and one of the goals of the IAF’s communications plan is to raise awareness of the trademark in the North and at the community level. The economic impact of the tag, however, remains strong. The 2017 study determined that collectors are willing to pay more for a work with the trademark than one without, by as much as $117 on average, which generates approximately $3.5 million a year in additional revenues through the five legacy licensees.

Another objective of the IAF’s outreach is to determine if and how the tag can be expanded to include all artistic disciplines in the North. Inuit artists now embrace many disciplines in addition to traditional fine arts and crafts, including the performing arts, literary arts and film and media arts. Preliminary conversations with artists and organizations promoting these disciplines show support for  a national brand and program to support artists and raise awareness of their work.

The Igloo Tag is still perceived as a mark of Inuit authenticity and this is very important to Indigenous groups around the world, especially as the issues around cultural appropriation are more widely discussed. Inuit communities benefit enormously from the sale of genuine, original art, and the need for broader education about contemporary Inuit life and culture is still great. The Igloo Tag has a role to play in countering the misinformation surrounding the marketing of Inuit art and the Inuit Art Foundation has a well-timed opportunity to enhance its visibility and expand its role. 


NOTES

1 Alaska, New Zealand, Australia, Greenland and Norway/Finland have all developed programs and trademarks to identify and authenticate Indigenous art.

2 Melanie Scott, “Faking It: The Appropriation of a Culture,” Inuit Art Quarterly 12,  no. 2 (Summer 1997): 18.

3 The Canadian Eskimo Art and Design Trade-Mark (Igloo Tag); Case Study: The West Baffin Eskimo Co-operative, Cape Dorset, Nunavut. Internal review by the Indian and Inuit Art Centre, Indian and Northern Affairs Canada, 2006–2007.


This Feature was originally published in the Fall 2017 issue of the Inuit Art Quarterly.