In 1999, when Nunavut was officially named Canada’s newest territory, the Royal Canadian Mint marked the occasion with a commemorative two-dollar coin, designed by Germaine Arnaktauyok, featuring a drum-dancer with their body in relief, encircling a map of Nunavut and a quilliq.
Nunatsiavut artist Jason Sikoak recalls holding that toonie in their hand and thinking maybe that someday they could design a coin like Arnaktauyok—though they never believed they would ever have the opportunity. Twenty-one years later, with that dream still in the back of their mind, Sikoak received a call from the Royal Canadian Mint, which had been referred by Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, asking them to submit an original design for a contest.
Although they initially thought it was a prank, Sikoak, who is wrapping up their Bachelor of Fine Arts degree at Concordia University in Montreal, QC, quickly realized that it was a genuine invitation and submitted his proposed drawing. A few weeks later, Sikoak’s illustration of the sea goddess Sedna was chosen to represent the first coin in the Mint’s new Generations commemorative series, which is intended to share Indigenous legends and stories. A limited edition of 5,000 coins have now been released.
Sikoak spoke to the IAQ about the inspiration behind their original design.
Inuit Art Quarterly: What was your reaction when you found out that your illustration would appear on a coin?
Jason Sikoak: When they contacted me to say “congratulations, your design won,” I don't remember much after that in the conversation, just my total shock.
IAQ: Did you have to make any changes to your original submission?
JS: This kind of design is new for me, though I did watch the [TV documentary series] How It's Made. They have an episode on the Royal Canadian Mint, which I watched a couple of times. There were some minor changes that needed to happen to my drawing, which was tough because I draw in pen and ink, and so I had to redraw the original design.
IAQ: Obviously a coin is very small. Did you have to take size into consideration while working in a larger format?
JS: I drew it fairly big, it's like 20” by 20”, and then I sent them the digital copy and some high-res photos. But their engraving department is amazing. They had to reduce the design several times.
Jason Sikoak (2001) commemorative silver coin
COURTESY ROYAL CANADIAN MINT
IAQ: Did you know immediately what design or what concept that you wanted to go with, or did you play around?
JS: I knew I wanted to draw Sedna. This is one of our stories that I had created different versions of in the past. And I knew that across Nunangat there is some version of this story, and so I knew that it would be recognized by Inuit. And after I told the story, the Mint had it vetted by Inuit elders.
IAQ: How did you decide on the final representation or the vision that you wanted for the design?
JS: They told me that I could draw it as a square. But I was thinking a coin is circular, so I played with the concept of Sedna floating in the water. I put her at the bottom, because originally in the story she ends up at the bottom of the ocean. I drew seals coming out from her fingers, and had her braided hair flowing down to make it look like it was floating in water.
I see a lot of people drawing Sedna with a mermaid's tail. I like to change that up with a seal’s lower body and tail, and wearing an amauti. But I didn't put a face on her. I don't have the knowledge or the skills or the capacity to draw the face of a god. That’s not something I can do.
IAQ: What did you think when you saw the physical coin?
JS: I ordered one two days after release, and thought I would get a lower [minting] number. They give you the number in a little booklet, and this one was already at 1,748 out of 5000 after only a few days. I think the shock has finally dissipated a little now that I have it in my hands.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.