I remember as a child being awed by the sealskin tapestries hanging in the Our Lady of Grace Catholic Church in Tuktuyaaqtuuq, Inuvialuit Settlement Region, NT. These tapestries had such intricate designs; lighter shades of fur inlaid into dark, showing winter scenes of an Inuvialuk walking into a church, and another showing a scene of a dog team whisking across the sealskin. I couldn’t fathom how anyone could sew something so beautiful, so amazing and in a material as tough as sealskin.
Alice Gruben (1922-1987), my Nanuck and one of the seamstresses of these tapestries, was as diverse as her materials. She worked hard all her life fishing, whaling, raising children and grandchildren—including me—working with my Daduck and helping her fellow community members.
She lived during the transition when the old Inuvialuit ways began merging with the modern, and she held vast traditional knowledge. Sewing for her was necessary for survival, and tanning furs provided income. With each stitch she preserved this knowledge, diligently ensuring that the traditional skills, designs and patterns were passed onto future generations.
That knowledge was preserved by my Nanuck and her fellow seamstresses in Tuktuyaaqtuuq so other seamstresses could pick up the needle and thread, including one whose talent I admire: Nellie Pokiak. Nellie was a kind soul who worked at Mangilaluk School as a counsellor and was deeply rooted in traditional life. She sewed exceptionally well; her family always had beautiful traditional clothing. The parkas she made with elaborately embroidered floral designs, which she made for her husband and herself, stand clear in my memory. The flower detailing was bold and exquisite. I remember being astonished, and I could not believe she made it herself! Nellie, like many of the seamstresses in Tuk, was always willing to share her knowledge and her heart.