Fish and Feather: Traditions of loon and char skin sewing

The fish and feather program was an initiative to learn more about both local and pan-Arctic traditions of using fish and birds as sewing materials.  Research for the project took place over the course of a two week land camp in 2011.

The idea for a fish and feather program grew out of a Kitikmeot Heritage Society researcher’s 2010 visit to a professional fish tannery in northern Iceland. The researcher returned to Cambridge Bay with samples of fish leather and many questions about whether similar traditions of fish skin preservation and use once existed in Copper Inuit culture. Local elders could remember only a single instance in which fish skins were traditionally used to manufacture long bags in which tools could be stored. Excited to learn about the many other uses of fish skin applied across the Arctic, elders decided to host a project to revive traditional Copper Inuit usages of fish and bird skin, and learn more about how these skins were being used by other cultural groups throughout the Arctic.

As indicated by its Inuinnaqtun name ‘Iqaluktuutiaq’ (which translates as ‘a place of good fishing’), Cambridge Bay’s coastlines and rivers team with fish. Our project team consisting of elders, youth and KHS researchers built their camp on a stretch of coastline known by local elders as ‘Qainniurvik’ (a place where they have built kayaks), due to previous heritage society boat building workshops in the area.  This area teams with char during July, when the fish begin returning to local river mouths to spawn. During the camp’s initial days, our team worked hard to set nets for fish to feed the camp and to provide skins to use in the project.  Both common loons (maliriit) and a red-throated diver (qaqhauq) were also harvested from the nets, where they had been accidentally caught and drowned when trying to eat the netted fish. These loons were also eaten and their skins were removed and prepared for sewing.

Despite the consistent heavy rains and ferocious wind, our camp was visited by approximately 20-25 community members each day. Many of these individuals spoke of the camp as a cathartic experience, allowing them a rare opportunity to leave town, eat land food, and immerse themselves in a cultural setting with the elders. Additional elders were also brought out to the camp during the afternoons courtesy of the local Wellness Centre. Elders told stories, drum danced, and partook in traditional meals of caribou and seal. Cambridge Bay researcher Pam Gross worked with elders to record stories about their lives and memories of fish and loon skin sewing on video.

After much discussion, elders created two traditional women’s bags from both common and red throated loons. Two men’s tool bags were also fashioned from dried char skins, and a third, more modern, satchel was assembled from trout skins. Throughout this entire time, intensive interviews were recorded with all participating elders regarding both the procurement and processing of natural resources. Animals being used or eaten were dissected on camera, with an inventory of their Inuinnaqtun names recorded. Elders similarly discussed manufacture techniques for the items they were preparing and sewing, and gave short video classes on topics such as bannock making, the preparation of various skins, and traditional taboos associated with the consumption of animals.

The videos and fieldnotes developed during this workshop remain accessible to researchers and community members in the Kitikmeot Heritage Society archives.  The completed loon and fish skin bags have been stabilized and incorporated into our museum’s exhibits and permanent collection.

Project Sponsors

Funding the fish and feather program was generously provided by the Nunavut Department of Culture and Heritage.  Our thanks go out to in-kind logistical support provided by the Cambridge Bay Wellness Centre, the Kitikmeot Inuit Association and the Kiilinik High School.