RecensionsBook reviews

PHARAND, Sylvie, 2012 Caribou Skin Clothing of the Igloolik Inuit, Iqaluit, Inhabit Media, 198 pages.

  • Bernadette Driscoll Engelstad

…more information

  • Bernadette Driscoll Engelstad
    Research Collaborator, Arctic Studies Center, Department of Anthropology, Smithsonian Institution, P.O. Box 37012, Washington, D.C., 20013-7012, USA

Article body

The opening pages of Caribou Skin Clothing of the Igloolik Inuit recount Sylvie Pharand’s close collaboration with three generations of clothing specialists in the Igloolik community, and provide an interesting insight into the circuitous history of this publication. In the early 1970s, Pharand began her research as a graduate student at Université Laval working with the French-trained anthropologist Bernard Saladin d’Anglure. Gathering together a notable team of seamstresses, elders, artists, interpreters, and translators—including Seporah Piunngittuq, Jeanine Arnainnuk, Martha Agugaattiaq, Rose Iqallijuq, Annie Majurtuq, Elizabeth Alariaq, Celina Sarpinak Iyerak, and Leah Idlout—Pharand set out to document caribou fur clothing design in the Igloolik region. For almost 40 years the results of her comprehensive and exceptional research remained in manuscript form in the archives of the National Museum of Man (now the Canadian Museum of History). Since the museum’s copy was available to serious researchers, the report was nevertheless pivotal in the development of scholarship and publications on Inuit clothing design throughout the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s. Recently, Sylvie Pharand has returned to this research, working with renewed energy with a second team of specialists in Igloolik, including Leah Aksaajuk Otak, Madeline Piujuq Ivalu, and Susan Angutauttuq Avingaq, to expand and update the original research. The newly released publication provides a wealth of information on caribou fur clothing design (and clothing history) in Igloolik and neighbouring regions, while providing an excellent research model for future work on Inuit material culture and community history.

A summary review such as this can point out only a few of the many strengths of this publication. In addition to discussing the functional attributes of caribou skin clothing and means of clothing production, the author provides keen insights into the social and cultural aspects of Inuit clothing design with a sharp focus on ecology, social philosophy, and the cultural tenets of Inuit society. The author’s precise recording of clothing terminology, for example, demonstrates how cultural knowledge is so richly embedded in the Inuktitut language and in the design of clothing forms, particularly as they change over the course of one’s life from childhood to maturity. The author’s research methodology emphasises the intrinsic value of community collaboration in bringing together individuals whose knowledge, experience, talent, and skill make an exceptional contribution to the project at hand.

Well illustrated with historical and contemporary photographs, the publication describes the variety of clothing types worn by men, women, and children throughout the region, with particular emphasis on changes in clothing styles as children mature. A comprehensive collection of well-annotated patterns for parkas and footwear provides patterns for specific clothing types and illustrates the manner in which pattern pieces are cut from the caribou hide. A series of photographs (Figures 95 to 115) illustrates the ecological system of clothing production, beginning with the hunter’s pursuit of a swimming caribou, the separation of skin from meat, the carving of a skin scraper from the caribou leg bone, and steps in drying and preparing the caribou skin for clothing production.

Community photographs, taken in 1972 by Sylvie Pharand and in 2011 by Annie Desilets, illustrate the evolution in clothing forms in caribou fur and imported cloth, as well as the variety of clothing styles currently worn in the community. These photographs serve as an important visual addition to the text, suggesting the cumulative effect of European clothing styles in altering and suppressing (and at times eliminating) the design elements of historical caribou fur clothing that traditionally defined the social identification of gender (e.g., the kiniq: front apron flap on women’s parkas and tui: broad shoulders), as well as the pivotal importance of animal-human relationships (e.g., the akuq: long back parka tail). Despite changes in other parka features, the amaut (back pouch for carrying a child) clearly remains a prominent feature of women’s/mother’s clothing (Figures 132, 134, 135, 139), which is also worn by young girls to carry younger siblings (Figure 130), by fathers to carry their child (Figures 144, 145), and even by men as a costume in a comic performance (Figure 146).

In writing this review, I am reminded of the importance of the early work of Sylvie Pharand and her colleagues, and I welcome the opportunity to offer a personal note of gratitude to all. As a graduate student embarking on a study of Inuit clothing design in museum collections, I encountered Sylvie Pharand’s manuscript in the National Museum of Man Archives. Reading her report served as a qau moment, enlightening my understanding of the profound social and cultural significance of Inuit clothing design. Following the author’s example of fieldwork collaboration, I was fortunate to work with exceptional seamstresses in Igloolik (Elizabeth Qulaut, Susan Avingaq) and Arviat (Rhoda Karetak, Annie Napayok, Charlotte St. John, Melanie Tabvatah) who generously shared their detailed knowledge. I can still see the smile on Melanie Tabvatah’s face as she described the antler buds on the hood of a child’s atajuq, “So he looks just like a little caribou!”

The authors of the major studies of Inuit clothing design over the past 30 years also recognised the significance of the Pharand manuscript, which is cited in the various bibliographies (e.g., Driscoll 1983, 1987; Hall et al. 1994; Issenman 1997; Oakes 1991). Therefore, despite the recent release date (2012), this publication by Sylvie Pharand in collaboration with her colleagues in Igloolik was already recognised as a classic text, not only for its detailed study of caribou fur clothing design but also for privileging Inuit qaujimajatuqangit (IQ) and for providing a research template for subsequent studies.

In collecting this research, the author had the wisdom and foresight to ensure its accessibility to the Igloolik community, as well as to academic researchers. Originally written in French (1975), and translated into English by Michelle Pharand, the text was translated into Inuktitut by Leah Idlout in both syllabic and Roman orthography (1976) with a digital version in 2010. In the epilogue, “Modernity Meets Tradition,” Pharand echoes the caution of Leah Otak, Manager of IQ and Oral History Research at the Nunavut Research Centre in Igloolik, citing the need to move very fast because “soon it will be too late.” The author describes the collective hope for a community qarmaq in Igloolik equipped with sewing machines where women would be able to meet, sew, and share their knowledge. A network of women’s sewing studios would be important in Inuit communities across the North, enabling generational exchange and preservation of a vast body of cultural knowledge. A model certainly exists in the community network of art cooperatives and print studios, which not only have served as a vital source of individual and collective achievement, community pride, and cultural preservation, but have also been instrumental (even essential) in the recognition and creation of Nunavut (Engelstad 2010).

Finally, it would be remiss not to mention the publishers, Inhabit Media (with offices in Iqaluit and Toronto), and to applaud the emergence of publishing enterprises in the North (as well as the financial support of Northern entities), which enable critical information on social, cultural, economic and political issues affecting the Arctic to be published for the benefit and enlightenment of national and international audiences. This publication by Sylvie Pharand with her Igloolik collaborators is a major contribution to the study of Inuit clothing design, and to the knowledge and appreciation of Inuit cultural history. It belongs in university and community libraries, as well as on the desk of every community researcher, seamstress, and anthropologist intrigued and impressed by Inuit clothing design and by Inuit social and cultural history.