IACA Journal: Winter 2014 - page 6

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IACA Journal | Winter 2014
IACA Recognizes Native Arts
from the arctic regions of our continent
IACA has traditionally focused on Native American arts from
the lower 48 states but it is important that we also recognize
Native arts from the Arctic regions of our continent, including
Alaska and Canada. It was art from this region that first caught
my attention when I was a teenager on a family trip and has
stayed with me for almost half a century.
Exquisite objects dating back several thousand years have been excavated in the Arctic
regions. While the primary medium was ivory, some antler and wood pieces have
survived as well. Most of the work took the form of faces, dolls, playing pieces, shaman-
ic amulets, and utilitarian pieces. My belief is that there are continuous threads that
connect contemporary artists with the cultures of the distant past, though this is not a
universally held belief.
Interestingly, there is no word that translates directly to art in the language of most Arc-
tic cultures. In the language of Inuktituk, from Northern Canada, the word that is com-
monly used to refer to art translates most closely to “something that is made well”. In an
unforgiving climate where any resource is precious, the emphasis is naturally placed on
things that are useful and work well. If they also look pleasant, they may be more highly
treasured, but the first priority is that they perform a useful function.
Once European traders arrived in the Arctic regions in the late 19th and early 20th
centuries, indigenous people realized they could sell their artwork in order to purchase
food and supplies to aid in their survival. In Alaska, commercially made items date
back to the last decades of the 19th century. In Canada, commercial sale of artwork
began in earnest in the late 1940’s, in large part based on the efforts of a young artist by
the name of James Houston. Houston’s
work led to an extended effort by the
Canadian government to promote Inuit
art, an effort which has continued until
current times.
Promotion and distribution of Alaskan
and Canadian indigenous arts have
taken significantly different directions
in the last 60-plus years. The Canadian
government, in an attempt to provide
a means of livelihood for the Inuit of
remote regions, started a co-operative
system in the late 1950’s. The co-ops
are owned by local residents, but they
benefit from continued support from
the Canadian government and facilitate
marketing and distribution of art to
dealers who are unable to travel to the
far north.
In contrast, support from the U.S.
government has been scant and inconsis-
tent. The U.S. Department of the Interior
has promoted genuine “Eskimo” art with
authentication stickers in past years;
Fish/Bird Transformation by Toonoo Sharky, RCA - Inuit artist from Cape Dorset,
Nunavut Canada, carved from Baffin Island serpentine with inlaid eyes.
Caribou Man transformation by David
Ruben Piqtoukun, Inuit artist from
Paulatuk, Northwest Territories, Canada.
Carved from Brazilian soapstone with
inlaid eyes and caribou antler.
By David Shultz
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