Transformation and Resilience in the Shape of an Ulu

by Victoria Sunnergren

Ph.D. Student

Department of Art History

University of Delaware

The ulu, a round-bladed knife, is uniquely designed to cut through animal meat and skins, shaped by the materials available in the Arctic. Inuit of Canada and Greenland and Yupiit of Southwest Alaska have all used uluit to survive in climates where stone and animal products are the primary resources. The use and representation of uluit have transformed throughout a history of colonization, particularly as Indigenous communities underwent a difficult transition from semi-nomadic camp life to permanent settlements in the twentieth century. The tool has become a symbol of resilience—that is, emblematic of the continued use of Indigenous knowledge in the face of colonization. The collections of the University of Delaware Library, Museums and Press house several objects that illustrate this history of change and resilience, including a Yup’ik ulu gifted by Mabel and Harley McKeague and depictions of uluit in Inuit sculptures, drawings, and textiles gifted by Frederick and Lucy Herman.[i]

Uluit are used for tasks that are commonly assigned to Inuit and Yup’ik women, such as butchering meat for food or cutting skins for clothing.[ii] The rounded blade of the ulu allows it to be rocked back and forth across the material being cut, slicing through thick meat and skins with less pressure than a straight blade. Historically, each girl in an Inuit community was given her own ulu, which she brought with her when she married and joined her husband’s household.[iii] A sculpture in the Museums Collections at the University of Delaware titled Woman Skinning Otter; Child on Back by Levi Qumaluk (1919-1997) shows an ulu in use (fig.1). The sculpture represents a woman holding an ulu poised to skin an otter while a child climbs on her back. Although the woman has not yet begun to peel the skin off the otter, her child pulls back her

[i] While the form of uluit vary throughout the Arctic, the use and gendered associations of the object are largely the same across Yup’ik and Inuit contexts. Otis T. Mason, The Ulu, or Woman’s Knife, of the Eskimo (Washington, D. C.: Government Printing Office, 1892).

[ii] Anita Kushwaha, “The Significance of Nuna (the Land) and Urban Place-Making for Inuit Living in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada” (Carleton University, 2013), 199.

[iii] Emily Button Kambic, “The Changing Lives of Women’s Knives: Ulus, Travel, and Transformation,” Historical Archaeology 49, no. 3 (2015): 35.

clothing in a reference to the act of skinning. This relationship between the woman’s act of skinning and the child’s act of tugging highlights the importance of uluit to women’s multiple roles, including providing and caring for children.

An example of an ulu that may have been used for skinning was collected by Harley and Mabel McKeague in Alaska, where they worked with Yup’ik communities (fig. 2). The McKeagues were hired by the United States government to document the morbidity rates among Yupiit (pl.) immediately following Alaska’s acceptance into the union as the fiftieth state in 1959. At the same time that the McKeagues officially documented Yupiit as American citizens, they collected Yup’ik material culture as a personal side project. The ulu they collected has a blade shape and handle attachment typical of Alaska. We do not know who made the ulu in the McKeague collection, but based on the damage to the blade and handle, it was likely used as a tool before it entered the possession of the McKeagues, who purchased and were gifted many Yup’ik objects during their time in Alaska. At some point in its history, the entire ulu was painted with a metallic silver paint. The handle was then painted white over the silver paint. The pitting on the handle shows the silver under the white paint, revealing that the original color of the handle is buried under layers of paint. This intervention into the presentation of the ulu was likely done by Mabel McKeague to make the blade visibly shiny and appealing. She used this ulu in lectures and demonstrations involving Yup’ik objects given to audiences in the contiguous United States after her work in Alaska was completed.[i] Hence, the ulu underwent a transformation in preparation for display, as both the paint and the shifting contexts make the object appear more uniform and aesthetically pleasing to non-Yupiit, but minimize its usefulness as a well-honed knife.

[i] Lecture notes, Mabel & Harley McKeague Archive of Yup’ik Art, Special Collections and Museums, University of Delaware.

A similar history of transformation occurred in Inuit contexts as a result of colonial interactions. As Qallunaat (non-Inuit) traders and explorers interacted with Inuit and collected objects that symbolized Inuit identity, the gendered connection between women and uluit changed. Due to the popularity of the tool, and Inuit men began to produce uluit for the market. As male traders brought uluit back to Southern Canada and the United States, these utilitarian objects entered into museum collections and were put on display, yet again transforming the use of the object and its gendered associations.[i] Since many uluit were collected by men and given to male curators or scholars to study and interpret, this female-associated object has often been understood through white male perspectives in southern Canada and the United States. For example, the only known monograph on the ulu was written by Otis T. Mason, a curator at the Smithsonian Institution.[ii] This monograph categorizes the varieties of uluit by region, offering illustrated examples of the differences in Alaska, Canada, and Greenland. However, it does not place the ulu within a lived experience, nor offer an understanding of how the tool shapes daily tasks and cultural meanings for its users. As more women and Inuit enter academia and museums, they are reinterpreting the ulu yet again in light of its identity associations among Inuit.[iii]

The same contact with Qallunaat that brought uluit into southern collections and scholarship also changed the materiality of the objects. The first ulu blades were made of slate, a material readily available in the Arctic. As traders and explorers brought metal to Inuit, this became the primary material for crafting uluit. Today, uluit are commonly made of metal blades with handles made from antler or wood.[iv] This shift in materiality is evidence of the transformation of Inuit and Yup’ik communities in the face of colonial influence. Mabel McKeague, an agent of a settler-colonial government, may have been the one who inadvertently

[i] Ibid.

[ii] Mason, The Ulu, or Woman’s Knife, of the Eskimo.

[iii] Emily Button Kambic, “The Changing Lives of Women’s Knives: Ulus, Travel, and Transformation,” Historical Archaeology 49, no. 3 (2015): 42.

[iv] Lisa Frink, Brian W Hoffman, and Robert D Shaw, “Ulu Knife Use in Western Alaska: A Comparative Ethnoarchaeological Study,” Current Anthropology 44, no. 1 (2003): 116.

highlighted this material shift for her audiences by painting the ulu in McKeague collection to appear even more obviously metallic.

While the medium of the ulu blade has changed over time, it has remained a tool most commonly associated with animal skins and meat. Because of the limited resources in the Arctic, animal skins have long been an important material for all aspects of survival, even after the colonial introduction of new technologies. Inuit clothing has long been made from animal skins sewn together with sinew, usually tendons or ligaments.[i] Fur trading was an important source of income for Inuit for many years, but the collapse of the trade and new Canadian policies compelled Inuit to move into permanent settlements in the twentieth century, radically altering the semi-nomadic hunting lifestyle to which they were accustomed. As a means of needed income, many Inuit turned to the growing global market for Indigenous art. Some Inuit artists have experimented with drawing on skin as means of carrying nomadic hunting practices into artwork created in settlements, such as in Walruses by Florence Malewotkuk (1906-1971) (fig. 3). In this image, Malewotkuk used charcoal to draw three walruses resting on an ice flow on a piece of sealskin. The sealskin was likely cleaned and prepared by women with tools such as uluit. Malewotkuk, a female artist, would have understood the feminine labor that went into preparing a skin such as this. This particular piece of sealskin embodies this labor through the holes and imperfections in the drawing surface, which highlight its materiality as an animal product. The addition of a drawing of a walrus, a marine mammal in the same scientific family as the seal, further indicates material networks that brought Inuit, uluit, and animals into close relationships with one another.[ii] By creating art for a global art market on an Arctic material like sealskin, Malewotkuk carried Inuit understandings of materiality forward into a colonial context,

[i] Janet Catherine Berlo, “Inuit Women and Graphic Arts : Female Creativity and Its Cultural Context,” The Canadian Journal of Native Studies 9, no. 2 (1989): 293–315.

[ii] “The Marine Mammal Center : Pinnipeds,” accessed May 11, 2018,

just as many artists did with uluit, which would have likely been used to cut the very skin that Malewotkuk worked with.

Given their centrality to Arctic lifeways, uluit are often included in Inuit cultural representations as emblems of resilience in the face of Qallunaat influence.[i] Consider, for example, the drawing Family Eating in Pre-Fab House by Annie Pootoogook (1969-2016; fig. 4). This drawing shows an Inuit family eating in the kitchen of a pre-fabricated house, like those provided by the government when Inuit moved into settlements. The house acts as a physical representation of the drastic changes that colonization brought to the everyday life of Inuit, who had previously lived a semi-nomadic lifestyle.[ii] Despite the Qallunaat food and furniture on display in the house, the five Inuit sit on the ground and use Inuit tools to eat Inuit food. The women in this image use uluit to cut their fish and other foodstuffs. This image shows the continued use of Inuit technologies and foodways despite the influence of Qallunaat in the settlements. It reflects subtle resistance in line with Inuk art historian Heather Igloliorte’s definition of resilience as “fortifying the culture from within, rather than reacting to outside opposition.” She further stresses that resilience is often displayed in Inuit artwork.[iii] By drawing the family ignoring their Qallunaat food and sitting as a group around the Inuit food and tools, Pootoogook shows Inuit life fortified by ongoing familial and animal relations. Here, the ulu doubles as a practical tool and a symbol of cultural connections that are maintained amid colonization.

The symbolic use of uluit is also tied to the strength of women artists in Inuit art. As art historian Janet Berlo has argued, female artists are unusually well-represented in the market for Inuit art, as opposed to American and European art markets which have historically favored work by men.[iv] The Pootoogook family is an excellent example of the strength of artistic tradition within a female lineage. Annie Pootoogook was a famous artist from a family of successful female artists including her mother, Napatchie Pootoogook; grandmother, Pitseolak Ashoona; and cousin, Shuvanai Ashoona.[v] Many famous Inuit artists are women, which may explain the common representation of uluit, typically female tools, within Inuit art. For example, female graphic artist Jessie Oonark uses the ulu as an identifying icon in her work, which often deals with women’s self-fashioning.[vi] These artists use the ulu in association with female artists and women’s activities to show that Inuit lifeways have survived and adapted despite the changes wrought by colonization.

Although Inuit have embraced new artistic mediums, representations of uluit continue to reference cultural resilience and women’s strength in artistic endeavors. Weaving was introduced to Inuit communities in 1968, when the Canadian government sent Gary Magee to Pangnirtung to establish an arts and crafts project that could economically sustain the community.[vii] In the resulting Pangnirtung weaving co-operative, three artists typically work on each weaving. One artist draws the original design, a second artist transfers the design to a full-size model for weaving, and a third weaves the image into a tapestry that could benefit all of the artists.

Jacopsie Tiglik (b. 1952), who contributed to the weaving A Woman’s Tools, was part of the second generation of artists to work in the Pangnirtung co-operative (fig. 5). In A Woman’s Tools, Tiglik and Akulukjuk wove an image of a several uluit, stacked and arranged in a largely abstracted image. The flattened shapes of a variety of uluit appear to float without a horizon or sense of orientation. While Inuit audiences could easily identify the tools that are ubiquitous to life in the Arctic, a Qallunaat audience may be left to guess the identity and purpose of the objects. The ulu, consisting of a hard metal blade, seems a curious choice for inclusion in a soft woven artwork. However, given the historical context of both uluit and weaving in Inuit culture, this artwork makes sense as a representation of cultural resilience. The weavers, despite working in new mediums to support new lifestyles, still used and valued the ulu, and reflected this hybridity in their work. As uluit were adapted and transformed in the face of contact with Qallunaat, Inuit and Yupiit have continued to use them as practical tools and as symbols of their cultural resilience.


[i] Kushwaha, “The Significance of Nuna (the Land) and Urban Place-Making for Inuit Living in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada,” 259.

[ii] Heather Igloliorte, “The Inuit of Our Imagination,” in Inuit Modern, ed. Gerald R. McMaster (Ontario: Art Gallery of Ontario, 2010), 41–42.

[iii] Ibid., 46.

[iv] Berlo, “Inuit Women and Graphic Arts : Female Creativity and Its Cultural Context.”

[v] Heather Igloliorte, “Annie Pootoogook: Depicting Arctic Modernity in Contemporary Inuit Art,” Artlink 37, no. 2 (2017): 59.

[vi] Berlo, “Inuit Women and Graphic Arts : Female Creativity and Its Cultural Context.”

[vii] Deborah Hickman, “Tapestry: A Northern Legacy,” in Nuvisavik: The Place Where We Weave, 2002, 42.

Background Image

Sunset over Nunavut River

By Nils Rinaldi (own work)

This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license:

Figure 1.

Levi Qumaluk, Woman Skinning Otter; Child on Back. 20th C. Soapstone, 15 ¼ x 15 x 7¾ in. Museums Collections, Gift of Frederick & Lucy S. Herman

Figure 2.

Unknown, Broad Blade Ulu. 20th Century. Wood and metal, 6 ¾ x 5 in. Museums Collections, Gift of Mabel & Harley McKeague

Figure 3.

Florence Malewotkuk, Walruses. 20th C. Charcoal on sealskin, 18 11/16 x 26 9/16 in. Museums Collections, Gift of Alan and Jennifer Pensler.

Figure 4.

Annie Pootoogook, Family Eating in Pre-Fab House. 2000. Graphite and ink, 20 x 26 ⅛ in. Museums Collections, Gift of Frederick & Lucy S. Herman. Reproduced with the permission of Dorset Fine Arts

Figure 5.

Jacoposie Tiglik and Olassie Akulukjuk, A Woman’s Tools. Late 20th Century. Wool and linen, 24 x 19 ½ in. Museums Collections, Gift of Carol A. Heppenstall