Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit and Resilience in Qaunaq Mikkigak's Drawing Hungry Dogs in Camp
by Zoë Colón
Department of Art History
University of Delaware
This collection came into being from the Inuit art co-operative industry that emerged in the late 1950s in the Canadian Arctic. A variety of factors impeded Inuit communities’ ability to continue their semi-nomadic lifestyle under settler colonialism, including the collapse of the fur trade, the establishment of the residential school system, and new hunting restrictions intended to discourage subsistence-based lifeways. Beginning in the early 1950s, the Canadian government built permanent settlements that compelled Inuit to participate in a capitalist wage economy. These changes compelled many Inuit like Mikkigak to take up art making for the first time, leading to a body of artwork that provides a fascinating insight into Inuit relationships with animals and stimulates new ways of understanding resilience that prominently feature those interspecies relationships.
In a playful scene that depicts six qimmit (sled dogs) and two Inuit hunters living and engaging in subsistence-related activities together, Mikkigak illustrates the convivial partnership between qimmit and Inuit. Through these choices, the artist foregrounds this culturally significant relationship at a time when Canadian policy sought to suppress it, using humor as a strategy of resilience. The relationship between Inuit and qimmit depicted in this drawing demonstrates how Inuit understand and coexist with non-human animals. Through a close examination of Hungry Dogs in Camp, this paper examines how Inuit art uses strategies of resilience to express
Mikkigak, like many of the first Inuit artists to participate in art co-operatives in the mid-twentieth century, grew up in the semi-nomadic camp lifestyle that became untenable after the institution of Canadian assimilationist policies. In an effort to encourage Inuit to transition from subsistence-based lifeways to wage-based employment, the Canadian government deployed agents such as James Houston, a Canadian artist, to establish art-making co-operatives in recently built permanent settlements. In order to comply with the new requirement that Inuit children attend residential school programs in these settlements, the Mikkigak family moved into Kinngait (Cape Dorset), where Houston had founded the first Inuit art co-operative known as the West Baffin Eskimo Co-Operative in 1959. In order to support her family, Mikkigak began experimenting with drawing and especially carving through the 1960s. She returned her focus to drawing and printmaking in the late 1970s, when she likely completed Hungry Dogs in Camp.[i]
Considering the timing of Hungry Dogs in Camp’s creation helps to illuminate its significant meaning for Inuit culture. By the late 1970s, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), under the direction of the Canadian government, carried out over a twenty-five year
[i] Michelle Lewin, Art by Women: An Investigation of Inuit Sculpture and Graphics (Toronto: Feheley Fine Arts, 2002): “Qaunaq Mikkigak (1932 – )”.
This tragic loss and resistance provides the poignant context in which we should encounter Mikkigak’s Hungry Dogs in Camp. Let us now go back to it. The drawing depicts five qimmit running in different directions as two Inuit hunters construct an igloo. A sixth qimmiq further back in the composition scampers through the snow without a harness. These hunters do not adhere to the strictures set forth by the RCMP, encouraging the qimmit to move about in the space of the composition and within the campsite in the foreground. This reflects their recognition of qimmit agency and their familial place in Inuit communities. At the center of the drawing’s foreground, four qimmit wrap themselves around the igloo as they reach towards the carefully depicted walrus flipper lying next to a mix of tools. This movement in the composition not only anticipates a humorous sequence in which the qimmit will tie themselves into a heap, perhaps entangling the tools and the two hunters with them, but also further indicates the
[i] Frederic Laugrand and Jarich Oosten, Hunters, Predators, and Prey: Inuit Perceptions of Animals (New York: Berghahn, 2014): 156-157.
[ii] Ole Gjerstad and Joelie Sanguya, Qimmit: A Clash of Two Truths (Piksuk Media Inc., 2010), https://vimeo.com/44819444.
As Hungry Dogs in Camp demonstrates through the inclusion and omission of specific details, resilience also involves adaptation to external change while retaining Indigenous knowledge and principles. The hunting camp tableau that Mikkigak depicts here includes an assemblage of Inuit and Qallunaat implements; the objects laying in the snow beside the walrus flipper, such as the tea kettle, cups, and axe, reflect the Qallunaat tools that contact introduced to Inuit daily life. Simultaneously, Mikkigak’s drawing rejects other Qallunaat technologies. The hunters use qimmit instead of snowmobiles, whose introduction to the Arctic in this period made travel faster and rendered temporary overnight housing, like igloos, unnecessary. [ii] By juxtaposing Qallunaat implements to illegal or obsolete practices, Mikkigak imagines a peaceful compatibility of adaptation and Indigenous sovereignty. Despite creating the drawing at the conclusion of a quarter-century of killings, Mikkigak carefully balances the resistance against Canadian assimilationist policy with the synthesis of cross-cultural exchange.
In addition to its function as a subtle protest against the Canadian government’s colonialist regulations concerning the treatment of qimmit, Hungry Dogs in Camp also conveys the unique interconnectedness of Inuit and qimmit. Inuit knowledge serves as the foundation for this relationship, making it vital subject matter for an Inuit artistic tradition of resilience. The Inuk hunter and the qimmiq mutually serve each other for the common good of their community. Reciprocity is the fundamental ethic that governs qimmit and Inuit relations. Inuit cannot survive without the qimmiq’s ability to travel great distances, to detect unstable ice, to trace breathing
[i] Birgitte Sonne, The Acculturative Role of Sea Woman : Early Contact Relations between Inuit and Whites as Revealed in the Origin Myth of Sea Woman (Copenhagen: Kommissionen for videnskabelige Undersøgelser i Grønland, 1990): 9.
[ii] Frank James Tester, “Mad Dogs and (Mostly) Englishmen: Colonial Relations, Commodities, and the Fate of Inuit Sled Dogs,” Etudes/Inuit/Studies 34, no. 2 (2010): 142.
Enabled by qimmits’ capabilities, Mikkigak conveys Inuit knowledge of the land through her depiction of the Arctic landscape. Behind the camp site in the foreground, Mikkigak left much of the paper blank to capture how the white covers miles of ground and extends as far as the eye can see. But instead of leaving only snow in the background, Mikkigak breaks up the background composition with the inclusion of a snow-dotted mountain range and a hazy sky tinted with lavender. Her technique includes both mixed media and a mixed use of media: her gestural yet controlled application of acrylic paint textures the mountains, while her use of a multicolored acrylic wash for the sky renders it delicate and boundless, despite the imposed edge of the paper. As we reach these edges on either side, the horizon line ever so slightly curves, suggesting that the land is not flat and linear but rather circular and reciprocal. Implicit in this way of seeing the world is the notion that all land is interconnected and is affected as a whole; where environmental change occurs on one side of the land, the other parts are necessarily affected by that change as well. Despite the endless icy terrain that we might imagine of the Arctic, Mikkigak’s careful attention to detail gives the landscape she depicts a sense of rootedness and place. Like the hunters and qimmit within Hungry Dogs in Camp, as a viewer I feel not at all lost but very much grounded in its space, an effect that comes directly from
The qimmiq’s environmental knowledge and ability to travel far and wide also made it possible for Inuit camps to be geographically dispersed, which influenced the use of igloos like the one that hunters construct in Hungry Dogs in Camp. The utilization of temporary, spread out housing likely helped prevent the spread of canine diseases later caused by concentrated settlements. The RCMP’s report referred to the migration of Inuit families into permanent settlements as a factor that contributed to the canine disease epidemic which, in their view, necessitated mass slaughter. Yet they ignored the crucial fact that this migration occurred as a direct result of Canada’s colonial rule. Mikkigak’s choice to depict housing that was no longer common at the time she created Hungry Dogs in Camp reflects both the significance of such technologies for Inuit resilience as well as the influence of qimmit on Inuit lifeways. The loss of qimmit and the transition from qimmit to snowmobiles not only changed the way that Inuit hunt, but also eliminated a building structure that was once characteristic of Inuit culture.
Just as Inuit depended on qimmit, qimmit depended on Inuit to feed them and provide protection from wolves outside the camp perimeter.[i] Qimmit help Inuit to hunt and gather food from the land, what scholar Laurence Simard-Gagnon calls “country food” to distinguish it from the typically mass-produced food that is provided via the Canadian government.[ii] Because country food changes depending on the season, it maps onto Inuit knowledge of the land and climate, evoking memories of a time when their diet consisted entirely of country food.
Inuit perceive this diet as not only more nutritious, but also as a mechanism to engage in cultural resilience. Annie Pootoogook (1969-2016)’s drawing Family Eating in Pre-Fab House directly conveys Inuits’ preference for country food and their rejection of “southern” food, a
[i] Laugrand and Oosten, Hunters, Predators, and Prey: Inuit Perceptions of Animals, 153-154.
[ii] Laurence Simard-Gagnon, “Lived Territories: A Tale of Inuit Women’s Contemporary Subsistence and Belonging,” Inditerra, no. 5 (2013): 54.
The family’s dining choices, more typical of the Inuit diet with high proportions of meat, fat and fish, reject customs that have been pushed onto them through colonialist changes. Because Inuit hunting is so heavily regulated, the opportunity to eat country food resonates on a cultural and political level. Though qimmit are not physically depicted in Family Eating in a Pre-Fab House, their presence is felt through the abundance of country food that they would have historically assisted Inuit in procuring. Through their hunting partnership, qimmit allow Inuit to engage directly with the land through this essential assistance they provide in obtaining such country food. The severed walrus fin towards which four qimmit run in Hungry Dogs in Camp symbolizes both the desire for country food felt by qimmit and Inuit and the reality that it is the qimmiq-Inuit partnership which allows them to hunt. Though snowmobiles have all but replaced qimmit in Inuit hunting expeditions, the continued consumption of country food that Pootoogook emphasizes in Family Eating in a Pre-Fab House demonstrates how dietary choices can be a perhaps unexpected but vital form of resilience, as well as an honoring of the role that qimmit have had in making such a diet attainable.
In her elaboration on resilience, Inuk art historian Heather Igloliorte is careful to distinguish it from resistance. While she notes that “resistance implies a violent opposition, a struggle against an oppressor,” resilience is more reflective of Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit, which emphasizes the “well-being of the collective” and seeks consensus and mutual service.[i] Mikkigak’s and Pootoogook’s drawings each reflect resilience because they depict Inuit families retaining practices that persist in their collective memory while adapting to changes brought upon them by colonialism. Resistance is integral to the Indigenous movement for sovereignty, but resilience, the fortification of Inuit culture through humor and reciprocity, is equally important. The fundamental interconnectedness of Inuit with the Arctic and the animals with whom they share it proves to be an instrumental part of both Inuit knowledge and resilience. The drawings discussed here each demonstrate the reciprocal relationship that Inuit share with Arctic animals, whose realities, as Tewa scholar Gregory Cajete puts it, are “interpenetrating.”[ii] They engage with one another’s reality as fellow animals who live and thrive in the Arctic landscape and as co-dependent on one another to sustain their lives. Though Inuit graphic arts had colonialist origins, they have become a vehicle for Inuit to capture their unique knowledge of the Arctic and retain and express the resilience of human-animal relationships, whose ethics remain even while the surrounding environment undergoes rapid change. In precarious times, art fortifies Inuit knowledge and human-animal kinship.
[i] Heather Igloliorte, “The Inuit of Our Imagination,” in Inuit Modern, ed. Gerald McMaster (Ontario: Art Gallery of Ontario, 2010): 45.
[ii] Gregory Cajete, Native Science: Natural Laws of Interdependence (Sante Fe: Clear Light Publishers, 2000): 150.
By Ansgar Walk (Own work)
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