Carving a Niche: Arctic Cooperatives Serve as Midwife to Birth of Inuit Art

Article excerpt

One of the great "cultural miracles" of the 20th century occurred when the world discovered the beauty of art produced by the native Inuit people of Canada's Arctic regions. This process, which began in the 1950s, was chronicled by Nelson Graburn, an anthropologist at the University of California at Berkeley, in a series of articles published during a 40-year period (1967-2004), in which he described the spectacular rise of Inuit art and its reception internationally.

This article draws on Graburn's writings as it examines how the cooperative business structure helped Inuit communities that were spread across the broad expanse of northern Canada to combine forces and tap international art markets, generating desperately needed revenue for their people. A half century later, these artisan-owned businesses remain a vital cog of the region's economy.

Fur market collapse necessitates change

The shift to trapping animals such as white fox, which occurred at the end of the 19th century, was a short-lived financial success for many Inuit. After the collapse of the fur market in the late 1940s--due to competition from Russia, fur farms and synthetics--the Canadian government expanded its presence in the North to affirm its sovereignty and administer welfare. Until World War II, the typical Inuit winter settlement consisted of a Hudson Bay Company (HBC) store, a Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) post, Anglican and Roman Catholic churches and a few Inuit households whose members were employed by the non-Inuit institutions. Dozens of small satellite camps near favorable hunting, fishing or trapping sites were spread out over a vast region. Inuit only congregated near the permanent settlements during the summer to trade, socialize or to find temporary employment unloading supply ships. The Inuit population hovered around 11,000, with 500 non-Inuit. About 60 percent of Inuit livelihood was derived from government subsidy.

Small carvings of bone, ivory or stone had played a peripheral role in trading activity with both whaling crews and the HBC. The government encouraged production of souvenirs to alleviate welfare payments and provided the HBC with credit to buy crafts.

After World War II, the federal government moved into the north on a massive scale. The Cold War prompted development of the Distant Early Warning (DEW) line. National and international political events forced the Canadian federal government to take more direct responsibility for its northernmost residents. Day schools and nursing stations were built alongside housing for southerners.

In 1948, painter James Houston journeyed north and serendipitously discovered the souvenirs carved by Port Harrison (now Inujjuaq) Inuit. Captivated by their charm, he brought them to the Canadian Handicraft Guild upon his return to Montreal. When Houston returned north in 1949, he purchased 300 carvings for $5 each. These sold quickly at a Guild-sponsored event.

Houston returned to the Arctic, backed with $8,000 provided by the Northwest Territories Council. Although 20,000 carvings sold within three years, such rapid success nearly capsized the project. By Christmas 1952, the shipment was far too large for the Guild to handle.

Houston contacted Eugene Power, a long-time friend and successful businessman from Ann Arbor, Mich. Power purchased the entire output for $15,000 and formed Eskimo Art Inc., a nonprofit corporation that garnered exclusive importing rights into the United States. He then sold many of the sculptures through his influential connections. Throughout the 1950s, the HBC also purchased carvings, but when inventories failed to move, it stopped buying.

The birth of Inuit art

Although off to a rocky start, within a decade of Houston's inaugural trek north, Inuit carving was transformed into a multi-million-dollar enterprise. How did this miracle happen? Small producer/consumer co-ops subsidized by the federal government were organized during the 1960s. …