A steep trek uphill past a collection of colorful apartment buildings brings you to a small, nondescript red building. Little signage tells you what happens behind the white door that leads you into Kalaallisuuliornermik Ilinniarfik, the only school for traditional sewing in the Inuit world.
Meet Pituaq Maria Kleist, teacher (Ilinniartitsisoq). Pituaq was once a student in the two-year program that teaches Greenlanders the skills needed to create the traditional clothing so important to their culture. Now she teaches others with the hope of reviving this lost art across the Inuit Arctic. Everyone who goes through the school leaves with the skills needed to create and teach others. Every part of the process is important, from preparing the seal skins used as raw material, to designing the hand-sewn displays of color and pattern. When they graduate, each student will have created a full outfit for a woman, a full outfit for a man, as well as two children’s sets. They keep their products, but more importantly, they take with them important cultural knowledge to pass on to future generations.
As I toured the school last Sunday, I could see desks filled with in-progress work of the students. To protect their designs, I was asked only to take photos from afar. String made from natural fibers and beeswax and scraps of seal skin and leather in the process of being formed cover the work spaces. Around the room, finished pieces hang in inspiration to those completing work that will take them the better part of two years to complete.
In addition to seeing the workspace, I had a chance to hear how the clothing is made. It starts with preparing the traditional raw material, seal skin. The ulu or women’s knife is an important tool in this process that includes soaking, scraping, drying, and preparing the seal skins for more than a year. Here is a quick video of Pituaq explaining the use of the ulu in their work.
The ulu is an important symbol of Inuit culture all over Greenland. I learned how regions have different traditional designs, a typology that helps you identify the origins of someone from the shape of their ulu. These knives are used in a lot of traditional and modern activities, including this hand-processing of seal skins to make clothing.
The colorful outfits created in Kalaallisuuliornermik Ilinniarfik are an important part of Greenlandic culture. Each Greenlander has one, reserved for special occasions. Marriages, religious ceremonies, even the first day of school calls Greenlanders to put on the customary clothes and celebrate in a display of color and traditional materials. Often, the style of the outfit communicates meaning. Distinct traditions around Greenland have resulted in slight variations between the outfits from West Greenland (kalaallisut), East Greenland (tunumiutuut), and Northwest Greenland (arnatuut). Historically, families had traditional designs that acted like a family crest, designs some have lost over the years. On women, a yoke of colorful beads lays over a tunic (anorak). The woman’s outfit also includes pants that stop at mid-thigh to make room for tall, lined sealskin boots called kamiks. Mens’ outfits are a bit less colorful, but include hooded anoraks, pants, and kamiks. The processes required to make these traditional clothes take time and skill. At Kalaallisuuliornermik Ilinniarfik, you learn every step needed to produce this wearable expression of Inuit culture.
While touring the school, I learned a bit more about the background of these pieces of art. Embedded in them is a complicated history of cultural contact, changing what is deemed traditional to Inuit communities. The color and beading you see in the outfits were introduced when Europeans arrived. A distinct shift in the design of clothing was the result of contact with outsiders. Likewise, I learned a bit more about the history of the styles. Patterns throughout the clothing were often embedded with information in the past. Certain colors could signal a social status of the wearer, a status designated by the colonial government. For example, Pituaq explained that colors could be used to identify unwed mothers and others treated as lower in social standing. Likewise, some of the designs were inspired by rebellion. The Inuit tattooing tradition that Pituq now wears proudly on her arms and face was outlawed when Europeans arrived. Some women chose to quietly rebel, weaving the tattoo designs into their clothes. As such, a piece of clothing that today looks like a cheerful display of Greenlandic-ness also encapsulates a complicated history and clash of cultures. When you come to Kalaallisuuliornermik Ilinniarfik, you learn the traditions both before and after European influence, designing clothes that display as much history as they do craft.
As I sat and talked with Pituaq last Sunday morning, it became clear that her ambitions go beyond teaching the women (and a few men) who enroll at Kalaallisuuliornermik Ilinniarfik. She sees the production of these pieces as a celebration of her culture but also a channel to share important historical information. Her hope is to reach beyond the boundaries of Sisimiut and even Greenland. Much of the traditions taught at this school have been lost in the Canadian and Alaskan Inuit communities. As such, she hopes their revival of these cultural practices will eventually move west. Many in Greenland find this work important given how few in the Inuit community know these techniques. The logistics of training people in this craft, however, creates limits. Despite this, teachers like Pituaq and others at Kalaallisuuliornermik Ilinniarfik will continue their hard work reviving this lost art in the Inuit world.
I am an anthropology professor, writer, researcher and global traveler. This fall, I will be recording a research trip to Greenland as a virtual field trip for my students (and anyone else interested). Join us as we travel to the Arctic and learn about life in the far north.