I was surprised to see two brightly coloured and intricately beaded cloth parkas on display at the MIA. I had an image of Inuit clothing as being mostly skins and being almost monochromatic in their colouring. Though traditional clothing would have been entirely made of skins and fur now woven cloth is frequently used; however the beadwork is still traditional.
In her book Beadwork: First Peoples’ beading history and technique, Christi Belcourt speaks to those traditions:
“First Nations, Métis and Inuit beadwork are beautiful art forms that are unique to North America. The patterns and techniques created and passed down through generations of our grandmothers are still being used today. Beadwork is not simple decoration of material goods. It is an expression of identity. It is an art form that connects us to the skills, the sacrifices and the creativity of our ancestors. Beadwork carries images that are ancient and reflect spiritual beliefs. And even more than that, beadwork is a healing art.”
Ningwakwe Learning Press, c2010
The parka worn by Inuit women is called an amauti after the unique baby pouch (amaut) that is built into it. It also has two apron-like flaps, one at the front, and another at the back. The amaut is a complex design that creates a large pouch for the baby from birth until about two yeas of age. The shoulders of a woman’s parka are voluminous which allows the mother to bring the child back to front for feeding and elimination without exposing the baby to the elements.
A man’s parka has roomy shoulders to allow for the movement of the hunt and doesn’t have flaps, though in some regions (including the parka on display) it might have a back flap or be cut longer.
One of the many educational programmes that the Museum offered was a course on the art of Inuit beadwork taught by women from various Northern communities. Just another loss with the closing of the MIA.
The McCord Museum in Montreal has a good collection of Inuit art including clothing and their website includes two pages devoted to Inuit clothing. Written by Betty Kobayashi Issenman, a champion of Northern Native culture, they are a fascinating look into the clothing, its use, the materials and tools used in its construction. Much of what I’ve written was gleaned from the following two articles:
The Art and Technique of Inuit Clothing (includes many fascinating photographs)
On this day in 1835: P. T. Barnum and his circus start their first tour of the United States.