February 9, 2002

Clothing, footwear, and territory of the Ungava Inuit


Keywords: Ungava Inuit ungava inuit UNGAVA INUIT Hudson Strait Hudson Bay Ungava Bay Sanikiluaq Inukjuak Povungnituk Ivujivik Salluit Kangiqsujuaq Ovaqtaq Kangirsuk Kuujjuaq Kuujjuaraapik Kangiqsualujjuaq Cree Indians Henry Hudson Digges Island Belcher Islands amauti eider skin parkas

Ungava Inuit occupy the Quebec-Labrador Peninsula north of the treeline and live along the coastline of Hudson Strait, Ungava Bay, and the eastern shores of Hudson Bay.

Their communities include Sanikiluaq, Inukjuak, Povungnituk, Ivujivik, Salluit, Kangiqsujuaq, Ovaqtaq, Kangirsuk, Kuujjuaq, Kuujjuaraapik, and Kangiqsualujjuaq.

Regional Overview

The mainland is administered by the province of Quebec and the Belcher Islands by the government of the Northwest Territories.

The terrain is one of rolling rocky outcrops, shallow ponds, and some abrupt cliff faces. The sub-arctic vegetation of grasses, sedges, willows, and forbs supports a caribou population which fluctuates dramatically and greatly affects Inuit life.

The are also lesser numbers of arctic hare, arctic fox, wolf, and ptarmigan.

The lakes and rivers have large numbers of arctic char, lake trout, whitefish, and pike. Some of the lakes support populations of fresh water seals.

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The productive coastal areas sustain populations of ringed seal, bearded seal, walrus, beluga, polar bear, seabirds, and waterfowl, in addition to marine invertebrates such as sea urchins, sea cucumbers, and mussels.

Inuit who live along the southern edges of the region collect driftwood from the beaches or harvest tress along the river.

In Sanikiluaq, hunters collect wood on a regular basis for tools, campfires, and wood stoves that heat their carving tents.

Historically, trade between the coastal and island populations of Inuit was extensive.

For example, islanders exchanged bearded seal skin soles and ivory tools for caribou skins and caribou skin clothing from mainlanders.

Occasionally, Inuit from Ungava Bay and northern Labrador also traded with each other (Taylor 1984).

There was little trade between Inuit and the Algonquian Indians, including the Cree, to the south, although interaction has increased during the last century.

The first recorded meeting between Ungava Inuit and Europeans occurred with explorer Henry Hudson on Digges Island in 1610.

The two groups began by amiably exchanging gifts, but the transaction ended in a murderous dispute (Asher 1860, Graburn 1969).

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In the early seventeenth century, a series of explorers searching for a northwest passage through North America to China brought trade goods, and in 1750 the Hudson’s Bay Company established its first fur-trading post on the east coast of Hudson Bay.

Over the next 150 years, whalers, missionaries, and traders had a minimal effect on the Ungava Inuit.

In 1903 the firm Revillon Freres established trading posts, which in 1936 were absorbed by the Hudson’s Bay Company (Saladin d’Anglure 1894).

The Belcher Islands were virtually untouched by non-Natives until 1912 when Robert J. Flaherty mapped the area. In return for his work, the Canadian government named the largest of the islands after him.

The islands remained relatively isolated, except for explorations by prospectors and geologists, until approximately thirty years ago.

Today hunting, carving, and municipal jobs are the main sources of income. In spring and summer, several families camp on the many islands, where they hunt marine mammals, fish, and collect eider down and eggs.

Historical Clothing

Ungava Inuit used seal, caribou, and occasionally bird skin for clothing.

A clothing style unique to this region is that men’s and women’s parkas had both front and back tails.

Women’s amauti were decorated with a band of beading attached from one shoulder to the other.

Another unique characteristic of Ungava Inuit is that women wore their long hair braided, rolled, and knotted just in front of each ear.

They often carried their sewing equipment within these chignons (Saladin d’Angkure 1956-71).

Detailed descriptions of historical styles worn by Ungava Inuit are available in Turner (1894, 1979), Pharand (1970-71), Guedon (1974), Saladin d’Anglure (1984), and Oakes (1992a).

Inuit on the Belcher Islands often depended on bird skins rather than caribou skins for clothing, as the few caribou that did exist on the islands were exterminated by ice storms in the 1870s.

Islanders turned to eider duck skins as a plentiful and warm substitute and used them for parkas, stockings, over boots, bonnets, and bags (Saladin d’Anglure 1956-71, Oakes 1992a).

Meeko (1989) goes so far as to state that if there were no eider ducks on the Belcher Islands, there would be no people.

Fish skin and seal intestine were also used occasionally for parkas (Saladin d’Anglure 1956-71).

Eider skin parkas were worn with pants, boots, and inner slippers of ringed or bearded seal, polar bear or dog skins.

Today, however, polar bears are taken primarily to sell to southerners, who make them into rugs.

Until the 1960s, all members of the community wore eider skin parkas.

In 1988, two hunters, Samwillie Iqalaq and Moses Novalinga Sr., were still wearing them on winter hunts because, as Moses Novalinga Sr. explains, eider parkas are warmer than southern-style clothing.

Contemporary Clothing

Contemporary Ungava Inuit ensembles include southern-style garments purchased from the local Northern or Co-op stores or mail order catalogues.

They combine this clothing with items the women make from imported fabrics, local skins, and locally collected eider down.

Women carrying children wear an amauti made from white cotton or polyester twill, lined with material such as flannelette, duffle, sheepskin, or down.

The hood is trimmed with arctic fox, dog, or occasionally arctic hare.

Men, women, and children put on down-filled pullover hooded parkas for windy, winter weather. Down is also used to insulate other items, including mitten liners, inner slippers, wind pants, bunting bags, and baby booties (Oakes 1991b).

In the past, a few caribou skins were acquired through intersettlement trade with Inuit from Quebec (Turner 1979), a practice that continues today.

For example, Annie Novalinga obtained caribou skins from her brother while visiting him in Inukjuak.

In the 1970s reindeer were introduced from Tuktoyaktuk, and the community controls the hunting pressure on the reindeer. Very little of a reindeer is wasted: all the meat is eaten, the leg skins are used for boots, the body skins for outer clothing, the bone for tools, and the sinew for sewing thread.

Ungava Inuit believed that in order not to offend the seals, boots made from caribou skin should not be sewn during the spring seal hunt (Turner 1894, Guedon 1974).

Today, rules that regulate sewing are more relaxed, though it is rarely done on Sundays.

Both men and women know how to sew, although most of it is done by women. Seamstresses thoroughly enjoy watching the annual men-only fabric bootmaking competition during the Christmas festivities in Salluit.


Skin boots remain an important part of Ungava Inuit material culture, although skin boot production is becoming less common as more and more people buy southern-style mass-produced footwear.

In most communities, seamstresses follow traditional established footwear patterns passed down from one generation to the next, but individual creativity, the availability of skins, and communications with neighbouring groups also influence boot styles.

Footwear made by Ungava Inuit includes several distinguishing design features such as numerous unusual vamp-sole combinations, a variety of materials, and many decorative touches have evolved from interactions between mainland and island communities.

One boot has a flat sole and a vamp that encircles the entire foot. Another popular boot has a flat sole, a side strip surrounding the foot, and a small vamp.

An unusual sole and vamp combination is created in a boot with a pleated sole sewn to a vamp that surrounds the entire foot. The pleats on the sole are diffused and are larger than those made by Iglulik or Baffinland Inuit.

Rows of stitches hold the pleats in position around the heel. The sole comes higher up the back of the heel than on boots made by Caribou Inuit.

Pleated soles are often made from bleached seal skin, and flat soles from seal, caribou, or non-traditional materials such as vinyl, cowhide, and rubber.

Leg sections, which are cut from duffle, vinyl, caribou skin, and seal skin, usually have very little gathering at the centre of the vamp-leg seam.

Duffle leg sections are decorated with wool embroidery. Haired seal leg sections are decorated with simple geometric or linear shapes similar to Caribou Inuit designs but unlike the complicated Iglulik and Baffinland Inuit ones.

Caribou leg skin boots are made without any decoration on the leg section.

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