On the wide wooden sill of the large window in my living room here in Kurohime, Nagano Prefecture, sits a soapstone carving of a gyrfalcon by one of Canada’s most famous Inuit artists, Lypa Pitsiulak.
Lypa was born in a small hunting and fishing camp on Baffin Island, and I first met him in 1966 when I was conducting a survey of ringed seals for the Fisheries Research Board of Canada. I remember him as being rather shy and about three years younger than me. That was a crucial time in the history of the Inuit, for whom seals were the main source of food both for themselves and their sled dogs.
The most common seals were ringed seals (Pusa hispida), which live their whole lives in Arctic and sub-Arctic regions around the world, with females giving birth to a single pup in March or April in a hollowed out snow den (called an aglu by the Inuit) over the top of one of their breathing holes.
Ringed seals were taken all year round, either on the ice or in open water. They are the smallest and most widely distributed of the Arctic seals, with adults measuring 1-1.75 meters from nose to tail, and weighing between 32 and 140 kilograms. They are the tastiest of the seals, with lovely silvery-gray coats patterned with rings. Most skins were used for clothing, rifle scabbards and the upper part of boots.
A much larger Arctic seal is the bearded or square-flipper seal (Erignathus barbatus). These can measure 2-2.7 meters from nose to tail and weigh between 200 and 430 kilograms. They are bottom feeders, using their strong, long white whiskers to find crabs, shrimps, clams and whelks, but they also take polar cod and sculpins when they can catch them.
The pups are born in May on drifting ice floes, which makes them a favorite prey of polar bears. Consequently, they enter the water very soon after birth, otherwise they would not survive. Their hides are thick and tough and were traditionally used to make boot soles, whips, harpoon lines and so on.
The third most important seal to the Inuit is the harp seal (Pagophilus groenlandicus). These breed in their tens of thousands on pack ice off Newfoundland, Labrador and in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Pups are born on the ice around February, and they cannot swim for about two months. This made them easy prey for southern, non-Inuit hunters who went out on the ice and bashed them on their heads to take their valuable fluffy white coats. Hunting white-coated pups has been banned in Canada since 1987.
Inuit hunters take the larger, mature seals that swim up to the Arctic in big herds. These are from 1.7 to 2 meters long, and weigh between 140 and 190 kilograms. They have spectacular coats; the older ones have a large black harp or saddle pattern on their backs, set in a lovely grayish-silvery color. They are taken in open water by the Inuit, using rifles and harpoons.
I wrote that this period of the 1960s was crucial for the Inuit because an outcry in the West against the killing of harp seal pups by white hunters caused several nations to ban the import of seal skins. This took away the greatest source of money for Inuit hunters, who sold surplus skins to buy rifles, ammunition, freighter canoes and various supplies.
Partly because the government urged the Inuit in outlying camps to come along, with their children, and settle in hamlets and small towns where the government built schools and brought in teachers from the south, and partly because of the hardships they suffered not being able to sell seal skins at their former prices, Lypa’s people moved to the small town of Pangnirtung, which lies on Cumberland Sound in Baffin Island.
However, there was more hardship awaiting Lypa, because his 16-year-old son committed suicide. In many Arctic settlements, such as Pangnirtung, alcohol was banned, but odorless amphetamines were rife and during those years the Inuit had the highest rate of suicide among young people in the whole of North America.
Lypa took his three remaining children and his wife, Annie, and moved back to his family’s traditional hunting and fishing camp at Oopinivik, nearly 200 kilometers away. He had already become a famous carver and print maker, so he could make money that way and he was determined that his children, even his daughter, should learn to hunt, fish, travel and survive in the traditional way. He also told me that he wanted his children to grow up and be able to help other people “out on the land” — as the Inuit called being in isolated hunting and fishing camps.
I went to spend a month with Lypa in April and May 1990, before setting off on a solitary kayak journey when the ice broke. We also made a couple of TV documentaries with him, and I spent a lot more time with him and his family in 1991 and ’92.
We hunted for seals and caribou, and caught lots of Arctic char, which Annie filleted, lightly salted, and dried in the wind and the long summer sunshine.
Lypa was a great storyteller, and often had me in fits of laughter at some of the more raunchy traditional Inuit tales. I’d sit around drinking tea or coffee with Annie and the kids, with them helping me to understand. It was a lot more fun than television.
The second year I went out to spend time with Lypa he had a young Inuit “apprentice” called Noah living with him. Noah was from the Baffin Island town of Iqaluit, which is now the capital of Nunavut (the newest, largest, and northernmost territory of Canada).
Noah was what they called a “young offender.” I didn’t ask and he wasn’t keen to tell me, but later on I heard that he got into trouble for stealing to support his drug habit. Instead of locking him up, the authorities sent him out on the land to learn the old ways from Lypa until Lypa thought it was time to send him home. They didn’t see the point in sending a young Inuit to prison where he might learn even worse habits.
By the time I stayed out in Oopinivik again, Noah had already become a fine hunter and guide, and he also helped us with another TV documentary. Then, when I met him 10 years later in Iqaluit, he was married with children and he was supporting his family by hunting and fishing and guiding tourists when the opportunity arose. He was certainly off drugs.
Lypa died in 2010, but his prints and carvings are in museums and collections all over the world. As I mentioned, one of them sits on my windowsill, where it’s a constant reminder of him, and of Inuit life “out on the land.”