The transformative world of winter fashion in a Nunavik village

Jasmin Aurora Stoffer

Kuujjuaraapik, Quebec, Canada

[0.1] Abstract—An essay/observation of the traditional winter clothing that has been created recently by some of the Inuit of Kuujjuaraapik, Nunavik. Also includes interviews.

[0.2] Keywords—Clothing; Culture; Fashion; Inuit; Transformation

Stoffer, Jasmin Aurora. 2015. "The Transformative World of Winter Fashion in a Nunavik Village." Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 20.

1. Introduction

[1.1] For nearly 3 years, I have worked in Kuujjuaraapik. Great Whale River, as it is known in English, is a geographically isolated village in the Nunavik region of Northern Quebec. With a population of approximately 1,300, it has been my home for 10 months out of the year since August 2012. I am a Special Education and Nurture Group teacher at the local Inuit school. Known as the last Cree village and first Inuit village of Northern Quebec, Kuujjuaraapik has different names in four languages (Cree, Inuktitut, English, and French).

[1.2] I've decided to write about the beautiful handmade clothing of the Inuit people here and have included interviews with two of my colleagues, whom I asked to comment on the changing styles of the traditional Inuit clothing.

[1.3] Today, Kuujjuaraapik is both culturally and geographically at a crossroads, walking the line between preservation of old traditions and culture, and the encroachments of the modern technological era. This place is in a "past-present-future" limbo of traditional Inuit and Cree culture, mixing and melding with the "southern" Canadian culture of the 21st century.

[1.4] This, I believe, is what makes this place so special. Not many people in 2015 can say they have witnessed a culture in the midst of a great changing, but I have been lucky enough to say that I am not only witnessing it but I also have the honor of working with and for the children and youth of this generation of Kuujjuaraapik Inuit who are in the middle of this artistic and cultural transition. Here, First Nations and Inuit culture collide with the Eurocentric and popular culture of North America. This is shown brilliantly in the beautiful winter clothes as well as artwork that the Inuit have been creating for generations. The young people here are the ambassadors of a culture that has embraced the past as equally as the future.

Kamiks made of red leather, with butterflies.

Figure 1. Indoor kamiks (which I purchased this winter)—made of red leather, with butterflies. [View larger image.]

[1.5] For these northern inhabitants, it hasn't been a cultural evolution into the modern era, it's been a revolution—fast-paced and dramatic. It's a transition that has been riddled with violence, racism, and trauma, at an unbelievable speed that very few other cultures in the world have experienced. Within only a few generations, the Inuit of Kuujjuaraapik have been thrown from a traditional, migratory, hunter-gatherer existence into the technological age of the 21st century. This leap is evident throughout the village, but it is most evident (and fantastically so) in the traditional clothing of the Inuit people, which is still being made by many of the women and girls here.

[1.6] Traditionally, these winter clothes would have had traditional geometric patterns on them, and the fabrics would have been what was available locally, such as animal skins. But with the present generation of creators, their modern tastes are reflected in the clothing they are producing. Mittens lined with fur now also display embroidered hockey logos or butterflies and Disney princesses. Anything and everything can be depicted on the fabric of a parka or a handmade sealskin purse.

Back of a parka with leopard print.

Figure 2. Judy wearing a parka one of her friends made; leopard print is her favorite.

[1.7] The traditional patterns are still evident, but they share space with Western pop culture icons and imagery. Kamiks (boots) have beautiful lace detail and also feature these modern additions. Teenagers beg their mothers to sew on their favorite hockey player's number or athletic wear logo. Almost every day, watching the parade of "traditional-modern" Inuit wear brings a smile to my face. I find it amazing that the people here are able to proudly display their history and at the same time celebrate the aspects of pop culture that they also adore.

2. Speaking to the artists/creators

[2.1] I wanted to speak to some women who are responsible for the creation of these clothes. First, I asked a colleague of mine, Judy (she wishes to remain anonymous). Judy is a 20-something mother of two and has been working for a few years at the school. Recently, she completed a course on Aboriginal Special Education and has also worked at the local day care. Judy, like many of the local mothers, makes baluks (mittens), kamiks, and parkas for her children as well as for friends and herself. Judy now works as the Girl's Culture teacher, a position that instructs the girls in school on how to create many of these traditional clothes, although the students put their own fashionable spin on their creations.

[2.2] I asked Judy how important maintaining her culture is to her.

[2.3] The Inuit culture is important for us to keep. The Elders tell us to never lose our abilities, like sewing parkas, making kamiks, baluks, snow pants, and Amautiks (special parkas with large hoods that mothers can hold their babies in). It's a lot different now because there's all kinds of materials like leather, fur, and other fabrics more easily available to us these days.

Classroom with cubbies.

Figure 3. The Girl's Culture class, where students learn how to create traditional clothing and jewelry. [View larger image.]

[2.4] I also asked Judy how she would describe her own sense of style.

[2.5] My style is pretty much the same of what other people my age like (mostly what's popular). I like the trendy stuff same as the people down south [anything below the 55th parallel is down south]—as long as it can keep me warm in winter! I really like leopard print fabric, and I can put all different sorts of designs on the clothes and boots I make. For example, [if we want] patches with sports logos, butterflies, etc. to put on kamiks, baluks, etc.; I can order them online. I can also use an embroidery machine to select what kind of designs I want on the clothing I create. The embroidery machine makes it much easier to make whatever designs I, my kids, or my friends like.

[2.6] Last, I asked her what she thought of the new styles being found on homemade Inuit clothing.

[2.7] I think it's awesome, we can still use the old patterns that have been used before for generations, and we can still use it now—but we put our own stylish spin on it. There are just so many more materials available to us in the North, it makes it easy to be creative and to make it our own.

Red kamiks with white and black decorations.

Figure 4. Kamiks, made by Judy. Photo courtesy of Judy's Facebook page. [View larger image.]

[2.8] Dinah Napartuk is another colleague of mine at the school, where she teaches the Secondary Inuktitut class. She is from an older generation of Inuit women than Judy. Dinah remembers what Kuujjuaraapik was like before a lot of the modern southern amenities, as well as Internet and satellite television, were so readily available, so I thought she would bring another perspective to Inuit culture and the change that it's going through.

[2.9] I asked her the same questions I asked Judy. Dinah said, "Most families used to go out camping, now they don't…most are waiting for money to come in….fewer [Inuit people] go out hunting." She also described how the village used to have many social gatherings, like a weekly square dancing night. "Our dog teams have disappeared, and we no longer see Elder women outside during the summer doing their 'women works' like sewing Qajaks and making tents."

[2.10] I also asked Dinah what she thought of the new styles of traditional clothing that young women like Judy are creating.

[2.11] Although [I like the new styles of clothing]…it's still not our way of making traditional clothing. The amautiks don't have akuliaks (on the back) they are making them instead look more like coats. We have lost the real way to make seal skin kamiks and small children don't wear parkas as well as they used to.

[2.12] She also mentions that she notices that Nunavik is copying a lot of the Nunavut styles of clothing. Although both territories are Inuit, the dialects and cultures have many differences.

Two pairs of earrings.

Figure 5. Earrings I purchased up north—just a small sample of my collection. [View larger image.]

3. Conclusion: Cultural crossroads

[3.1] The Inuit people are at a crossroads, and today it shows on their traditional clothing, evidencing a desire to preserve their culture that is equally matched by their desire to enter into the 21st century with as much enthusiasm as any other people in North America. Women who create clothing, like my colleague Judy, are choosing to represent the old and new in their artistic and wearable works. The people whom I have had the pleasure of knowing and of calling both colleagues and friends are facing that crossroads with a creativity and imagination that makes me smile every day I work here. Even though there are many socioeconomic obstacles that northern communities such as Kuujjuaraapik face, women from different generations are continuing to create and celebrate their culture through the creation of traditional clothing. Young women, like my friend and colleague Judy, are representing their culture, their personalities, and their hope on their clothing and art. The north is rich in culture, and Inuit culture is one of the richest and most beautiful cultures north of the 55th parallel. That, I'm certain, will remain so well into the 21st century.