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Woman's parka

Inuit amauti or tuilli
(woman’s parka)

ca. 1890–1925
Iqluligaarjuk (Chesterfield Inlet), Nunavut, Canada
Parka: caribou skin, glass beads, stroud cloth, caribou teeth, and metal pendants; needlecase: ivory, seal hide; carrying strap with toggles: caribou hide, ivory
143 x 65 cm

“I like the sound the beads make as I walk.”
—Arviat (Inuit), seamstress

This woman’s parka is a striking example of the artistry of Inuit women’s beadwork, which flourished during the whaling period on the west coast of Hudson Bay from 1860 to 1915. Although acquired after the demise of the whaling era in the central Canadian Arctic, the parka was collected near the former whaling station of Cape Fullerton (Qatiktalik). The beadwork, fashioned on a woolen stroud backing, has clearly been transferred from another parka. Regarded as a woman’s treasured possession, beadwork was sometimes gifted from mother to daughter or daughter-in-law, suggesting that the beadwork on this parka may date from a generation before, at the height of the whaling era. The creation of an accomplished seamstress and graphic artist, this is one of a small number of Inuit beaded parkas preserved in museum collections.

Incorporating almost 160,000 beads, the seamstress has worked out an array of floral and anatomical designs, as well as geometric motifs, to decorate the parka’s front, hood, shoulders (tui), and wrist cuffs. The parka is accompanied by a finely carved ivory needlecase, as well as a hide carrying strap anchored by a pair of ivory toggles, used to secure a baby carried in the back pouch (amaut). Together, the parka, needlecase, and carrying strap provide an image of the creative and maternal role of women within Inuit society.1

Frequented by the New England whaler Captain George Comer, the whaling station at Cape Fullerton was a lively outpost in the whaling economy and became an epicenter for the development of beaded parkas in the late 19th century. Working through the intermediary of an isumataq (Inuit leader), Captain Comer hired Inuit crews to man the whaleboats, guide hunting expeditions, and secure a constant supply of fresh meat and fish for the whalers; women were engaged to sew parkas, mitts, boots, and sleeping bags for the whaling crews.2 At its height, the whaling station comprised a thriving community of about 100 persons, drawing Inuit from camps throughout a wide-ranging area.3

—Bernadette Driscoll Engelstad, curator, researcher, and writer on Inuit art and material culture

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We call these parkas tuilli because of their big shoulders. They were made this way so that nursing mothers could put their baby’s feet in there, and there was plenty of room to nurse. This tuilli was made for a woman with a newborn baby, but she wouldn’t wear something this beaded for everyday. It would be more for drum dancing or celebrations.

I have looked at different beadwork on tuillis and have concluded that each piece of work is about creative self-expression; it’s about making something that is different and unique, a desire to be different, unique, and beautiful. The design and make are still the same—it’s a most practical amauti for traveling. I have been told by various elders and elderly relatives that the late Captain Comer designed some of the patterns on my grandmother Shoofly’s tuilli, which is in the collection of the American Museum of Natural History. Perhaps it was the stars on the chest piece. Another elder told me that the boots on her parka represent the boots that Captain Comer brought back to Shoofly. The actual boots were too small, so a replica of the boots went on the chest piece. Was it a symbol of their love for each other?

I would have to say my favorite part of Shoofly’s beadwork is the caribou hunting scene on the back of the hood. Shoofly would be pleased to learn that her descendants still hunt caribou. And we still try to demonstrate the respect owed to the sacrifices made by such animals by using and making something practical, warm, and beautiful out of their skins.

—Bernadette Miqqusaaq Dean (Aivilingmiut Inuk), development coordinator for Somebody’s Daughter, a program to help Inuit women learn traditional sewing and survival skills

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  1. Driscoll, “Sapangat”; “Pretending to be caribou.”
  2. Joe Curley in Eber, “Inuit memories of the whaling days,” 108–11.
  3. Eugenie Tatoonie Kablutok in Eber, 121.
  • Driscoll, Bernadette. “Pretending to be caribou: The Inuit parka as an artistic tradition.” In The Spirit Sings: Artistic Traditions of Canada’s First Peoples. Glenbow Museum. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1987.
  • Driscoll, Bernadette. “Sapangat—Inuit beadwork in the Canadian Arctic.” Expedition 26, no. 2 (1984): 40–47.
  • Eber, Dorothy, et al. “Inuit memories of the whaling days: Interviews on South Baffin Island.” May 1982 (ms. IV-C-138M). Archives of the Canadian Museum of Civilization, Ottawa.