Before Houston arrived on the scene, people used bone or ivory to carve objects for trade or domestic use. Houston encouraged people to use soapstone, the general assumption being that stone was plentiful and easily obtained. We now know that stone is difficult to obtain and it is no longer plentiful, if it ever was. Soapstone - what Inuit had called "stone for making lamps" - had always been a precious commodity. Possibly this had more to do with the difficulty of extracing it from the ground than with its distribution. It is hardly surprising that the difficulties of securing stone should rise proportionately to the increased demand being placed upon it. In the early days, especially near Inukjuak, it appears not to have been too serious a problem. Houston (1977:10) said that the people broke off chunks of dark green serpentine carvingstone found along the bank of the Inukjuak River. He also mentioned some semi-soft stone near Sywollie’s camp and at the Nastapoka area. "There was lots of stone on that coast," he says," and "it would all oil and polish beautifully."
Soapstone - what Inuit had called “stone for making lamps” - had always been a precious commodity.
But Tamusi Tulugak of Puvirnituq recalls that people used to chip a piece of stone off a seal oil lamp because they didn’t know where there were any soapstone deposits. Those seal oil lamps, passed down through the generations, were destroyed to make carvings that sold for a few dollars at that time, although they are worth much more now. This practice may explain the ancient texture and colour - which always reminds me of a broken licorice pipe - of some of the early work from the area near Puvirnituq.
People also lacked proper tools with which to mine the stone or to carve. Paulosie Sivuak remembered using "the tip of an old file to go along the cracks to extract the stone" since they "had no axes." All they had were files and pocketknives to mine and work the stone. As Sivuak said: "We never [even] knew that axes could be used to rough out the stone." He himself gradually progressed from making "pegged" carvings to being able to carve the whole subject from one piece of stone. It was having better tools that made the difference. In some cases, he made his own tools - using a piece of an old fox trap, for instance. Fresh seal blubber was used to give a dark finish.
There are many references to the lack of stone in the minutes of the arctic cooperative conferences.1 By 1977, if not before, the procuring of raw material was considered a major problem by Nunavik carvers. Kasadluak painted a bleak picture of the task of procuring carvingstone (1977:21-2):
Summer or winter, each brings its own difficulty in obtaining the stone. This is something which I believe the people in the south do not understand. You have to think of where the stone comes from and the problems one goes through getting it out. The problem of locating it in the first place and the distance one has to carry it ... Maybe it is exposed on the surface of the earth. Maybe it is beneath the water ... It is hard in the summer because you have to carry the stone to your canoe all the way from the quarry where you extracted it by hand ... it is backbreaking work. Even when you do not have to carry the stone so far to your canoe on the shore, there is always a certain amount of danger in transporting the heavy rock by canoe ... Getting the stone out of the ground - even in summer when the ground is not frozen - is hard work because we do not have any fancy equipment ... In winter, it is particularly difficult to get at the stone. The snow can drift 5 to 10 feet over the site so that you are still left to dig in the hard frozen earth ... The stone we are using now in Inukjuak is mined from the site about 40 miles out of town. It costs a lot of money even to get to that place. You need proper equipment - Skidoo or canoe - to go there and proper maintenance so you will not break down. If you go by canoe, you go through huge swells and waves along the way because part of your journey is through the open Hudson Bay where there are no little islands to shelter you. It is not much better in the winter because your snowmobile needs gas [which cost 98 cents a litre in 1998] and your route lies over the unevenly frozen sea ice.
Although stone tends to be retrieved collectively and, as with food in the old days, shared, Nutaraaluk Iyaituk (Ivujivik) and Thomassie Sivuarapik (Puvirnituq) told me in 1985 that the better artists are entitled to first choice when quarrying is done locally and, if they go farther afield - near Salluit, for instance - "everyone’s more or less on their own."2
In winter, it is particularly difficult to get at the stone. The snow can drift 5 to 10 feet over the site so that you are still left to dig in the hard frozen earth…
As in other areas of the Arctic, the difficulty of getting carvingstone worsens with each passing year. This major problem for artists tends to be underestimated by Southerners who find it hard to appreciate the labour that must be expended before the work of carving even begins. The situation in Inukjuak at this time is that the best stone is inaccessible because of boulders, some as large as a room, and water must be bailed out of the quarry site by hand. Most communities - in Nunavik and elsewhere - continue to report serious problems in obtaining stone.
1 See 1963, 1966 “In Retrospective: Early Inuit Reports on Co-op and Carving Activities in Nunavik,” Inuit Art Quarterly (IAQ), vol. 13, no. 3 (Fall):22-35
2 Unless otherwise noted, this and other quotes are from interviews I did in Puvirnituq in 1985 with the following people: Aisa Qoperqualu Alasua, Paulosie Sivuak, Sarah Joe, Samisa Ivilla, Eli Sallualu, Tamusi Tulugak, Nutaraaluk Iyaituk, Thomassie Sivuarapik, Lucassie Tookalook, Peter Murdoch, and Aliva Tulugak.
Houston, James, 1977 “Port Harrison, 1948,” in Port Harrison/Inoucdjouac (catalogue), ed. Jean Blodgett. Winnipeg: Winnipeg Art Gallery:7-10
Kasadluak, Palousie, 1977 “Nothing Marvellous,” in Port Harrison/Inoucdjouac (catalogue), ed. Jean Blodgett. Winnipeg: Winnipeg Art Gallery:21-23