Ulayok Kaviok is one of the last of a generation of Inuit, born and bred on the land, but her skills in making the sealskin boots called kamik may soon be lost in the cultural transformation overtaking her community. Ulayok and her family, like many Inuit today, strive to balance two very different worlds. Kamik offers a glimpse of those worlds and the thread one woman weaves between them.
Directed by Elise Swerhone
Produced by Joe MacDonald Production Agency: National Film Board of Canada
Warning: This video contains graphic hunting scenes. Some viewers may find it disturbing.
Ulayok Kaviok has been doing her own hunting since her husband died several years ago. Last winter, she was the first in her community to shoot a polar bear. Today her quarry is a ring seal, in Hudson Bay.
The seal has always played a central role in Inuit life, for its meat and its superb pelt. It is the pelt of this seal that most interests Ulayok, with its unique qualities in the making of sealskin boots, called kamik.
For Ulayok Kaviok is a skilled seamstress, and an expert in the working of sealskin.
A pair of kamik may contain skins from several different animals. The fine fur and softness of the ring seal make it ideal for the upper part of the boot…
… but for the sole, Ulayok uses the tough coarse hide of a beaded seal, shot earlier.
The crescent-shaped knife, or ulu, is the Inuit woman’s most useful tool. It is the first gift she received as a girl and it serves her throughout her life.
Once scraped and cleaned, the skins are stretched in the sun to dry.
While the skins are drying, Ulayok and her sister Martha go out hunting for wild goose eggs.
Ulayok was born on the land, and learned from her parents how to live on its scarce resources.
Today, she and her family live in a house with central heating and get most of their clothes from a store, but every spring they return for a few weeks to a tent on the tundra, to the world of Ulayok’s childhood.
Once dry, the sealskin must be cut.
Ulayok selects the best pieces of the ring sealskin for the tops of her kamik.
The cutting is critical. When it comes time to sew the boot together, the pieces must be fit perfectly if the seams are to be strong and tight.
By the time cutting the skins is complete, spring has advanced far enough to melt the inshore ice. The biting insects come out in force, and Ulayok and her family return to their house in town.
The town of Eskimo Point, now called Arviat, has been her since the 1920s, when the Catholic Church and the Hudson’s Bay Company established themselves a the centre of a traditional Inuit hunting area. Over the next decades, development of the north drove people off the land and into the settled life of the community.
Today about 1100 people live in Arviat, adapting and blending the ways of two very different worlds.
Ulayok moves between the two worlds of Arviat with remarkable ease. Her house and furniture link her and her children to the south, yet instead of ice cream, her freezer stores her daughter’s kamik whose fine white sealskin would otherwise yellow I the warm temperatures of a heated house.
This mix of north and south even finds its way into Ulayok’s kamik making. She now used nylon thread in place of the sinew she learned to sew with as a girl.
Ulayok’s daughter, Elizabeth, chews the skin to soften it and make it easier to sew.
Through long years of experience – and accurate cutting of the skin – Ulayok makes the assembly of the boot look easy. In fact, it requires great patience, and meticulous attention to detail.
Properly made, the sealskin kamik will keep the foot warm, while letting it move freely and breathe.
For a hunter, alone on the Hudson Bay coast, a good pair of kamik could mean the difference between life and death.