Playthings and Curios: Historic Inuit Art at the Canadian Museum 
of Civilization Back Next

One area of Inuit artistic expression during the historic period was the making of amulets. Before the advent of missionaries, amulets were part of the people's daily life.

"While the human soul was considered to be powerful and the main source of all women's and men's strength, inevitably difficulties arose that could not be resolved by mortals alone. Each Inuk therefore had a helping spirit or 'familiar,' who aided the hunt and other ventures and protected the person from sickness and accidents.

The familiar could be embodied in items worn on or in clothing, such as a carving, animal tooth, claw, or piece of skin, or an unusual objet trouvé." (Issenman, p. 184)

According to Boas, " the most common varieties of amulets were the feather of an owl, a bear's tooth, and the like ... (p. 184). It was often part of the shaman's responsibilities to make amulets (Hawkes, p. 130).

In Labrador, a thong of sealskin worn around the wrist was an almost universal custom. Feet of birds were also common charms (Hawkes, p. 136).

In the Ungava region, some charms were worn to ward off attacks of evil-disposed spirits; others served as remembrances of deceased relatives (Turner, p. 37).

Petitot made specific reference to ivory carvings as amulets in 1876. He noted that Inuit along the Mackenzie River decorated their dresses and belts with small ivory animal figurines
(Petitot, p. 7).

Amulet Cluster
Amulet Cluster, 1913 – 1916
Area around Chesterfield Inlet, Nunavut
Ivory, sinew
Length 15 cm
CMC IV-C-911
Collected by Danish anthropologist Christian Leden
during his expedition to the Keewatin from 1913 to 1916

Although Leden lists these as "models of animals and old tools no longer in use and partially unknown ...," we can assume that the strung together small carvings were used as amulets before being bartered to him. He reports having collected the string from the Aivilik tribe.

Exhibition History:
Threads of the Land: Clothing Traditions from Three Indigenous Cultures. Canadian Museum of Civilization, Hull, Quebec, February 2, 1995 to September 14, 1997.

1994 – Hall, Judy; Jill Oakes and Sally Qimmiu'naaq
Sanatujjutt: Pride in Women's Work. Copper and Caribou Inuit Clothing Traditions. Hull: Canadian Museum of Civilization, ill. p. 59.

Ivory Seal, 1912
Aillik Bay, near Hopedale, Labrador
1 x 3.5 cm
CMC IV-B-160
Collected by anthropologist Frank Speck while doing fieldwork in Labrador
Ivory Seal

The hole in the seal's head is an indication that this was used as an amulet, possibly to bring on success in the seal hunt.

Boas, Franz
[1888] 1964 – The Central Eskimo. Reprint, Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

Hawkes, E. W.
1916 – Labrador Eskimo. Ottawa: Government Printing Bureau, (Geological Survey of Canada) Memoir 91; Anthropological Series, No. 14.

Kobayashi Issenman, Betty
1997 – Sinews of Survival. Vancouver: UBC Press.

Petitot, Emile
1867 – Monographie des Eskimaux Tchiglit. Paris : Ernest Leroux.

Turner, Lucien
[1894] 1979 – Indians and Eskimos in the Quebec – Labrador Peninsula. Ethnology of the Ungava District, Hudson Bay Territory. Quebec: Presses Comiditex.