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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Carved from the Arctic

Air Date: Week of

Steve Curwood speaks with artist and author James Houston whose book is titled Confessions of an Igloo Dweller: Memories of the Old Arctic. Houston is largely responsible for the increased awareness and interest in Inuit art carvings which have brought monetary rewards to the remote population and incidentally changed many of their ways by having the means to buy snowmobiles.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. In the far north of Canada, north of Hudson's Bay, lies Baffin Island. The area is home to hundreds of Inuit, but it was largely untouched by modern society until shortly after World War II, when a young artist, Jim Houston, became so intrigued with the area that he hitched his way into the back country on a Medivac plane and decided to stay. His story of life in Canada's north country from 1948 to 1962 is told in his new book Confessions of an Igloo Dweller. He recounts how he began the worldwide trade in Inuit art by collecting their carvings and helping them form an artists' cooperative, which continues to thrive under local control. He also became a government administrator for the region. Jim Houston started his journey into the northern wildlands after he got out of the Canadian army, by packing up his sketchpads and sleeping duffel, and taking a train to the end of the line at the southern tip of James Bay. It was a tiny town called Moose Factory.

HOUSTON: There were no roads, no nothing out there. So I stayed and made drawings of Swampy Creek for about 3 weeks and stayed around with them and so on. And I came to know a bush pilot and a doctor, and so they -- one day the bush pilot came into my room quickly and he said, "Say, how'd you like to fly up north?" I said, "You bet." I didn't quite know what he meant or how far. He said, "I've got to take the doctor in on a medical emergency right now; it's never happened, we're going to a strange place. And if you promise that you'll help woggle the gas and, you know, push the aircraft into the shore when we need to --

CURWOOD: Woggle the gas?

HOUSTON: And jump in the water --

CURWOOD: Woggle the gas?

HOUSTON: Woggle the gas. Yeah, we used to put a pump down there and push, make it go back and forth like a cistern pump, and it would pump the gas up out of the barrel and into the airplane. So he said if I'd promise to do that I could go free. That was the principal word.

CURWOOD: Free. Now how far north did you go?

HOUSTON: Well, I was already a thousand miles or more north of anywhere, and I went another thousand miles north. I was in wonderful Inuit country. So I was surrounded by laughing, short, brown people; after a summer their skin was like mahogany and they were dressed in skin clothing. I thought my goodness, this is my own country and look at these people; I had no idea they existed, I didn't know anything about them. By the way, I didn't tell you that a mother had been sitting in a tent, and she heard the dogs in the front of the tent grabbing meat. And so the mother went out to drive the dogs out of the tent and she had to bend over and the dogs grabbed the baby out of the hood and started to eat it.


HOUSTON: And the mother wrestled the dogs away, getting bitten badly and she got hold of it. And that was the reason for our going.

CURWOOD: Oh -- such a dreadful story!

HOUSTON: Sure it is. It's all right; the little girl in the hood is a grandmother.

CURWOOD: So you went there to rescue her with the doctor. And you stayed behind.

HOUSTON: Yes, because I had a sketchbook. I started drawing madly, because that was the purpose. He said he was going to stay 4 days, but he got a hold of the baby and the mother behind him and he said, "We're leaving right this minute; I don't know how this baby's alive." So they jumped in the plane and I said, "Well, I'm not going. I'm staying. I'll never get into a place like this again in my life," which I'm sure was right. He said, "What will your mother say? When she hears that I've left you up here?" I said, "She won't mind; I've been away in the war for 5 years. She's used to it." Well, it turned out my mother wasn't used to it and she gave him hell for leaving me up there.

CURWOOD: But of course you got back and thrived --


CURWOOD: And how did you get involved with collecting the carvings of these people? This is what you're so famous for.

HOUSTON: Well, on the very first day, I think that's honest to say, or the second day if it was not the very first -- this is 49 years ago -- I made a drawing of a man, and I made a drawing his sister. It took me years to know that it was his sister; I didn't know a single word of Inuititut. I knew "kayak" and "igloo," those are the only 2 words I knew like everyone else down here. So I made the drawing of him and of his sister, and he went away to his tent and he returned and he opened his hand. Well, first of all he held out his clenched fist, and I thought he was going to probably punch me in the nose, but they're not that kind of people at all. So he opened his hand and he had a small caribou, I think -- it could have been a bear, but I think it was a small stone caribou. So he gave it to me. I thought my goodness, this is a museum piece. This is something that he's giving me that his great grandfather carved or some early person. I was so excited; I got 2 more that were like it. And on the following day, after I had 3 of them, I hurried so to the Hudson's Bay post, which was some distance to the south. When we got there, I went into the Hudson's Bay Post Manager, whose name was Norman Ross, a Scot from the north of Scotland, and I opened my hand as the Eskimo had and I said, "Look at that." He looked at it and I said, "How old do you think that is?" He said, "I think it was probably carved last night or this morning." I said, "You're kidding; I mean you can't mean that." I thought wow, you mean these people are able, this man is able to do that right now. This isn't something from the past. This is right now. So that excited me enormously, much more than if they'd been old pieces.

CURWOOD: I'm looking in fact at your book, and some sketches that you've made of some of these carvings. They're exquisite, absolutely exquisite.

HOUSTON: Thank you.

CURWOOD: And I'm wondering, do the carvers think of their work as art?

HOUSTON: No they don't. They don't have a word for art.

CURWOOD: Really.

HOUSTON: Shnoonwak. Shnoonwak is the closest they come, which means something you do with your hands, which would cover a harpoon head or a little toggle for a kayak or anything. It's hard to stretch it to mean art; you cannot do it. Of course, Inuit are butchers, like anatomists. They take a seal or walrus, a bear. They cut it up and so they understand it. They understand the sheaths of muscle and the bone and the - how the bear rolls when he runs, the big weight of walrus and the flight of birds. They have examined those. Those are life's blood to them. So they are able to portray those things in ways we can't. We make awkward conceptions of animals because we don't know the animals any more. We've given up on the animals. These people are part of it.

CURWOOD: You've come to believe that the Inuit understanding of art is living in harmony with nature. What do you mean by that?

HOUSTON: Well, I -- there's many ways that I might explain that. If you shoot a tarmagan, you draw the tail feathers out of the tarmagan and you plant it in the snow, so another tarmagan will grow. Because you took -- the tarmagan gave you his flesh. The tarmagan did not give you his inua -- his soul -- he kept his soul, and he was able to carry on with that, either in a visible form, the same form, he may have changed it or she may have changed it. But that being, that soul, continues.

CURWOOD: Over and over in this book, you have these stories that -- have you just completely amazed at how your Inuit friends could read the land. Could you tell us about that? I mean, how did these hunters know where they were going? You can't use a compass this close to the North Pole, can you? I'm sure they didn't have them.

HOUSTON: They didn't have them, and if you have one you're very best off to stick it in the bottom of your kit or throw it away, because you'll only confuse the whole picture and perhaps kill yourself by having these things. Most would agree with that. But quite apart from that, these are nomadic people. They do not -- excuse me, I should call them semi-nomadic people. They don't go off into just nowhere without knowing where they're going. That's piu sionituk -- they say that's not the custom. You can't do that, it's too dangerous. They follow the routes of their grandfathers and their great grandfathers. And when the grandfathers made those routes, they tell their sons and others in the camp exactly the marks that they should follow, and it's just as clear as going along Fifth Avenue and saying 52nd Street and such and such. It may be clearer, actually, to me. We went out in a helicopter once, and we were left off in the middle of a huge, the Fox Peninsula. And he said to me, if you wanted to get home now -- this was an Inuit, and the 2 of us, unlike dog team traveling we were just standing there on the land, having been left for a little while at our request. He said if you wanted to get home again -- it was gray and overcast, no sun, nothing to help, how would you go? I said, "Gosh, I don't know." I really didn't know. He said, "Well let's walk around and look for a minute, a little while." So we walked around a while; he said, "I know how to get home. I can get home right now. I know how." I said, "How?" Everything looked bleak and a little tundra and some rocks and so on. And he said, "Well see that rock over there?" I said, "Yes." He said, "Well, what do you see about it?" I said, "Well, it's a black rock, it's good sized like a barrel. But there's a great white patch on it." "What made it white?" he said. I said, "I don't know." He said, "Dog teams have been urinating against that rock for 100 years or something, and they've worn all the lichen off. So many dog teams, many men have passed this way, hunters have passed this way. Now all we have to do is go to the next rock with the urine and we've set up our whole sight line to go back to that particular camp."

CURWOOD: I'm wondering, you spent all this time with these people and their sense of belief in the land and in their connection to the animals. Did you acquire some of that belief? Did you get those connections to the animals?

HOUSTON: I think so. I hope so. I don't own a dog or a cat, and I used to have 42 sheep but I don't have them any more. Because I think things should have a wildness. I think things should have the right to have a wildness about them. I'm not sure that animal husbandry appeals to me, any more than it appeals to Inuit. I think that you should have, try to have a kind of connection with free, wild, free animals if you can, and I've had the luck to do that, and I think it works out wonderfully. I've never said that to anybody before in my life.

CURWOOD: Well thank you for telling us about that. And what I'd like to do now is to move from spiritual matters to commerce. Your work after you got up to the Arctic was to really collect these carvings, this art, and bring it to the outside world, help create a market for the Inuit for this.


CURWOOD: And at first you'd offer them goods in exchange for their work. And later you offered them money. But what do you think money did to the Inuit? You brought them plenty of money.

HOUSTON: Right. Well, one could be concerned. There are 2 ways to think of it. I mean, one is to think of them in a primordial way, the gorgeous way that they had lived and died before and had been so connected with the land. But on the other hand they're not museum pieces, and they don't want to be museum pieces. I mean, look how quickly we turned in the horse and cart for an automobile, the minute we saw it; we couldn't wait to have an automobile. The minute Inuit started to see a snowmobile, they couldn't wait to get rid of the dog teams and get the snowmobile. And suddenly, when that changed, money started to come into the picture. An unknown thing to them. And it was just, it just happened at the right minute by a piece of luck, because all of a sudden they had the snowmobile and they needed to buy a gallon of gasoline, which can cost as much as $4.25 a gallon even at that time, because it usually had to be flown in or dog teamed in and all kinds of things. So money almost magically seemed to replace the need of gathering meat. Walrus that we fed the dogs at all times, the walrus were almost running out. The whalers had been at them, everybody had been at the walrus to use as dog food and human food. And they were becoming very short. Now I go into the Arctic 40 years later and there's a heck of a lot of walrus; they're burgeoning. Because the Inuit aren't after them any more. They're after a gallon of gas.

CURWOOD: You entitle your book Confessions of an Igloo Dweller. Why is it confessions? Do you feel guilty about something?

HOUSTON: Perhaps a little. I mean, it's -- some people like to say I had more to do with the Arctic changing than anyone else. That's widely said in Canada. And I can't totally disagree with that, although maybe I would wish to. But I don't -- I'm a mixture of being extraordinarily proud and somewhat nervous about -- after all, I helped to develop an art and get it going 49 years ago, and it's working more, much more strongly now than when I got that started and lived with it for the 14-year period. You know, non-objective art hasn't lasted that long. Lots of art forms have not.

CURWOOD: And what would you change, then, if -- if you could, about your --

HOUSTON: What would I change now?

CURWOOD: Yeah. What might you have done different, so that you wouldn't feel you had to write your confessions?

HOUSTON: People are -- the Arctic has changed. Was that inevitable? It changed in Alaska, it changed in Greenland, and I had nothing to do with those changes. But the juggernaut of civilization was moving towards them, and the minute World War II ended, change was I think inevitable. I just pushed it a little further and my job was to be interested in them in every conceivable way that I could be interested in them, and to help them if I could. I thought of myself as a civil servant, and I tried to act in that way.

CURWOOD: Well thank you. Jim Houston's book is called Confessions of an Igloo Dweller: Memoirs of the Old Arctic. And thank you --

HOUSTON: Thank you very much.

CURWOOD: And how do you say goodbye in Inuit?

HOUSTON: Tgbowsiel alunasee. You know, that's for your whole audience. For you, Tbowdik acshuala. Farewell for now.

CURWOOD: Farewell for now.



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