Skip to content

Holding down traditions

Elder Jack Kabvitok leads workshop on sealskin ropes
Jack Tikiq Kabvitok’s hands work the hair and fat off the sealskin. Stewart Burnett/NNSL photo

Special Kusugak has worked with sealskin before, but had never made a rope out of it.

“I’m taking the hair and the fat off,” she explained while carefully cutting along a thin piece of sealskin stretched between two poles.

“It starts off as a big ring. It’s not cut down the middle like the rest of the sealskins would usually be done. You make a little slit in the skin and you use your thumb as a guide, and you make sure you have the same width the whole time you’re cutting the skin.”

That spiral cut eventually becomes a long rope of sealskin.

“It’s very hard,” Kusugak said of trying to keep the width even and ensuring one’s partner holds the tension just right.

“It’s a lot of work and teamwork.”

But for her, the payoff is lifelong.

“I love to learn these kinds of things because it is from my culture and I want to be able to pass it down to my daughter and nieces and nephews and eventually grandchildren,” said Kusugak.

She was part of a group of about a dozen people learning to make sealskin ropes from Elder Jack Tikiq Kabvitok at the Elders’ cabin in Rankin Inlet Wednesday, Aug. 31. The afternoon workshop was part of Nunavut Parks’ “learn-to” series of activities at the cabin over summer.

Kabvitok said learning to make a sealskin rope is important because hundreds of years ago, this was the only form of rope available.

“It’s a very important skill to pass on because these types of rope they’re making are extremely strong,” said Kabvitok, who speaks Inuktitut and was interpreted by Harry Niakrok. “They can be used for anything.”

Peak knife sharpness is necessary for proper work.

“The hardest part would be to ensure that the rope is the same dimension all the way,” said Kabvitok through Niakrok.

Too thin and the rope would be weak; too thick and it would be heavy and unwieldy.

“Taking the fur off requires a lot of concentration,” Kabvitok stated.

Ada Wang appreciated having to concentrate and be patient on the land that afternoon.

“It’s not every day people get to practise their patience,” she said, adding that it’s delicate work that requires collaboration.

The toughest part?

“Catching the seal,” laughed Wang, who said her work took her out on the boat for IQ Day and she fired more than 10 shots at a seal, failing to land it in the bouncy water.

She enjoyed learning the new skills among the group.

“This is a really good opportunity to have a hands-on learning event,” said Wang.

And Kabvitok enjoyed teaching them.

“The people here seem really intent on learning, so he says it’s really good,” said Niakrok for Kabvitok.

Special Kusugak hopes to pass down skills like these to the generations after her. Stewart Burnett/NNSL photo
Ada Wang appreciates the patience required to make proper sealskin ropes. Stewart Burnett/NNSL photo
Neil Ammaklak, left, takes guidance from Jack Kabvitok on how to perform this step of the process in making sealskin ropes. Stewart Burnett/NNSL photo