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Perserving Inuit culture by producing bowhead oil cosmetics


Bernice Kootoo Clarke and her husband Justin Clarke collect ingredients for their products on the land. photo courtesy of Jamie Griffin.

Iqaluit born Bernice Kootoo Clarke has a vision to continue showcasing Inuit culture and bring healing to her people through her business.

In 2012, Clarke founded a cosmetic business, right in the comfort of her own kitchen. She started with selling "natural" body butters. Then in 2014 a fellow Inuk encouraged her to use bowhead whale oil in her products to heal eczema.

The bowhead and its oil holds a particular significance within Inuit culture.

"The bowhead was a part of us," explained Clarke. "It was our transportation, bones for homes and it fed the whole community. The bowhead oil was used as medicine for skin aliments a hundred years ago."

By incorporating bowhead oil into her products, "It separated us from just a natural line and we became more culturally focused."

The use of bowhead oil in soaps and body butters, makes her Inuit customers feel like they are reclaiming their culture, she said.

Clarke still runs her business called Uasau from her home in Iqaluit. It is the only business in Nunavut that sells body butters and soaps containing bowhead oil.

She attributes the success of her business to her supportive husband, fellow Inuit, her customers, and Kakivak, which is an economic development organization serving Inuit.

One of the greatest challenges the businesswoman has had to contend with is the logistics and costs of shipping.

To mitigate high prices, Clarke has turned to other avenues like cargo and sealift, instead of the post office.

Clarke feels very proud and honoured being an Inuk businesswoman. The Inuit trust her and pass on very old knowledge about their culture, she said.

“I feel like it’s a gift. Every time I write it in a book. I don’t know what I’ll do with it, but I’m collecting the information,” she said.

She hopes her work will inspire other Inuk women to also become entrepreneurs.

What motivates her is the desire to showcase Inuit culture and bring back the old ways in a new way.

“I love my culture. It motivates me," she said. "I live, breathe and eat everything Inuit.”

She believes that by going back to the land, harvesting from the tundra, hunting, listening and being near the elders will lead to healing.

“I want to help heal not just the skin, but the traumas,” she said.

Her future goal includes hiring Inuit staff to harvest whale blubber and other ingredients from the land she needs to make her products.