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Tammy Omilgoetok advances from student to sewing teacher

Tammy Omilgoetok of Cambridge Bay in her parka. photo courtesy of Tammy Omilgoetok

Tammy Omilgoetok has advanced from novice to instructor, and she urges anyone else who wants to learn traditional Inuit skills not to hesitate.

“I want to encourage everyone to take advantage of all the programs that are being put on. Don't be afraid or intimidated to ask for help with anything you need. Somebody is always there to guide you for anything you want to do,” she says, adding that it took her about a dozen years to become a sewing teacher.

This is the first puhitaq that Tammy Omilgoetok made as an instructor. It features a “sunburst” made from wolf ruff. She started with raw hide, which was then fleshed and washed. The holes were sewn. Then it was dried and softened. Finally, a hole was cut in the pelt to make the “sunburst.” photo courtesy of Tammy Omilgoetok

Her interest in sewing was piqued as a little girl.

“I've always watched my granny since I was a toddler. I would sit beside her all day while she was sewing on her sewing machine or hand-stiching,” he recalls.

She also learned a few techniques in school through her Inuinnaqtun classes.

But as she grew into a teenager and entered young adulthood, her interest in sewing waned. She also lost her ability to speak Inuinnaqtun, which she also learned early in life from her grandmother Bessie – a unilingual speaker.

After having kids of her own, Omilgoetok couldn't afford to buy hand-made clothes and accessories so she took it upon herself to learn by studying patterns. Then she signed up for some local courses to build on her skills.

After 12 years, she began teaching others to make hard-bottom kamiks and puhitaqs, also known as a sunburst, which is a striking fur garment that encircles the wearer's face. She's also become a Ilitaqsiniq/Nunavut Literacy Council sewing instructor.

After crafting her first puhitaq as an instructor, she showed it to Bessie to get her opinion.

“My granny asked me to finish her puhitaqs that were stored but incomplete. This was such an honour because that’s her way of saying she’s proud and happy with my abilities enough to trust me to finish them for her,” she says.

Tammy Omilgoetok of Cambridge Bay spends some quality time with her beloved grandmother, Bessie Omilgoetok. Bessie is helping her reclaim fluency in Inuinnaqtun. photo courtesy of Tammy Omilgoetok

To reclaim her language fluency, she has enrolled in an Inuinnaqtun mentorship program. Her mentor is none other than her grandmother, Bessie.

“I can understand (Inuinnaqtun), I just have a hard time making sentences. That's what we're working on now,” she says.

Her grandmother has also offered a lifetime of guidance on many other topics, such as healthy pregnancies, raising children and Inuit values and beliefs.

“Her and my grandpa have always been my role models. I was asked in high school, who is your role model? Everybody picked a celebrity or a sports star or whatever, and I picked my grandparents,” Omilgoetok recalls.

She also wants her children to learn about the Inuit culture, so she takes them to weekly Inuit drum dancing classes. Her eight-year-old is also picking up sewing.

“She made a little cover for practice and she gave it to her little sister for her dolls to use,” she says. “She enjoys it too.”

Tammy Omilgoetok of Cambridge Bay with her grandmother, Bessie Omilgoetok. photo courtesy of Tammy Omilgoetok

About the Author: Derek Neary

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