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Inuit leader Peter Irniq opens exhibition of rare art at UD

Peter Irniq (center), commissioner of the Territory of Nunavut, home of the Inuit in the Canadian Arctic, celebrates the exhibition with an Inuit drum dance. Photo by Duane Perry

10:15 a.m., Sept. 12, 2003--Peter Irniq, commissioner of the Territory of Nunavut, home of the Inuit in the Canadian Arctic, officially opened an exhibition of rare Inuit art at the University Gallery on Wednesday, Sept. 10.

Irniq, accompanied by Ann Delaney, counselor from the Canadian Embassy, joined University of Delaware President David P. Roselle and Mark Huddleston, dean of the College of Arts and Science, in the University Gallery in Old College, before an overflow crowd at the opening reception of “Land of Ice, Hearts of Fire: Inuit Art and Culture.”

The exhibit features major gifts of rare Canadian Inuit drawings from the Frederick and Lucy S. Herman Native American Art Collection, as well as closely related artifacts and archival materials from the Mabel and Harley McKeague Collection of Alaskan Inuit art. Other Inuit art in the exhibition includes sculptures, prints and tapestries recently donated to the University Gallery.

At a news conference earlier in the day, Irniq reflected on the scope and content of the various items in the exhibit.

“The works in this exhibition show the pride, strength, creativity and talent of the Inuit people and also speak about the presentation and preservation of our culture,” he said.

The Territory of Nunavut, which was created in 1999, was formerly part of the Northwest Territories, and stretches north above the tree line from Hudson Bay up to Ellesmere Island National Park, near the North Pole.

Nunavut, with its capital city of Iqaluit, is home to the Inuit, who make up 85 percent of the total population of 30,000.

Irniq, who was born in an igloo, views the exhibition at UD as an important part of the 29-year Inuit struggle for political and cultural self-identity.

Mark Huddleston (right), dean of the College of Arts and Science, presents Irniq with a document signed by Delaware Gov. Ruth Ann Minner declaring Wednesday, Sept. 10, “Inuit Art and Culture Appreciation Day.” Photo by Duane Perry
“This movement actually had its beginnings in the late 1950s and 1960s,” Irniq said. “We realized that we were losing control of our way of life. This was also when we started telling others that the Inuit were the equal of other Canadians. It marked the beginning of the political development of our people and led to the creation of our land, the Territory of Nunavut.”

There were many times, Irniq said, when negotiations between the parties would break down, but the end result was well worth the wait.

“It took a lot of patience,” Irniq said, “but we finally got our own territory. It is a very challenging and very rewarding thing.”

While the leaders of the movement were working for political recognition with the Canadian government and society at large, Inuit artists and their works also played an important part in the creation of the new territory.

“Through our art and exhibitions, the elders of our people were able to promote their culture in a much bigger way,” Irniq said.

Before starting a print and broadcast journalism career in Churchill, Canada, and a stint at the Canadian Broadcasting Company (CBC), Irniq spent his first 15 years living in an igloo.

“I have seen both the traditional way of life and that of the modern age,” Irniq said. “I have gone from the world of igloos to that of laptops, cell phones and palm pilots.”

The typical igloo of that time, Irniq said, measured about 17 feet in diameter and was as tall as the height of the tallest person in the family. A half-moon shaped oil lamp was used to boil water, cook and dry clothes. Irniq said the movement towards living in wooden houses began in the late 1960s.

“We don’t live in igloos anymore,” Irniq said, ”but we still have them.”

The works of art in the current exhibition at UD reflect a spiritual and cultural heritage that has been handed down orally for thousands of years, Irniq said.

Irniq speaks to students in Peter Weil’s anthropology class on Tuesday, Sept. 9. Photo by Danielle Quigley

Irniq said that one of his favorite works in the exhibition is “Shaman Tupilak,” a painting by his cousin, Simon Tookoome, of Baker Lake, Canada. “Shamanism is the name of our religion,” Irniq said. “The shaman is said to have special powers, and acts as a healer for the sick and can also be invoked to bring good weather.”

In addressing the size and scope of exhibition and the collections on which it is based, Irniq said the Inuit people appreciate UD’s efforts to showcase the Inuit cultural heritage.

“The Inuit feel extremely good about UD being the home of this great collection of Inuit art,” Irniq said. “At first it was a pleasant surprise, but now we are very happy.”

During his campus visit, Irniq also met with classes and visited students.

Article by Jerry Rhodes

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