Gjoa Haven’s Nattilik Heritage Centre opens its doors
"There is a huge pool of artistic and creative talent in this community that needs nurturing"
When Norway’s famed polar explorer Roald Amundsen and his crew navigated the Northwest Passage in the early 1900s, they wintered in what is today’s community of Gjoa Haven.
During that time, Amundsen learned Arctic survival skills from the local Netsilik people, purchasing their handmade harpoons, snow goggles and snow knives — items that became invaluable to his future expeditions.
Now more than 100 years later, some of Amundsen’s priceless tools are returning home.
After years on display at the museum of cultural history in Oslo, Norway, 16 items have been repatriated to Canada and to the community from where they first came.
And the tools will find a home at Gjoa Haven’s brand-new Nattilik Heritage Centre, which officially opens its doors Oct. 17.
While the community is happy to see Amundsen’s tools come home, the new centre serves a much larger purpose, says the centre’s project manager Ed Stewart.
“The whole purpose is to strengthen culture and heritage in the community,” said Stewart, “but it’s also to draw visitors from the outside.”
Gjoa Haven saw four cruise ships pull into the community this year, each carrying visitors looking for a local experience.
The new centre will cater to those visitors in a few different ways, Stewart said.
As visitors enter the front part of the building, they learn the story of the Nattilik through different interpretative exhibits: historical objects and photos, texts and art depicting local legends.
There are also more modern collections of art, tools and jewellery from the 1970s and 1980s on loan from the Government of Nunavut.
As visitors move towards the back of the centre, the walls depict the tundra and the sea; as Stewart explains “we try to recreate the local landscape.”
That’s where visitors can crawl inside an old skin tent, try on tradition parkas or look at a replica of an igloo.
The heritage centre also reserved a large space for the local Ullulaq Inuit Arts, through which the Nattilik heritage society buys and sells the work of local artists.
Almost half the space of the new centre is dedicated to a gallery and retail section, with the hopes of supporting and promoting Gjoa Haven’s artists.
“We want to return as much wealth and revenue to the artists,” Stewart said, explaining that a small percentage of the gallery’s sales will go to the centre’s operations. “We also want to establish a relationship with southern Inuit art galleries.”
Stewart hopes Nattilingmiut art will grow its own reputation this way — a reputation for a distinct and spiritualistic art form.
“When people come from the eastern Arctic, they’re fascinated by the art they see here,” he said. “It has a very strong supernatural feel, particularly the faces are very strong and powerful.”
Stewart said the centre will serve as a training ground for Nattilik artists young and old, offering mentorship programs in tapestry, carving and traditional tool making.
“There is a huge pool of artistic and creative talent in this community that needs nurturing to bring new artistic ideas to life,” he said.
Members of the community also helped design and actually build the centre, Stewart said; 14 elders, artists and craftspeople created sculpture, wall-hangings, and camp scenes and five local people helped complete the exhibit space.
“It’s pretty much state of the art in terms of its look and feel,” Stewart said.
The Nattilik Heritage Centre officially opens Oct. 17, with presentations from local speakers starting at 2:00 p.m.
At 7:00 p.m., the public is also welcome to a community feast, which will feature throat-singing, drum dancing and a square dance.
To see some of the works on sale, visit the centre’s website.