Inuit family brings gifts of carved whalebone to Haida Gwaii

  • Jul. 20, 2009 5:00 p.m.

By Heather Ramsay-The hip bone may be connected to the leg bone, but a pile of whalebones is now connecting two widely-separated indigenous cultures – the Inuit and the Haida. Goota Ashoona and her son Joe Jaw Ashoona, originally from Baffin Island and now living in Yellowknife, are descendents of prominent Inuit artists Pitseolak, Kiawak and Sorroseeleetu Ashoona. They are now visiting the islands at the invitation of Haida Nation president Guujaaw. The story begins last summer, when Goota’s husband Bob Kussy, also an artist, arrived on Haida Gwaii to beachcomb with a friend. Along the way he met Neil and Betty Carey of Sandspit who gave him ribs, jawbones, shoulder blades, vertebrae and several other fragments of whale bones they’d found in their lengthy travels along the islands’ beaches. Then he visited the Haida Gwaii Museum and was delighted to be offered a large whalebone by museum director Nathalie Macfarlane. “It’s bigger than anything we have carved previously,” he said. Collecting whalebone in Nunavut, where his family goes on summertime forays, is amazing, but the consistency of the bones he collected here is dramatically different, he said. “This was like getting gourmet carving material from the other side of the universe,” he said. Mr. Kussy was so honoured by the gifts he received from the people of Haida Gwaii that he promised they would take the piece from the museum and bring back a carving as a donation. Mr. Kussy and his wife and son have been working all winter on the islands’ whalebones and held a show this spring at their gallery in Yellowknife called The Gift from Haida Gwaii. Ms Ashoona had never been to the islands, so wanted to visit before completing the sculpture that will make its way to the museum in the future. But in the meantime, the three artists brought pieces with them that will go on display – a shaman figure by Mr. Kussy, a clutch of owls by Mr. Ashoona and a woman with baby in the hood of her amuatik (parka). The young Mr. Ashoona, who at 21 is just embarking on his carving carver and following in his mother’s grandparents and great-grandmother’s footprints, also brought a special gift for Guujaaw: a nanook or polar bear carved out of translucent, icy-looking white alabaster. “It’s a gift from the Inuit to the Haida,” he said. Mr. Kussy said that the Council of the Haida Nation’s invitation to come for a cultural exchange, offered last year, was life-changing for his family. “It opened up more doors for us than you can imagine,” he said. Not only did it inspire them to create new art, but they were able to get a Canada Council grant for the exchange as well. So far Mr. Ashoona and his mother have been blown away by the carving they’ve seen at the museum, especially the argillite. This is the oldest carving culture on the continent, said Mr. Kussy. Inuit carving is only 50 to 60 years old and Ms Ashoona’s father was the first “Eskimo” artist to travel south to showcase the art form in 1959. The Kussy-Ashoonas are on the islands for 10 days and will be carving intermittently at the museum and at the Visitor Information Centre in Queen Charlotte. Mr. Kussy said carving whalebone can be a little stinky, so they will be in a different part of the museum from any Haida artists.