The Shaman’s Legacy: The Inuit Angakuq Coat from Igloolik
Among the works displayed at the National Gallery of Canada is a unique caribou coat with great significance for the Inuit of Igloolik Island, Nunavut. Recreated several decades after an original version of around 1902 and on loan from the Canadian Museum of History, the coat shows consummate sewing expertise. “The indigenous creator had a response that goes beyond the practical garment. It is not just limited to how to stay warm, it is also a means of expression," comments Christine Lalonde, Associate Curator of Indigenous Art. "It is outstanding in one garment to have all necessities for warmth and also an elaborate visual design.”
A shaman (angakuq) and hunter named Qingailisaq was the first owner of the original 1902 coat. His story involves an unforgettable encounter with spirits on the land, but his tale survives in two distinct versions. The first account, told by Qingailisaq himself to the whaling captain George Comer (1858–1937), decribes how he was hunting one day and killed three caribou. The following day, as recorded by the anthropologist Franz Boas in the Bulletin of the American Museum of Natural History in 1907, “he saw four large bucks, one of which was very fat. He struck it with an arrow, and [its] antlers and its skin dropped off, its head became smaller, and soon it assumed the form of a woman with finely made clothes. Soon she fell down, giving birth to a boy, and then she died. The other caribou had turned into men, who told him to cover the woman and the child with moss, so that nobody should ever find them … The men told him to return to his people and to tell them what had happened, and to have his clothing made in the same way as that of the woman.”
Captain George Comer acquired this remarkable clothing directly from Qingailisaq during his whaling voyage to Hudson Bay in 1900–1902 after a request by Franz Boas and the American Museum of Natural History in New York, according to scholar Bernadette Driscoll Engelstad at the Smithsonian's Arctic Studies Center. The coat entered the museum’s collection where it remains to this day.
In 1922 Qingailisaq’s son Awa (or Aua) told a second version of the story to Knud Rasmussen, the Danish polar explorer and anthropologist, who published it in 1929. In this telling, Qingailisaq encountered four mountain spirits while hunting. They suspected the shaman of having killed one of their sons. The shaman succeeded in convincing them of his innocence and they parted “in friendship and mutual understanding”. As Awa recounted, "My father, who was a great shaman, went home and had a dress made like that of the ijeraq, but with a picture of the hands in front, on the chest, to show how the ijeraq had attacked him. It took several women to make that garment, and many caribou skins were used.”
The two different versions of the story share a core message: Qingailisaq had a vivid experience while hunting and was compelled to have a special garment made as a result. But who made the shaman’s clothing? In Awa’s account as told to Rasmussen, “it took several women to make that garment …” Driscoll Engelstad explains, “Although there is a natural presumption that Qingailisaq/Oqamineq's wife would have made the outfit, Awa's statement seems to indicate that this was more of a collective effort.”
In 1983 the Canadian anthropologist Bernard Saladin d’Anglure initiated a project to replicate the shaman’s clothing. Three accurate replicas, produced in partnership with the community in Igloolik, now reside in Laval University Museum, the Canadian Museum of History and the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre in Yellowknife. Jeannie Arnaanuk and family, descendants of Qingailisaq, made the three replicas based on Saladin d'Anglure’s research, and in consultation with Ujuraq, the shaman's grandson. In addition, two further replicas were made: one by Rachel Uyarasuk of Igloolik for the British Museum and another for a private collector.
The Canadian Museum of History’s coat, on view in the NGC's Canadian and Indigenous Galleries, is made of mammal sinew, caribou fur, mammal wool and caribou skin. The front depicts a figure, brown on white, two white hands and three roundels, each with white caribou (puki) thongs. The back has similar roundels and two verticals lines of chevrons.
Inuit clothing is traditionally made by women, who are highly skilled in sewing. They make their own thread from sinew, a natural fiber from caribou tendons that is very strong and swells when wet, filling the needle holes in the fabric and making the clothing water resistant. Lalonde explains the broader skill needed: “There is a contradiction between the need to stay warm and the decoration. When you cut into caribou skin it creates a seam, but Inuit women create a seam that it is wind- and water-proof. This freedom says something about the level of sewing.” Qingailisaq’s original 1902 coat had no hood but came with a specially designed hat and pair of mitts. Driscoll explains that “covering the head and hands was a traditional means of safeguarding the body from contact with spirit forces.”
In recent years, the fashion industry has attempted to appropriate the coat’s design. “The coat has become iconic to a lot of Inuit. The Inuit responded to the incident where designers copied it – even/especially on social media," Christine Lalonde comments. "They were actively concerned and able to respond; they are engaged to respond.”
We will never know exactly what Qingailisaq experienced that day on the land. His transformative vision inspired a unique work of wearable art, as beautiful in technique as it is bold in design.
The Caribou Coat, on loan from the Canadian Museum of History, is currently on view in Gallery A105 of the Canadian and Indigenous Galleries of the National Gallery of Canada. To share this article, please click on the arrow at the top right hand of the page. Subscribe to our newsletters to stay up-to-date on the latest Gallery news, and to learn more about art in Canada.