Building Community Collaboration: Nunatsiavut Embroideries
Guest post by: Katie Donlan, Susan Kaplan, and Genevieve LeMoine, of the Peary-MacMillan Arctic Museum
This March the Peary-MacMillan Arctic Museum began visiting communities in Nunatsiavut in an effort to develop a collaborative project to study and celebrate the unique embroidery tradition of Labrador Inuit. Arctic Museum staff traveled to Nain with photographs of the museum’s collection of 75 embroideries and invited people to share ideas about collaborative projects they would like to see developed using the embroideries. These were the first of a number of meetings planned with people from various Nunatsiavut communities. The Arctic Museum hopes interested community members will join the museum in developing a research project focused on documenting Nunatsiavut perspectives on this beautiful, creative artistic form of expression.
The embroideries at the Arctic Museum were created in Nunatsiavut communities during the mid-twentieth century. Many feature tiny inukuluks (little people) and detailed outdoor scenes stitched onto napkins, placemats, table runners, tablecloths, and an apron. The colorful scenes feature inukuluks involved in a wide variety of activities such as sliding down hills, tending to gardens, building snowmen, participating in boil ups, chasing butterflies, and hunting polar bears, against backdrops of Labrador landscapes and icescapes.
During the March community meetings in Nain, people discussed scenes on the embroideries and began to share their own connections to the tradition. Several people recalled their mothers embroidering in the same distinctive inukuluk style and showed the museum staff embroidered pieces that were passed down to them. One woman recalled a time when “every woman knew how to embroider.” A collective history emerged of women embroidering for the Moravian Mission (often invoking Ellen and Kate Hettasch), although specific experiences of women were varied and individual.
Not only was the style of embroidery familiar to people in Nain, so too were some of the landscapes and buildings meticulously stitched in the backgrounds of the embroideries. People tried to decipher which Nunatsiavut community might be represented on a piece based on the buildings, the density of trees, or the icy treeless expanse depicted. A backdrop on one embroidered table runner captured interest for its distinct mountainous horizon identified as Mount Sophia, a familiar mountain across the bay from Nain. A placemat featuring inukuluks crossing a small bridge with a building on either side, garnered attention as well. Community members identified the scene as Nain based upon the spatial position of the bridge between the two buildings. They explained that bridge is still there, now buried in grass, and one of the buildings depicted is a house that stands today. These discussions revealed the potential wealth of geographic information embedded in the embroideries.
In preparation for the collaborative project, the Arctic Museum is studying the personal papers of Moravian school teacher Kate Hettasch, who was mentioned repeatedly in discussions of embroidery production in the school and community. Hettasch’s diaries record daily life at the Nain school, and mention children learning embroidery as part of their education. According to Hettasch, embroidering was somewhat of a welcome departure from the structured routine of life in the school house. In February 1943 Hettasch writes in her diary, “Sewing lessons – rather embroidering – lessons, seem to pass by too quickly. Girlies all asked could they continue at 4:30 – alas no time just then. Only after home lessons were learned, supper over and mending all done, we actually found time to sit for ½ hour and do fancy work. Most enjoyable.”1 From Hettasch’s perspective, embroidery was an enjoyable, engaging activity, and one that the children sometimes requested more time to do.
Hettasch’s correspondence and annual newsletters provide information on the source of embroidery supplies. In her September 1957 newsletter from Hebron, Hettasch writes about a visit from her “American friend David” who brings colored thread for the school.2 Later in 1959 Hettasch writes a letter from Makkovik thanking David for coordinating a donation of thread from his friend, the president of the international thread company, Coat & Clark, Inc. in New York City. The letter includes a list labeled “Threads of Love” that details specific colors and quantities Hettasch requests for embroidery work.3 The diaries from Nain, newsletter from Hebron, and correspondence from Makkovik to the United States, begin to reveal a complex, international web of people, places, and organizations involved in providing the materials for the production of Labrador embroidery.
The archives do not provide Inuit perspectives on the creation and significance of embroideries in the past and today. The Arctic Museum staff hopes that through collaborations with community members throughout Nunatsiavut, we can document this unique artistic tradition from an Inuit perspective. Future work will transition between the Peary-MacMillan Arctic Museum and communities in Nunatsiavut to work towards this goal.
1 Diary of Kate Hettasch, 1943, Nain, Labrador, PP HeK 37, Moravian Archives, Bethlehem, PA.
2 Moravian Prayer Union, September 1957, Hebron, Labrador, PP HeK 8, Moravian Archives, Bethlehem, PA.
3 Thank You Davidealuk, February 28, 1959, Makkovik, Labrador, PP HeK 8, Moravian Archives, Bethlehem, PA.
The Peary-MacMillan Arctic Museum thanks the Nain community for hosting us in March and generously spending time working with us. Thank you to the Moravian Archives in Bethlehem, PA for providing access to Kate Hettasch’s personal papers, and to Tradition & Transition for providing assistance with Katie Donlan’s travel expenses to and from Nain.