This Week in History


A Great Inuit Artist and Photographer

This story was initially published in 2004

Peter Pitseolak, a great and talented Inuit artist and photographer, died on September 30, 1973. Through his outstanding work, a valuable artistic and documentary heritage of his people's way of life was passed on to future generations.

Pitseolak was born in November 1902, on the southeast coast of Baffin Island at Cape Dorset. The name Pitseolak means "sea pigeon" in Inuktitut. As the son and grandson of powerful leaders, he grew up in the traditional way of life of the Seekooseelakmiut, a nomadic Inuit people living mainly from hunting and fishing. During the course of his life, he witnessed enormous changes in his homeland. In 1913, when the Hudson's Bay Company set up its first permanent trading post there, many Inuit hunters became trappers and traded fox pelts for European goods such as guns, traps and wooden boats. Slowly, the Seekooseelakmiut stopped hunting and became increasingly sedentary.

As an adult, Pitseolak distinguished himself as a skilled hunter, trapper, navigator and camp leader. Realizing, however, that traditional Inuit culture was unfortunately bound to disappear, he used every means at his disposal to record the legends and history of his people to help future generations remember their ancestors. He created drawings, paintings and carvings representing people, animals and mythological creatures.

Peter Pitseolak's drawing
© Peter Pitseolak's Escape from Death by Peter Pitseolak, edited by Dorothy Harley Eber

In the 1930s, he was one of the first to use a camera, quickly discovering the possibilities offered by the art of photography. He spent much of his time taking pictures of his family dressed in traditional clothing and of his environment. He also became a skilled technician. He developed his first photographs in an igloo and created a filter for his camera using a smoked-glass lens. His invaluable collection of photographs spanned the period from the early 1940s to his death in 1973. Pitseolak's extensive work presents a wide variety of themes and illustrates the changes that the Seekooseelakmiut experienced as they moved from nomadic hunting life to that of a settled community.

For many years, Pitseolak also kept daily notes of all kinds of events that took place in his homeland and used them to write a book, People From Our Side, published two years after his death, describing his life and the experiences of his people.

In 1981, Peter Pitseolak was designated a person of national historic significance.

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