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West Baffin Eskimo Co-operative – Kinngait, Nunavut


In 1948 and 1949 artist and writer Jim Houston made his first trips to Nunavut. The carvings he saw fascinated him, and he learned that the Inuit had been carving for generations – amulets, talismans, tools for hunting. But he also saw other small pieces that had no apparent function, except that they were pleasing – pieces we would call art, even though in Inuktitut, as in many other aboriginal languages, there is no word for art.

Houston also saw that in the changing Arctic the Inuit were having difficulty coming in from the land and adjusting to life in settlements.


And he made a 260-mile dogsled trek to Kinngait to meet carver Osuitok Ipeelee. Osuitok did carvings enthusiastically for Houston and then gave his approval to Houston's idea for supporting Inuit art.

Houston deliberately paid Osuitok the then princely sum of $50 for a caribou carving. He wanted to get other Inuits’ attention. And he did.


That carving by Osuitok is now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Another one of Osuitok's elegant caribou appears above.

This second caribou is by Jackopoosie Oopakak. It is called "Nunali," which means place where people live. If you click on the image, you'll see seabirds, caribou, and Inuit hunters carved all along the antlers -- the whole cycle of a caribou hunt recapitulated again.



Indeed, such a vision is a place where people live.



Soon after Osuitok and Houston's initial collaboration, what came to be called the West Baffin Eskimo Co-operative was born. It has been in existence for fifty years now, and in addition to lithography and stonecut studios in Kinngait, it also operates a grocery and a supply store in town and administers government community service contracts. All in all, it is the first or second largest employer in Kinngait.


It also independently markets the work of its co-operative members through its distribution center, Dorset Fine Arts, in Toronto.

Current WBEC printmakers on their coffee break in “512,” the room that was the original center for the co-operative’s arts activity, so named because “512” was the original square footage of the center.

Terry Ryan’s involvement with the co-operative has also been instrumental – and ongoing. He’s on the left in this photo with Inuit leader Simonie on the right. The photo was taken in an Inuit camp in 1964.

But the co-operative is wholly owned by its members -- all of whom are residents of Kinngait and almost all of whom are of Inuit descent.

Jimmy Manning (on left) is the studio manager of the co-operative. He is also a photographer, writer, carver, and painter. Palaya Qiatsug (right) directs the purchasing of carvings.


You see how politically astute and prescient they were when we visited them before the US election.
Palaya is a carver himself. Among his favorite themes are shamanic transformations. He considers himself a “traditionalist with a mission.”


The mission is to communicate traditional Inuit culture to the young.

Each year since 1958 the co-operative has produced a collection of Cape Dorset prints. They only produce 50 sets of these prints, and this year’s collection was just about to appear when we arrived. We had had a sneak preview at Dorset Fine Arts in Toronto.

And when we arrived in Kinngait (Cape Dorset), the co-operative was already working towards next year’s collection…

…including doing color samples on a print by renowned artist Kenojuak Ashevak.

We'll introduce you to Kenojuak in our next blog.

Kenojuak’s son Arnaqurk is an accomplished artist in his own right, part of a generation doing innovative new work. Arnaquak works as a lithographer.

And he has been called “possibly the most creative and exciting sculptor in Cape Dorset today.” He is a constructivist and works with different materials at once. He thinks less of what might be taken away from stone and more of what might be added. When he walks outside of town, or qajaqs, he might find bone or glass or baleen or antler that he'll later add to stone.

It's when he begins to do his own work that the ideas arise.

The braintrust gathered in the lithography studio.

Painter, photographer, and printmaker Bill Ritchie from Newfoundland comes to Kinngait three times a year for about a month at a time to help advise in the lithography studio.

We flew up to Kinngait with Bill, and he helped introduce us to WBEC and the Kinngait community.

As did Jimmy Manning, who manages the stonecut studio.

Jimmy is also a guide. If we come back during summer, he'll take us out traveling in his boat. We can stay at two heated, comfortable cabins he has far from town. Then beyond the cabins, we'll be traveling and camping as the old ones did. There's a catch in his voice as he tells us this.

Sometimes, Jimmy says, it's perfectly clear that a drawing wants to become a lithograph. This is one of Kananginak's prints from the current 2008 print collection.

And sometimes it’s equally clear that an image wants to become a stonecut print…

…which stonecut printer Niviasi Qiatsuq is working on here…

…with tools and materials beautiful in their own right…

So that this begins to happen.

And then this.

Qavavau Manumie is a multi-talented artist who cuts and prints stone blocks by day and who draws and carves at night and on weekends.

His images often appear in Cape Dorset Annual Print Collections, and when they do, Qavavau has undertaken every step of the process himself: drawing the original image, carving the block, making the prints.

Here are drawings of Qavavau’s which might appear in next year’s Cape Dorset Print Collection.

Click on the images and look closely…

…and you’ll begin to perceive the wit and irony in them.

Shuvinai Ashoona’s drawings and prints derive from her own idiosyncratic perceptions as well.
Inuit gather eggs from the tundra along the rocky shoreline. Of course, the eggs also hatch, and Shuvinai says that “Eggs that come out from the earth -- from the vapor of the earth – are more interesting than seeing the inside of the egg.”

Shuvinai's print above is titled An angel in town. Notice the waiting, empty dogsled. Is someone arriving -- or about to leave?

Oviloo Tunnillie carves from a very personal point of view…


…often graceful feminine figures.

And she often treats controversial subjects that others avoid, like alcoholism and domestic abuse.

These aren’t all of Kinngait’s artists, of course – let alone the work of all Inuit communities.

Nor, of course, are all issues smoothly resolved. This print, “Shamanizing,” is by Aoodla Pudlat from Baker’s Lake.

And the edge of old conflicts can still be sharp.

You’ll see the irony in how Karoo Ashevak’s “Harpooned Shaman” becomes its own crucifixion.

And there’s a dwindling pool of artists drawing and printmaking now. You can make more money more quickly from a carving than from the time a drawing requires.

And now there are modern distractions as well – ones much less salubrious than this ski-do.

These are all issues that Isuma, an independent Inuit film production group in Igloolik, explores in their work -- and not only by documenting Inuit culture.

For instance, The Journals of Knud Rasmussen tells the story of the great Inuit shaman Aua as it was recorded by the Danish explorer/adventurer Knud Rasmussen. It is a story of how “…Shamanism was replaced with Christianity – and the balance of life was changed forever.” Isuma founder Zacharias Kunuk says that the film “tries to answer two questions that haunted me my whole life: Who were we? And what happened to us?”

Isuma’s earlier, award-winning Atanarjuat (The Fast Runner) is available on Netflix.

Kunuk says, “We live on an island that we’ve inhabited for 4000 years…After we brought in television and cable, now everybody’s glued to the tube. And that’s where we (Isuma) wanted to be, so our little company started to bring back the storytelling…”

So Isuma is using this new medium as a means of recovering traditional Inuit storytelling. And it is also functioning as a collaborative community effort – the lifeway upon which the Inuit have always depended for survival.

Again, Dorset Fine Arts in Toronto is the distribution center for the West Baffin Eskimo Co-Operative. They sell Inuit work to galleries around the world.

We -- Red Egg Gallery -- will be working with them, too.

This means that if you find something in their catalogue that you are interested in…

Dorset Fine Arts

…let us know and you can purchase it through Red Egg Gallery.

We know this is the first time we’ve specifically mentioned Red Egg Gallery’s function of selling artists’ work -- and we hope we’re making our own intention clearer: to serve the integrity of nature, community, and wisdom in local communities around the world.

We’re hoping to connect you with artists, work, communities, histories – and places – that you love, too.
(The history of WBEC above came through our conversations with its members whom we mention above -- and from Cape Dorset Sculpture by Derek Norton and Nigel Reading – with an introduction by Terry Ryan.)



Moving into town – Kinngait, Nunavut

Or, instead of walking across a land-bridge, you can try to get there by plane.

…into this treeless land of ice and snow and wind.

Not that we were concerned…

…even if Debi caught the steward/co-pilot reading through directions for take-off. Click on the photo above. You’ll see we aren’t kidding.

Because somehow the blonde pony-tail of our pilot consoled us, even though she didn’t seem any older than our daughters. It was good to realize that the era of Arctic bush-pilots – not that she was exactly that – wasn’t completely over.

Iqaluit, the capital of Nunavut, seemed more ephemeral than a hunting camp.

Because of permafrost, buildings have to be stilted above the ground.

And the land itself seems perplexed by the mere idea of town.

Like all towns in Ninavut, Kinngait is a new invention. Kinngait’s colonial name is Cape Dorset. It’s sixty years old.

While Inuit have been living nomadically in hunting camps in Nunavut for over 4,000 years.

This doesn’t mean that we didn’t find Kinngait’s modern incarnation full of charm.

And its people utterly delightful.

But that also doesn’t wash away the fact that something crucial is being lost.

But we already living our own modernized lives have no right to wash our hands free of our own responsibilities – and we have no right to expect people like the Inuit to hold for us our own nostalgia for our own lost connections to the land.

In 1913 the Hudson Bay Company built a trading post in Kinngait to facilitate their own trading for furs, and as Inuit families and hunting groups gradually moved closer to the post, a more settled community began to emerge.

Not that the Inuit missed the irony and significance of this transition. This is carver and photographer Peter Pitseolak. He has deliberately posed with a qakivak in one hand (a long-handled fishing spear) and a rifle in the other.

On a hillside above Kinngait, there is a memorial cairn to three men: Ashoona, Saila, and Potoogook (the namesake of our guide on Mallikjuag).

The arrival of these three men with their hunting groups is considered the start of the community in Kinngait – the beginning of a new era. And among the new skills required of these founders was knowledge of how to deal with qallunaat, white people from the south.

Saila, one of these three founders, was the father of Pauta Saila, whom we introduced to you in our last blog.

Here is one more of Pauta’s dancing bears.

And carver and printmaker Kananginak Pootoogook is the son of one of the other three founders. This means that Kananginak and Pauta are direct links between a life of nomadic hunting and town life. And it means that their art has created a path for a younger generation.

When Kananginak was still living in an outpost camp, he found a walrus tusk and carved a bird on it. He gave it to his father to sell in town. When his father returned, he brought back five bullets for Kananginak in trade.

Now Kananginak’s carvings and prints appear in galleries and museums around the world.

It is impossible to explain how one small community like Kinngait, whose population is perhaps 1400, could produce so many thriving artists.

But one partial explanation lies in how long the Inuit have so skillfully used their hands. If men and women could not have made and mended their clothes and gear at a moment’s notice out on the land – their kamiik (boots), avataq (sealskin floats), and so many other things – they simply would not have survived.

So these hands…

…chisel a stonecut like this, which in turn…

…produces a stonecut print.

We suppose some might want to argue with the transition to a modern tool.

But we don’t see the point.

This is a loon by Etulu Etidloi, the father of Isaci Etidloi, whose sculpture a man could die at any time we showed you in our last blog.

You see the generational passing of this art.

And the hands again.

The Inuit first carved mainly on ivory and traded with the occasional whaling ships passing through.

Even when Kinngait was on its way towards becoming a settled town, it was still an exciting moment when a dog-team would arrive and as a family unfurled sealskins, among the furs there might also be a carved masterwork or two, by now perhaps carved in local serpentine that can range in color from yellow-green to nearly black.

The above photo was taken at an Inuit campsite about 1964.

In the 1950’s disease ran through Qimmiit, Inuit dogs, and the Canadian government undertook, or ordered to be undertaken, wholesale slaughters of the dogs, purportedly for public health reasons.

The connection between the Inuit and Qimmiit would be hard to over-emphasize. One could not have survived without the other.

"My grandmother often told me that I am still alive today because of our Qimmiit," Paulusie Cookie from Umiujaq said.

The slaughtering of the dogs remains a controversy. In the post-WW II era, military activity was “setting up the Distant Early Warning line across the North to protect North America from attack.” The northern mining industry was booming, and a young Canadian government feared the possibility of larger powers trying to annex these sparsely populated lands.

And there are those who still fear the dogs were slaughtered to force the Inuit from their nomadic hunting lives into fixed settlements.

This history leaves big questions – and not just for Kinngait.

Perhaps one way to frame the question is this: how can our life in town stay connected with the land – and with the spirit of our ancestors who have lived on the land before us?

Or in other words, how can Cape Dorset stay connected with Mallikjuag?

But this is a question we have to own in our own lives – and not just expect that it’s a responsibility that people like the Inuit should carry for the rest of us.

The best way we’ve heard the question asked is by poet Robert Hass:

“How do you re-animate a world denuded by western positivist science?”

The last time we saw Hass, he didn’t have answers to his own good question.

What’s important is that the good question remains.


Mallikjuag Island, Nunavut

You have to read the tides right if you want to cross on foot to Mallikjuag Island.

So Pootoojoo Elee had called the elder to get the best estimate of when low tide would be.

Still when we arrived where we could cross, the tide was already coming in.

And Pootoojoo thought it was too late to cross.

“C’mon,” I called back, hurrying ahead. “We can still make it, can’t we?” I felt like I was rockhopping up San Carpoforo Creek, back home in the Sur.

But north and south mean something different here.

We did make it across, but by now the tide had come up so high that we couldn’t entirely follow along the shore. We had to scramble up the rocky slope. If you click on the photo above, you’ll be able to make out the thin pencil-line of stones where we crossed. Though stones are still visible, had we crossed even ten minutes later, Pootoojoo said we’d have been stuck in places where water would’ve already been rushing above our knees.

While on Mallikjuag Island, the tracks we saw ahead of ours were an Arctic silver fox’s, most likely stalking collared lemmings, like the one we saw dart into rocks quicker than a camera click.

And the skeleton of a beached beluga whale.

Pootoojoo saw in the vertebrae the possibility of two or three carved owls.

Several times before and after we had arrived in Nunavut, people who knew told us pointedly to be aware of polar bears.

It was not meant as an idle injunction. This bear was killed near town just a couple days before we arrived. “A small one,” Pootoojoo said. “Probably only seven and a half feet or so.” He has friends who have been mauled.

So I asked the obvious question.

“Are you carrying a sidearm in that bag?”

“Something like that,” Pootoojoo said.

“Is it enough to stop a bear?”

“Let’s hope we won’t have to find out,” he said.

Isaci Etidloi calls this sculpture a man could die at any time.

There are other beings in this land as well. And I was astonished to learn a precise word for them.

Ijjigait, they are called. The word means those fleeting glimpses you might get out of the corner of your eye -- too fleeting for you to recognize, but they leave you with the vague feeling that one of the old ones might have just appeared.

I shouldn’t speak of them.

But we were approaching the rim of a small lake…

…ringed with the depressions of sod and stone homes built perhaps two millennia ago.

They’d crib roofs from whale bones and then cover them with skins and sod.

People have lived in the Arctic for at least 10,000 years, crossing from Siberia in migrations of a pan-Arctic culture. Thule people, ancestors of the Inuit, arrived during a warming trend a thousand years ago. They hunted bowhead whales and other large sea-mammals from open boats and gradually displaced the earlier Paleoeskimo Dorset culture.

The Thule and Inuit have been nomadic people living in seasonal camps and hunting sea mammals and following caribou migrations in their qamutiik (dog-sleds) and qajait (skin-covered hunting canoes).

Inuits' nomadic hunting life in camps ended only fifty years ago. It’s hard to think of a more accelerated change in a culture.

Pauta Saila has lived in both worlds. He was born in a caribou hunting camp in 1916. His father took him everywhere with him, and Pauta learned how to survive out on the land. His father taught him never to rush – but always to wait for the weather. By the time he was sixteen, Pauta was driving a dog-team on his own.

His first wife is in the center of this photograph.

As a carver, Pauta’s signature is the dancing polar bear. He has an affinity for polar bears. If you do not bother them, they will not bother you, he thinks.

One day as Pauta sat on his porch smoking, people inside the church across from him suddenly began gesticulating wildly to him. Pauta turned around and saw a polar bear right behind him. Figuring that the bear was interested in the walrus meat being stored outside, Pauta took a piece, reached down, and handed it to the bear. The bear waited patiently, took the walrus meat gently, and wandered off.

Pauta and his current wife, the printmaker and carver Pitaloosie Pudlat Saila, and their great grand-daughter.

In Pauta and Pitaloosie’s kitchen hang these ulus. They serve many functions, including cutting muqtaaq from a whale.

They are also used for scraping clean sealskin.

Pauta is the oldest member of his community and hopes to do one more carving.

Pootoojoo had more he wanted to show us on Mallikjuag Island.

Like this burial site that is perhaps a thousand years old.

The skeleton inside is of an enormous man, Pootoojoo points out. There are sites in Nunavut where such large stones have been moved that anthropologists conjecture that among the peoples who once lived here might have been people who were nearly giants.

Once young men from town disturbed these sites. In fact, one young man took two skulls and kept them in his room. Shortly afterwards he committed suicide, and the elders then returned the skulls where they belong.

The stone cairns on the right are for perching your qajaq off the ground.

If you do not do this, the dogs you’ve brought with you will eat through the sealskin of your canoe.

There are many theories about the purposes of these ancient inuksuit. The word means something like made to resemble someone. They can be seen for miles, and among other things, are likely directional markers.

This inuksuk points towards northern fishing camps. A collection of inuksuit gathered together likely indicates that you have come into a particularly powerful place.

In old Inuit stories, when you pass beyond inuksuit, you have truly entered a trackless, wild world.

And it was time for us to be heading back ourselves.

Much as we wanted to linger.

Much as there was to talk…

…and brood about.

We had come at the perfect time. It hadn’t gotten cold yet. It was only zero degrees out, and the inlet hadn’t frozen.

Pootoojoo thought he had arranged for a canoe to pick us up. But no boat was appearing.

And he thought there was a chance that a blizzard could be coming in. There had been a blizzard two nights before.

We could walk back the way we had come, but the tide wouldn’t be low enough for that for three or four hours more – and it would be plenty dark by then.

Finally, a canoe entered the inlet, coming from the fishing camps further north. Pootoojoo waved a blanket to call the canoe to shore.

And soon we were crossing the inlet again, this time by canoe.

Not only had the family had a successful weekend at the fishing camp, but the next day they discovered they had also caught a beluga whale in their fishing net tethered in the inlet. There would be a feast that night.

And we were back as well.



When we blog, the date that appears is the date the entry is posted. Our itinerary below gives the actual dates of where we are – or plan to be. For example, we're in Ottawa as we post this -- and soon will be on our way to Iceland.

Please send us your own experiences – and suggestions – for travel in these places.

Oct 7-8Atlanta
Oct 9-10Gee’s Bend, Alabama
Oct 11-12Atlanta
Oct 13-16Toronto
Oct 17-20Kinngait (Cape Dorset), Nunavut
Oct 21-23Ottawa
Oct 24-Nov1Iceland
Nov 2-7Scotland
Nov 8-17Liverpool and Wales
Nov 18-24Ireland
Nov 25-Dec 1London
Dec 2-17Italy (San Vicenzo, Camaldoli, Ravenna – and other places in the north)
Dec 18-Jan 6Poland (Krakow, Krosno, Czestochowa, Warsaw)

Up to this point, our itinerary is fairly firmly set. Below becomes a rough estimate of what we think might transpire.

Jan 7-12Istanbul
Jan 13-20Cairo and Luxor (Mt. Sinai?)
Jan 21-Feb 4Kenya (Red Rhino Orphanage)
Feb 5-Feb 11 Ethiopia
Feb 12-17Tanzania
Feb 18-23Niger
Feb 24-28India…
Feb 29-Mar 5 Dharamsala
Mar 6-13Kathmandu, Nepal
Mar 14-20Tamil Nada (Shantivanam)
Mar 21-26Laos
Mar 27-Apr 3Cambodia (Angkor Wat, Phnum Penh, Siem Reap)
Apr 4-11Viet Nam (Hoi An)
Apr 12-18Taipei, Taiwan

April 19- May 3Back to Big Sur?

May 4-14Australia
May 15-24New Zealand

May 25Back home.

Later in the summer...a road trip to the Southwest?