February 2011 Artifact of the Month

Woman's Knife with Animal Effigies

Arctic

Materials: stone and ivory

2001.6.106

Woman's Knife with Animal EffigiesFor over 3,000 years ulus have contributed to the survival of people in the Arctic. Even though these curvilinear knives are primarily associated with Inuit women, they are found within most Arctic cultures.  

Historically, Inuit women's work was dominated by the production of warm, tailored skin clothing and food. Their most valuable tool for completing these daily duties was the ulu.

Life in arctic conditions is not possible without extremely well-made clothing to protect from the bitter cold. Such clothing was created with animal skins which required scraping. Using the ulu with pushing, slicing strikes, women would cut the blubber away from the hides. The hides would be stretched and softened before they were ready to become clothing. The pattern pieces for the garments were then laid out on the hide; shapes were drawn with a sharp bit of bone. These sections were then cut out using an ulu.

The ulu was also essential for food preparation. While men were typically responsible for hunting, women were in charge of butchering. This task needed to be done before the meat spoiled or froze. With the ulu, women were able to skin the animal, trim the blubber, and filet the meat efficiently.

 Ulus were passed down from generation to generation with the hopes of passing on ancestral knowledge contained within the knife. In some families, men would make an ulu as a gift for their wives on their wedding day.

In the past, ulu blades were made out of polished slate; handles were made of wood, ivory, caribou antler or bone. Our ulu features a large ground stone handle with charming carved fox heads on both ends.  A deep groove at the base of the handle holds the ivory blade in place. On the blade are delicate carvings of a whale and two men in kayaks. The amount of time and detail that went into crafting this knife indicates the importance of the ulu in everyday life.

The traditional ulu design still remains; however, new materials are being utilized such as stainless steel.  The utility of this tool has withstood the test of time and continues to be widely used throughout the Arctic.