What is an Ulu?
When I travelled to Europe with Inuit crafters, I quickly learned the importance of a unique tool I had never seen before, the ulu, a beautifully shaped all purpose knife. A beautiful handle of bone, antler or wood (sometimes painted with beautiful designs), paired with a unique blade of metal (years ago we would have seen a slate or copper blade) has long been essential to the Inuits for practical and culturally reasons. The ulu is considered to be very special and it is passed down from grandmother to mother to daughter and its uses are vast and plentiful. The ladies I travelled with cut their seal pelts with it, they cut meat with it and they shared that women would even cut their children’s hair with it.
The Ulu has many uses
After a seal hunt, it would be the tool women used to skin and clean the animals, displaying that its use ranges seamlessly from personal to practical. The blade is extremely sharp and so it is important within the culture that girls are introduced to it at an early age and are taught to use it with respect and care.
The cutting and slicing power of the ulu blade comes from the handle. It allows the force of the blade to be directed over the object being cut, while the triangle shape blade with a rounded bottom makes it easier to cut. This is because the ulu uses a rocking motion that pins down the food.
The Ulu carries wisdom from generation to generation
I saw the value and historical significance of the ulu as I got to know the crafters and watched as they used this tool with such ease and fluidity. Each had a story about their ulu and it was valued as a prize possession, an embodiment of their respect for their practices. They taught me that their ancestors knowledge was held in the ulu and as it was passed on through generations, so too did the ancestors knowledge and wisdom. It is also interesting to note that it is one of history’s only female-centric tools.
Throughout Circumpolar cultures
Our travels to Europe had us visit the Sami people, the Indigenous people of the far northern parts of Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia. The Inuit crafters had the opportunity to create crafts with the Sami crafters and share stories of a common ancestry of the North. Our Sami hosts in Jokkmokk, Sweden and Mandalen, Norway held deep respect for the Inuit culture and asked many questions as if they were searching for missing parts of their own puzzle. I watched and listened as these two groups of women shared stories of how their ancestors used the ulu and I was fascinated to see the similarities in their tools, methodology and an evident kinship of circumpolar traditions.
The Ulu and Modern seal skin fashion
Today there are many Inuit crafters and designers that use ulus of various sizes to create fashion apparel and accessories, everything from earrings, bracelets, shoes, coats, mittens, dresses and more. As these designers bring their work to international Fashion Weeks, share their work on social media platforms, the popularity of seal skin fashion is increasing for a number of reasons, quality, fashion appeal, and sustainability. The ulu continues to carry the culture forward.
An important cultural tool
The ulu has been around for 5000 years, and it is said that when someone passes away, their ulu retains their spirit and energy. How powerful it is to think that the ancestors of Inuit women remain with them through the ulu, and that in this room of women crafters, there was also perhaps countless generations over seeing them proudly as they connected over an understood, shared experience. Even more incredible to think, that the todays crafters will continue their journey long after they pass by gifting their ulus to their daughters, nieces, sisters or granddaughters.
– Andree Gracie