Saumik (James Houston) : Le qallunaaq qui a changé l'art Inuit

Saumik (James Houston): The Qallunaaq Who Changed Inuit Art

Montreal, March 20, 2022

As you may now be well aware, La Guilde has been an important part of shaping a space for Crafts in Canada, especially when it comes to Inuit art. With the opening of the exhibition Ashoona: Enduring Art Stories, on until July 3rd, we thought it would be a perfect moment to revisit the influence of James Houston and to share with you the hidden treasures we discovered by once again taking a deep dive in our archives. As promised in Going North: A Beautiful Endeavour, we explore in this article of Did you know…, the role of James Houston’s and the impact of his partnership with La Guilde on Inuit art.

*The term "Eskimo" used in publications of the time is retained to preserve the historical completeness of the original documents from our archives.

Saumik (James Houston) : The Qallunaaq Who Changed Inuit Art

In setting off to write this piece, we thought what can we possibly contribute about James Houston that hasn’t already been said? La Guilde’s archive has, once more, helped bring some new insights to the discussion, especially in regard to what was going on behind the scenes. The previous article on opening the Inuit art market ended when Houston started exporting sculptures and carvings around 1949. The following years would continue to bring about the modern, commercial Inuit art movement as we know it today, as well as exciting new mediums and materials. The architects of this movement were La Guilde, the Hudson’s Bay Company, and James Houston as they set out to share Inuit craft, art, and design, wider than ever before.

In our current exhibition, Ashoona: Enduring Art Stories, co-curator Goota Ashoona and her husband Bob Kussy, wrote that Houston was named Saumik by the locals of Kinngait (Cape Dorset, NU), which means “left-handed one”. We imagine his nickname was an indication of the relationships that were developed over years of sculpting, drawing, learning, feasting, and working together. In Going North: A Beautiful Endeavour, we left off with James Houston receiving the support from both La Guilde and the Hudson’s Bay Company to access remote communities and bring more Inuit art down South. This piece addresses the years following the birth of the Inuit art market all the way to the establishment of the stonecut printing cooperative, the West Baffin Eskimo Co-Operative.
Qallunaaq, the singular form of qallunaat, refers to “southern” or “white” people in Inuktitut, also playfully spelled as kalunat or kaloona in documents. But, we love this term to emphasize that non-Indigenous consumers or agents in the North were entering an Inuit space, and Inuit themselves had and maintained ideas about belonging, their worldview, and their protocols.

Sanajatsarq : Eskimo Handicrafts

As Houston and La Guilde tried to export more and more carvings to eager qallunaat buyers, one of the tools used was an infamous pamphlet called Sanajatsarq: Eskimo Handicrafts.It intended to offer carving examples—illustrated by James Houston—for artists to use with subject matter that kept “native character” but appealed to southern audiences, yet some were deeply misguided like totem pole carvings ​​(Igloliorte 2019, 71). More than 1500 copies of the pamphlet were distributed in 1951, in partnership with the Department of Northern Affairs and Natural Resources, and it was directly related to a spike in art production and purchases by La Guilde between 1948-1952 (Igloliorte 2019, 66). The pamphlet was quite a failure, so much so that the idea of making a series turned into a single volume that stopped publication in 1958 (Igloliorte 2019, 76). Artists skilled in observation returned numerous exact replicas of the carvings illustrated. The “condescending captions” accompanying the drawings read “Can you make one?” or “If they are carefully carved and polished the kaloona will buy them” (Houston 1951). Cringe. It is clear that this guidebook, meant as a “teaching tool”, followed southern perspectives and ways of learning, where knowledge is acquired by reading or rolling through examples for inspiration, a structure that wasn’t adapted to its intended audience that learned by making and trying.
La Guilde’s archive does show a few additional drawings from 1953 by James Houston (fig. 4-5) intended for the leaflets that were never produced. Although they were never used, those drawings are a testimony to Houston’s attention to details and relation to the subject matter already explored by Inuit.

La Guilde was taking great care, at the time, to uphold the quality and craftsmanship of works produced. One such indication was pricing. A letter from the Hudson Bay Company (HBC) states: “In compiling such a list flexibility would be our keynote as the merits of each individual item would have to be considered by the post manager for craftsmanship and design. In other words, we should avoid a single price for each item but rather have a range, as for instance carved ivory animals - $1.50 - $4. Mr. Houston could subsequently make any adjustments which he might consider necessary” (Chesshire 1951). Not only were pieces of varying degrees of intricacy and design being produced, but they were also becoming complex arrangements of engineering. Another HBC letter accompanying a shipment to La Guilde reads: “We would like to caution that extreme care should be exercised when unpacking these curios, particularly as it will be found that some of the carvings consist of more than one piece. These pieces are each wrapped separately but the complete set is wrapped together…It would be difficult, if not impossible, to sort out the pieces should they become mixed together” (Ross 1951). These carvings of soapstone and ivory—which sound exciting but are a nightmare to ship—usually accompanied baskets and sealskin products.

Despite the obvious flaws with the Sanajatsarq project, Inuk art scholar Dr. Heather Igloliorte does praise this as a moment of adaptation. Transcultural objects traded with whalers, fishers, and fur traders, such as cribbage boards, matchboxes, and ashtrays, continued to be sought after, but there was a new emphasis on carvings as art objects. There had been a mixed reception to souvenir and craft objects like parkas, mittens, and purses, so Inuit art was being pushed with a more individual and modern art focus (Igloliorte 2019, 78). While the manual limited artists' individual potential, it brought new opportunities; by 1952, Houston was presenting Inuit carvings as modern art, consciously using the term artists instead of carvers. A small but important reversal of the primitivism of the early project. Many letters and telegraphs by La Guilde also testify that the works from the North were highly esteemed and considered art. This trend may have already been in place: as Igloliorte points out, sculptor Akeeaktashuk exhibited in London’s prestigious Gimpel Fils Gallery in 1953 (Igloliorte 2019, 78-80). This new turn to Inuit modern art meant leaving behind the transcultural souvenir objects featured in Sanajatsarq, which would have greatly hindered its reception as an emerging form of modern art, or so-called “primitive-modern” art exploiting the fascination of qallunaat.

Maintain the Inuit art market

At this time in the early 1950s, La Guilde and Houston were trying to maintain the Inuit art market established in the South. But competition was coming in many different forms. Houston’s 1953 report states that the organization normally purchased about 90% of works from the Eastern Arctic, “[...] this year I doubt if we were able to purchase 50%. This was largely due to the heightened interest of whites in the settlements. With this new trend on the increase, a definite rule should be established in each settlement in order to assure the Eskimos a fair price for their work” (Howe 1953). Those problems went beyond buyers. Department store parkas, like those from Eatons, outcompeted handmade coats from the North, which were hand stitched and made from quality materials. Even the commercial side of the Hudson’s Bay Company carried these “parka dupes” in department stores, “embarking on a programme of Eskimo substitutes” as government and La Guilde officials scolded (Siverts 1959). La Guilde’s shop chairman, Colin J.G. Molson, wrote to the Department of Northern Affairs and Natural Resources for help: “It is most unfortunate that the large department stores should go into the market to capitalize on the present interest in Eskimos by manufacturing these parkas just when the Eskimos themselves are being organized to produce them” (Molson 1959).

A press release in 1959 from the Department of Northern Affairs and National Resources emphasized the importance of the cottage craft industry for Inuit makers, praising dolls and parkas as economic opportunities that could help the Inuit communities become more autonomous. “Such an industry would provide steady income and employment for Eskimos whose traditional way of life has vanished. It will also give the customer a unique kind of hand-made product which only the remarkable skills of the Eskimo craftsman can produce” (Press Release 1959). The governmental press release played on the misguided idea of the Inuit culture vanishing while promoting the purchase of a parka as a way of saving them. This double-edged insult of a myth of vanishing culture was paired with praise for the craftsmanship of quality, trying to stir a sentimental response and stressing to the public what good buying from Inuit artists could do. It also mentioned the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in 1959, an early landmark for the export of Inuit sculpture and craft, which is detailed in our recent exhibition Ashoona: Enduring Art Stories. For the Stratford exhibition, artists Kiugak Ashoona and Eegeevudluk Pootoogook accompanied their work to the South and made an in-person carving demonstration, a major achievement and a step towards appreciating the artists as modernist individual artists.

Unfortunately, parkas were not the only fakes entering the market. Eventually, Japanese carvings that imitated Inuit sculpture were found on the scene, a threat that greatly concerned La Guilde. The inauthentic poaching of the growing Inuit art market meant lost livelihoods for the Inuit artists. These “eskimos figurines made in Japan” were even sold in Yellowknife (NT) through a distributor from Edmonton (AB), and La Guilde was able to get Japanese authorities involved (The Montreal Star 1959). Just like with the parkas, authentic Inuit carving had to be protected, and helping out with artists’ livelihood was at the core of La Guilde’s concern. Molson wrote again to the Department of Northern Affairs and Natural Resources: “Our object has always been to assist in providing markets for as many of the Eskimos as possible, in order to assist their economic problems in the North… We, ourselves, in the early stages of the development had to meet this problem, as to whether we would refuse to accept anything but the very best work or whether we would try to broaden the base and allow as many Eskimos as possible to benefit from the income obtainable from carvings” (Molson 1958). While trying to reach as many artists as possible, plugging them into opportunities and connecting them with buyers, La Guilde tried to maintain an expected quality that made buyers come back.

West Baffin Eskimo Co-Operative

Carving would soon not be the only art form coming south; in October of 1958, Houston set off to Japan to learn woodblock printing. In an interview for an unidentified newspaper, he said coolly, “They’re excited about it…They think this business of pulling a proof from a carving is hot stuff. But we don’t know much about it myself and we want to learn more” (Newspaper 1958). After his return, Cape Dorset (now Kinngait), was home to 10 local families (all-year long), in addition to HBC and military qallunaat, as well as 53 other Inuit families who lived in the area and came to the settlement for trade. Houston emphasized using local rock—soapstone, serpentine, or steatite—which could be quarried nearby and brought back by boat or a sled team. Printing experiments were done with both raised stone cuts and incised or dug out plates—the technique is over 2000 years old and similar to the woodcuts that Houston learned in Japan. The first printers of the 1959 experiments were Kananginak and Iyola, and the team experimented with rubbings and sealskin prints cut with ulus like stencils. For example, Legend of the Blind Man and the Bear required one pelt for the stencil, while Four Muskoxen used multiple pelts as a more complex design (Cape Dorset 1960). We imagine stenciling with a fur pelt would be difficult, but undoubtedly would add texture and local-material importance. We wonder what a painted pelt stencil would look like.

In February of 1960, Time Magazine ran an exposé on the Cape Dorset co-operative. It included biographies of the ten original artists: Kunu, Luktak, Tudlik, Kananginak, Oshaweetuk, Iyola, Pootagook, Ikaluk, Kinoajuak, Muungituk, and Shekoalook. The first exhibition of the Inuit prints occurred at the Montréal Museum of Fine Arts in 1960, followed by the Toronto Art Gallery and Cober Gallery in New York (Snowden 1960). This exhibition marked the first sale of seal skin prints and the second collection of stone cut prints. The prints were a huge success, with their simple forms, texture, and subject matter reflected the artists’ lives, their parents' or grandparents’ stories, which were shared orally and were now visually interpreted. Some of these early prints are also remarkable for celebrating and preserving things that Christianity, colonialism, and settlements were changing: nomadic camp life, hunting, shamanism, and tattooing are all common themes. La Guilde’s documents show that the demand was high. The print shop and La Guilde negotiated to fill small orders, creating an exclusive output that helped the industry grow from its first seeds (Exchanges 1960).

Steuben Glass Museum

In La Guilde’s archive, James “Jim” Houston dots around the globe, Paris, New York, Montreal, Kinngait (Cape Dorset). In a letter to Miss Brais, thanking her for the sale of some of his drawings and watercolours, he included: ”I am pleased to hear that the sale of carvings went well again this year” (Houston 1961). The rest is history, and La Guilde, the Inuit drawers, printers, and sculptors continued for generations and generations, like the Ashoona family. After spending many years in the North where he helped develop the co-op through teachings and providing materials, he relocated to New York in the 1960s. The director of the Steuben Glass Museum, Arthur A. Houghton Jr., invited Houston to join his team. He wanted to reflect on his time in the arctic in the clear, ice-like material of Steuben glass with mesmerizing sculptures inspired by northern nature. His time there was years in the making as Houghton visited him in Cape Dorset in 1959 when he was working with the Inuit to set up the first co-operative.

And this is where we will leave things, La Guilde and Houston wanted to create opportunities for Inuit artists and makers and, in turn, they absorbed and adapted these expectations armed with the skills, storytelling, and knowledge they already had (Igloliorte 2019, 83). In writing about Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit or “Inuit knowledge” in the Qallunaat Art Museum, Igloliorte highlights one value, qanurtuuqatiqiinniq, as resourcefulness and ingenuity (Igloliorte 2017, 104). This ability for Inuit throughout history, but also artists like those in the moment of the commercial art naissance, to adapt and innovate has had lasting impacts on Canadian, Indigenous, and Inuit art. This innovation continues with artists challenging themselves and extending their skills to this very day. Inuit art continues to grow from the collaborative spark between La Guilde, James Houston, and the blossoming creative talents of the Inuit art world.

Chris Gismondi
Research Assistant
With the collaboration of Audrée Brin, Genevieve Duval, Amel Goussem Mesrati, Colin Jobidon-Lavergne.


  • “Cape Dorset – 1960”, Presentation Documents from the Department of Northern Affairs and National Resources Exchanged with The Canadian Handicrafts Guild. C10 D1 118 1960. La Guilde Archives, Montreal, Canada.
  • “Exchanges between The Canadian Handicrafts Guild and the Department of Northern Affairs and National Resources”, 1960. C10 D1 118 1960. La Guilde Archives, Montreal, Canada.
  • Houston, A. James, Letter to Miss Francoise Brais of The Canadian Handicrafts Guild, February 28, 1961. C10 D1 118 1960. La Guilde Archives, Montreal, Canada.
  • “Japanese Influence Sought for Canadian Eskimo Art.” Unidentified Newspaper, October 15 (1958).
  • Houston, A. James. Sanajatsarq: Eskimo Handicrafts. Translated by Ford, Sam and Frederica Woodrow. Montreal: The Canadian Handicrafts Guild and Department of Resources and Development (January 1951:11). C10 D1 041 1951. La Guilde Archives, Montreal, Canada.
  • Igloliorte, Heather. “Curating Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit: Inuit Knowledge in the Qallunaat Art Museum.” Art Journal 76, issue 2 (2017: 100-113).
  • Igloliorte, Heather. “Hooked Forever on Primitive Peoples: James Houston and the Transformation of ‘Eskimo Handicrafts’ to Inuit Art.” In Mapping Modernisms: Art, Indigeneity, Colonialism, edited by Elizabeth Harney, Ruth B. Phillips. 62-90. Durham: Duke University Press, 2019.
  • “Imitations of Eskimo Art Concern Handicraft Guild.” The Montreal Star, Wednesday, March 25 (1959).
  • Molson, Colin J.G., Letter to Mr. B.G. Siverts, Canadian Handicrafts Shop, July 11th, 1959. C10 D1 108 1959. La Guilde Archives, Montreal, Canada.
  • Molson, Colin J.G., Letter to R.A.J. Philips of the Department of Northern Affairs and National Resources, Canadian Handicrafts Shop, May 5th, 1958. C10 D1 100 1958. La Guilde Archives, Montreal, Canada.
  • Press Release, “Northern parkas to Brighten Southern Scene”, Department of Northern Affairs and National Resources, August 20, 1959. C10 D1 108 1959. La Guilde Archives, Montreal, Canada.
  • Press Release, “Northern parkas to Brighten Southern Scene”, Department of Northern Affairs and National Resources, August 20, 1959. C10 D1 108 1959. La Guilde Archives, Montreal, Canada.
  • R.H. Chesshire, Letter to Colin J.G. Molson of the Canadian Handicrafts Shop, Hudson’s Bay Company, December 21st, 1951. C10 D1 035 1951. La Guilde Archives, Montreal, Canada.
  • Ross, Norman, Letter to Colin J.G. Molson of the Canadian Handicrafts Shop, Hudson’s Bay Company, June 15th, 1951. C10 D1 035 1951. La Guilde Archives, Montreal, Canada.
  • S. S. C. D. Howe, “Report on Eskimo Handicrafts — Canadian Eastern Arctic”, Montreal, Summer 1953. La Guilde Archives, Montreal, Canada.
  • Siverts, B.G., Letter to the Hudson’s Bay Company, June 8th, 1959. C10 D1 108 1959. La Guilde Archives, Montreal, Canada.
  • Snowden, Donald, Letter to Mrs. Alice Lighthall of The Canadian Handicrafts Guild, Department of Northern Affairs and National Resources, February 18, 1960. C10 D1 118 1960. La Guilde Archives, Montreal, Canada.


(1-3) Houston, James. Sanajatsarq: Eskimo Handicrafts. Translated by Ford, Sam and Frederica Woodrow. Montreal: The Canadian Handicrafts Guild and Department of Resources and Development (January 1951:11). C10 D1 041 1951.
(4-5) Houston, James. Original Sketches, Post Exchange Leaflet, 1953. C10 D1 057 1953.
(6) Houston, James. Eskimo Bulletin, vol. 1 no.1, May (1953:1-4). C10 D1 056 1953.
(7) Eskimo Handicrafts Ad, The Gazette, Thursday, November 13 (1952). C10 D1 048 1952.
(8) Eskimo Handicrafts Ad, The Canadian Handicrafts Shop, 1954. C10 D1 072 1954.
(9) James Houston’s selection, 1949, C10 D1 026 1949.
(10) C.D. Howe, Pangnirtung (Baffin Island) Trading Post, 1959. C10 D1 123 1960. © National Film Board of Canada.
(11-12) Eskimo Carvings Exhibition of Cape Dorset, Lake Harbour, Port Harrison, Sugluk, Povungnituk, and Repulse Bay, 1966. C10 D2 184 1966.
(13-16) Craft Center (co-op) and facilities, 1970. C10 D2 217 1970.
(17-19) James Houston: A Retrospective Steuben Glass. New York: Steuben Glass, 1987.
© Les archives de La Guilde, Montreal, Canada.

1 comment

  • Paul Wilkinson