Traverse City Record-Eagle

Opinion

April 24, 2014

Phil Power: Inuit find way to survive toughest conditions

Back in July, 1959 I spent several weeks in Cape Dorset, a tiny hamlet near the Arctic Circle on the southwestern tip of Baffin Island.

Few have heard of this little-known but huge island (four times the size of Michigan!) just west of Greenland in the northeast Canadian Arctic. Last week, I went back for the first time. Most of my friends thought I was crazy to leave Michigan when we were relishing the first spring warm-up, for a place where it was 20 degrees below zero and a harsh Arctic wind. But it was a journey in time and in memory, maybe the kind 75-year-olds like me tend to take when they get to a certain point in their life. And I wanted my wife, Kathy, to see the high Arctic in winter, before global warming takes it all away.

Fifty-five years ago, I was working with a newly-formed nonprofit company, Eskimo Art, Inc., which I had started with my father, Eugene Power, and James Houston, a Canadian artist who lived in Baffin Island and came across the beautiful sculptures carved in soft soapstone by the local Inuit, who for years we wrongly called “Eskimos.”

Jim explained the Inuit needed cash to buy tea, cartridges for their rifles, cigarettes and other goods. But the only income sources were trapping Arctic foxes and selling the pelts to the monopoly Hudson’s Bay Company for a pittance or driving a bulldozer in the little villages during the day.

“Hell, that’s easy,” my father exclaimed. “We’ll start a nonprofit company and introduce Inuit art to the American market.” A small show at the Cranbrook Museum of Science in Bloomfield Hills was followed by a larger national travelling exhibition sponsored by the Smithsonian Institution. The shows were terrific successes, and demand for Inuit art skyrocketed. But the logistics of selecting the carvings and sending them out to the market needed work.

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