Pitseolak (c. 1900–1983)

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Pitseolak (c. 1900–1983)

Inuit printmaker. Name variations: Pitseolak means sea pigeon in Inuit. Born around 1900 on Nottingham Island, Hudson Bay, in Arctic Canada; died on May 28, 1983, in Canada; daughter of Timungiak (mother) and Ottochie (father); married Ashoona; children: 17, most of whom died.

Elected to Royal Canadian Academy of Arts (1974); awarded the prestigious Order of Canada (1977).

Pitseolak, who was born around 1900 on Nottingham Island, Hudson Bay, in Arctic Canada, married Ashoona and had 17 children (most of whom died young). She and her family lived the traditional nomadic life of the Inuits until Ashoona's death in the late 1950s. While Pitseolak was trying to support her children on the meager salary of a seamstress, her talent as a graphic artist was discovered and encouraged by James A. Houston. Formerly of Steuben Glass, Houston was an administrator for the Department of Northern Affairs and National Resources on Baffin Island. Along with Terence Ryan, art director of the West Baffin Co-op, Houston promoted the works of a group of Inuits who eventually became internationally recognized as Cape Dorset artists.

Pitseolak's graphics, drawn with felt pen or colored pencil, depict the world of her ancestors. The drawings are primitive in style and include mythical figures, animals or birds. Most often they portray Inuit activities, such as the seal hunt. Her designs have been exhibited internationally and several are displayed in Canada's National Gallery. In 1974, Pitseolak was elected to the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts. In 1975, two films were made about her work: The Way We Live Today and Spirits and Monsters. In 1977, she received Canada's highest civilian honor, the Order of Canada.

Pitseolak continued to draw until her death on May 28, 1983. She left behind perhaps as many as 7,000 original drawings and a wonderful legacy for Inuit artists to follow. Four of her sons, Ottochie, Kumwartok, Kaka and Kiawak, are sculptors, and her daughter Nawpachee is a printmaker.


Eber, Dorothy, ed. Pitseolak: Pictures Out of My Life. Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1971.

Wong, Hertha D. Native American Women: A Biographical Dictionary. Edited by Gretchen M. Bataille. NY: Garland, 1993.

Deborah Jones , Studio City, California

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