ME930.39.15 | Ulu

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Anonyme - Anonymous
Eastern Arctic
Inuit: Nunavimiut
1900-1909, 20th century
Antler, metal
5.3 x 6.4 cm
Gift of Mr. Hugh A. Peck
© McCord Museum
Keywords:  Ulu (32)
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The "women's knife" known as the ulu, with its distinctive form, has always been an essential tool for the Inuit. Originally, the blades were made from slate, but after contact with Europeans the Inuit began making the blades from iron files or pieces of steel. Ulus of this size were used for the intricate cutting required during clothing construction. They were also used to cut and trim small skins. Young girls were given small ulus so that they could begin their apprenticeship by imitating their elders.

Keys to History

This is a small ulu, or "woman's knife." Ulus of this size were used for the intricate cutting required during clothing construction, one of the most important responsibilities of Inuit women. Larger ulus were used for slicing meat or trimming large skins. Little girls were given a tiny ulu so they could learn sewing skills.

The earliest inhabitants of the Arctic used ulus made from stone. However, there is archaeological evidence that people made and used metal tools almost a thousand years ago, long before the first direct contacts with Europeans. The Dorset people (pre-11th century) made knife blades from iron meteorites that fell in the Melville Bay area. Beginning in about the 10th century, they also acquired iron from Norse adventurers on the coast of Greenland and America. Migrating groups of hunters traded meteoric and Norse iron as far west as the central Arctic, and may have acquired copper from the Copper Eskimos of that area. They worked both metals by cold hammering.

These days, ulus are probably the most commonly used of all traditional Inuit tools and can be found in every kitchen.

  • What

    This is an ulu, or "woman's knife." It has a steel blade and a handle made of caribou antler.

  • Where

    This particular ulu was acquired either in Kuujjuaq (originally Fort Chimo) or Inukjuak (originally Port Harrison), Nunavik.

  • When

    Hugh. A. Peck purchased this ulu in 1909, while travelling through Nunavik. Modern kitchens in Nunavik invariably include an ulu or two.

  • Who

    Traditionally, men manufactured the tools. However, this type of knife was a woman's tool and would have been a cherished belonging. Ulus are still in use in Nunavik households.