Puurtaq Project

Making qajaqs

In the old days, the qajaq was the most important tool for survival. In the spring, people from various camps would gather in one place to make qajaqs for the hunters. The day began very early, well before the sun rose. The first step was to gather driftwood, because there are no trees in Nunavik. The Inuit never threw away a piece of wood, big or small, because they needed it for making qajaqs. Each part of the qajaq frame had to be made of the right kind of wood and trimmed to a precise angle. There are about a thousand pieces to a qajaq, each with a name, and they are all important.

Once they had the necessary wood, the next step was to procure enough sealskins to cover the qajaqs, so the men had to go hunting. The largest skins were used for the main part of the qajaq. When construction started, after sunup, the young girls had to soften the skins by chewing them. Before the actual sewing began, the skins were boiled to remove the hairs. Sewing the skins together was a very specialized job, involving special stitches; there could not be any holes.

Everyone had a role to play in the construction of the qajaqs – men, women and children. Some of them built the frames, and there were also sewers, helpers and cooks. The children carried the babies on their backs so they wouldn’t get in the way of the work. Making qajaqs was a dirty job, and the skins smelled, but the people didn’t care because they knew no other way. At the time, this was normal activity.

When all the qajaqs were completed, everyone got out the provisions they had stored away before qajaq season, and it was time for a celebration. After that, the men went to sea to hunt. In the summer, families traveled inland, paddling from lake to lake and portaging between the lakes. This process was called ititjaq. During these voyages, which went on over the whole summer, the father paddled the qajaq that carried his wife and children. The dogs followed along the banks, carrying equipment on their backs. Without noisy motors, these journeys were lovely and peaceful.