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New exhibition about belugas’ importance to the Inuvialuit people opens at Canadian Museum of Nature

A new exhibition that explores the importance of beluga whales to Inuvialuit – Inuit of the Western Canadian Arctic at the Canadian Museum of Nature. Qilalukkat! Belugas and Inuvialuit: Our Survival Together was curated by Myrna Pokiak, an Inuvialuit cultural educator born and raised in Tuktoyaktuk, N.W.T.

“We’re delighted to present this latest exhibition in our Northern Voices Gallery”, says Meg Beckel, President and CEO of the Museum. “This special exhibition space, situated within our Canada Goose Arctic Gallery, shares perspectives from Northern communities about their culture and their relationship with the land. Qilalukkat! brings to light the stories and traditions of Myrna Pokiak and her family, centered on their culture’s reliance upon beluga whales.”

“I was raised in the Inuvialuit Settlement Region living on the land and sea. Now that my family and I live in the city, the work I do becomes even more important,” explains Ms. Pokiak. “I am obligated to teach my daughters our history, the traditions my family continues to practice, and experiences like the beluga whale harvest – a necessity for the physical, spiritual and mental health of Inuvialuit families and communities. I hope that the work I do will allow my daughters and other Inuvialuit to be proud of who we are and where we are from.”

The area known as the Inuvialuit Settlement Region extends from the western Canadian Arctic islands to the Beaufort Sea coast and Mackenzie River delta. Beluga whale-harvesting has long been a vital part of Inuvialuit life. Inuvialuit families do an annual harvest every summer when the whales return to the Mackenzie River estuary. One whale provides a year’s worth of food for a family.

Through text panels, specimens, artefacts, models, photos, videos, visitors will gain insights into Inuvialuit culture and traditions. A highlight in the 60-square-metre (650-sq.-ft.) space is a recreated smokehouse and food preparation area with displays of modern and traditional tools, models of drying whale meat (mipqu) and whale blubber and skin (muktuk), specimens such as a beluga skull, and artefacts such as an ulu – an all-purpose knife used by several Northern cultures but typically created in a triangular shape by the Inuvialuit.

Among the artefacts on display are the stone endblade of a harpoon embedded in a beluga vertebra and an ivory charm carved into the form of two belugas. On loan from the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre (PWNHC) in Yellowknife, these specimens date to around AD 1300-1450 and were found on the Mackenzie River Delta close to the archaeological site of Kuukpak—a large, pre-contact Inuvialuit village that was occupied well into the 19th century.

Qilalukkat! also explains how Inuvialuit people and scientists work together for beluga conservation. Unlike beluga populations elsewhere, the ones in the Western Arctic’s Beaufort Sea are not at risk, meaning Inuvialuit harvesting is sustainable.

Interestingly, the word beluga comes from the Russian name for white whales, belukha. The Inuvialuit name qilalukkat arose from ancient legend where, long ago, a young man threw his stepmother into the ocean. She became a beluga whale, and her complaining sound gave belugas their Inuvialuktun name: qilalukkat. Inuvialuit means ‘Real People’ in Inuvialuktun.

Qilalukkat! Belugas and Inuvialuit: Our Survival Together is presented in partnership with the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre. It is an adaptation and update of the Qilalukkat! Beluga! exhibition that Myrna Pokiak helped develop at the PWNHC in 2006.

The exhibition is included with regular museum admission. The museum is located at 240 McLeod Street (at Metcalfe St.), Ottawa. Visit nature.ca for hours and fees. Look for the hashtag #ArcticAtTheMuseum on the Museum’s social media channels: Twitter (@museumofnature) and Instagram (museumofnature). Follow the Museum on facebook.com/Canadianmuseumofnature.

Interesting Facts

  • The tundra around Tuktoyaktuk features a national landmark – Canada’s highest pingo (an ice-cored hill). Pingos have served the Inuvialuit for centuries as navigational aids and as a convenient height of land for spotting caribou or whales.
  • The beluga is an odontocete, or ‘toothed whale’. Belugas use their small, peg-like teeth to grasp their prey.
  • Each year belugas grow two new layers in their teeth. By counting the layers we know that belugas can live to be 30 – 40 years old.
  • Adult male belugas may be over 5 metres long and weigh up to two tons (1800 kg). Females are smaller, and newborn belugas are about 1.5 metres long.
  • The beluga harvest in the Western Canadian Arctic is sustainable – part of a co-management program with Inuvialuit and Fisheries and Oceans Canada that includes monitoring, research, education, tourism, and guidelines for shipping routes.

About the Canadian Museum of Nature

Saving the world through evidence, knowledge, and inspiration! The Canadian Museum of Nature is Canada’s national museum of natural history and natural sciences. The museum provides evidence-based insights, inspiring experiences and meaningful engagement with nature’s past, present and future. It achieves this through scientific research, a 14.6 million specimen collection, education programs, signature and travelling exhibitions, and a dynamic web site, nature.ca.

Learn more about the exhibit at the Canadian Museum of Nature or through CBC North’s article.