The stone inuksuk that now stands on a hill next to the Peary-MacMillan Arctic Museum (PMAM) is a symbol of the resilience and survival of the Inuit people, its sculptor, Piita Irniq, said at a lecture in Kresge Auditorium last Thursday.
Irniq, the former commissioner of the Canadian territory of Nunavut and an Inuk sculptor, built the inuksuk, comprised of stones sourced from multiple places in Maine, early last week in between Mills Hall and the Gibbons Center for Arctic Studies (CAS). Stone mason Dan Ucci of Ledge Hill Creations helped Irniq find the stones last July.
“Inuksuk [means] ‘likeness of a person,’” Irniq said. “You see it out in the land. It looks like a person, but it’s not a real person. It’s a silent rockman, silent messenger. It’s a pile of rocks you build on the top of a hill to indicate a symbol of survival.”
Irniq emphasized just how much the Inuit people have been forced to endure.
“We are extremely patient people,” he said. “And we survive, and we know [the] resiliency of Inuit since time immemorial. These things have happened to us at the residential school, for example…. We had a loss of culture. We had a loss of language. We had a loss of parenting skills, and we were sexually abused by the clergy.”
Irniq has built a number of inuksuit across the world as representations of Inuit survival and reconciliation; examples include sculptures at the British Museum and The Field Museum in Chicago.
“In terms of healing and reconciliation, that is part of what I do in Nunavut, and what I do in many parts of the world,” Irniq said. “For all of us, reclaiming, retrieving, taking back our culture is an important thing to do.”
Irniq first proposed the idea of building an inuksuk at Bowdoin in 2012 when he gave a lecture at the College about his experience at a residential school in Canada, for which he received a standing ovation, just as he did last Thursday. At that time, the PMAM was housed in Hubbard Hall and Gibbons CAS had not yet been built. An inuksuk would not be placed on the quad, and there was no other suitable spot to place one, according to Professor of Anthropology and Director of the PMAM and Arctic Studies Center Susan Kaplan.
“[Irniq] was building inuksuit and he offered to build one for us,” Kaplan said. “But at that time we were an anchor on the quad … and we knew that this would not go over, so we tucked it away.”
Because inuksuit are typically placed on elevated surfaces, Kaplan thought the structure would be well placed on one of the knolls outside the Mills and Gibbons buildings. Though early discussions petered out, Kaplan said Dean for Academic Affairs Jennifer Scanlon revisited the idea several months later, leading to Irniq’s visit and installation.
Inuksuit usually have a window between the rocks that points in the direction of a landmark.
“We never had a telescope because we’re traditional people,” Irniq said. “Once you look through that window, you might see out in the distance a good place to hunt a caribou seal or fishing for Arctic char.”
Irniq chose to point the window of Bowdoin’s inuksuk north, in the direction of the Arctic, according to PMAM curator Genny LeMoine.
“In this case, the window faces north toward the Inuit,” Lemoine said. “Windows have that symbolic meaning in addition to the fact that they’re a wayfinding thing. They say, ‘here’s the Arctic Museum’ on a very low level, but they have that deeper meaning as well.”
Aggie Macy ’24, who worked with communities in Greenland last summer through the Arctic Studies program, said she admired Irniq’s goal of relationship-building.
“I liked how he said it’s to build a better and closer relationship with people in Maine,” Macy said. “And how he said when people back home come see this here, there’s a lot of pride and emotion that comes with this symbol being in Maine.”
Kaplan said she appreciates having a sculpture made by an Inuk artist on Bowdoin’s campus, particularly because the College is planning to place an Indigenous land acknowledgment near Gibbons CAS in the coming months.
“[Irniq] sees these inuksuit that he builds all over the world as acts of reconciliation. And so they’re there to draw attention to the fact that the Inuit are still here, despite the attempts at cultural genocide,” LeMoine said. “It didn’t work. They’re still there. They’re still in the North.”