Read the audioguide to the Tiina Itkonen exhibition

1. Masaitsiaq, Qeqertat, North-West Greenland, 1998

The photograph depicts a seven-year-old Masaitsiaq after their first day at school. 

It is a day of celebrations on Qeqertat island. Masaitsiaq has started school. Masaitsiaq is wearing a traditional Northern Greenlandic costume: a white anorak and polar bear skin pants with kamiks, seal skin boots. Polar bear skin pants and kamiks are also used when hunting and riding a dog sled in the winter. 

After the school day, the villagers come and congratulate Masaitsiaq. The table is set with local delicacies: mattak, narwhal skin, rich in vitamin C, and seal meat and kiviaq. Kiviaq is made of little auks. The birds, with their feathers and everything, are stuffed into a seal stomach, and the bundle is buried in a hole in the ground. The delicacy will be ready to eat after some months. After the birds have been fermenting in an oxygenless environment, it is easy to pluck them clean and eat them on their own. Kiviaq smells and tastes like aged cheese. 

Meat is usually eaten sitting on the floor, using one’s hands and a sharp knife. Coffee and cake are enjoyed sitting down at a table. 

The Inughuit of northwestern Greenland are the northernmost indigenous people in the world. There are ca. 800 Inughuit, 600 of whom live in the town of Qaanaaq, and the remaining 200 in three villages, Qeqertat, Savissivik ja Siorapaluk. 

There are 20 inhabitants on Qeqertat island, ca. 1200 kilometers north from the Arctic Circle. This far north, the polar night begins in October and ends in February, and equally in the summer, the midnight sun shines for four months, from April to August. There is no public means of transportation to the island. It is a five-hour dog sled ride via the sea ice from the city of Qaanaaq. Every spring and summer, during poor sledding conditions, there are no connections to the island. The island has no electricity, phone connection, or cell phone reception. Drinking water comes from thawing chunks of ice from an iceberg. 

(There are currently three pupils in the Qeqertat school. When children go to lower secondary school, they move to the town of Qaanaaq and live in the school dormitory.)


2. Nanorruaq, Savissivik, North-West Greenland, 2018

In the far north, the village of Savissivik, Olennguaq, father of seven, hunts on the sea ice with his eighteen-year-old son Qaaqqutsiannguaq. They both have their own dog teams, 35 dogs in total. Every once in a while, Olennguaq climbs on top of the iceberg to scan the surroundings with his binoculars. We stop regularly to warm up, drink coffee from a thermos, and have a snack. The sun is already setting, and still no catch. All of a sudden, there is a polar bear up ahead. Olennguaq shouts to his dogs: “nanorruaq” – “great polar bear” – and the dogs go wild. He sets loose ten dogs. They run after the polar bear. The rest of the dogs pull the sled furiously toward the polar bear. The nearby glacier has made the sea ice is bumpy, and the sled bounces wildly. I can hardly stay aboard. Olennguaq says that if he falls off the sled, I have to jump off too. In a moment, we catch up with the polar bear surrounded by Olennguaq’s dogs. 

In small villages in northwestern Greenland where land cultivation is not possible, hunting seals, walrus, polar bear and other Arctic animals continues to be part of everyday life, and the animals are the most important source of nutrition to many households. The Greenlandic government has set hunting quotas for polar bear, walrus and narwhal, and the quotas are strictly adhered to. Sustenance hunting does not pose a threat to the polar bear population. The locals hunt to feed their community. The catch is divided among the villagers, and the skins are used for making hunting clothes. 

The Inughuit have preserved their traditional way of life whenever possible. Northwestern Greenland is one of the rare places in the world where dog sleds are used for hunting on sea ice.  The dog sled is the most quiet, reliable and comfortable means of transportation in the snowy terrain of the north. Hunting with snowmobiles is forbidden, and they are not considered trustworthy. You can get stranded on sea ice with a snowmobile, but the dogs always find their way home. 

In recent years, the climate has been unpredictable. People no longer know when the sea is going to freeze and for how long. A local hunter told me that in the 1990s, the sea was frozen over for ten months a year, and the ice crust could be two meters thick. Now the ice topped at thirty centimeters and is strong enough to carry people for only about six months a year. 

In Greenland, about ten percent of the sea ice is lost in ten years. The ancient traditional hunting culture has already been disrupted. Hunting on ice has become more dangerous. The hunters come across open water increasingly more often. They cannot reach their traditional hunting grounds anymore. Their dog sled trails are disappearing. It may well be that this ancient way of life will be forever lost. 


3. Whale Bone Pile, Kaktovik, Alaska, 2015

The photograph depicts polar bears eating a whale carcass in Kaktovik. Kaktovik is situated on Barter Island in the Beaufort Sea in northern Alaska, close to the Canadian border. Less than three hundred people live there. Most of them are indigenous Inupiat. They are permitted to hunt three bowhead whales per year in total. The whale meat is shared among the community. The enormous whale carcass is left on the beach near the village.

The polar bears used to spend all year far away on the sea ice. Nowadays the sea ice is not as strong, and some of the polar bears stay on the coast, waiting for the ice to grow more solid. The bears spend their time close to the village and gather daily to eat the whale carcass. 

Polar bears are dependent on sea ice. They hunt, mate, travel, and build their nests on ice. They are classified as marine mammals, the only bears in the world that dwell at sea. In recent years, the sea in northern Alaska has not frozen over like it used to, and some of the polar bears have stayed on the coast to wait for the ice to cover the sea. 

Front doors are never locked in Kaktovik. If need be, it is possible to seek shelter from a polar bear in the nearest house. In recent years, polar bears have increasingly started to wander close to the houses looking for something to eat. The area has a polar bear patrol to look after the villagers’ safety. If a polar bear is heading toward the village, the patrol drives around the village firing warning shots.  

I stayed with a local family in Kaktovik. The single mother gave me a can of pepper spray in case I would come face to face with a polar bear. She advised me not to wander around after dark and to mind the direction of the wind if I ever had to use the pepper spray. I carried the spray can on me but luckily never came to close quarters with a polar bear. 

4. Self portrait, Siorapaluk, North-West Greenland, 1995

I first traveled to Greenland in 1995. Before my trip, I sent a fax to Siorapaluk, the northernmost village in Greenland, saying that I was traveling there and looking for a place to stay. I did not receive a reply. 

The journey to Siorapaluk took many days. I traveled by several planes, helicopter, and the last stretches on a sailboat. I arrived in Siorapaluk with my huge bag and did not know where to stay. I asked the store and the passers-by. I was told I could live in Pilutaq’s house until Pilutaq got home from a hunting trip. At night, I propped a chair against the front door so that I would wake up if Pilutaq came home in the middle of the night. It would be a big surprise to find a “qallunaaq” (foreign woman) sleeping on your mattress!

On my birthday, I took a photo of myself wearing a hunter’s winter gear in Pilutaq’s home that was painted pink. That year there was only pink paint available in the store. The next year, the house had burned down and Pilutaq had moved into the house next door. 

It was hard to get to know people at first, when I did not speak any Greenlandic and the villagers did not speak English. I started learning words in Greenlandic from an English–Greenlandic dictionary. Pronunciation was very similar in Greenlandic as in Finnish, except the “q” sound came from deep in the throat. I noticed that Greenlandic words can be very long and contain up to 50 letters. The official language of Greenland is Kalaallisut, Greenlandic. The locals speak Inuktun, which is very different from official Greenlandic. I said my first Greenlandic words, “sila nuanneq” (such nice weather) to Ane-Sofie, who lived next door. Ane-Sofie invited me for a visit. The more I spoke Greenlandic, the easier it was to get to know people. 

I traveled to Qeqertat island onboard an oil tanker. The ship arrived in the middle of the night. The shopkeeper and priest Nukappiannguaq was there to meet the ship and invited me to live with them. I got to share a room with their fifteen-year-old daughter Navarana.

Northern Greenland is accessible by small plane. Once a week, there is a connection to the villages by helicopter, if the weather allows. Shorter distances are traveled by dog sled or boat. In Greenland, the weather can change fast. You might get sun in the morning – "sila nuanneq!" – but soon the whole landscape can be white with a blizzard. During bad weather, the helicopters and small planes stay on the ground and the boats stay in the harbor. “Immaqa agaqu” – maybe tomorrow.


5. Sassuma Arnaa, Mother of the Sea, 1995

Sassuma Arnaa, the Mother of the Sea, is one of the most widely known Greenlandic myths. I fell in love with the story, which gave me the spark to travel to Greenland in 1995. 

Sassuma Arnaa lived in the Arctic area with her family. Many Inuit men wanted Sassuma Arnaa for their wife. She said no to everyone, until a handsome stranger arrived in the village and promised to take good care of her. Sassuma Arnaa agreed to become his wife and moved to the island with her husband. 

Sassuma Arnaa soon realized that the man had tricked her. He was a bird spirit, and her home was now among the birds. When her father tried to rescue her and take her back, the bird spirit created a storm. Sassuma Arnaa’s father was afraid for his own life, so he tried to give his daughter back to her husband and threw her overboard into the sea. Sassuma Arnaa grabbed the side of the boat, so her father took an axe and hacked off her fingers. All the seals, whales, walrus, and other sea animals were born out of her fingers. Sassuma Arnaa sank to the bottom of the sea and became the sea goddess, Mother of the Sea. She has ruled over the animals of the sea ever since. 

When people do not respect nature and the animals, the Mother of the Sea gets angry and a storm arises. Her hair gets tangled. All the animals of the sea get caught in the tangles. There is nothing for people to catch anymore. In order to appease the Mother of the Sea and to make sure she will offer the Inuit animals for food, the shaman must fly into the bottom of the sea to comb the tangles out of the Mother’s hair and free all the sea animals. 

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