Niġiñiutit: Traditional Nunamiut Household Cooking Utensils

Tubs, buckets, pails, and jars

The foundation of most Nunamiut families’ household cooking outfits or nigiñiutit began with buckets.  These ranged widely in size according to their intended purpose and use.  Most were made by joining thinly shaved sidewalls slabs of sprucewood bent around a round or oval bottom panel.  The sidewall panel, or piqtalik, was painstakingly worked down to its basic size and thickness using an adze or ulimaun and a crooked knife, or millik. The panel was then was soaked in water until it could bend completely around the bottom panel without cracking or splintering.  The bottom, nataaŋa, panel was carefully fitted into a shallow pukkuġniq groove carved slightly above the base of the sidewall slab.  The last three or four inches at either end of the sidewall slab were carefully tapered and thinned toward the tips: one end from the inside face and the other from the outside so that as they wrapped around the bottom panel and met, inner face to outer face, a smooth, overlapping kasugninak joint of uniform thickness was formed between them.  Once fitted together this overlap of a few inches was drilled using a niuqtuun (bow drill) and joined together by a combination of small wooden pegs and baleen stitches.  The pegs or kikkiaq were shaved flush with both the inner and outer faces of the wall slab. If baleen stitches were used instead, (suqqam kiluguugaat), they were countersunk in shallow grooves to help protect them from excess wear.

All bentwood buckets made in this way were called piqtalik, a name derived from the sidewall slab.  Within this general category, the Nunamiut distinguished between several individual kinds of containers – each with its own name relating to its use, size and form.  Among them are the iļulik/iļulikpak, the qattaq, and the imgusiq.

The iļulik and iļulikpak, which were larger than the other tubs, were oval.  The example pictured here was collected in Barrow between 1881 and 1883. It measures 20 by 18 ¼ inches and stands 11 1/8 inches tall.

Before brass and copper kettles and cauldrons become available, the iļulikpak served as the main cook pot.  Heated rocks were added to water and meat in the pot until it boiled.

This type of piqtalik was also used in a similar manner to produce puiñiq (click here to go to the puiñiq Learning Center), the highly valued grease rendered from the crushed marrow of caribou and sheep bones.

The smaller round-bottomed qattaq served as the household water bucket. This example, also collected in Barrow by Murdoch, is 11 inches in diameter and stands 7 7/8 inches tall.

The qattaq was usually rigged with a rawhide handle or tigumiutaŋa secured to either side of the pail with bone swivels or tigumiutchiġvik.  In this instance the swivels are shaped like whales and the handle is of bent wire.  The qattaq was also outfitted with its own dipper, called a qayuuttauraq, with which people would ladle themselves a drink.  It was the custom and, elders say, the expected courtesy for that person to wipe clean the portion of the ladle that had touched his lips before returning it to the water pail.  According to one elder, these water ladles, which his people also called an imigun, could be made of sprucewood or sheep horn.

Before people had wood-burning stoves, the qattaq was kept at the front of the itchalik tent (click here to go to the itchalik Learning Center) close to the window and seal oil lamp where chunks of ice and snow could melt.  After people added metal stoves to their tents, they situated them at the opposite side of the tent to prevent heat damage to the gut window. They placed the qattaq near the stove.

The imgusik or iŋniq was used at every meal as a condiment dish for uqsruq, or seal oil. People would aluksraaqtuq (dip dried meat in the oil).  The late Nunamiut elder Arctic John Etalook owned a small, lidded sprucewood imgusik or piqtaligauraq that his family had used for many years as a container for their sourdough starter. Click here to go to the Learning Center that contains a graphic novel reprint about Arctic John Etalook.

Traditionally the Nunamiut also made and used large clay cooking pots that served as imgusik or iŋniq. Called patigaq, they were made from clay mixed with animal blood and seal oil for binders with ptarmigan feathers for temper. They were shaped by hand and then baked hard by placing them close to a fire. But because these pots were both heavy and easy to break they were not well suited to the Nunamiut life of frequent moves, and as a result they were probably never a very important or common part of the family outfit.  Still, when available they could hang over an open fire, like an iron pot, an impossibility with a wooden pot.