Polar Bear Skin-Workers in Isortoq, East Greenland
East Greenland’s smallest and most remote village is also, unsurprisingly, a village of hunters. Isortoq precariously occupies a tiny coastal island at the edge of the Greenland ice cap. For much of the year it is battered by piteraqs and enveloped by pack ice. Only in summer is Isortoq harbor open for receiving boatloads of fresh produce.
To survive Isortomiit must continue to hunt. If seal is their staple, polar bear is their gold, a nutritional, economic and spiritual treasure. Polar bear meat is rich in iron, protein and Vitamin A, whilst polar bear skins merit top dollar on the global market.
Selling polar bear skins is one of few, if not the only, viable means for Isortomiit to take part in the cash economy. At the same time, polar bear hunting and skin-working give villagers, men and women, a viable means to continue employing their traditional skills.
Late last April, I arrived in Isortoq just as villagers were harvesting polar bears from a flurry of recent hunts. With great good fortune, I was granted the opportunity to witness three generations of women from the same family skin and clean a polar bear.
To work a polar bear skin by hand is an arduous and delicate affair. Not to mention rare, for villagers from elsewhere in Greenland more commonly send their skins to Nuuk for machine-rendering. It took these women two, full, industrious days to remove the flesh and fat, and to ever-so-nimbly carve out the head and claws without tearing and ruining the hide.
As they worked, I could sense a growing and palpable spirit of communion – not only between the women but also between the women and the bear. For an uncanny moment, the bear’s flayed head rested on the tarp with eyes wide-open and seemingly alert to, if not approving of, the process.
Nearby, the eviscerated hide’s closed eyes seemed like those of a sleeping bear, or a bear so at peace as to let a tsakkeq (woman’s knife) rest across its eyelashes as the women took a work break.
To pay tribute to the bear and its artful skin-workers, I photographed the half-completed work in baroque nature morte style.
Days later, I discovered the freshly-cleaned skin hanging from the family house to dry and cure. The bear’s hunter greeted me with vivid details of the hunt. As a Westerner, I feel privileged to have had this opportunity to watch skin-workers ply their skills from beginning to end.