A Grade 9 cosmetology class at Collingwood Collegiate Institute had a guest teacher last week for a lesson on Inuit beauty and culture.
Muckpaloo Ipeelie, an Inuk woman, resident of The Blue Mountains, and founder and CEO of the Urban Inuit Identity Project, visited the local class to share more about the traditions she has learned and lived with the Inuit of the Baffin region.
But before she opened the jars of creams and lotions, she began with the big picture.
“Inuit beauty is subjective, and it isn’t the goal for Inuit,” said Ipeelie. “If there was a goal, it would be about being a whole human being.”
She explained that there are many Indigenous ways, and acknowledging that people in different places of the world have different ways is important for anyone – from government policymakers to marketing professionals working to promote a new spa.
Ipeelie refers to guiding Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit principles, also called IQ. Specifically, they include principles of resourcefulness, service, sharing, and respect and care for people, the land, and animals.
“The important factor when speaking about beauty products is acknowledging how Inuit view precious natural resources,” said Ipeelie. “When you try to understand Inuit culture, you have to look at the tundra and also the weather … what makes us unique is how resourceful we are.”
For example, whale or seal oil is used in the wintertime for heating, for heating, and for lighting the qulliq. Those are also common ingredients in Inuit skincare and beauty products, but in winter when they are scarce, they are prioritized for sustaining life.
“You wouldn’t use that precious resource to make yourself look beautiful,” said Ipeelie.
In the summer, however, there would be more whale and seal oil available to use for beauty and skincare.
She said a whale or a seal hunt is a community affair, and when a hunt is successful, every part of the animal is used well, from the skin to the bones. Whatever pieces are inedible are fed to the sled dogs.
The image of baby seal clubbing, she said, was never accurate for Inuit, who harvest both seals and whales respectfully and with the intention of using every part.
Most of the ingredients used in Inuit beauty products also have medicinal properties for healing and protection against the harsh elements of the tundra.
Some of the base ingredients Ipeelie taught the class about included whale and seal oil which can be used for waterproofing clothing, skin, and boots of hunters who might have to go into the water.
In the summer, puffball mushrooms could be rubbed on the skin for moisturizing.
One company, Uasau Soap, featured in Ipeelie’s lesson, is made by Inuit and uses a mix of traditional (seal and whale oil) and modern ingredients.
“It’s important to note that Uasau, the company, does not go and harvest the seal or whale in order to get that natural resource,” said Ipeelie. “They will wait for the community to catch something and then take what’s left over. So it’s not uncommon to go to their website and not be able to get the product that you’re looking for. You just have to wait until the community is lucky and then you can be lucky.”
Ipeelie said she wanted the students to ask questions, and discuss their discomfort at experiencing a different culture.
She gave the class an assignment to work in groups and come up with a marketing plan for a special service at a spa using one of the Inuit-made beauty or skincare products she brought with her to the class.
The students were encouraged to use examples of Inuit art provided by Ipeelie and ask questions about the culture and the land before creating the marketing materials and the special service.
“When you try to create art and marketing materials for another community, you do have to consult a person from that culture because you might be misrepresenting the culture,” said Ipeelie.
A classic example, said Ipeelie, is face tattoos, which are worn by Inuit women. The tattoos are unique to the women who wear them, and they are not to be copied, even in art. She referred to a recent example of an animated musical film that includes an animated Sedna who is known as the goddess or mother of the sea and sea animals. The film depicts a child in a crown of seashells with tattoos on her face. But Inuit wouldn’t tattoo a child, and a crown doesn’t make sense within Inuit culture, which values consensus over monarchy.
Ipeelie said she’s looking forward to more opportunities to teach Inuit culture in classrooms.
“It’s really important for students to know that Indigenous cultures are diverse, because it can be mistaken that we all have the same beliefs,” said Ipeelie. “So I really want to keep teaching the youth because they’re going to become decision-makers in the future.”
The Urban Inuit Identity Project was founded to provide culturally relevant educational materials for health care workers and community builders who are involved in the circle of care of Inuit.