Jessie Oonark, Canadian (Inuit), 1906–1985

Printer: William Ukpatiku | Publisher: Sanavik Cooperative, Baker Lake

The Great Hunter

  • 1975
  • Silkscreen on paper, edition 15/22
  • Image: 24 1/2 × 33 in.

Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth College: Gift of Jane and Raphael Bernstein; 2011.64.30. Public Trustee for Nunavut, estate of Jessie Oonark. Courtesy of the Inuit Art Foundation.

visibilityLook & Discuss

Caribou was the most important source of food, clothing, and shelter for many inland Arctic and Subarctic groups, who wasted no part of the animal. They ate the caribou meat and used its bones to fashion tools, including bows and arrows, sewing needles, and supports for shelters. They used its hide for clothing and summer camp shelters known as skin tents. Indigenous people hunted caribou throughout the year, but they believed the best time for the hunt was fall, when the caribou gather to migrate south.

explore the object 

Inuit artist Jessie Oonark has managed to convey a great deal of information about the importance of caribou hunting to her people in this spare, colorful print. The hunter wears caribou-hide clothing and uses a bow and arrows likely constructed of caribou bones and sinew. He owes his survival to the caribou. Oonark colored both the hunter and the caribou blue and placed them close together, symbolizing their physical and spiritual connection. She left the rest of the page white, perhaps to indicate a field of snow.

Meet the Artist

Image17 Jessie Oonark.jpg

Jessie Oonark grew up in an area known as the Barren Lands, north of Qamanittuaq (Baker Lake) in Central Canada. In this part of the Subarctic, families depended on the caribou for food, clothing, and shelter. As a child, Oonark learned the traditional skills of an Inuk woman, particularly how to prepare and sew caribou skins. In the 1950s, the annual caribou herds migrated elsewhere, and it became impossible for her family to survive on the land.

Oonark and her family found their way to the Baker Lake community, narrowly avoiding starving to death. Inspired by the artwork her children made in mission schools, she began to draw. A Canadian biologist recognized her talent and gave her drawing materials. She published her first work at the age of 54.

Oonark’s drawings are inspired by the hunting lifestyle she knew as a child, and by women’s textile and tattooing designs. They feature flat areas of color and a strong graphic quality. She often incorporates regional patterns used in caribou-hide clothing in her designs, abstracting elements and motifs, rather than creating a specific narrative.

Learn More

Arctic & Subarctic: Food