Tuthrak (Sophie) Nashalook, Iñupiaq, born 1880/1

Ulu with a carved ivory handle depicting a bear, walrus and two seals

  • Early 20th century
  • Ivory and steel
  • 5 1/8 × 8 1/4 × 13/16 in.

Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth College: Gift of Mrs. Levi Browning; 168.97.24526

visibilityLook & Discuss

The ulu is a knife primarily used by women for skinning animals and preparing hides. Men could also use the ulu for eating and cutting raw seal, walrus, or whale. Once made from slate or stone, blades are now usually derived from steel saw blades or other scrap metal. Inuit culture welcomes new materials or technologies that make things work better.

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The handle of this ulu is made of ivory, probably the tusk of a walrus, and carved with images of the animals it was intended to process. Designing tools and weapons with animal carvings showed appreciation and respect for the animals that had offered themselves as food and clothing to an Inuit family. Hunters, who made the carvings, believed that showing respect in this way improved their chances of success.

The ulu is a well-designed and versatile tool. It can be used with just one hand. Women could pin down the object being cut by using a rocking motion on a plate or board. Further, the shape of the ulu ensures that the force is centered over the middle of the blade, making it easier to cut through hard objects such as bone. Historically, an ulu would be passed down from generation to generation. In this way, an elder’s knowledge contained within the ulu would be passed on as well.

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Ulus come in different shapes and sizes. Smaller ulus are used for sewing, while larger ones are used for preparing hides. Individual indigenous groups of the Arctic have their own styles for creating ulus. 
Search the Hood’s Native American collection database to see a range of ulus from all over the Arctic.

In addition, certain knives in the Arctic were specifically used by men. These knives are very different in shape and were used for hunting and butchering meat. 
Search the Hood’s Native American collection database using the key words man’s knife to see examples.

Arctic & Subarctic: Tools & Technology