Ulu love

Kerry McCluskey
Northern News Services

Iqaluit (Feb 07/00) - The ulu is the eighth wonder of the world as far as Judy McGrath is concerned.

And she's about to share her wonder of the knife traditionally used by Inuit women with the rest of the country.

In a book with the working title From Stone to Steel, the nearly 30-year resident of the Kitikmeot region hopes to share her expertise, and her fascination, with Canadians living both north and south of the 60th parallel.

Hoping to have enough work done on the book to be able to send the manuscript to a publisher by June of this year, McGrath said one of the secrets she is trying to uncover is the origin of the knife.

"That's one of the things I'm still working on," said McGrath, from her current home in Ottawa.

"I have correspondence out on that now, but I'm becoming more and more certain that it's linked to the Asian harvest knife."

Called the olo, the Asian version of the women's knife may have made its way north from Malaysia, where it was used to cut grain 3,000 to 4,000 years ago.

"I've done a lot of background work on migration and I will include that," said McGrath, adding, however, that her forthcoming publication would include less technical information than a previous report she compiled for the GNWT in the early '90s.

Explaining that her fascination with the knife first began with a quest to find out what the basic shape of the Gjoa Haven ulu was, McGrath said her curiosity led her to apply for a grant from the territorial government.

With her original report, McGrath said she realized she had compiled enough data to write a book. Nearly a decade later, her research is still going strong. She's discovered that after making its way into the Canadian Arctic, the crescent-shaped tool underwent distinctive changes in design in every region, making its origin easier to detect.

The size of the ulu, the handle, the shape of the blade, the way it is sharpened and the tang, the piece that joins the blade and the handle, all vary from region to region, which means she can attribute an ulu to its place of origin.

"I've discovered things about the ulu that no one else has, even people in the field, like how they're sharpened and how that differs from region to region," said McGrath, who has earned the reputation of becoming of the only ulu expert.

"I don't know of any other project like this," said Doug Stenton, the chief archeologist for the Government of Nunavut.

"It's an invaluable resource and research tool for teachers and other researchers and it highlights an important part of Inuit culture."

Stenton also noted that the appeal of the book would extend beyond Nunavut's borders and would provide a needed insight into the regional aspects of Inuit culture.

"Someone can pick up the book and see the regional styles and do a cross-cultural comparison. I think it'll be a good book," he said.

It's that appeal that McGrath is hoping will sell her book.

"There hasn't been any historical information or very much published for general use specifically on the ulu. There's been a fair amount on spears and harpoon heads, but nobody has looked at the ulu, as far as I can tell," she said.

Considering a joint launch with a museum exhibit, McGrath also said she thought From Stone to Steel might go over well in kitchen specialty shops where it could be sold with an ulu.