Pitseolak Ashoona (c.1904–1983) occasionally drew on the legends she heard in her youth, particularly from her father, Ottochie. This gem-like drawing has all the hallmarks of her work—Inuit and animals in a landscape setting, portrayed in rich colour and using a vibrant line.


Pitseolak Ashoona, Legend of the Woman Who Turned into a Narwhal, c.1974

Pitseolak Ashoona, Legend of the Woman Who Turned into a Narwhal, c.1974

Coloured felt-tip pen on paper, 66 x 50.7 cm, National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa

The scene in the upper part of the drawing depicts a critical moment in the story of a woman who becomes a narwhal. There are several versions of the tale, but Pitseolak’s may be a variation from Nunavik (Arctic Quebec), where her father’s family originated, with her own personal emphasis. Along the side she writes the following in syllabics: “These are Pitseolak’s drawings. Every few days she would manage to be patient enough from the beatings she received from her husband. One day by the sea she was about to be beaten again. So she prepared to jump into the sea. At that moment all the narwhals rose to the surface of the water in front of her.”


To escape her husband’s abuse, the woman jumps off a cliff; she does not die but is instead transformed into a narwhal. Pitseolak depicts the moment of transformation that saves the woman, with her long braid twisting into a tusk.


Pitseolak retells a legend in her drawing, but her focus on this version of the story is a rare instance of her depicting one of the hardships that she and many other women faced in camp life.


This Spotlight is excerpted from Pitseolak Ashoona: Life & Work by Christine Lalonde.

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