Bold and simple, yet deeply symbolic, the flag recently unveiled by the NunatuKavut council is eye catching, designed to evoke a sense of heritage, community and pride from great distances.
NunatuKavut president Todd Russell says the flag is an immediate visual representation of where his people came from and where they are going. “When you look at it in a glance, you can see the past, present and future all right there,” Russell stated. “The strength of our culture, our traditions, our way of life. How meaning is brought to the present, and that foundation we have, the inspiration we take from the past and where we are at in the present and how that’s going to give rise to, we believe, great things.”
The flag’s design features elements that are unique to NunatuKavut heritage and specifically honours Inuit women’s role as culture carriers. The most prominent image is an ulu, a traditional women’s knife, which was used for multiple purposes like skinning and cleaning animals, cutting food or trimming blocks of snow and ice to build an igloo.
On the lower blade of the ulu is a Kullik with a flame. The Kullik was used as a means of lighting and heating homes, cooking and was a gathering place for storytelling. Inuit women were known as “keepers of the fire.” The Kullik is still used for ceremonial purposes today and to pay respect to ancestors.
The carving on the handle of the ulu is a dog team carrying a seal, which have both played a critical role in the lives of Southern Inuit. The blue, white and green colours in the flag represent the land, inland waters, the sea, sky, ice and snow. The NunatuKavut identity is shaped by a deep relationship with the natural environment that was instrumental in shaping it.
Russell says plans to represent his culture with a flag have been in the works for the past three years. “I think this whole movement was energized by the 250th anniversary of our treaty, our British – Inuit Treaty, which was in 1765,” Russell explained. “It was shortly after that that we started talking about this and how we might want to commemorate.”
The NunatuKavut council put out a call for designs on it’s Facebook page and Cartwright painting and carving artist Barry Pardy submitted several designs, all featuring the ulu. From there the design was tweaked by the whole community, first through the governing council, then through membership feedback and finally professional graphic designers. “We came up with a design that was unanimously endorsed by the council,” Russell stated.
Russell is fiercely proud of the work of such a uniquely democratic process.
“It’s bold but it has a sort of understatedness to it as well, which I think very much speaks to our people,” Russell articulated. “An understated people who lived in and raised families in a Northern climate, in the Arctic if you will. It also has a certain boldness because I think we had to be bold, its part of our resilience. We wanted to tell our story because it certainly hasn’t been told by others. You won’t find it in a lot of history books,” Russell laughs.
NunatuKavut means "Our Ancient Land." It is the territory of approximately 6000 Southern Inuit, who reside primarily in southern and central Labrador. The NunatuKavut have grown to become the largest Indigenous group in Labrador and recently received federal recognition of full Indigenous rights on July 12th 2018.
Russell acknowledges that the unveiling of the group’s new flag was well timed. “Here we are embarking on a nation to nation relationship with the government of Canada and there was some talk about marking that new relationship with this,” Russell explained. “It wasn’t specifically done for this but sometimes things just happen for a reason.”
The president points out that another important symbolism of the flag is to celebrate history and culture as well as confidence for the future. “The beautiful Kullik flame is a bit bigger than normal but I think that goes to show you the sense of optimism and the place we’re in as a people as southern Inuit and where are feel our future is headed in a good way, a bright way,” Russell said.
The flag’s design speaks to Russell in a profound, deeply personal way. “It’s just a beautiful flag and it makes me feel something about myself, my culture, my family, my community, my people and where I’m from in NunatuKavut.”
Russell concludes that the flag, which the council produced in various sizes as well as vanity license plates, should be meaningful both to folks within his territory but also to visitors. “It helps unite our people under a common banner, under a symbol that we can all relate to,” Russell explained. “I think that when our people look at this, they can say this is part of my story, my history, me, my people, my family, I can see it in this flag. It also projects externally to the world about a people who are confident and who are willing to look at what the possibilities are.”