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Amos Semigak — traditional Inuit carver

Amos Semigak with some of his carvings.
Amos Semigak with some of his carvings. - SaltWire Network

Finding inspiration in the world around him; maintaining tradition

By Floyd Spracklin

HOPEDALE, NL — He’s run out of his carving material, the precious serpentine stones, so what will he do now?

No local store can provide him with his raw product. At 30 below, he knows he must make the three kilometre winter walk past the Hopedale Airstrip to the western shore of a bay just outside Hopedale.

The hand-picked precious serpentine stones he placed near the shoreline on a sweltering hot July day of last year are still there. He arranges the heavy payload in his backpack, says so long to his favourite rock-collecting location, and settles in for the long hard walk back to what he calls the village. That is his way.

One of Amos Semigak’s pieces.
One of Amos Semigak’s pieces.

Once home, he turns out his backpack and gently lays each stone on his porch floor for the right moment.

“The stone has to speak to me,” he says.

His cold winter outdoors work requires much patience and endurance. Peering over the edge of his dust mask, he turns the stone over and over to examine each pass. Through the cloud of dust from his angle grinder, the rough serpentine rock gradually takes on a recognizable shape. Amos Semigak isn’t quite sure himself what it will be until it looks like a kudlik. So that’s what it will be, an Inuit seal oil lamp that researchers have been able to trace back 3,000 years.

Many mug-ups and several hours later, he’s back in his home for the sanding and polishing until he’s satisfied with his work. Semigak pops his serpentine creation into the oven to heat before adding the finishing touches. Black shoe polish and his signature on the bottom.

Semigak has never had any formal training in the art of carving. He learned from his father and his grandfather before him and over the years has developed his own gift into wondrous pieces.

“My grandfather, who was a well-known Inuit elder, gave me his gift,” Semigak said. “He supplied Hebron and other Inuit communities with wild meat. He was a sorcerer, an Angakkuk.”

Each carving is special to Semigak.

“They’re my children. They’re hard to part with.”

Though he is sometimes commissioned to produce special serpentine, soapstone, or bone items, Semigak prefers to work from raw material that he turns over and over in his hands until his Eureka Moment. He knows what this particular stone will become. An interesting philosophy.

“Don’t make it something that it’s not,” he said. “Allow it to grow into what it must become.”

Beginnings

Semigak was born in Hopedale, Labrador, Dec. 24, 1969 to Martha Semigak (Jararuse) (1945-1998) and Jako Semigak (1936-2013).

He lived in the small Inuit community of Hopedale until his parents brought him and his sister, Maria (1959-2011), and his brother, Philip  (1965-), up the bay to a small island, UtakKiuk — waiting for game —  near Windy Tickle. As his younger brother says, “We used to wait for seals there.”

Their small island home even had two resident moose at one time. There they would spend eight months of the year living off the resources of the land and the sea. The Semigak family would return to Hopedale just before freeze-up time and then return to Windy Tickle once the sea ice had broken up.

“I was in Grade 3 before I ever started to learn English and spoke only Inuktitut up until then,” Semigak said.

Amos moved back to Hopedale for good when he was 16 years old.

“I remember being 16 years old in Special Education classes there.”

Semigak says he had a hard time in school, and that,” If I wasn’t a hard case before, I became one then.”

Air Hopedale Air Force Station of the United States Air Force opened in 1953. The radar functions there were run by No. 923 Aircraft Control and Warning Squadron in the 1950s and 1960s. Personnel stationed there lived in barracks about one kilometre southeast of the site in Hopedale. A small airstrip on Ribbard Island provided air support to the station. It was eventually closed June 30, 1967 and totally removed by 1986.

Semigak remembers his parents saying, “It wasn’t a good influence.” He says the bar located on the base provided liquor to residents who previously had not been exposed to hard liquor.

It was not a good mix, he said, but it wasn’t all bad.

Every morning, no matter the weather, Semigak was off for his daily walk through the village. For him, this was a refreshing start to every day and a chance to think about life and all things spiritual. He always kept an Inuktitut dictionary close by since he was adamant about hanging on to his culture.

“Most of my generation no longer speak the language,” he said. “I want to keep it going.”

Semigak’s carvings are on display and for sale at the Amaguk Inn in Hopedale. You can also find him on Facebook.  Although he recently moved from Hopedale, you can be certain that wherever he finally settles, his carving won’t be too far away.

Semigak jokes, “My name is Amos, I’m almost famous.”

I believe he already is.

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