Crafting an ulu


Visitors to Whitehorse’s Adäka Festival attend a knife making workshop with custom knife maker George Roberts. Roberts and his group of eager students got together to craft traditional “ulu” women’s knives.

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Roberts fixes a wooden handle onto an ulu. The knives Roberts and his students are making follow traditional Alaskan and Arctic styles, depending on his students’ preferences.

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Roberts, born in Cree Nation, has lived in Whitehorse for 28 years and has practiced the craft of knife making for 40. His craft has led him throughout northern Canada and the world. Roberts says travel has led him to form connections to a broader artistic community. “Through that I have met quite a few other artists,” he says. “I’ve taken what they taught me and I’ve incorporated in what I do and vice versa. It’s an exchange of knowledge and enhancements to your art form.”  

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Participants in Roberts’ workshop craft their own unique knives. “A few years after getting started making my own knives, I started to realize that there was a need for education and teaching and getting more people involved,” he says.

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A guest refines the handle of her ulu using a large spinning wheel. Roberts says new tools and technologies have helped to make the process of crafting a knife much faster.

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Roberts helps one of his students attach two pieces of her knife together.

Roberts hammers down the nails that will fix a wooden handle onto his student’s ulu.

James Bai, from Markham, Ont., holds up his nearly completed ulu. “I knew an ulu was a special northern type of knife,” he says. “Not that I’m a knife collector, but I’ve always been interested in them so I thought how cool would it be to make a knife in this style that really started in the north?”

Bai shows off the caribou antler handle used for his knife. “I connected with the other students. One of them actually was gifted a caribou antler and she offered for any of the other students to use it so I did that,” says Bai. “We’re helping each other when we come across problems, and connecting with George has been really good as a mentor-student type of relationship.”

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Bai says Roberts’ approach — providing guidance while letting students have creative freedom — worked well for him. “George gave direction on how to do it, but it was up to the students to figure out how to get it done and if you have a question then you go to George,” he says. “I’ve learned a lot. There’s a lot of time and effort that goes into creating a knife.”

Reina Cowan