woman's knife-zoomorphic stone-bladed ulu
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Woman's Knife
Women's work was dominated by the production of warm, tailored skin clothing. Old Bering Sea women used beautifully crafted zoomorphic stone-bladed ulus, like this one, for cutting and scraping in their work.

 

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Women's Work

A Bering Sea Eskimo girl started at a very young age to help her mother and learn the many skills involved in food preparation and the manufacture of clothing. Her most useful tool was the ulu, like this one with a beautifully carved handle and a sharp stone blade.

The ulu (pronounced oo'loo) has played an important part in the survival of Arctic peoples for over 3,000 years. Originally, ulu blades were made of polished slate; handles were made of wood, ivory, caribou antler or bone. Handles were usually made with a deep groove along one edge to hold the blade. Sometimes holes were made through both the handle and the blade and then sinew or hide strips were used to lash the handle to the blade.

Metal blades were introduced later and became the preferred material because of its hardness and ability to keep a good sharp edge. Old saw blades were preferred because they were made of tough steel and did not dull easily. In some traditions the ulu was made by men and given to women as a wedding gift. The knives would then be passed down through generations in a family.

This semilunar knife is common to almost all circumpolar peoples and has remained popular over the centuries because the style and shape is small, practical and easy to make of locally available materials. Ulus were especially important for the production of sea mammal hide clothing, thongs, and boat covers. Using the blade with pushing, slicing strikes a woman could cut away the blubber which adheres firmly to the inside of the hide. Cleaning sealskins and walrus skins without an ulu is almost impossible.

Today, Eskimos maintain the original ulu design, but have adopted new materials such as stainless steel. The utility of this tool has withstood the test of time and continues in wide use among peoples of the Bering Strait region.

- Aron Crowell, additional material by J. Prusinski

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