Celebrating Nunavut Day 2023 | Stories of Sedna

In honour of Nunavut Day, we celebrate the stories of Sedna, the spirit of the sea, and the marvellous works of art she has inspired.

Since the very first stories were told centuries ago of Sedna, she has been known to the Inuit peoples, and, like the sea she lives in, she takes countless forms and is called by many names.

In Greenland, she is known as Arnakuagsak, the Old Woman of The Sea. The people of Alaska named her Nerrivik. She is also, Taleelayo, The One Down on the Sea Bottom, and Nuliajuk, Mother of All the Beasts. For this, she is called upon by hunters and fishermen who beg her to send walruses and seals to the ice.

The stories of Sedna have flowed and moulded themselves into many shapes over the generations. This multiplicity is also seen in the artistic representations of the Sea Goddess.

Sometimes, she is a poor young woman, betrayed by a family, an orphan doomed by circumstance. In others, she is vindictive, spoiled and vain.

In one tale, she is a young Inuk woman opposed to getting married. One day, she is promised to a suitor only to discover later that the young hunter is not a man but a bird in human clothing.

As she flees with her father for home, a flock of birds follows her, causing a great sea storm with the beating of their wings.

In an attempt to balance the boat, Sedna’s father flings his daughter from the vessel, cutting her fingers off as she grips to the side.

As she fell to the bottom of the ocean, the fingers transformed into the animals of the sea and her, their mother.

The stories of Sedna reflect the often unrelenting and unpredictable nature of a life governed by the sea.

As goddess of the ocean, Sedna sets strict rules about the proper way to treat the animals that are hunted. This includes proper treatment of the animals’ spirits when killed for food. If she feels the rules have been broken, she cuts off the food supply.

When this happens, the Inuit tribal shaman must take a mystical journey to the bottom of the ocean to speak to the goddess. It is considered the most dangerous journey an Inuit shaman is called upon to make in their lifetime.

Upon their arrival at the bottom of the sea, the shaman will comb Sedna’s hair because she has no fingers to comb it herself and to find out what the people have done wrong.

Sedna’s hair acts as a reflection of her state of mind and is always a notable feature when she is depicted in Inuit art.

As seen in Sedna by Oviloo Tunnillie, when she is contented, her hair is as calm and elegant as a glassy sea.

However, when she and her creatures are treated disrespectfully, her hair becomes as turbulent as a violent ocean storm. An example of this is masterfully represented in Drumming Sedna by Bart Hanna.

After combing her unruly tangles, the shaman makes a deal with Sedna, promising that if the tribe corrects its transgressions, the goddess will return their food supply. The shaman then returns to the tribe with the goddess’ list of requirements to get the food back to them.

The stories of Sedna, with her many names and countless forms, are not just a lyric of the past. They are a present-day reminder that we must treat our oceans and Sedna’s children with the respect they deserve.

So let us bring out our combs and untangle our hair as a tribute to the wonders of Sedna and celebrate the art, culture and peoples of Nunavut today.