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Oriena Vuong
Oriena Vuong

Yellowknifers: The Tufter

Quietly working on her craft in a city park, caribou-hide tufter Inuk brings people into her world, from national fashion mavens to casual passersby

Large framed pieces of caribou-tufted wall art are casually laid out alongside some caribou fur, leather and scissors on a picnic table in Somba K’e Park. Each one is different in style, shape and colour, but all are intricately handmade. Even on a gloomy weekend afternoon, the artwork attracts curious passersby, who marvel at the hours of work put into each piece. Says their creator Inuk (aka Brendalynn Trennert): “I was born to tuft. This is the number one thing. Everything else is a bonus.”

Inuk’s painstaking work recently caught the eye of Canadian fashion guru Jeanne Beker, who was in town this summer with her daughter on a trip across the North. After Beker appeared on CBC’s NorthBeat, Inuk, who is soft-spoken and almost shy in person but has a very active social media presence, jumped at the opportunity to welcome her. “I was on Twitter so fast, to say ‘Welcome to Yellowknife!’” she says. “If you don’t try, how do you know?”

This attitude caught Beker’s attention, which led the two to meet. Next thing Inuk knew, she was showcasing the city to the fashion maven, starting at the Dene Nahjo-run moose-hide tanning camp in Somba K’e and ending with a private showing of her own pieces. That day, Inuk earned herself a new fan after Beker purchased some of her work and showcased it on her social media. “I’m happy I never fainted,” she laughs. “I still pinch myself really, ‘cause that says a lot to me to have somebody like her love what I do, like a validation.”

Inuk at work

Even after being a master caribou tufter and artist for over 25 years, she’s still startled by attention from strangers following her work. While she’s had ups and downs and almost burned out early on, a brief hiatus has made her more dedicated to perfecting her craft. She’s had many career highlights so far: presenting her work to the Queen and Prince Philip at age 25, a run-in with Prince Edward later on, representing the Northwest Territories as an artist for the Vancouver Olympics in 2010, and her recent adventure with Beker. Yet, after all these years, she is happiest tufting quietly in the park, sitting on the side of the bench furthest from the sidewalk, with her back to the public.

"I'm so outgoing at an art show, but I'm also quite introverted. Many artistic people are quite introverted once you take them out of the art world, out of their medium."

She doesn’t let shyness get in the way of achieving, and teaching new people how to tuft. Having travelled internationally for art shows and demonstrations, she strives to find new ways to communicate with people through tufting.

“It's my knowledge and sharing and breaking down barriers and gaps in culture… that makes me speak out and come see you… to put my hat into the Olympics and all these places,” Inuk says. “Even though I've done lots, I still have lots to do, so I don't let the shyness stop me.”

Born in Fort Simpson, Inuk moved between Hay River and Fort Simpson as a young girl, then attended residential school in Yellowknife. After more moving around, she finally ended up back in Yellowknife two and a half years ago, working at a nine-to-five job at the Legislative Assembly.

Coming from an Inuvialuit and European background, she’s been surrounded by the art of tufting her whole life. Her mother was also a tufter. She chose the name “Inuk” to honour her bloodline and family in her work. It’s signed on every piece of tufted wall art that she’s created. But she has always had aspirations beyond traditional tufting.

“I wanted to be a fashion designer ever since I was a little girl. I didn't even know who Calvin Klein was but I knew that everybody was wearing their jeans. I didn't even know if he was a he or a she… I just knew that logo – I wanted to do that. That's how Inuk360 came about, to have a label so I could house all my designs.”

Some of the end product

She enrolled into Olds College in Alberta to study fashion apparel, graduating in 2008. Now, Inuk has incorporated sealskin fur to create earrings, cuffs and mittens, among other wearable products.

As quiet as she can be in person, there’s something about Inuk’s personality that draws people in. As we talk, a tired-looking Indigenous man walks over to admire her tufting work. He has just been released from the hospital, and is heading over to the RCMP to retrieve his impounded bike. He starts by complimenting Inuk’s work, but quickly shifts to telling her his life story, from his drinking problem to  horror stories from his own time in residential school – memories that couldn’t be kept in anymore. As he talks, Inuk offers the man her water, and tells him to keep fighting his demons. He asks her, “Are you a healer?” Although she says no, she says she’ll pray for him to recover and hopes that he’ll find happiness and peace.

It’s moments like this that allow her to reflect on her blessed life and be thankful for how far she’s come. “Even as such a positive person I could get depressed too, the older I get,” she says. But then she’ll look back at her accomplishments and “I can't help but start smiling. Next thing you know I think, ‘Ok, I'm not that depressed anymore,’ and I come back to the reality of being honoured and proud to have my life.”